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Crazy Nights and Fallen Angels – Did the 1980s Almost Kill Rock ‘n’ Roll?

While sex and drugs had long been the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1980s 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 music magazines.

The few survivors of the 1970s were now battling their addictions, locking themselves away in rehab as a new generation of musicians took their place in the bars and hotel rooms around the world. The Betty Ford Centre, launched in 1981, was 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.

Following the launch of MTV in 1981 the music industry changed almost overnight. Suddenly visuals became as important as the sound and artists were forced to reinvent themselves in order to cater to the young viewers of this new television channel. With 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 concepts that would work hand-in-hand with their songs. The 1980s 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. ‘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 (Wilson, guitarist) 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.’

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. But there was an abundance of younger artists eager to replace them so despite their objections 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 Jefferson Airplane. ‘I cut my hair, smiled for the cameras, answered press questions, watched the charts, made the records, and kept my ass out of jail.’

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. ‘The ‘80s 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 frontman 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.’

Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Desmond Child and Steven Tyler

The 1980s had been such a drastic change for veteran artists that many struggled to adapt to the new way of life in the music industry. While they may have received accolades and sold millions of records during the 1970s, this now seemed irrelevant as everything became tailored towards MTV. 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. Diane Warren, Desmond Child and Holly Knight became popular choices for labels, whose track records in writing hit singles was enough to convince A&E executives that outside input was integral to the success of their clients.

‘I’d written with the band and I’d written with Richie Supa, but Richie and I were best friends. Desmond Child was another matter altogether. He was a songwriter brought in by the record label,’ said Aerosmith‘s Steven Tyler in his autobiography. ‘I loved writing with Desmond Child because we always got into arguments.’ Child’s résumé of artists he had written hit songs for included KISS, Bonnie Tyler and Bon Jovi. Warren’s was equally impressive, helping Cher, Starship and Michael Bolton gain heavy rotation on the radio and music channels.

‘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 1980s rock ‘n’ roll, which was dominated by hair metal bands,’ said Gene Simmons of KISS. ‘Hair 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 1980s 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 1970s, Mötley Crüe mixed metal riffs with onstage theatrics, raw sexuality and a taste for the excess. Sunset Strip in Hollywood soon became awash with a slew of androgynous pop rock acts, with clubs like Whisky a Go Go and Troubadour becoming the centre of this new music scene. Among the acts 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-1980s, more young bands appeared wearing spandex, lipstick and hairspray.

‘It was definitely a scene, but I always thought it was pretty cheap and basically poseur central, because everything was so plastic,’ admitted Guns N’ Roses 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.’ Label scouts prowled the clubs on Sunset Strip in an attempt to find the next big thing, resulting in a slew of bands that owed a debt to Mötley Crüe and Poison signing with major labels.

Following the phenomenal success of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller in the first half of the decade, nothing short of Platinum sales for an album were demanded by record companies and desired by artists. And once they had achieved this then they would be treated like rock ‘n’ roll royalty. ‘I have a friend whose first album sold thirteen million copies,’ explained former Hanoi Rocks guitarist Andy McCoy in Sheriff McCoy. ‘This guy I’m talking about just went nuts because of the money. There had to be a limo and a bodyguard everywhere. Every once in a while he went to court for beating somebody up. It was pitiful.’

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. KISS and Mötley Crüe were perhaps the most notorious for their appetite for groupies, but ever since the 1970s it had become a rock ‘n’ roll cliché.

‘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.’

‘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 when looking back on the recording of their breakthrough album Slippery When Wet twenty-five years earlier. ‘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.’

Freddie Mercury and Elton John

But even as rock stars indulged in their taste for no-strings-attached sex a new danger emerged in the 1980s: AIDS. This deadly disease first became public in 1981 and was often associated with the homosexual lifestyle, although soon the sharing of needles became another concern. Sex was no longer without consequence and the free love of the 1960s 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 1980s 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 lifestyle 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.’

Drugs were a major concern during the 1980s 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 1970s were now attempting to turn their lives around, either by withdrawing from the music industry or venturing back out onto 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 limits.

Ozzy Osbourne, who had launched a solo career after parting ways from Black Sabbath several years earlier, was struggling with sobriety in the early 1980s, 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. It was an education, even for me.’

‘We were just a bit OTT 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,’ Mötley Crüe‘s 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 excess to new extremes and gained a reputation as a group that had no limitations. This title was challenged in 1987, however, with the arrival of Guns N’ Roses. Their rags-to-riches story had in-part been manufactured by their record label, Geffen, but their taste for drugs and alcohol rivalled that of Mötley Crüe. ‘The drugs got really bad when we didn’t even have to ask for them. Drugs would just be there. It got to be too much,’ former drummer Steven Adler told MusicRadar. ‘But when you do coke, you like to drink. It got worse and worse. I had so much coke in the ’80s, I would just throw it away, just give it away. It was everywhere. And then heroin came in and it all went downhill.’

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 1980s 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.’

Drugs was not just a part of the hair metal scene. 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.’

Poison

For many rock stars who had started out in the 1970s and had managed to survive the 1980s, it was a bleak time in their career. ‘The renewed success came at a cost. We had made a deal with the devil, in that we were singing songs we didn’t write, and the devil had been right: They were hits. The success put us on a slippery slope,’ admitted Ann Wilson. ‘If we didn’t look like that carefully constructed video clip, with corsets and hair and boobs, people were disappointed…Additionally, our hair was teased up so high it often felt as if we were wearing helmets onstage. Our hair was so heavy that I felt weighted down by it. I had turned into a singing statute.’

The 1980s 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. ‘Every night, the drinking and the partying, and you just fall into it,’ Poison frontman Bret Michaels told VH1 on their Behind the Music series in 1999. ‘And we threw the party, so there was no one to blame but us.’

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