As Guns N’ Roses prepare for their upcoming shows at Staples Center and the Forum, let's take a moment to remember that the leviathans of Sunset Strip rock owe almost their entire existence to one single artist. Heck, in the mid and late 1980s, you couldn’t throw a drink ticket in L.A. without hitting a group that were created in this one band's image. The whole platinum, spiky and rouged middle of the decade looked like them. From the singers with the serpentine hips to the skipping, swirling guitar players wearing attitudinal hats to the too-cool, vested rhythm guitarists, it all had its roots in Hanoi Rocks.
It wasn’t just the look; it was the sound, too. Uniquely, Hanoi Rocks found a way to wrap a punk-rock frame around the fleetest, fastest and most fist-pounding splices of Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper and James Gang. True, they most obviously resembled The New York Dolls, but Hanoi Rocks almost completely discarded the R&B aspect of the Dolls while retaining their sleazy, rolling, doo-wop-abilly 1/4/5 churn.
If you saw Hanoi Rocks in 1983 or 1984, you witnessed a certain kind of god. There it was, live onstage: the ultimate pink pop cartoon and the greatest gut-grabbing rock & roll dream, everything you had ever wanted the boogying electric rooster to be, in all its supreme and silly erotic terror!
Hanoi Rocks formed in Helsinki, Finland, in 1980, releasing their first album in 1981. In 1982 they moved to London, where the hugely influential British music press, mired in the gloom of post-punk and the earnest grimaces and greasy hair of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, quickly and enthusiastically embraced these loud cowboy peacocks. A few more albums followed, and the band arrived in the United States in 1983 and, well, changed everything.
As you likely know, the story has an unhappy ending. In early December 1984, Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle was killed in a car accident in Redondo Beach, resulting in a vehicular manslaughter conviction for the guy he was on a beer run with, Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil. The devastated band threw in the towel barely six months later.
But I am not interested in that sad part of the story. What matters is that they arrived on our stages in 1983. There’s life before you saw Hanoi Rocks, and life after.
Onstage (and I first saw them at NYC’s Danceteria in March 1983), Hanoi Rocks were a dervish blur of mascara, leopard skin, leather, scarves and suit jackets, announcing with every kick and spin and leer and leap that the circus was back in town. Frontman Michael Monroe sashayed like Tommy Tune imitating Iggy imitating Jagger. He was narrow and breathtakingly beautiful, all elbows and knees, a halo of white-hot hair and a laser-cut jawline. He pounced and hopped around the stage like an over-painted marionette, hanging from heating pipes and draping the mic cord around his neck, not as if it was a noose but like it was a dandy’s ascot.
Many singers have glowed with confidence and charisma, but it was what was around Monroe that made Hanoi Rocks immortal. Guitarist and co-leader Andy McCoy was clearly influenced by Johnny Thunders, though more in his physical mien then his actual playing. He snarled like Thunders; he did Thunders' trademark half-windmills (imagine snatching a bug off the top strings of the guitar, and then throwing it up toward the lights); he mimed Thunders’ slumped stance and then spun like a top; and he was clad in Thunder-ish suits of glowing, game show–host colors. Bassist Sami Yaffa was a wide-stanced, punk-rock cowboy, the Alvin Gibbs/Pete Way/Paul Simonon manqué we all see in our head when we think “rock & roll bassist.” Rhythm guitarist Nasty Suicide also did the cool cat punkabilly thing, with a soupçon of Nikki Sudden thrown in. Put Nasty and Sami together, by the way, and you have a near-exact premonition of what Izzy Stradlin was going to come off as in just a few years.
And then there's Razzle. You can’t underestimate Razzle’s contribution to the band.
Instead of the parking-garage snare and ludicrously over-played crash cymbals that personify most hard-rock drummers, Razzle favored a rumbling, low-end, tom-heavy approach that owed a great deal to Jerry Nolan, Tommy Ramone and Rat Scabies — vastly different drummers but all linked by the fact that they created a tumbling parade thump and not the brutal, un-musical cymbal wash and double-kick coronary of many “traditional” hard-rock drummers. In other words, Razzle was a thoroughly punk-rock drummer, and a goddamn good one, in a hard-rock band. When you coupled this with bassist Yaffa — who, again, favored rumble over the spotlight — you had a resolutely punk rhythm section in a heavy glam band. At the time, this was kind of revolutionary — and it became vastly influential when you consider how frequently this same model was applied to other hard-rock bands, both of the Sunset Strip and Seattle varieties, over the next decade.
(By the way, although the greatness of Hanoi Rocks is not necessarily evident on record – though there are bits and pieces here and there – it is evident on video: I direct you to All Those Wasted Years, shot live at the Marquee in 1983. It’s pretty much all there.)
Toward the very end of the Hanoi Rocks set I saw in 1983, there was a great revelation. The band launched into The Stooges’ “1970,” only they weren’t doing the Stooges version — Hanoi Rocks’ rendition was very clearly based on The Damned’s cover of “1970,” which appears on their debut album (if you need rock-solid evidence, compare Razzle’s drum rolls to those of The Damned’s Rat Scabies). At that moment, even to my 21-year-old mind, it became crystal clear: Hanoi Rocks were trying to rebuild glam metal from a tradition (almost) purely rooted in the Dolls and British punk. The next generation of pop metal would come out of the ashes of ’77, not ’72.
Hanoi Rocks were essentially a punk rock band, tweaking the style and the marketing just enough to angle toward a more mainstream metal audience.
This was a vastly radical thing to do. Consider that the (very) prevalent mood in Anglo/European metal at the time was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement (Iron Maiden, Samson, Def Leppard, Tygers of Pan Tang, Raven, Saxon, etc.). NWOBHM shared punk’s affection for indie labels and tearing down the lofty bullshit of pompous mainstream music, but the serpentine riffs, Tolkien-esque imagery and Crimson-like time signatures of these acts clearly had nothing to do with punk. Hanoi Rocks were a million miles away from all that. (Motörhead would appear to be the exception to this, but that’s not quite true: Motörhead’s amphetamine roar had its roots in old-school rock & roll and the ballistic landscapes of Hawkwind, not in punk.)
True, in the U.S., there was definitely some interesting metal/punk crossover beginning to bubble. In Los Angeles, Saint Vitus and DC3 were laying the groundwork for the stoner metal of the future, and other American acts were blending the influence of bands like Discharge and The Misfits with the harder edge of ’70s metal by way of Budgie, Hawkwind and Blue Cheer. But the movement Hanoi Rocks both represented and anticipated were something else entirely. They played a form of punk rock that was in many ways inseparable from the chunk-pop of, say, U.K. Subs, Generation X, Slaughter & The Dogs or The Boys, but they dressed it in the fabulously sexy swagger of hard rock.
This remarkable crossover, which was not a conscious selling of punk to metalheads or metal to punks but instead was a natural absorption of the most lean and dramatic aspects of the two tribes, was Hanoi Rocks' gift to the world. And an entire era in music was created in their image.