It’s been my opinion for years that John Corabi, if not a better vocalist than Vince Neil in the abstract, was at the very least a better fit for Mötley Crüe. Neil, despite his obvious talents, strikes me as a bit out of place in the band, something his bandmates attested to in the genre-defining tell-all The Dirt, not to mention the four years Neil spent on the outs with the band and their oft-tumultuous reunions. The album Mötley made with Corabi, their self-titled 1994 effort, might just be the best thing the Crüe ever did.
In 1994, just about every “hair metal” band (a term I have previously criticized as being dismissive and inaccurate) were doing their level best to run away from the secret sauce that won them fame. Unsurprisingly, nearly every band attempting this failed, because it was so transparently an attempt to move with the times. Two bands ultimately succeeded in remaining relevant throughout the dark ages of grunge: Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe. This was, arguably, because rather than radical image changes, all these bands needed to do was emphasize their authentic punk-rock influences as bands and their roots as individuals.
Fortunately for the Crüe, this came around the same time as their 1992 split (Was he fired or did he quit? The world may never know) with longtime frontman Neil. Enter John Corabi of The Scream, who offhandedly contacted Mötley Crüe after reading that Nikki Sixx liked his band’s debut record. It was all kept very hush-hush for legal reasons, but the end result was that Corabi joined the band for their next album.
The result is a masterpiece that Corabi is often quoted as saying would have sold like hotcakes if not for the then-toxic band name on the front cover. The Crüe took some cues from the burgeoning grunge movement, primarily bands who were actually good at making solid rock & roll (Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots) rather than relentlessly depressing divorce rock (pretty much the rest of them). The riffs are dirty, Bob Rock’s production is perhaps the best the band ever benefited from and, to the point of this article, Corabi’s throaty moan fits in with Mick Mars’ riffs as tightly as Nikki Sixx’s bass and Tommy Lee’s drums.
The lead single, “Hooligan’s Holiday,” whose video I only ever saw when Beavis and Butt-head were lampooning it, stands as one of the best in the entire band’s catalog. “Misunderstood” sounds like the band recorded a Beatles outtake. “Poison Apples” is a dirty rock track with a lovely pop undercurrent. “Smoke the Sky” is a not-terribly-subtle ode to the joys of smoking marijuana, which strikes a perfect balance between the band’s early work, the cream of early-’90s rock and even a slight dash of Motörhead.
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I’m not sure it’s necessary to beat up on Vince Neil or his work with the band to make the point that Corabi was just better for the band. Corabi’s vocals are tougher and more muscular, and he has a greater range, if not in terms of octaves then at least in terms of setting moods. What’s more, unlike Neil, he was a guitar player who was able to collaborate with the rest of the band on songwriting. Two guitars gives Mars some room to work and provides the songwriting added depth.
It’s worth noting some lowlights of Neil’s tenure with the band. His introductory “yeah!” and “ooo yeah!” and “raw!” at the beginning of “Piece of Your Action” on the band’s debut album is a bit of embarrassing faux David Lee Roth. The higher-pitched vocals on “Shout at the Devil” are grating on what is otherwise a standout, classic track. “Tonight (We Need a Lover)” is precisely the kind of track that might have been a hundred times better if Corabi’s growling were substituted for Neil's.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a song in the band’s catalog that wouldn’t benefit from the presence of Corabi. That doesn’t make tracks such as “Kickstart My Heart” or “Girls, Girls, Girls” any less enjoyable. But it does make one wonder how much different the band might have been with a better fit fronting them.