‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ Charles Dickens once declared. These words could just have easily described the eighties, a decade in which the best and worst of society, politics, science, and pop culture were on display. After the world had struggled through recession, war, and government scandals during the seventies, mankind was ready for a change, and the eighties represented an era of optimism and progression. Technology offered a brave new world, with the mistrust of Watergate and Vietnam seeming like a distant memory, yet when looking back on this time through twenty-first century eyes, critics often lambast the outrageous fashion, the inherent racism and misogyny, and music that often lacked the depth of the politically-charged seventies. But in many ways the eighties was a celebration of the outrageous, the eccentric, and the flamboyant; a time in which men and women could indulge in their androgynous desires, and sexuality no longer had boundaries. Art, too, seemed limitless, as computers explored the potential of what both movies and music were truly capable of. The eighties was a watershed for popular culture, and the world would never be the same again.
While sex and drugs had long been the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll, the eighties took excess to a new extreme. The premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, and John Bonham had done little to warn young stars of the dangers of life on the road, and as the new decade dawned, this self-destructive lifestyle was glorified by the media. The few survivors of the seventies were now battling their addictions, locking themselves away in rehab as a new generation of musicians took their place in the clubs and hotel rooms around the world. The recently opened Betty Ford Centre became a much-needed salvation and escape from the temptations of rock ‘n’ roll, and while many of these stars eventually overcame their addictions, musicians became synonymous with debauchery. This new decade also began to prioritise style over substance, with the rebellious artists of the sixties and seventies now replaced by a slew of wannabe stars who followed the dictations of their record labels to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. But the eighties was also a decade of innovation and imagination, and while much of its art was ridiculed by critics, those that came of age in this era remember it as an exciting and prolific moment in history.
Following the launch of MTV in 1981, the industry changed almost overnight. Suddenly, visuals became as important as the music, and artists were forced to reinvent themselves in order to cater to the young viewers of this new television channel. ‘Hardly anyone thought it would succeed,’ declared authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum in their retrospective I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. ‘But from asinine beginnings, MTV became the sun around which popular culture rotated. The MTV aesthetic during its Golden Age of 1981 to 1992 – quick cuts, celebrations of youth, shock value, impermanence, beauty – influenced not only music, but network and cable TV, radio, advertising, film, art, fashion, race, teen sexuality, even politics.’ With pop star Michael Jackson and director John Landis raising the bar with the thirteen-minute promo video for Thriller, other artists were now having to conjure up unique visual concepts that would work hand-in-hand with their songs. The eighties had become all about glamour and image, and rock stars no longer had the luxury of feeling indifferent to how the industry perceived them. Instead, many were forced by their labels to work alongside stylists to reinvent themselves for the new decade.
‘In the mid-eighties, labels believed making videos for MTV was integral to success,’ explained Heart singer Ann Wilson in her memoir Kicking & Screaming, co-written with sister and guitarist Nancy. ‘In the next few years we made nearly a dozen videos, each one more ridiculous than the next, and every one a small step away from what Nancy and I wanted to be. As the hairdressers and costume designers came in, the image we projected to the world was less and less our own. Apart from an obsession with cleavage in the videos, we sported stiletto heels and hairstyles that had to be carefully coiffed.’ Her sister concurred. ‘It was a much more ego-driven, less enlightened time for music. All this new digital stuff and imaging was happening; everyone had to look like Prince and the Revolution. It was all about sex appeal again,’ Nancy told Classic Rock in 2013. ‘Someone like Janis Joplin wouldn’t have made it in the eighties. She didn’t have a big haystack of blonde hair, corsets, and stilettos. We had forsaken our own integrity to wear all the costumes, the huge hair, and the posing.’
With Madonna seamlessly blending sex appeal with attitude, labels were forcing female rock stars to follow suit by bringing more emphasise to their body, much to the objection of many musicians. Yet with an abundance of younger artists eager to take their place, they allowed themselves to be revamped for MTV. ‘I wore the fashion of the moment, whatever it was, no let’s-be-freaky outfits,’ admitted Grace Slick, the singer of Starship, a band who over the course of fifteen years had evolved from hippie icons Jefferson Airplane into a corporate pop rock act. ‘I cut my hair, smiled for the cameras, answered press questions, watched the charts, made the records, and kept my ass out of jail.’ Yet whether an established artist or new blood, the pressure of catering to MTV had become the driving force of the music industry, and so anyone hoping for a hit single had to indulge in stylists and promo videos. ‘Michael Jackson and I both came along at a time when there was nothing. MTV didn’t have anyone who was visual. Bowie, maybe. A lot of people made great records, but dressed like they were going to the supermarket,’ claimed Prince in an interview with the Guardian, before adding, ‘The new pushes the old out of the way and retains what it wants to.’
MTV finally embraced us
The video had become the art form, and all the platinum albums that an artist had sold became irrelevant as the promo took precedence. ‘All anybody wanted to know about was video. I kept saying I wasn’t into the whole video thing, because Aerosmith is a live band, something that can’t be captured any way but live,’ insisted frontman Steven Tyler in the band’s autobiography Walk This Way. ‘The beauty of a concert is the energy of the show, the event, that night. You’ve got to see it to believe it. You’ve got to be there.’ For KISS, another veteran of the seventies, who had gained notoriety through their theatrical appearance and elaborate stage shows, the glamour of this new decade forced the four-piece to revamp their style. ‘MTV finally embraced us at some level. We came up with a made-for-MTV unmasking,’ recalled frontman Paul Stanley. ‘Once we took off the make-up, we no longer wore the platform boots onstage, and we adopted a more generic style: tight, colourful clothes, sexual and flamboyant. We slid into what was pretty much the common look at the time. I mean, Robert Plant had cut his hair and was wearing parachute pants, for God’s sake. Nobody was impervious to what was going on; even the Who and the Stones were affected by what was considered the fashion of the time.’
No artist wishing to regain their former glory in the new decade of excess were safe from the fake glamour and pretentious theatrics of the music video. Without MTV, the promo would never have become a viable medium, and by the time that the MTV Video Music Awards made its debut in 1984, music videos had transcended into short films that boasted narratives, special effects, and complex dance choreography. MTV became an institution for a generation of music fans, with music videos accompanied by an array of stylistic commercials and enigmatic presenters, the latter giving this experimental venture a relatable face for its young audience. But the demands of the music video for those artist that had found fame before the arrival of MTV would become almost unbearable. ‘The eighties proved very negative in that respect for me, really just a bitter competition for who could make the most expensive video and show off the most,’ recalled former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon in Anger is An Energy. ‘All that was created there was a whole new monster of video directors, and they were arseholes to a man. The dictates that would come in from these people were just ludicrous beyond belief. The song wouldn’t matter, the studio work, your lifestyle, your band, nothing…The video was becoming more important than the music.’
With the visual aspect of the performance slowly becoming the focal point, at the expense of the music, the live experience would also undergo a radical transformation in order to reach the expectations of those who enjoyed the excess of the promo videos. Thus, concerts would begin to incorporate elaborate pyrotechnics, light shows, and often an array of touring musicians and dancers. ‘It was an experimental time for live performing,’ recalled David Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar to Classic Pop. ‘We had things in our ears and additional instrumentation. For me, it wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll tour, that pleasurable aspect of it was going downhill. I could’ve been playing something fabulous, and no one would’ve heard it.’ The eighties had been such a drastic change for veteran artists that many struggled to adapt to the new way of life in the music industry. Rock stars would be forced to work with professional songwriters in order to create radio friendly pop rock songs that could break across into the mainstream. Thus, Diane Warren, Desmond Child, and Holly Knight became popular choices for labels, whose track record of writing hit singles was enough to convince A&R executives that outside input was integral to the success of their clients.
‘Music was being overtaken by a certain visual style. We had been a visual band since the beginning, but oddly, our idea of visual panache didn’t necessarily translate in the world of early eighties rock ‘n’ roll, which was dominated by hair metal bands,’ said Gene Simmons of KISS. ‘Hair metal bands were dominant because they gave younger teenagers, and especially younger girls, access to a kind of rock music that had been considered too dangerous for them before. Girls who were only thirteen and fourteen were having their first brush with sexuality, and for their early crushes, they were turning to these hair metal bands, to Bon Jovi, to Poison.’ What became known as hair metal, or glam, first originated in the early eighties, with the rise in popularity of Mötley Crüe. Following in the footsteps of Van Halen, who had dominated the Los Angeles music scene during the late seventies, Mötley Crüe mixed metal riffs with onstage theatrics, raw sexuality, and a taste for the excess. Hollywood’s Sunset Strip soon became awash with androgynous pop rock acts, with clubs like Whisky a Go Go and Troubadour becoming the centre of this new music scene. Among the groups to gain popularity on this circuit were Ratt, Stryper, and the controversial W.A.S.P. But after the success of Poison in the mid-eighties, more young bands appeared wearing spandex, lipstick, and hairspray.
‘In ’83, ’84, we would walk down the Strip and it was like twenty-four hour Sodom and Gomorrah Mardi Gras,’ Ratt frontman Stephen Pearcy told authors Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock in 2021’s Nöthin’ But a Good Time. ‘Then new bands started coming in and they got their own thing. And the next thing that made the scene in L.A. was Guns N’ Roses. That’s when people went, ‘Oh, there’s some different shit coming out. These hair metal bands aren’t gonna hold up to this!’ It’s just that it was such a strange thing that took everybody by surprise.’ Whereas Poison had embraced the sex and glamour of the scene, Guns N’ Roses had marked themselves as ‘the most dangerous band in the world,’ with a penchant for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. ‘It was definitely a scene, but I always thought it was pretty cheap and basically poseur central, because everything was so plastic,’ admitted guitarist Slash to Spin. ‘Poison was sort of the band that was going to carry Mötley Crüe’s torch, but by that point Hollywood had no balls. That was part of the reason we hated it so much.’ Despite this, label scouts prowled the clubs on Sunset Strip in an attempt to find the next big thing, resulting in a wave of bands that owed a debt to Mötley Crüe and Poison signing with major labels.
Yet despite the excessive nature of the decade, the eighties was still notable for its draconian censorship, which had only become more severe with the rise of both MTV and home video. While the British media were targeting independent filmmakers and distributors, who had subjected the public to an onslaught of graphic exploitation pictures that had become known as video nasties, in the United States a similar threat levelled the music industry. On 19 September 1985, a Senate Hearing on Washington’s Capitol Hill gained national exposure when the authorities accused the music industry of being a corruptive influence on the nation’s youth, forcing the likes of country singer John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider to defend their art in front of government officials. ‘I do play in and write the songs for a rock ‘n’ roll band named Twisted Sister that is classified as heavy metal, and I pride myself on writing songs that are consistent with my above-mentioned beliefs,’ Snider told the committee. ‘Since I seem to be the only person addressing this committee today who has been a direct target of accusations from the presumably-responsible PMRC, I would like to use this occasion to speak on a more personal note, and show just how unfair the whole concept of ‘lyrical interpretation’ and judgement can be, and how many times this can amount to little more than character assassination.’
This witch-hunt had been instigated by the Parents Music Resource Centre, a moral watchdog formed by Tipper Gore, the wife of then-senator Al Gore, after her daughter had purchased Prince’s latest release, Purple Rain. The sexual lyrics depicted in the track Darling Nikki – which included the line, ‘I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine’ – had alerted Gore to the growing explicit nature of modern music, and along with several fellow wives of politicians, the PMRC was born. ‘We do not advocate censorship,’ claimed Gore to talk show host Oprah Winfrey in 1987, while promoting her recently-released book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. ‘I am talking about pervasive messages that are available to kids of any age, that are explicit and violent, and parents have a right to know that. Parents in this country right now aren’t tuned in, they are not aware of what their kids are seeing on television and listening to, and they really need to so that they can nurture their child and protect their child. It’s education for parents, and we want to create mechanisms for choice in the marketplace, not censorship.’
While many outside of the media circus felt that the hysteria was ridiculous, there were two incidents during this time that would cause the parents of America to feel that heavy metal proved a very real threat to their children. On the afternoon of Sunday, 1 July 1984, officers at the Northport Village Police Department in a small coastal community on Long Island, New York, responded to a phone call advising that a body had been found in the nearby woods. Almost two weeks earlier, a seventeen-year-old with a history of drug use and antisocial behaviour had failed to return home, and as investigators began to retrace the teenager’s last steps, all evidence would lead them to a disturbed young man of the same age, one who had dropped out of high school, and had recently been institutionalised after his parents discovered his penchant for digging up corpses. Allegedly under the influence of angel dust, he had repeatedly stabbed the victim to death and carved out his eyes, but when the incident was exposed by the national media, the perpetrator claimed that the Devil had ordered him to commit the gruesome crime.
By the time that the suspect, Richard Kasso, took his own life while in police custody, it had been revealed that the perpetual drug user was a fan of heavy metal, specifically the Australian rock group AC/DC, and once again rock ‘n’ roll was singled out by the press as public enemy number one. ‘In addition to the debate over drugs, the killing has also renewed discussion over the influence of so-called heavy metal rock groups whose music, garb, and publicity cultivate satanic imagery,’ claimed the New York Times when reporting on the killer’s suicide. ‘When arrested Thursday, Mr. Kasso was wearing a shirt bearing a devil’s picture and the logo of AC/DC, a popular heavy metal rock group with a satanic image, whose rendition of Hells Bells on an album entitled Back in Black proclaims, ‘Satan’ll get ya!’ and, ‘You’re only young but you’re gonna die!” The death of Gary Lauwers at the hands of Kasso is not the only tragedy linked to AC/DC, as the following year, in the wake of a murder spree that gripped Los Angeles in terror, it was revealed that the man responsible, twenty-five-year-old Richard Ramirez, was also a fan of the group. But AC/DC were not the only rock band to come under fire for their negative influence on the youth of America.
On 23 December 1985, in the Nevada city of Sparks, eighteen-year-old Raymond Belknap placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, dying almost instantly. Moments later, James Vance, who was two years his senior, attempted to fulfil their suicide pact, but would survive, eventually passing away three years later after falling into a coma. ‘After Belknap killed himself, there was blood everywhere,’ recalled Vance. ‘I was going to shoot myself. It was like I had no control over it. I didn’t want to die. But I shot myself.’ Despite their drug use prior to the incident, the media’s attention would instead focus on their mutual love of Judas Priest, and the fact that the two friends had been listening to the metal group prior to the tragedy. This would soon reach the public’s attention when a subsequent legal trial claimed that one song, a reworking of Spook Tooth‘s Better by You, Better Than Me, had contained the subliminal message ‘do it,’ which had convinced the two youths to try to take their own lives.
‘Judas Priest, and CBS Records, the band’s record company, have denied using subliminal messages. Attorneys for the band have argued that the youths’ deaths were prompted by social and psychological problems, attributed to unstable family environments,’ reported the Los Angeles Times during the trial. ‘The suicide case brought against British stars Judas Priest ended last week with prosecution evidence rapidly turning into farce,’ declared Kerrang! in an August 1990 issue. ‘Lawyers for Judas Priest, and CBS Records, countered that the boys had been brought up in deprived and violent circumstances, had failed at school, and had been taking drugs and drinking on the day of the suicide pact.’ Yet while the case would eventually be dismissed in favour of the group, the stigma that had surrounded heavy metal fans since the incident would remain for years to come, and for teenagers during the eighties, this would often result in them being portrayed as devil worshippers. ‘These two boys were massive Priest fans,’ recalled frontman Rob Halford to Rolling Stone thirty years after the incident, ‘and that made it even more heart-wrenching that this terrible combination of the night, and the drugs, and the booze, and their state of mind turned into something quite terrible.’
It was only rock ‘n’ roll
Following the controversy surrounding the PMRC and the suicide pact of two heavy metal fans, the rock ‘n’ roll scene came under fire for its corruptive influence and morally-dangerous message. As a result, on 1 November 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that ‘Parental Advisory’ labels would be featured on the covers of albums with questionable content. ‘People had more fun in the old days,’ stated Alice Cooper, an artist who generated considerable notoriety early in his career, in a 1991 interview with Metal Hammer. ‘There was no pressure on me and they realised it was only rock ‘n’ roll. The whole PMRC thing is about politics. It’s really not a moral issue. Tipper Gore’s husband is running for president, and was at the time she came out with the whole PMRC thing. It actually hurt him because there are too many people out there of voting age, thirty-to-forty, who are rock ‘n’ roll fans. They thought they were going to nail the teenagers. They forgot there are now people fifty-years-old, who listened to Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and Alice Cooper. So they bit off something more than they could chew. If you live in the United States, the rules are that you can’t censor. That’s what we fought for, and what the whole country is about. If you start censoring, then it’s not a free country.’
While heavy metal would be accused of corrupting the youth of the western world, on 13 July 1985, an array of rock and pop artists gathered together on two continents in an attempt to bring exposure to and raise money for the millions of people that were starving and dying in the African country of Ethiopia. Nine months earlier, Bob Geldof, the frontman of the Irish rock group Boomtown Rats, had witnessed footage of these atrocities while watching BBC’s Six O’Clock News, during which journalist Michael Buerk documented the attempts of relief workers to aid those that were victims of a nationwide famine. With droughts having claimed most of the land’s crops, by the summer of 1984, even the hard work of charities had done little to ease the suffering. Along with his partner, presenter and author Paula Yates, Geldof felt inspired to use his influence in some way to help those in need, and so reached out to fellow musician Midge Ure to brainstorm a masterplan. Gathering together many of the most successful artists of the decade, including members of U2, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, Geldof and Ure composed a charity song that they hoped would bring the struggles of Ethiopia to the attention of the world.
‘When Midge and I did Do They Know It’s Christmas?, I thought, ‘Seventy-two-thousand sales, give the money to Oxfam and Save the Children, and get the fuck out,’’ revealed Geldof a few years later. ‘Musically, it wasn’t the greatest thing ever written, forget it. Three million sales in Britain alone cannot be explained, except as a social phenomenon. People must have tapped into this thing. What they’d seen on TV had appalled them, and they’d found no instrument to articulate that sentiment, and suddenly this silly piece of plastic came along, a fairly duff song, and that was it.’ The cultural impact of Do They Know It’s Christmas? would be unprecedented, with the song becoming the fastest-selling in British history, while also inspiring American artists to attempt the same with their own charity single. ‘We Are the World originated last December with a telephone call from Harry Belafonte to Ken Kragen, the manager of Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, and other top pop acts,’ wrote the New York Times in February 1985. ‘Mr. Kragen contacted Mr. Richie, who in turn contacted Michael Jackson, and the producer Quincy Jones.’
Following the phenomenal success of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Geldof was convinced that he could achieve something even greater, and so once again turned to his contemporaries to create the event of the decade. ‘I am not certain when the Live Aid idea was first planted, and I could not know that it would turn out to be the biggest fundraising event, the biggest TV event, and the biggest concert in history,’ he admitted in his memoir Is That It? ‘Had I known this from the outset, I might never have had the nerve to begin. But certainly the idea was half in my mind soon after the Band Aid recording, because I mentioned it to Nik Kershaw when I bumped into him at Heathrow in January. He volunteered there and then, even though there were no firm plans. At the USA for Africa recording, I added a rider at the end of my speech: if I were to contact them about a concert, I hoped they would respond. It had become increasingly apparent from the reports and requests that poured into the Band Aid warehouse from Ethiopia and Sudan that £8m, which the record had made, was nowhere near enough. I knew that there were twenty-two million people starving to death in Africa, and that £8m was enough to keep them alive for two weeks. The point of the record had been to raise money but, more important, to raise issues and make a gesture.’
During the course of one Saturday in the summer of 1985, Geldof and Ure gathered together the cream of the eighties to perform a benefit concert at both Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium, located almost four thousand miles away in the American city of Philadelphia. Broadcast live around the world, among the artists that would assemble on this historic day were David Bowie, Ure’s Ultravox, Elton John, and Queen. ‘At the time, we weren’t aware of what an epoch-making thing it was,’ claimed Queen guitarist Brian May in 2020. ‘We came off thinking, ‘Well, that went kind of okay.’ But we didn’t realise that it had made such a lasting impression on the ether.’ Even Geldof would be unaware of the impact that Live Aid would have on the world: the two shows combined were attended by approximately a hundred-and-sixty-one thousand people and, according to newspaper reports the following day, raised $16m in support of Ethiopia. The London show, which was attended by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, would become one of the most iconic musical events in history, on par with the legendary Woodstock festival of 1969.
‘It had been a curious sight, the Monday after Live Aid, to see queues of people standing outside every bank and post office, waiting to give their money away. But that was not the half of it,’ explained Geldof in 1986. ‘We had raised $10m in sponsorship even before the concert began; indeed, by the time the concert took place, we had already spent £1m of it buying a fleet of trucks in the Sudan. On the Monday after Live Aid, we estimated that about $4m had been collected in Britain. Then we got the news that Ireland alone had raised £5m. After that, the figures seemed to change hourly. At the last count, Live Aid had raised $100m, plus a significant amount in dollar contributions on specific projects from various western governments.’ Yet despite all that he had achieved with both Do They Know It’s Christmas? and Live Aid, their success proved to be bittersweet for Geldof. ‘I wasn’t allowed to go back to my job. I’m a pop singer. That’s literally how I make my money,’ he claimed to ABC News thirty-five years later. ‘And I couldn’t. And no one was interested. Saint Bob, which I was called, wasn’t allowed to do this anymore, because it’s so petty and so meaningless. So, I was lost.’
One significant improvement that the eighties had on previous decades was in how women were finally allowed to become rock stars without any real reluctance from the industry. During the seventies, Suzi Quatro, the Runaways, and Blondie raised the bar in how serious females were taken within the rock ‘n’ roll scene, but by the mid-eighties, the likes of Heart, Lita Ford, and Warlock had proved that women could rock as hard as their male counterparts. While their sexuality would still be exploited through the marketing of their work, most notably on the front cover of Ford’s 1983 debut album, which depicted the twenty-four-year-old semi-naked, MTV in particular welcomed young women with guitars due to its visual appeal. ‘I chose to be sexy, and I think sex sells,’ confessed Ford in an interview with the Guardian. ‘I didn’t need to, because I’m a good enough musician that I don’t need to dress so provocatively. And I don’t anymore, although I still wear skin-tight clothes, which are sexy. When I went into my solo project, I wore a leather g-string on the cover of my first album, Out for Blood. And the funny thing is, that cover was banned in the United States; they wouldn’t put it in the stores, because of the blood coming out of the guitar. The guitar was bleeding on the cover. It’s absolutely ridiculous that nobody said anything about the fact that I didn’t have any pants on.’
For some, the acceptance of women in rock ‘n’ roll proved to be a double-edged sword, as this would no longer be a niche market. ‘When I first started out in Blondie, it was before women in rock became as commercially viable as they are today,’ explained Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It. ‘I had to fight my way into getting record deals and to be taken seriously. But when the eighties rolled around, many of those blocks and conflicts started to evaporate. And that turned out to be a mixed blessing; where once, we had had a virtual lock on the attention from labels and the public alike, now the field had become much more crowded. And reinventing myself beyond Blondie was a challenge.’ Yet in some instances, female artists were targeted for how they depicted their sexuality and independence through both their music and image. ‘When I started out in the Runaways, we took a lot of shit from feminists,’ revealed Joan Jett. ‘All teenage girls think about sex, but a lot of women felt we were using our sexuality. We were just acknowledging what all girls go through and took shit for it. It was very confusing. I didn’t quite get it. I don’t know if I call myself a feminist. Those labels don’t really feel complete to me. Everyone’s definition of feminism is different. If feminism means being equal and being able to do whatever you set your mind to, then yes. That shouldn’t be based on your gender.’
But even as women would begin to infiltrate the rock and heavy metal scene of the eighties, for the most part it remained a man’s world. As documented by Pamela Des Barres in her landmark book I’m with the Band, a large part of life on the road for rock stars was the endless sex with groupies. In most cases, this would be young girls making their way backstage, willing to pleasure their favourite stars without the promise of commitment. For rock stars, this was one of the many perks of their lifestyle, coupled with the copious amounts of drugs taken on the road. ‘I would say we were all about the rock ‘n’ roll, rather than the sex and drugs. We weren’t known for hooking up with groupies,’ the late Vixen guitarist Jan Kuehnemund told Love-It-Loud in 2012, when explaining the difference between the male and female bands of the hair metal scene. ‘In fact, most of our guy groupies seemed to be very shy and would approach us very hesitantly, not like some of these bold female groupies that approach guys’ bands, tearing their clothes off at any opportunity. We didn’t see a lot of that.’
But for many of the young male wannabe rock stars, promiscuous sex was all part of the experience. Yet even as rock stars indulged in their taste for no-strings-attached sex, a new danger emerged: AIDS. This deadly disease first became public in 1981 when a strain of pneumonia led to an alarming number of fatalities in the homosexual community, but within a few months the sharing of needles also became a growing concern. Sex was no longer without consequence, and the free love of the sixties was now officially over. ‘Although AIDS had entered public awareness by mid-1983, public opinion polls at the time showed relatively little concern that AIDS would reach epidemic proportions,’ stated Timothy E. Cook and David C. Colby in their article The Mass Mediated Epidemic. While the eighties would mark the arrival of AIDS in the public consciousness, it would not be until the death of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in 1991 that the excessive lifestyles of rock stars and the threat of AIDS was truly questioned. ‘Freddie didn’t announce publicly that he had AIDS until the day before he died in 1991. Although he was flamboyant onstage, an electric front man on a par with Bowie and Jagger, he was an intensely private man offstage,’ documented Elton John in his book Love is the Cure. ‘I’d seen what the disease had done to so many of my other friends. I knew exactly what it was going to do to Freddie. As did he. He knew death, agonising death, was coming.’
As the eighties progressed, AIDS became a major concern for young men and women, but until the death of Mercury, many rock stars felt invincible to the disease. ‘In 1985, AIDS was definitely starting to enter the national dialogue, but it didn’t yet occupy a prominent place in the heterosexual psyche,’ wrote Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan in It’s So Easy: And Other Lies. ‘I never used a condom, not once. I was lucky. The scene in Hollywood was an orgy of shared needles, and shared girlfriends and boyfriends. Perhaps there has been no other time in history where the doors were so wide open. Everyone seemed to be living in and for the moment, and it seemed as if nothing was off-limits.’ As AIDS, sexual transmitted diseases, and teenage pregnancy became a growing concern during the latter half of the eighties, some stars began to speak out against the media’s refusal to address these important issues, with the likes of Madonna leading the charge. ‘The networks won’t even play ads on TV that are about condoms, about birth control, about practicing safe sex. We’re pretending like we don’t have a lot of teenagers who are having sex in the world right now. Why are we subjecting ourselves to this kind of ignorance?’ declared Madonna during a heated debate on the merits of censorship on ABC’s Nightline. ‘The teenage pregnancies in this country have reached the highest high. We have sophomores in high school that are having their second babies already, and the rate of AIDS is rising in the heterosexual community at a really frightening rate. So why is that?’
Regardless of how much of a concern heterosexuals would find AIDS, during the eighties homosexuals faced the very real threat that just one bad decision could end their life. While their parents may have engaged in promiscuous sex during the free love of the late sixties, free from any kind of punishment, the youth of the eighties were forced to face the realisation that sex could lead to death. ‘AIDS had always been a distant threat. Suddently, it was all too real. I was reading stories in the gay press about AIDS sufferers being hounded out of their homes and spat on in doctors’ surgeries. It made me angry and more determined to speak up and use the media in a more positive way,’ insisted former Culture Club frontman Boy George in the mid-nineties. ‘One thing about growing old is that you can no longer avoid death. It’s worse being gay, with AIDS wiping out the butterflies.’ Other artists would also speak out about the fear of being gay in a post-HIV world. ‘There is a lot of money going into research, there is so much money to be made by whoever finds the vaccine, that that is not the real important thing now,’ stated George Michael following his appearance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in April 1992. ‘The important thing is, one; for kids, whether they be straight, bi, gay, whatever, to be completely aware that there is a definite threat. Just because we can’t see it yet, it’s there, and it’s invisible, but we will be very aware of it soon. And secondly; I would say they are all going to come into contact with people who are afflicted by this disease, and the main thing to prepare them for is tolerance, understanding, not being terrified by people who are afflicted with HIV, and preparing themselves to deal with it.
The tragic artist drug syndrome
Drugs were also a major concern during the eighties, as the lives of many young musicians had been tragically cut short due to their excessive consumption of heroin or cocaine. Those who had indulged in the seventies were now attempting to turn their lives around, either by withdrawing from the music industry or venturing back out on the road with a healthier new regime. Rock stars in their twenties may feel invincible, but as they become older they are more aware of their mortality and limitations. ‘The drugs were bad and they got everybody sick and made a lot of problems,’ confessed Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, having participated in many turbulent recording sessions with her fellow bandmembers. ‘However, there’s the tragic artist drug syndrome that sometimes makes for great art. So would I go back and change any of it? No, I wouldn’t. I think it all happened for a reason. But I got through it, so I was lucky. I would never lecture anybody, because I don’t think that’s the way to get to people. It certainly wasn’t the way to get to me. I decided to go to Betty Ford. Nobody came and threw me in a van and took me. That was my decision.’
Ozzy Osbourne, who had launched a solo career after parting ways from Black Sabbath several years earlier, was struggling with sobriety in the early eighties, but nothing could prepare him for the experience of touring with Mötley Crüe. ‘They were fucking crazy. Which, obviously, I took as a challenge. Just as I had with John Bonham. I felt like I had to out-crazy them, otherwise I wasn’t doing my job properly. But they took that as a challenge,’ he said in his memoir I Am Ozzy. ‘The funniest thing about Mötley Crüe was that they dressed like chicks, but lived like animals.’ But this notorious image would become a badge of honour for Mötley Crüe. ‘We were just a bit over-the-top, but the shows were always up to par, I think. I’m sure there’s a few record company executives and proprietors who are a little upset that we trashed a few bars and hotels,’ bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx told Kerrang! in 1990. Looking back on his tour with Osbourne at the height of their excess, he would later recall in the Mötley Crüe biography The Dirt, ‘But, unlike us, Ozzy had a restraint, a limit, a conscience, a brake. And that restraint came in the form of a homely, rotund, little British woman, whose very name set our lips trembling and knees knocking: Sharon Osbourne, a shitkicker, and disciplinarian like no other we had ever met, a woman whose presence could in an instant send us reeling back to our childhood fear of authority.’
Mötley Crüe had taken rock ‘n’ roll to new extremes, but even artists outside of the hair metal scene regularly indulged in excessive drug use. ‘From around 1981 to 1985, I wrongly thought the drugs were working for me. Not every day to begin with, but I’d have the odd line in the recording studio during the late afternoon and early evening,’ revealed Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor. ‘For a time, I thought drugs even helped me to cope with the workload. Our record company would often expect us to get up early in the morning after a heavy night and do some promotional work, which you can easily manage to do for a few years, even though you are living to excess. But eventually, the drugs go into reverse.’ Even far from the glistening lights of the Sunset Strip, young stars were battling their own addictions. ‘I was pretty seriously strung out a lot of the time,’ confessed Robert Smith of British goth pioneers The Cure. ‘We immersed ourselves in the more sordid side of life, and it did have a very detrimental effect on everyone in the group. We got ahold of some very disturbing films and imagery to kind of put us in the mood. Afterwards, I thought, ‘Was it really worth it?’ We were only in our really early twenties, and it shocked us more than I realised; how base people could be, how evil people could be.’
The endless parties, coupled with the glamorous image of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery that surrounded their idols, would prove too much of a temptation to the new rock stars of the eighties, and often all it would take would be one successful album, and soon their lifestyles would turn overnight from struggling hopefuls to substance abuse. ‘Always the temptation to get drunk, get high,’ admitted Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach to Raw in 1990. ‘Then you’ll do it and it’ll catch up with you, and you’ll sound like fucking dogshit when you sing. That’s hard. That’s the part that I don’t like about myself.’ But soon heroin had found its way into every aspect of the music industry. ‘I enjoyed the party, but I also liked the sex and the power that came with it. For me, standing up onstage with a sea of guys chanting my name, and their girlfriends eager to take off their clothes for me, was the ultimate vindication,’ claimed Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine in his book A Heavy Metal Memoir. ‘After all those years of being an invisible, skinny redhead in school, I had become the coolest guy in the room. And I loved it…I bought into every aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll life; drugs and alcohol being merely the most dangerous and debilitating.’
For those who survived the eighties with their career intact, they then faced a harsh shift in trends, as the Seattle grunge scene suddenly dominated the music industry, in the wake of Nirvana’s success with their major label debut, Smells Like Teen Spirit, in the autumn of 1991. While many artists would struggle through this drastic change in taste, for those who succeeded in weathering the storm, the less excessive nineties would almost come as something of a relief. ‘We were all lament about the loss of innocence that rock music had seemed to have gone through,’ admitted legendary producer Bob Ezrin. ‘We were looking back nostalgically at early KISS and AC/DC, saying that this was the style of rock music that the audience was in most desperate need of.’ The flamboyant rock scene of the eighties had already been reduced to parody by this point, but Nirvana proved to be the final nail in the hair metal coffin. ‘From the moment Smells Like Teen Spirit first appeared on MTV, it feels like a paradigm shift,’ insisted songwriter Desmond Child. ‘An era closed with Nirvana. It’s not like people didn’t continue writing songs or making records, but suddenly all of those acts became what is called ‘legacy’ bands. Through the course of time, though, those bands like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith have become even bigger than any genre, and have lifted themselves to heights and an esteem like our own version of the Rolling Stones.’
The eighties will be remembered for many things – the bad fashion, the over-the-top music videos, and the hairspray – but perhaps its greatest legacy is how those young musicians who were given a shot at fame made the most of their fifteen minutes; drinking, sleeping with groupies, and indulging in drugs while touring the world, living both the rock ‘n’ roll dream, and the nightmare, all at once. ‘Seriously, you want nothing more after a hard day in the studio than the opportunity to go out and have some real fun,’ confessed Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora in 2011. ‘All those strip joints…We became very well known in these places, I can tell you! But whatever we got up to was never allowed to interfere with the main purpose of being there. In the studio, nobody could say we lacked enthusiasm when it came to getting the best sounds and performances.’ For others, the morning after would serve as a reminder to the perils of rock ‘n’ roll decadence. ‘Every night, the drinking and the partying, and you just fall into it,’ Poison frontman Bret Michaels told VH1’s Behind the Music series in 1999. ‘And we threw the party, so there was no one to blame but us.’