By all accounts Mötley Crüe should not have survived the 1980s. In a decade known for its excessive debauchery, the story of Mötley Crüe was one of hardcore sex, drug overdoses, manslaughter, self-destruction and rock ‘n’ roll, earning the band a bad boy reputation that would ultimately eclipse their music. Each member had spent as much time in jail as they had on the front pages of metal magazines and with notorious hellraisers such as Ozzy Osbourne horrified by their reckless and deviant lifestyles they had become the ultimate shock rock group. But as 1987 came to a conclusion with the death and resurrection of its principal songwriter it was clear that if they were to continue then something had to change.
Since the release of their latest album Girls, Girls, Girls in the spring of 1987 a new band had emerged from their hometown of Los Angeles that, much like the legacy they had created earlier in the decade, were courting controversy for their drug-induced shenanigans and groove-laden songs. Guns N’ Roses were being groomed by both their label and the press as the most dangerous rock group in the world and so if Mötley Crüe were to survive the competition then they faced a choice: to either push their limits even further, which would ultimately end in at least one of their deaths, or to somehow find the strength to overcome their personal demons and pull themselves back from the abyss before it was too late.
‘Drugs was really becoming a drag. It wasn’t fun anymore,’ bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx would declare after almost a decade of decadence. ‘If you wear it and you wear it well, hats off to you. We wore it well for ten years, then we stopped wearing it well and it was time to move on. We do the same nutty stuff, if not more. We just have as good a time. Let me rephrase that: we have a much better time.’ Feeling reinvigorated and with a sense of purpose, Mötley Crüe had felt compromised during the recording of their last album and the end product was one that, while boasting a few strong compositions, lacked the overall focus and consistency of their earlier offerings.
Sixx had documented his struggles with addiction through the turbulent making of Girls, Girls, Girls with his critically-acclaimed book The Heroin Diaries and by the end of the year in question he had overdosed in a Los Angeles hotel just two days before Christmas. ‘I was the first to hear of Nikki’s death,’ claimed frontman Vince Neil in his memoir Tattoos and Tequila. ‘The call came from Nikki’s driver Boris who’d been parked outside the Franklin Plaza Hotel, where the guys from Guns N’ Roses stayed…The dealer shot up Nikki, who passed out in front of Slash’s room and began turning blue. Seeing the turn of events, the dealer jumped out of the window and hightailed it over the balcony. He’s running down the street yelling, ‘I just killed Nikki Sixx.’’
Although Mötley Crüe’s sophomore record Shout at the Devil had been hailed by critics, its two successors – Theatre of Pain and Girls, Girls, Girls – had been met with mixed results yet both had achieved multi-platinum status, but like most artists while they may not admit it publicly Mötley Crüe desired to be respected and not merely dismissed as drug addicts or hedonists. And with a wealth of tragedies that the band had experienced in recent years serving as inspiration for his lyrical output, Sixx would soon commence work on writing material that would serve as the basis for their next album. It had been a miracle that he had survived 1987 and this would be the catalyst for many aspects of what would become their fifth album, Dr. Feelgood.
All we did was drink all night and sleep all day. How exciting was that?
While the band had always been despised by critics and admired by fans for their hard-living drugs and alcohol abuse, for the first time in years they intended to enter the studio sober and to approach the recording process with a clear and professional state-of-mind. That was not to say, however, that they intended to behave or act like mature members of society. ‘If people thought we were crazy before, we were just sedated all the time,’ drummer Tommy Lee explained to Circus. ‘All we did was drink all night and sleep all day. How exciting was that? How tough is that? That doesn’t have an attitude…that sucks! This band is going around the world and I just envision this as one psychotic trip. Everybody’s aware of themselves and what’s around them and I think we’re just gonna have the wildest, rudest time.’
Although their first two albums, 1981’s Too Fast for Love and 1983’s Shout at the Devil, had drawn inspiration from a variety of hard rock groups from the previous decade, such as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, during the latter half of the 1980s Mötley Crüe had developed something of a pop sensibility and, following their cover of Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room in 1985, had begun to incorporate a more radio-friendly aspect to their sound. This would be in part thanks to the contributions of producer Tom Werman. Having started out recording the likes of Blue Öyster Cult and Twisted Sister, Boston native Werman had first joined forces with the band for the making of their second album and had resumed his duties for its two follow-ups.
But, much like his work on Poison’s latest Open Up and Say…Ahh!, the production on Girls, Girls, Girls felt flat and with Werman lacking any kind of authority that would keep a band as unruly as Mötley Crüe in check, if they were to return bigger and better than ever before they would need to approach their recording sessions in a new and exciting way. And the man who would help bring this to fruition was Bob Rock. Having first entered the music industry as a member of the short-lived new wave group Payolas, who had enjoyed minor success with their 1982 hit Eyes of a Stranger, Rock eventually turned to engineering under the guidance of producer Bruce Fairbairn.
Based at Vancouver’s Little Mountain Studios, Rock would finally advance to the role of producer on the recording of a succession of albums from the likes of Kingdom Come and The Cult before he would come to make the acquaintance of Mötley Crüe. Clearly lacking a respect for authority figures and always eager to rebel against the establishment, Rock was immediately recognised as the one in charge and during the recording of Dr. Feelgood would become something of a disciplinarian. The four-piece were no longer free to do whatever they desired and the sessions that would take place under their new producer would be arduous and both physically and emotionally draining.
‘My production, at that point, was more to do with sonics,’ Rock would tell Tape Op almost three decades later. ‘In the ‘80s production was about sonics; about the sound. Coming from an engineering/mixing background I went into Mötley with that in mind. With Dr. Feelgood, I was trying to make everything as big and powerful as I possibly could. There was no preconception as to what I was doing…By using samples in conjunction with the drum kit to get the weight and the size of the drums. Tommy would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Rockhead, could I have a little more bottom?’ Of course we’d add bottom to the kick; the kick would be thumping, and there wouldn’t be any bass. Then we’d increase the bass and the definition would be gone. If you listen to the beginning of Dr. Feelgood, what I did was triggered a bass tone with an AMS, like one hit on the bass that’s hammered. And that’s with the kick drum.’
Recording sessions for Dr. Feelgood would take place at Little Mountain Studios with Rock assisted by Randy Straub, whose passed collaborators had included acclaimed producer Jim Vallance. The studio itself had become a popular location during the mid-1980s through Fairbairn’s work with both Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, the latter of which would be working on their highly-anticipated album Pump simultaneously to Mötley Crüe. Whereas Werman had allowed the band to ruin riot without fear of repercussions, Rock would run a tighter ship and force each member to work harder than ever before in order to reach his high standards and as a result while they would feel punished the experience would prove to be fulfilling.
‘Rock’s demanding work ethic pushed us to new limits, I think,’ confessed Neil on working with their no-nonsense producer. ‘I feel he brought the best out of Mötley Crüe. I’m sure the sobriety helped, too. We still managed to have fun, though. We went out every night; we just didn’t drink or do drugs. But we still had hookers come in and we still had fun. Aerosmith was recording next door. They were working on their big comeback album Pump. It was pretty cool that we both came out with important albums from the same studio at the same time. Steven Tyler came and sang on a couple of songs on our album; Bryan Adams came in and sang after Tommy met him in a Vancouver strip club.’
Tyler and Adams’ contributions to the sessions would come with Sticky Sweet, one of the last tracks that Sixx had written for the album and one that would continue Mötley Crüe’s obsession with writing songs of a sexual nature. The first to be developed during the early rehearsals would be the explicit tongue-in-cheek number She Goes Down which would feature additional vocals from Robin Zander and Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick. ‘We all hated the bridge on that, it didn’t sound right,’ Neil explained in an interview with Metal Edge shortly after the album’s release. ‘It had a Cheap Trick feel to it, so who else to ask but Cheap Trick. It was exactly what the song needed.’
Although the majority of Mötley Crüe’s back catalogue had focused on the typical themes of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there have been several songs over the years that have seen Sixx explore deeper subject matters; 1981’s On with the Show had documented how the bassist had laid his old self to rest to allow the birth of Nikki Sixx, the rock star; Shout at the Devil had been an expression of rebellion against oppressive forces; and 1987’s You’re All I Need portrayed the murder of a young woman at the hands of her possessive lover. While this power ballad would explore a darker narrative, the obligatory ballad on their latest album would be Without You, Sixx’s tribute to Lee and his marriage to actress Heather Locklear.
Lee had met the TV star at the height of her success with the soap opera Dynasty and the two had married on 10 May 1986 at the Marriott Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel. ‘I guess I didn’t really love myself a lot,’ Lee confessed three years after the pair had wed. ‘I didn’t have very much self-esteem. And I’d just drunk myself into a coma and do massive amounts of other stuff. Heather really helped me. I finally decided that I couldn’t live like that; my marriage was fucked up and my life was kinda shit. This wasn’t the way I wanted to live. And she just really supported me. She constantly made me feel good about myself.’
Sixx would also document his struggles with drug addiction, particularly his harrowing experiences during the recording of Girls, Girls, Girls. His close brush with death and the paramedics’ successful attempt to bring him back to life was explored on Kickstart My Heart, while the album’s eponymous track would focus on the sleazy and dangerous world of drug dealers. ‘I remember it had a whole other set of lyrics,’ Sixx told Rolling Stone in 2009. ‘I had sort of forgotten that and I found them in a box recently. I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It had a whole different theme to it. It was called Dr. Feelgood but a whole different thing lyrically. In the end it was inspired by drug dealers.’
Despite the subject being far from commercial, Dr. Feelgood would eventually be chosen as the album’s lead single but only after much deliberation. While the original choices had been either Rattlesnake Shake or Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.), the band and label would finally settle on the album’s title track. ‘Dr. Feelgood was really tough because there’s so many words,’ admitted Neil on the difficulties he would face singing the song. ‘It was tough to get the phrasing down right, so it didn’t sound funny. I took a lot of time on that song. Without You, Don’t Go Away Mad and Sticky Sweet were all pretty easy to do because I really knew them for a while before.’
While ten songs would finally be selected for the album’s tracklist, there would be two numbers from the sessions that would be omitted from the record. Teaser, a cover of a 1975 song from the late guitarist Tommy Bolin, would be one of the abandoned tracks while the second, Rock ‘n’ Roll Junkie, would be included on the soundtrack to the music comedy The Adventure of Ford Fairlane. Having been cut from his role in Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, Neil would be cast in Ford Fairlane as a murdered rock star. Both Teaser and Rock ‘n’ Roll Junkie would finally be released as bonus tracks on Mötley Crüe’s first greatest hits compilation Decade of Decadence alongside their latest single Primal Scream in 1991.
There’s got to be something better. There’s got to be
The experience of recording Dr. Feelgood was a far cry from that of Girls, Girls, Girls with the suffering that the band had endured under the supervision of Werman resembling something close to a nightmare. For Sixx the addictions he had struggled through were something he hoped he would not have to relive, while Lee had found strength through his relationship with Locklear. Even Mick Mars, the band’s guitarist and most mature member, had realised that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle would become his undoing. ‘One day we were rehearsing and the night before I’d powered back a bunch of wine and shit and I was really feeling crummy,’ he recalled to RIP. ‘My stomach was ballooned up to the ceiling and I thought, ‘There’s got to be something better. There’s got to be.’’
It would be Rock’s strict regimental approach to order that would help to keep the band sober and clear-headed during the sessions. ‘Where Tom Werman just said, ‘Okay, good enough,’ Bob just whipped us like galley slaves,’ Sixx quipped in the band’s memoir The Dirt. ‘His line was, ‘That just isn’t your best.’ Nothing was good enough. Mick recorded all of the guitar for Shout at the Devil in two weeks but now Bob Rock would make him spend two weeks doubling a guitar part over an over until it was perfectly synchronised. And even though the process aggravated and frustrated Mick, he had it much easier than Vince, who on some days would only get a single word on tape that Bob liked. Bob was critical, demanding and a stickler for punctuality.’
Four days after the Dr. Feelgood single was issued, their label Elektra released the album alongside a variety of promotion through both magazines and television airplay. Finally, after almost a decade of craving critical acceptance, Mötley Crüe found the recognition they had been working towards for many years. ‘People used to accuse the band of incompetent musicianship,’ stated the Los Angeles Times. ‘Today, compared to, say, Faster Pussycat, they sound tight as Toto…But of all the L.A. glam metal bands of the ‘80s Mötley Crüe has always understood both the Bay City Rollers kind of teen-dream appeal – they even sound like the Rollers on a couple of tunes on this album – and the importance of the riff; the pounding, shrieking, two-chord monoliths that have always powered the best hard rock.’
Following the experience of recording Dr. Feelgood the band were proud of the album that they had produced, particularly after the nightmare of Girls, Girls, Girls. ‘Dr. Feelgood was when we really hit our stride,’ declared Lee in his book Tommyland. ‘Still, we never won a Grammy and that year we should have. I remember sitting in the same row with Metallica at the ceremony that year. They were nominated for …And Justice for All and we were for Dr. Feelgood. As they named the nominees we all looked at one another because we knew those were the two fucking biggest, baddest hard rock albums of the year. We knew one of our bands was going to take it home. You’ve never seen a bunch of guys more fucking shocked to lose when the Best Hard Rock Album of the Year went to…Jethro Tull.’
Yet despite being dismissed by the awards ceremonies, Dr. Feelgood would eventually be hailed as arguably Mötley Crüe’s finest hour, or at the very least one to rival Shout at the Devil. Yet for Sixx the inevitable negativity that the album would receive from the original fans would be a recurring issue that they had experienced throughout the decade. ‘Mötley has always been about change of some sort,’ he would tell Rock Power in 1989. ‘This is a typical Mötley Crüe scenario; ‘I used to like you guys on Shout at the Devil but I don’t know about this Theatre of Pain album.’ Then we did Girls, Girls, Girls and it was, ‘I used to like Mötley Crüe on the Theatre of Pain album. I liked the way they looked in the Smokin’ in the Boys Room video. I’m not so sure about this Girls, Girls, Girls record. Then during Dr. Feelgood it was like, ‘I wish you’d do an album like Girls, Girls, Girls.’’