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.
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. 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 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.’
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 replace them, 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.’
Whether an established artist or fresh 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.’
The video had become the art form, and all the platinum albums that an artist had previously 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 Aerosmith 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.’
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 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 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.’
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. While they may have received accolades and sold millions of records during the seventies, 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 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. 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 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.
It was pretty cheap and basically poseur central
‘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.’ 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.
Following the phenomenal success of Michael Jackson’s 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. ‘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.’
Yet despite the excessive nature of the decade, the eighties was still notable for its draconian censorship, that 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 would gain national exposure when the authorities had 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.
This witch-hunt had been instigated by the Parents Music Resource Centre, a moral watchdog formed by Tipper Gore, after her daughter had purchased Prince’s 1984 classic Purple Rain. The sexual lyrics depicted in the track Darling Nikki had alerted Gore to the growing explicit nature of modern music, and along with several fellow wives of senators, 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.’
And while many outside of the media circus that had grown around this debate felt that the hysteria was ridiculous, there would be one incident that took place shortly before Christmas 1985 that would cause the parents of America to feel that heavy metal proved a very real threat to their children. On 23 December, 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.
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.’
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. ‘Heavy metal doesn’t automatically have to be Satan’s music, only if the lyrics go that way,’ noted Alice Cooper, a rock veteran, whose often macabre persona was counterbalanced by his overly Christian beliefs. ‘Does a chord progression necessarily constitute music that’s evil? People talk about diminishing fifth chords supposedly being the devil’s music, but I think that it all depends on the lyrics you put in there. If you’re saying ‘worship Satan’ then sure, that’s Satanic, though most rock and heavy metal musicians don’t believe in that anyway, not even most of the guys playing so-called black metal.’
One significant improvement that the eighties had on the previous decade 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 had been noted for raising 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 proven that women could rock as hard as their male counterparts. While their sexuality would still be exploited through the promotion of their work, most notably on the front cover of Ford’s 1983 debut Out for Blood, 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.’
I hoped to be taken seriously as a singer
Yet for many new artists, the concept of a female fronting a rock band still felt like a novelty, and one that could be exploited. ‘I was very new to the whole rock scene, so was blissfully unaware of bands like Vixen,’ claimed Romeo’s Daughter singer Leigh Matty to Love-It-Loud. ‘I, of course, knew that there were very few female-fronted rock bands around, but was hoping that would go in our favour, especially as I hoped to be taken seriously as a singer, rather than just an attractive front woman. I honestly don’t think that I was seen as a sex symbol at the time, because that was something that we never promoted in the press, but in hindsight we should have made more of the fact that we were quite a novelty.’
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. ‘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.’
But even as rock stars indulged in their taste for no-strings-attached sex, a new danger emerged in the eighties: 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 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 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.’
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?’
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 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 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. It was an education, even for me.’
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 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 eighties, I would just throw it away, just give it away. It was everywhere. And then heroin came in, and it all went downhill.’
By the end of the decade, Guns N’ Roses had arguably become the biggest rock group in the world, with their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, a phenomenal sensation. And with this overnight success came an overabundance of vices for each of the five members to indulge in, with Adler and guitarist Izzy Stradlin being the most notorious. ‘We were on our way to Japan, and Izzy sidles up next to me and goes, ‘Dude, I got my stash. I’m set.’ He’s got this little boom box, and he proceeds to show me where he’s hidden his heroin underneath the battery compartment,’ recalled former manager Alan Niven in 2014. ‘I’m looking at him going, ‘You’re out of your tiny fucking mind. Get rid of that, right fucking now!’ So off he went, and yeah, he got rid of it all right. But for him, getting rid of it means, ‘I’ll just have it all now.”
While many of the young rising rock stars would happily embrace the self-destructive clichés of their new lifestyles, there were some who, despite indulging in their occasional vices, still believed that the music should always come before the party. ‘I love rock ‘n’ roll bands, but the trouble is with some of them, they take the drugs and try to live out somebody else’s image,’ The Dogs D’Amour frontman Tyla told Kerrang! in 1988. ‘Everybody tries to be Keith Richards. They go out, look like him, take fucking smack, and say, ‘I’m in a band.’ The one thing they forget is he writes hit records. He made a living out of that shit!’
Always the temptation to get drunk, get high
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 excess 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.’
For many rock stars who had started out in the seventies, the eighties 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.’
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 scene, 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, in KISS: Behind the Mask. ‘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 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. ‘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.’