THE BIG BOOK OF HAIR METAL: Even The Kitschiest Rock Has A History

Did any popular music trend fall out of favor as instantly and completely as hair metal? For nearly a decade, it ruled the roost commercially speaking in the hard rock world, much to the chagrin of many dyed-in-the-denim metalheads, and it dominated rock radio, MTV and the record charts during this time. However, when Nirvana swept in the grunge revolution of the early ’90s, the Aqua-Netted hair farmers were quickly dumped by their labels and relegated to the clubland backwaters of the rock circuit. Only disco died off as quickly and with as much resentment as hair metal – and disco was able to thrive in the clubs, mutate into new forms and get revived in ways hair metal has not.

But even the most retroactively uncool of pop culture phenomenons can have a fascinating history behind them – and Martin Popoff makes such a case for the pop metal of the ’80s in The Big Book Of Hair Metal.  For this tome, Popoff uses the year-by-year format: after quick introductory sections on the ’60s and ’70s, you get a chapter a year for every year from 1980 through 1991.  The book is coffee table-sized and benefits from an attractive layout rich with eye-popping photos, album covers and ads.  The latter element adds to the engaging quality of the read. 

Each chapter takes the form of an oral history from several musicians and other industry figures involved in the hair metal scene as well as the occasional onlooker from a different corner of the business (the most unique and vicious is alt-rock musician and producer Steve Albini).  For example, producer Beau Hill gets deep into a number of topics like his on/off relationship with Ratt, who seemed to resent him despite his role in their most successful years, and the motivations behind using outside musicians and songwriters on particular projects. Label executives Tom Zutaut and Derek Shulman offer an insight into what motivated particular signing choices and why particular musicans thrived: Shulman has some insights on why Jon Bon Jovi became so big and Zutaut offers insight into the early days of his most famous signing, Guns ‘N Roses.

Popoff limits his authorial content to long-paragraph intros and sidebars with date-specific information for each chapter but they’re all worth reading as they set up and discuss a number of interesting trends that occured during the hair metal era. For instance, the US Festival’s “Hard Rock Day” in 1983 was a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment in terms of kicking of the genre’s era of pop culture dominance and the rise of Guns ‘N Roses and their grittier, rootsier strain of hair metal gave rise to a subgenre within the subgenre known as “dirty hair metal.” A particularly interesting running theme is how established bands would take on hair metal stylings to stay current: the Scorpions and Kiss are obvious examples but other interesting ones include Journey circa Raised On Radio and even southern-rockers like Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet.

In the usual chronicle-of-a-music-genre book, the closing years of a major era are less interesting than the beginning and middle years but The Big Book Of Hair Metal offers an interesting exception to that rule. Popoff points out how some bands rallied with strong albums late in the day and how later signings would introduce other elements (blues, funk, power pop, even prog elements) into the mix. You also get some frank testimony on the boondoggle that was Moscow Music Peace Festival – there’s a pretty scathing eyewitness account from Eric Brittingham of Cinderella – and the specific factors that led to Winger becoming a pop culture punchline despite best-selling albums and the presence of serious musos in the band.

Perhaps the most important material in the latter part of the book is the discussion of the high cost of being part of the hair metal scene. There is plentiful discussion of how music videos became a budget-eating line item for bands and how so many bands ended up with little money despite commercial success due to the blockbuster costs of recording, touring and all those music videos. As a result, the book paints a predatory picture of music business practices, particularly when different band members reveal how quickly and cruelly the labels dumped them after grunge became the hot new sound.

In short, The Big Book Of Hair Metal is not only an entertaining read but an important look at a time that rock histories usually shrug off as silly.  Sure, you’ll experience a certain amount of ego in these pages – the members of Motley Crue and Poison have a high opinion of their work and, on Poison’s part, more than a little defensiveness – but such moments are balanced out by insightful, likeably down-to-earth commentary from musicians in bands like Dangerous Toys, Warrant and Britny Fox. Most of them obviously enjoy the chance to speak their minds in a sympathetic forum. Combine that with Popoff’s savvy insights about the era and you have a winner for anyone interested in hard rock anthropology.

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