This week, Shout! Factory finally released their long awaited Blu-ray box set for Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy of documentaries. Our attention initially gravitated to the over two hours of interview footage left on the cutting room floor for the 1988 release The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.
The purchase price of the set (currently $47.98) is worth every penny just for the 20 minutes of Motörhead leader Lemmy Kilmister trolling Spheeris during his interview. But we at L.A. Weekly were especially interested in the way Poison frontman Bret Michaels took exception to an anti-heavy metal article that appeared in our pages around the time of his interview for the film. Riding high at the time on the success of Poison’s 1986 debut Look What the Cat Dragged In, the voice of “Talk Dirty To Me” referred to our writer as a “music critic who hates music,” adding, “I would like to kick his ass.”
We got curious about the article that drew Michaels’ ire and dug through our archives. Below is the original article, “Heavy Metal: The Sound Too Dense to Die” from the October 16, 1987 issue of L.A. Weekly. Was Michaels over-reacting, or was he right to attack author James Hunter's hyper-intellectual take on the state of late '80s hard rock?
“Heavy Metal: The Sound Too Dense to Die”
By James Hunter
Originally published in L.A. Weekly on October 16, 1987
Twenty summers ago, it was love. In 1987 it was metal, pop-metal, ushered in by Bon Jovi’s much less musicianly 7-mil play on Van Halen’s previous shiny crossover. Of course, “Living on a Prayer” or the double-platinum Whitesnake (Geffen) didn’t inspire the rapt press outside head-banger world that Metallica’s admirable, hard-to-listen-to Garage Days Revisited EP (Elektra) will, no more than Motley Crue’s Girls, Girls, Girls (Elektra), Heart’s gratingly engineered Wild Animals (Capitol) or Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In (Enigma/Capitol) did.
Those diverse guitar breeds, all platinum, begin the fall season in the Top 20 Billboard album charts after riding high there throughout the summer. Poison has hung around for a shocking 60 weeks, some run for New York Dolls bubblegum a decade late. Hosting a teen tournament recently, the game show Jeopardy! introduced a “Heavy Metal” category, and Motley Crue did their damnedest with a Rolling Stone cover reporter a few issues ago to prove they couldn’t recite their own names on cue.
Metal – the music that never disappeared – is back, brushing eyeliner aside; industriously consolidating the dance atmosphere around it and cleverly grabbing space for itself by staring down that dance atmosphere around it; acknowledging underground vibes, like the Cult’s superbly constructed Electric (Beggar’s Banquet/Sire), skipping underground vibes, like Twister Sister’s half-entertaining Love Is for Suckers (Atlantic) or Loverboy’s biz-heavy and off-stride Wildside (Columbia). Or like Heart, whose deafening No. 1 “Alone” beats just one record here, the altogether worthless Sammy Hagar (Geffen). Pop music as usual.
The New Metal’s rising profile hit me last spring, when I overheard a real estate broker humming Cinderella’s “Nobody’s Fool.” “Living on a Prayer,” with its Springsteenian story and lost-disco dance thump, is clearly a contemporary record. Still, a lot of the New Metal’s showing unearths the ‘70s. It’s not entirely retrograde – thanks to Run-DMC, anticipation has surrounded the bratty hooks and fast, bluesy carriage of Permanent Vacation (Geffen) by Aerosmith, the dull decade’s un-dull hard-rock masters whose last release flopped; “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” squalls, a favorite on the AOR station I sometimes listen to, and when a jock played it after John Cougar Mellencamp the other day I didn’t think he’d changed countries on me; but unlike the jocks, I unfortunately hear less “Brown Sugar” and more Faster Aerosmith.
Whitesnake and Electric use ‘70s hard rock/metal/blues summations – Led Zeppelin, they’re called – disdained by punk, re-evaluated in 1985 by Anton Fier, and always hot in the heartland. The albums differ in studio style: What Whitesnake and producers Mike Stone and Keith Olsen robustly unfurl (and add some ‘80s Foreigner to), the Cult and producer Rick Rubin tighten up, aim, set off with a sizzling tambourine (and add much AC/DC and Kiss).
And they address different audiences: Hard rock has grandeur, permanence, reach, preaching Whitesnake’s sleek granite-cover imagery to an audience in the mood now for that message. “Aren’t Davy Crockett caps the ticket?” asks the Cult, a short, smug step away from the cartoon dynamite that Whitesnake fans haven’t heard yet. Unlike ZZ Top, say, the Cult hasn’t convinced America that it is prime Saturday morning stuff. Whitesnake has gotten its drama – the album moves well – in at the choice 9 p.m. time slot. In the “Here I Go Again” video, David Coverdale’s girlfriend does the splits across the hood of a Jaguar; in the new R.E.M. video, Michael Stipe’s girlfriend soaks her feet at the end of some angst-y day. This is pop music as usual.
Girls, Girls, Girls – which sounds digital-era swell, thanks to producer Tom Werman and engineer Duane Baron – has “You’re All I Need,” a song about girlfriend murder, a terrible move from genre punks whose view of women isn’t far evolved. I disagree with the Rush and Crue lifetime fan who told me that “Need” employs shock material specifically designed to remind listeners not to take the band too seriously. At the end of Sammy Hagar, before he goes on to presidential politics in the next verses, Hagar wonders whether “the truth has yet to be told” about the worth of his art. But just as sexist songs like “Back Into You” and Hagar’s steering of his own problems onto the terrain of traditional blues performers are sure to seem as unreasoned, tuneless and revolting in 1997 as they do now, grave-minded rockers probably won’t compromise the Crue’s “fun,” even without such material.
Passionate, not to be denied, thanking a couple of continents on their inside sleeve, Def Leppared meantime make an unprecedented album about metal, about how its most unlikely musical content lives on the be expanded. A stunning work that will dumbfound those who usually disregard the whole genre, Hysteria (Mercury) follows up 1983’s Pyromania, Def Leppard’s album that’s sold nearly 7 million copies and that figures as the last part of the New Metal story. For the rock fan who loves playing but snoozes through most Al DiMeola sets, Van Halen, after all, is no more obscure a band than Loverboy. Where roughly half the New Metal is wholesome-to-obnoxious late-‘80s teen music that hooks adults (as rock-conscious pop always can) 20 summers after the Beatles, the other half testifies to the tremendous influence of punk in America, the largely unrecognized way that John Lydon directly affected the making of Don Henley records.
But Def Leppard, who don’t write about women with the resources of a Warren Zevon or a John Hiatt but who have left the ninth grade, are different. Hysteria is a bunch of rock shadows – Lynyrd Skynyrd, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Run-DMC, Aerosmith, Nazareth, more – filtered through an exhilaratingly efficient and integrated, slightly Continentalized brew of New Metal. All over the record, helped along by the renowned Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Def Leppard make capable new rock out of targeted guitars, rhythms unleashed and estopped, assertive group harmonies, cohesive negative spaces, and melody. Def Leppard prove that there is such a thing as forward movement in rock, yes sir, even now.