It's been derided pretty much from the moment it was born. Despite the commercial success of the music that has been called hair metal, sleaze rock, glam metal and any combination of those words, with the likes of Guns N' Roses, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and more having international smash hits and stadium tours, the genre has never really received the respect that it deserves.
Fans of heavier metal, including the thrash that came out of the Bay Area in the mid-1980s, referred to the hair crowd as posers. It was tough for many to imagine that men (and a few women) who spent so much time putting on makeup and teasing out their hair could be serious about their music. How wrong they were.
Hair metal was born out of an ungodly cocktail of proto-punk (New York Dolls, Stooges, Velvet Underground), British glam (Bowie, T-Rex, Sweet, Slade, Mott the Hoople), first wave punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols, Television), heavy metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead) and '70s hard rock (Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, KISS). Different bands would dip into some of those pots a little more than others, but those were the basic ingredients. And while the groups would come from far and wide, the Sunset Strip was and still is considered the home of the genre.
Here are 10 hair metal songs that, together, illustrate what makes the music so great.
10. “Tragedy,” Hanoi Rocks (1981)
It seems like a geographical oddity that the missing link between The New York Dolls and the Sunset Strip came courtesy of Finland of all places, but facts are facts. Michael Monroe’s Hanoi Rocks took post-Stones dirty blues licks, a rough-around-the-edges vibe and glam-inspired anthems (plus fashion tips) from the Dolls and gave the whole package a touch of spit and polish. Just enough to make the songs a tad more accessible to a wider audience, but not so much as to do away with theit decadent, raw character. “Tragedy” was the first song from the debut Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks album, and it’s the perfect example of a Hanoi gem — memorable yet throwaway riffs and Monroe’s drawl giving way to the poppiest of choruses. Members of Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and other future stars of the genre were taking note, as a new style of metal was being molded before their very eyes.
9. “Livewire,” Mötley Crüe (1981)
The Crüe had formed in L.A. two years after Hanoi, but their debut Too Fast for Love album was released the same year as Bangkok Shocks. While Too Fast for Love shared a manic energy with Hanoi’s work, it’s clear that Nikki Sixx and the boys had been listening to more heavy metal, from Van Halen to Motörhead, than the Finns. The two bands endured a rocky relationship after Crüe singer Vince Neil drove while intoxicated and was involved in a collision that killed his passenger, Hanoi drummer Razzle. But after Crüe and Hanoi, things were never the same again in Hollywood.
8. “Talk Dirty to Me,” Poison (1986)
By 1986, metal bands like Metallica were well on their way to worldwide stardom. That same year Poison, a band that had formed in Pennsylvania in 1983 and then naturally gravitated to L.A., released its debut album, Look What the Cat Dragged in. Though the record was commercially successfully, Poison were considered fakes and pretenders by metal fans and musicians, including some from within their own scene. But that album is jam-packed with glorious bubble-gum pop (not a pejorative) songs dressed up in sleazy riffs. “Talk Dirty to Me” is everything great about the genre — danceable, sexy, hooky and timeless.
7. “Bathroom Wall,” Faster Pussycat (1987)
If Poison were carrying the hair torch into the living rooms of Middle America and drawing attention to the music by working the industry from the inside, Hollywood reprobates Faster Pussycat were doing their best to drag it further into the gutter, and God bless them for it. The first, self-titled Pussycat album remains an absolute classic thanks to songs such as “Bathroom Wall,” a tune that sets sex-obsessed Taime Downe and his crew on a road that would see them bow to the glories of debauchery throughout their career. Under all that grime, there were genuinely wonderful melodies and some vivid but poetic lyrics. Downe could make you feel as if you were along for the wild ride with him.
6. “Naughty Naughty,” Danger Danger (1989)
By the end of the decade, there were popular hair bands all over the country and indeed the world, though L.A. was always considered ground zero. Danger Danger formed in Queens, New York, in ’87 and were signed to Epic Records for a 1989 self-titled debut. The album gets criminally overlooked, but there isn’t one filler track among the 11, and opener “Naughty Naughty” is phenomenally good. Ted Poley’s suggestive lyrics add swagger to a song that builds and builds to the typically climactic chorus. Like Pussycat’s “Bathroom Wall,” the song is about wild sex, although this song is far more polished and “power-pop.”
5. “Love Bomb Baby,” Tigertailz (1990)
Welsh band Tigertailz might be generally unknown on this side of the Atlantic, but “Love Bomb Baby,” from their second album, Bezerk (a magnificent body of work from top to bottom, by the way), is a perfect slice of hair magic. This thing fires from the very start; the song kicks in with the chorus, then gives way to Kim Hooker’s snarling vocals, then more chorus. It’s incessant and sweet — a whack around the head with a bag of sugar — and equal parts Slade/Sweet stomp and L.A. hair. While other sleaze bands were wiping off the makeup, Tigertailz were dialing the glam back up and providing a shot of fun to an increasingly morose rock scene.
4. “Forever Young,” Tyketto (1991)
Danger Danger weren't the only hair metal band to emerge from New York City in the late '80s. Former Waysted singer Danny Vaughn put Tyketto together with some strong local musicians, and soaked up the sounds of Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. Their debut album, Don’t Come Easy, was released in 1991 as the popularity of this music was declining, so there was a limit to how big the band would be allowed to get. That said, “Forever Young,” the opening song on that debut, is magnificent. Note-perfect and more soulful than sleazy, the tune is a blue-collar anthem in the vein of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Brooke St. James wrenches a gorgeous riff from the guitar, as Vaughn simply lets loose. This is one of those songs that deserves to have been heard by more people.
3. “Slave to the Grind,” Skid Row (1991)
New Jersey’s Skid Row had already found an audience with their ’89 debut, but the ’91 sophomore effort is the band’s masterpiece. By this point, Sebastian Bach, Snake Sabo, Rachel Bolan and company had found a perfect way to blend Bolan’s punk influences with the Judas Priest and Kiss sounds that Bach loved so much. As a result, the Slave to the Grind album is just the right amount of heavy, without losing the sleaze or anthemic factors. The title track is unrelenting in its ferocity, but also due to the fact that the hook won’t get out of your skull.
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2. “Hot Cherie,” Hardline (1992)
Hardline started life as a kind of melodic rock supergroup, featuring members of Strip faves Brunette and Killerhit, as well as Neil Schon of Journey. They didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but “Hot Cherie,” a cover of an ’83 song by Danny Spanos, is fondly remembered by sleaze-rock fans. An atmospheric synth intro leads to pounding guitar, then a soft verse, climaxing with a big chorus. It’s blueprint hair metal, and it’s damn near perfect.
1. “Wasted in America,” Love/Hate (1992)
It only seems right that we bring this whole thing back to L.A. Love/Hate are one of the most underrated bands that came out of the scene, though they certainly made an impression with other groups; singer Jizzy Pearl ended up fronting L.A. Guns, Quiet Riot, Ratt and Steven Adler’s Appetite. It’s no surprise that he would be in demand — Pearl has a stunningly powerful rock & roll voice, and he’s also a charismatic frontman and phenomenal songwriter. Many fans would say that Love/Hate’s debut, Blackout in the Red Room, is their best album, but I would suggest that ’92’s Wasted in America is when they hit their stride. The title track, an indictment of increasingly screen-obsessed youth, is way ahead of its time.