The most fascinating rise and fall narrative in ’80s popular music was commercial hard rock. Call it hair metal, glam metal, sleaze metal or any other brand name: the combination of spandex, hair spray, power chords and anthemic pop melodies (both rocker and ballad styles) took over around 1983 when Metal Health topped the charts and defined rock and roll for nearly a decade, until Nirvana and their ilk knocked them off the pedestal. Journalists, record execs and other commercially-minded arbiters of cool were quick to bury it but it refused to die. It returned to the clubs and small labels that birthed it, gradually rebuilding itself into an enduring cult following. They may not get respect from the cool kids but the surviving bands have quietly become successful legacy acts.
Simply put, that’s a hell of a story. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Behind The Music, you know that the ones about glam metal bands delivered the highest amounts of debauchery, melodrama and insane outfits and hairdos, not to mention a soundtrack of catchy rockers whose reputation has gradually improved since the dawn of grunge. Thus, the key to capture this sprawling epic of a tale is to allow the participants to tell it in their own voices. This has been done before – The Big Book Of Hair Metal is a noteworthy example – but it’s been taken to perhaps its ultimate level with Nothin’ But A Good Time, an absolute monolith of a tome (530 pages in hardcover) that delivers all of the elements namechecked above.
This book was assembled by Tom Beaujoir and Richard Bienstock, both of whom have a rock journalism background: Beaujoir edited Revolver and Bienstock edited Guitar World. For this book, they spent years conducting original interviews that not only include members of several key bands – Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Skid Row, Dokken, Poison, Warrant and several more – but also adds in record executives, producers, journalists and scenesters from the era. Thus, you get a genuine 360 degree portrait of the scene’s ascension, the complexities of its peak period and the factors behind its decline.
The first third of Nothin’ But A Good Time might surprise you because it proves that glam metal’s lengthy period of success was the result of a long uphill climb for everyone involved. You’ll learn about how indifferent the record business was to hard rock as the end of the ’70s gave way to the beginning of the ’80s, leaving bands like Ratt and W.A.S.P. to hone their approach in Sunset Strip clubs and pursue indie or private press record releases when the majors gave them the cold shoulder. Alan Niven, the manager behind Great White and Guns ‘N Roses, provides some interesting insight into how indie record distributors played a key role in the scene’s commercial rise. You’ll also learn about how Motley Crue struggled upstream against the tide of record biz politics at Elektra with the help of Tom Zutaut, another key behind-the-scenes figure.
After the initial wave of successes circa 1983 and 1984, the formerly small scene becomes a business that defines the Sunset Strip as the second stringers – Guns ‘N Roses, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, Poison et. al – begin their rise to the top. In this section of the book, you get a lot of great nuts-and-bolts tales about how clubs packed out every night of the week on a pay-to-play basis and how flyering for a gig was basically a second job for every band. There’s also a great chapter on the legendary glam scene club Cathouse, which paints a vivid portrait of its bacchanalian charms and includes a fun anecdote of Axl Rose nearly getting in a fight with David Bowie(!).
The next section of the book deals with the last wave of success for glam metal, of bands like Warrant, Skid Row, Nelson and a variety of less-remembered bands who got out an album or two before the tide turned against this subgenre. You get a feeling for how bands got too similar in names, visual style and sonic attack as the labels glutted the market, leading to a mood of burnout. There’s interesting commentary from people like producer Howard Benson, who produced a lot of the lesser-known acts in the genre’s final phase.
There’s a poignant quality to this part of the book as a lot of bands live out their rock star fantasies without knowing that end will come sooner than they could imagine: members of Winger and Trixter provide sobering accounts of the whiplash shock that came when the pop culture wind shifted direction (Kip Winger’s riposte to Lars Ulrich, who opened the floodgates of mockery towards Winger alongside Beavis And Butthead, is viciously witty stuff). Thankfully, Nothin’ But A Good Time doesn’t end with the demise. An epilogue chapter shows how the band weathered the anti-hard rock wasteland of the ’90s and emerged to reconnect with fans old and new, becoming keepers of the flame at a grassroots level that is more sustainable that their initial success.
As the above paragraphs hopefully reveal, this book covers a lot of ground with impressive depth – but it can’t prepare you for how fun a read it is. Everyone interviewed is a natural raconteur so you really pick up the vibe of those heady days and nights on the Strip. Even better, when multiple members of a band are involved, you get a feel for the complexities of the ways the different personalities interacted, giving dimension to tales of the famous rivalry between George Lynch and Don Dokken or how Sebastian Bach’s impulsive behavior complicated life for the other members of Skid Row. Beaujoir and Bienstock do a fantastic job of cutting and pasting the interviews, supported by snippets from other books, magazines and websites, to form narratives that draw complexity from their variety of viewpoints.
In short, if you have any interest in the history of the glam metal era this is a book you need to read. Nothin’ But A Good Time delivers the story straight from the mouths of the veteran glammers and that’s the best way to get the vicarious thrills of the last great era of rock and roll excess.