The eighties are, quite possibly, the most polarising decade in recent human history. For many reasons; the fashion, the politics, the movements, the discoveries, the rebellions. But, perhaps even bigger (and encompassing of all of those things in one way or another) is the music. It seems two things are certain these days. Death, and at least someone claiming the music ‘back then’ was better than it is today within any social circle you find. You have your haters of 80s music – though, by its very nature, such a label is vague at best – and your lovers. People who reject and shun the big hair and leather, and those who see it as their true calling.
Perhaps no genre of music, then, is more tossed about in the battlefield than glam metal. Spanning from the mid-80s to late 90s, it became hugely successful, making the rounds on MTV and establishing a solid bedrock for most charts at the time. But before talking about all that, one must keep in mind what came before. The foundations, so to speak.
Let’s rewind to the United Kingdom, during the early 1970s. Artists were beginning to show up left, right and centre; donning glittery jumpsuits, big hair, make-up and embracing a look of pure androgyny unprecedented hence. Men were not supposed to ‘be men’, anymore. And neither were women. Instead we had warriors onstage that embraced reversing the roles in the name of catchy riffs and mainstream hooks.
A performance on Top of the Pops in March of ’71 is long-credited as the beginning of the scene as a whole. Marc Bolan, the legendary, star-speckled frontman of rock outfit, T.Rex, donned glitter and satins, and from there set a ball in motion that Sisyphus himself couldn’t stop if given all the time in the world (and not being, y’know, tortured in Hell). From there, bands like Slade, The Sweet, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie inundated our television screens and radio waves. And the ‘glam’ look wasn’t limited to its genre, either. Freddie Mercury of Queen (you might have heard of them) was infamous for his loud, flamboyant styles onstage – with glittered harlequin jumpsuits letting him know where he stood (or more, leapt) on the matter – despite the band being more regal rock than glam as such.
But the glam scene of Great Britain didn’t just stop there. It led to the successes of Lou Reed and Alice Cooper over the pond, with legacies surviving unscathed to this day. It would take nigh on two decades before the Americans established themselves as spandexed kings of the scene, though. Despite the efforts of fledgling bands like an early Japan, glam rock diminished in the mid-70s, and it seemed the flashier the lights, the shorter the shelf life. After all, there’s only so much you can take of the big hair and black eyeshadow before the novelty wears off.
That is, unless you slide the amps up to eleven and make the music a little more… hard-edged. By the late 70s, it was clear that America were looking for something rougher; louder and bigger, with bands like KISS reigning supreme. By the turn of the decade, the wheels had been set in motion on a runaway train ride to sonic devastation. In ’81, three hard rock/metal bands that would later become big names in the scene released their debuts unto the world. Motley Crue’s Too Fast For Love, Dokken’s Breaking the Chains and Kix’ eponymous first effort solidified the foundations of the glam metal scene. No, they weren’t clad in skin-tight leather yet, but they would be. After all, boiled down to the fundamentals, glam was always more about the look and the attitude than the sound. There, it had all the earthly elements of hard rock and heavy metal.
1983 brought about more staple records from titans of the heavy metal/hard rock scene, from Crue’s sophomore release to Quiet Riot’s aptly-titled Metal Health; which quickly became the first heavy metal record to reach number one in the Billboard charts. Heavy metal was by now here to stay. And in a genre made up of larger-than-life attitudes and lyrics centred on lust, booze and generally being reckless, the look only follows. It’s natural.
In the UK, Def Leppard released Pyromania the same year, marking a clear direction in the band’s sound (and music generally); from strictly metal roots to all things glam. Produced by the ever-popular Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, it had all the background calls and electrifying guitar of the American scene, with standout tracks like ‘Photograph’, ‘Rock of Ages’, ‘Die Hard the Hunter’ and ‘Foolin’’. And though the band was hailed as being among the ‘new wave of British heavy metal’, many others found themselves drawn to the glam call, too. From Iron Maiden to Saxon, a touch of the theatrical and the excessive was rife.
However, much as Leppard frontman, Joe Elliott, tried to distance themselves from what was going on in the US (later remarking, ‘I don’t know how anybody could confuse us with that lot… While they were out banging chicks or whatever, we were looking at windmills and playing pool on a table without any pockets. We were as far away from LA as any band could be.’), it was impossible not to see the similarities. Each band tried to emulate the sound of the other – and though normally that sounds like a recipe for failure, it became a finessed formula of mainstream success.
Bands like Ratt, Autograph, W.A.S.P., Great White and Black ‘n Blue all released their first entrants in 1984, and over the next few years found themselves supporting eachother on countless gigs and circuits, before themselves headlining in their own right. Van Halen and Twisted Sister became etched into the fretboards of musical history for eternity, joined by the ranks of ever-swelling take-no-prisoners groups like Dokken and Motley Crue. Sure, some of them indulged in the glam look more than others. But the ingredients were all there across the board. Poppy hooks that were impossible to get out of your head, big hair, and bad attitude.
1985 brought about the third effort of Crue, Theatre of Pain, which signalled the last wall between hard rock and glam metal tumbling down for the band, securing their place in what would become known as the ‘first wave’. Their combination of infectious rock riffs and a lifestyle of hedonism (as well as spandex, leather, and a lot of conditioner) defined the entire movement and what would come after. Gone were the days of rock bands being stationary and cautious. Now they were what the genre was bred to be; obnoxious, hormonal, and downing a bottle of whiskey onstage every night (supposedly).
A year later, New Jersey giants Bon Jovi entered the arena, with their 1986 classic, Slippery When Wet. The band’s first two albums were certainly glam in their own right (the synth and guitar of their first single, ‘Runaway’ echoing what was to come), but Slippery… brought with it ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’, ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’ and ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. Bon Jovi are cool to sneer at these days, and even back then showcased the ‘poppier’ side of glam. But all the same, there was no denying they became champions in the field. Thus began the second wave of glam metal, and the most commercially successful year of the genre.
The following year, Def Leppard dropped Hysteria, which spawned an impressive seven hard rock singles, along with Motley Crue’s Girls, Girls, Girls and Guns ‘n Roses’ iconic debut, Appetite for Destruction. It seemed inevitable that with every release, another slew of headbanging singles would follow; and wherever you went, it was impossible to avoid another teenager in denim or leather, hellbent for chaos.
Bon Jovi’s 1988 follow-up, New Jersey solidified their place in the charts and the stadiums, with bands like Poison doing just the same. Poison’s debut, Look What the Cat Dragged In went multi-platinum, as did Open Up And Say… Ahh!, which went five-times the same. The L.A. Sunset Strip found itself as the birthplace and hometown of heavy metal success.
Hollywood-bred Warrant continued the trend, releasing five albums from 1988 to 1996, reaching accumulative sales of over ten million worldwide. The ever-glammed Cinderella, fronted by lascivious frontman Tom Keifer, released their debut, Night Songs, in 1986, and its follow-up, Long Cold Winter two years later. They, too, quickly achieved sales in the millions, along with Kix, who the same year threw Blow My Fuse into the wild, doubling down on the tasteless innuendoes. Tracks like the titular rocker and ‘Cold Blood’ found their way onto the charts, though interestingly, some bore a more serious reputation than others. With so many bands cluttering up the walls of the record shops, groups like Kix and Cinderella found themselves clawing for the top spot, where Jovi and Crue sat atop their thrones of broken JD bottles and half-naked groupies.
Not that every glam metal band was wrought in spreading the word of debauchery and lust, however. It’s interesting to note the work of Stryper, a band whose 1986 release, To Hell With the Devil spent three months on the Billboard album charts. They were the first overtly Christian band to gain recognition in the mainstream. Regardless, they looked the part, and had catchy riffs and lengthy solos.
But even as the decade began to wane and many glam acts enjoyed their taste of success, the party didn’t show any sign of stopping. In 1989, New Jersey spat out another group of young rockers onto the scene: Skid Row. Their eponymous debut – which found its way into record stores in January of that year – became an instant hit, with Top 10 tacklers, ‘Youth Gone Wild’, ’18 And Life’ and the heartfelt ‘I Remember You’. Each received heavy rotation on MTV, and it looked as if the momentum of the glam metal era wouldn’t end with the 90s. Hell, Skid Row’s second release, ‘91’s Slave to the Grind reached number one on the Billboard 200, going multi-platinum.
As with all good things, however, you can have too much of it. Everything works in moderation, and that was the problem. Glam metal was the antithesis of just that. When you spend your life preaching excess and extreme debauchery to the masses, you’re never going to last forever. Like the drink and the drugs, the high had reached its peak… and now it was time for the bitter come down.
The 1990s saw the historic rise of grunge and alternative music; bands such as the legendary Nirvana and Pearl Jam overtaking that of Crue, Poison or Bon Jovi. These big-haired players of the Sunset scene still made music – and, to their credit, it didn’t do terribly – but just as quickly as the perms came into fashion (and the charts), they were on their way back out again. Such was evident in the New Jersey-ian Skid Row. Their mid-nineties release, Subhuman Race, was critically acclaimed, but saw no such success in the charts. Glam metal was no longer the mainstream. Quite simply, it was no longer what it had to be to survive. Cool.
And such a fate didn’t just befall the States. The bitter sting travelled overseas, too, with the Britpop scene seizing the hearts and wallets of the baying public. The Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve… just as with glam (and anything popular), there was once again no shortage to the distorted guitar and laid-back style. Though, that being said, the glam attitude never really died out. The infamous Gallagher brothers of Oasis became just that for their no-holds-barred, no-nonsense approach to, well, anyone.
But grunge can’t be solely to blame for the fall of glam metal from its velvet seat. The public opinion simply changed. After nearly a decade of thrills, frills and pills, people wanted something different, something new. Something that looked less synthetic, over-the-top, but packed the same raw emotion. Grunge and the alternative were the catalyst for such a process, as well as 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, a feature film documentary that exposed the excess of the LA scene. How much this particular movie owed to the glam backlash, though, is hard to say.
That’s not to say glam metal received its final nail, though. The genre has experienced at least somewhat of a resurgence these days. From the early 2000s, frequent glam colossi of the late 70s and 80s began circuits and tours in celebration of marked albums or entire legacies. What resulted were sold out shows, regardless of how much the bands may have aged. Guitars will always be loud and invoke a mass prayer, whatever hands play them. And there are even new glam bands on the scene, too, with groups like The Darkness, Santa Cruz, The Struts and Steel Panther gaining a foothold in the charts once more. True, glam metal will never be as popular as it once was. It can’t be. The musical taste of the masses changes and passes like time, ebbing and flowing to whichever singer starts the newest trend. Who we praise and adore like idols one day are no more than talentless money-grabbers the next.
But glam metal – hair metal – will always have its parish. Its followers, its messengers, its devout vigilantes, carrying the six-stringed torch. It will always be found, in the bedrooms of young outcasts and the basements of seedy bars. In the record collections of veterans and the digital libraries of a silent generation. A legion of those with a penchant for good hooks, and long hair.
And there are plenty of us, too. Ready to rock and roll. Raring to blow a fuse. Looking for nothin’ but a good time.
Curiously, if you find yourself with the need for more glam/hair metal, I recommend checking out ‘@newwavehairmetal’ on Instagram – A collaborative project on recognising the genre among a new generation.
I’ll also provide this trusty tab to a glam playlist of mine over on Spotify, if you wish to indulge your senses.