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‘Hair metal isn’t a guilty pleasure or a joke – it’s as indispensable a part of rock and roll history as proto-punk, ’60s garage or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal,’ claimed an article in LA Weekly that served to justify the credibility of ‘80s glam metal, a genre often dismissed as all style and no substance. ‘Those who laugh at it only show the world how ignorant they are about what makes for good rock and roll.’
The roots of hair metal can be traced back to the previous decade, with the flamboyant images of Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan and KISS providing the ideal visage for the lipstick and hairspray that would come to dominate the music scene in the 1980s. Yet while those artists would be respected for their music, the hair metal groups that followed were often ridiculed as nothing more than a joke and their songs considered comical and pretentious.
The musical template for the genre was unquestionably Van Halen, whose debut album was released in 1978 and ushered in a new era of cock rock guitar solos and outrageous frontmen. Those bands that followed in their footsteps, from Mötley Crüe to Guns N’ Roses, would indulge in the rock ‘n’ roll debauchery of their forefathers but to even greater extremes, while the new medium that MTV had promoted allowed these rock stars to show off their excess to the world.
By the mid-1980s heavy metal had become one of the most popular genres in the world and despite the negative publicity that the PMRC protests had brought to the scene, there were garages around the world full of teenagers who were eager to emulate their new heroes. Thus, over the next few years countless young groups travelled to the big cities in the hope of becoming the next big thing.
As impressive record sales turned to platinum hits the major labels were eager to capitalise on the new trend and sent record scouts out to find the next Bon Jovi or Poison. Some groups were signed after only a handful of shows and were carefully marketed to an audience that couldn’t get enough.
But even as the market became saturated with all manner of hair metal, from the truly underrated to the completely awful, there were other artists who were never given the chance, ones whose music should have been introduced to a larger audience but for whatever reason failed to make their mark.
KILL CITY DRAGONS
The lifespan of London-based Kill City Dragons was so brief that very few were even aware of their existence when the band surfaced in 1990 and, despite modest press coverage and a fan club, the group would ultimately self-destruct barely a year later. Formed by guitarist Steve Von Saint and former Lords of the New Church bassist Dave Tregunna, the outfit would soon find themselves headlining at the legendary Marquee venue before self-financing the release of an EP, Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Boasting such underrated songs as I Don’t Want Anything From You and Devil Calling, the four-track effort was later expanded into an eponymous debut album. But by the end of the year frontman Billy G Bang had grown disillusioned and with the persuasion of Tregunna joined ex-Hanoi Rocks guitarist Andy McCoy on his latest venture Shooting Gallery. ‘All of the major and minor labels and publishers were watching carefully but not one of them made an offer,’ Bang would later tell Is the Music Loud Enough? ‘We were hard-core drug addicts, seriously fucked-up and more than a little dangerous.’
While there are countless stories of rock groups in the late 1980s finding overnight success and revelling in the excess of stardom there were others who for a variety of reasons would fail to make an impact. Inspired by the punk and glam rock of the ’70s, Robbie Tart relocated from London to Doncaster to form Heartbreak Angels under the stage name Robbie Jay Dee, a five-piece group that would draw heavily from their childhood heroes while indulging in the large hair and heavy makeup of their American counterparts. Having opened for the likes of The Dogs D’amour and The Quireboys, the group were approached by independent label MTI (a subsidiary of FM Revolver) to record a single but were forced to finance the release themselves, resulting in a two-track 7” Shoot Me Down/Desperado. Despite the latter proving to be an overlooked gem issues with the label soon proved to be their downfall. ‘Man, did we get fucked!’ Tart confessed to Love-It-Loud. ‘The week the single was released it charted. Being FM Revolver’s fastest-selling single ever the first pressing had sold out. FM Revolver refused to finance a second pressing and we didn’t get any money from the sales of the first pressing. Our then-manager did a runner with the master tapes. The band was left to rot.’
One would think that being signed to such a large label as EMI, especially at a time when rock music was dominating the mainstream charts, would all but guarantee popularity and financial success. Yet when RPLA emerged in 1991, at a time when both hair metal and grunge were sharing the scene, they would make little impact in the press and would soon slip back into obscurity. Formed by James Maker, a childhood friend of Morrissey and once a backing singer for The Smiths in the early 1980s, RPLA would consist of guitarist Peter Kinski and drummer Simon Hoare, all three former members of another short-lived group called Raymonde. While many of the so-called hair metal bands would take their inspiration from Van Halen and their ilk, Maker’s band would instead draw comparisons to the likes of The Cult when they released their debut single Unnatural Woman in 1991. Despite gaining exposure in the British press from the likes of Kerrang! and the music show Raw Power it would be two years before RPLA released a full length album and with the world now obsessed with the phenomenal impact of Nirvana they would fail to achieve the breakthrough the deserved. ‘Our last performance took place on a flatbed truck in Times Square, New York City for the filming of a video to support the American release of The Absolute Queen of Pop,’ recalled Maker in his memoir. ‘The next day we were returning home, officially unemployed.’
SKIN N’ BONES
The early 1990s was a difficult time for hair metal. The glamour of the previous decade was slowly giving way to a new era and many of the bands that would have enjoyed success a few years earlier now seemed out-of-vogue. Prior to the formation of Skin N’ Bones guitarist Jimi K Bones and bassist Steve Mach first crossed paths in their late teens in their hometown of Baltimore, where they would perform in a local group called the Vamps with singer Johnny Vance. After opening for the likes of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts Vance decided to move to New York and soon found work providing music for a low budget horror movie called Hell High. Before long Bones and Mach would join him and along with drummer Gregg Gregson formed Skin N’ Bones. Recording sessions for their album would take place in London under the supervision of former Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, whose recent turn to producing had resulted in Rod Stewart’s Out of Order and Thunder‘s acclaim debut Backstreet Symphony. But soon after the release of their album a dramatic shift in the musical landscape would bring an abrupt end to the success of hair metal and Skin N’ Bones would ultimately split. ‘With the emergence of the Seattle scene it was pretty evident that the hair bands were over,’ explained Vance in 2004. ‘Actually, it was quite a relief as we felt we had run our course and were looking ahead to new outside projects.’
Sally Cato had already enjoyed her first magazine front page when she was published in Hot Wacks Quarterly in 1980 in support of her punk group The Concords but her introduction to the world of hair metal would come almost a decade later as the singer of Smashed Gladys. While the scene was dominated by such frontmen as Vince Neil, Bret Michaels and Axl Rose female rock stars were in short supply during the ‘80s, with a few obvious exceptions such as Lita Ford and Vixen and so any group fronted by a woman would immediately arouse curiosity in metal fans. With little interest in the pretty boy excess of glam, Smashed Gladys were sleaze rock through and through, with their second album Social Intercourse boasting such live favourites as Lick It Into Shape and 17 Goin’ on Crazy. Sadly they would become another band that would fall victim of bad management and a lack of label support. ‘So we walked into the president’s office and demanded that if they could not behave like professionals that they release us from our recording contract immediately,’ explained Cato in 2010. ‘This took about a week…getting our publishing back though took three years.’
STEVIE SALAS COLORCODE
As the 1980s drew to an end rock music began to draw inspiration from other genres. Many of the glam metal acts started to incorporate blues into their sound, while such funk artists as Stevie Wonder and Prince would inspire the likes of Living Colour and Stevie Salas. A multi-instrumentalist whose first group This Kids was formed while still in high school, Salas had spent the majority of the ’80s collaborating with a wide variety of artists that included George Clinton and Rod Stewart before being hired to provide guitar sounds for the hit comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Around this time he formed a new group called Colorcode with drummer Winston A Watson Jr. and bassist C.J. De Viller that incorporated influences from a variety of genres while still boasting the excess of hair metal. Joining forces with producer Bill Laswell, a rock veteran whose résumé had included Motörhead and Mick Jagger, the resulting album ignored the usual rock ‘n’ roll clichés of sex and drugs and instead boasted politically-charged lyrics, resulting in a record that sounded like a funked-up Dan Reed Network. ‘That album just gets bigger and bigger over the years and the cool thing about it is that metal kids loved it but it was really an alternative album,’ claimed Salas to Love-It-Loud. ‘It did not sound like Bon Jovi or Ozzy, it had its own thing and I think that’s why it still sounds fresh today.’
Following minor success in his native Germany with the rock group Cross, Ricolf Cross joined forces with another group of ambitious musicians to form Vamp. With frontman Tom Bellini, bassist Oliver Scholz and drummer Dicki Fliszar, Cross succeed in landing major record deal with Atlantic and temporarily moved to London to work with engineer-turned-producer Tony Platt on what would prove to be their only studio album, The Rich Don’t Rock. With tracks such as Renegade boasting a harder sound than many of their hair metal contemporaries Vamp would struggle to gain the attention of the international press, despite shooting a performance-based video for the track Lonely Nights. ‘It was certainly a mistake to sign with Atlantic Records,’ confessed Cross to German site Power Metal. ‘We were a band based in Germany and pretty soon got under the wheels of the mega corporation…Atlantic dictated the procedure, there was nothing to shake. I also do not think that the behaviour of the big record companies has changed in the last twenty-five years.’
The birth of Tobruk was undoubtedly with the arrival of frontman Stuart Neale but their roots can be traced to the very beginning of the 1980s when guitarist Mick Newman, drummer Alan Vallance and bassist Steve Woodward came together to form a hard rock group in their home county of Bedfordshire. Recruiting vocalist Mick Petty Tobruk’s first foray into the industry was a radio session recording in Ireland in which they performed two original tracks, Girl with the Flyaway Hair and Screaming in the Darkness. Pressed as a limited edition 7” and published through WEA the band then underwent a significant line-up change when Petty parted ways and Neale was brought onboard alongside guitarist Nigel Evans and keyboardist Jem Davies, both veterans of local act Stranger. After an appearance on Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show they were approached by Neat Records with the opportunity to record a professional single. Wild on the Run would be their sole contribution to the label before signing with Parlophone to commence work a full-length album with producer Lance Quinn, fresh from his work with Bon Jovi and Lita Ford. But during the making of their second album tensions began to build between the members and both Neale and Newman parted ways with Tobruk. Tragically, Neale passed away in 2006 from congestive heart failure at the age of forty-three.
CHEAP AND NASTY
The death of Razzle in December 1984 brought a premature end to Hanoi Rocks, just months after the release of their major label debut. Guitarists Andy McCoy and Nasty Suicide soon formed two other groups, the Suicide Twins and the Cherry Bombz. But by 1989 both projects had come to an end and Suicide travelled to Los Angeles to visit close friend Timo Caltio. During his time in California the two, who had previously performed together in the Cherry Bombz, brought in drummer Less Riggs and Cheap and Nasty was created. ‘It all clicked quick enough for us to go and play a few shows around California, but then my six months was up so I had to come back here,’ explained Suicide to Headbangers Ball. ‘When I tried to re-enter the States they somehow found out I’d been playing shows without a work permit and I had more shows booked up so they threw me in jail for the night and then back to England. I thought that was the end!’ Their first offering would be an impressive single entitled Mind Across the Ocean, far more melodic than his previous work and one that demonstrated his calming vocals. This was soon followed by an album Beautiful Disaster but, as with his other post-Hanoi Rocks bands, Cheap and Nasty would soon split after releasing only one album.
While hair metal is largely associated with the United States and in particular California, during the golden years of the genre an array of artists would emerge from Europe, with Denmark’s D-A-D, Germany’s Bonfire and Sweden’s Shotgun Messiah all enjoying modest success. Formed in Amsterdam in 1987 by guitarist Chriz Van Jaarsveld and drummer Jan Koster, Sleeze Beez would eventually be joined by singer Andrew Elt. Their first attempt at success would come with the overlooked Look Like Hell but with major labels desperate to sign the next Mötley Crüe or Bon Jovi the band struck gold when they were taken under the wing of Atlantic Records. With an arsenal of songs mostly composed by Koster they commenced work on the recording of their sophomore effort Screwed, Blued & Tattooed. For a moment it looked like success was a given. ‘When we started touring the US Stranger Than Paradise was climbing the charts,’ recalled Van Jaarsveld to Limelight Magazine. ‘The video clip was all over MTV and we easily adapted to the rock star lifestyle. We took the stage by storm. It was great. It was what we wanted.’ Despite the exposure they would receive with the power ballad Stranger Than Paradise Sleeze Beez would become lost in a glut of similar groups and by the time they released their next album Powertool in 1992 the music press had all but forgotten them.