It’s hairmageddon! Is the leather-codpieced world of glam metal making a comeback?

Set fire to your drumsticks and crank the dry ice up to 11. The bands that once ruled metal may be returning to the throne. But is there more to glam than loud riffs, spandex and debauchery?

A diving instructor called Perry Boyer is giving me a crash course in drumming stagecraft. If you’re planning on playing with your sticks on fire, he advises, tie socks around them – they’ll light more easily. Also, he adds, remember not to “really play a lot with the sticks on fire”, lest you damage your kit.

Boyer, speaking by Zoom from his home in California, knows what he’s talking about. Forty years ago he was Punky Peru, drummer in Witch, a fixture on the LA glam metal scene that bore Mötley Crüe, Wasp, Quiet Riot and Poison to stardom. Witch should probably have joined them – they had the songs, the spandex and certainly the theatricality. But it never quite worked out: the wrong record deals, too many lineup changes, and the fact that, as Boyer puts it, “Me and Tommy Lee from Mötley were partying super hard.”

Now Witch’s career has been excavated as part of Bound for Hell: On the Sunset Strip, a lavish box set produced by reissue label Numero Group that documents the nascent glam metal scene. It’s a world populated by bands that Katherine Turman, journalist and co-author of definitive metal history Louder Than Hell, calls “outsiders”.

They shared a love for music that, in the early 80s, was either deeply unfashionable (Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy) or had never made much impact in the US. Boyer recalls scouring “tiny record stores” looking for early 70s British glam rock by Sweet, Mott the Hoople and Slade. Their confluence of influences accounted for glam metal’s visual flamboyance and its sound – big on showboating guitar solos and pop-facing choruses.

‘Part of something really cool’ … Peter Wabitt of Witch, with Punky Peru on drums somewhere in the smoke.
‘Part of something really cool’ … Peter Wabitt of Witch, with Punky Peru on drums somewhere in the smoke. Photograph: courtesy of the band

The compilation comes packed with dimly remembered names. Not just Witch but Jaded Lady, Leather Angel, Knightmare II, Odin, Romeo and Bitch. The scene was big on conjuring a kind of adolescent male fantasy world in which, as one observer put it, “women were there to pole-dance, bring drinks to the table and have various liquids sprayed on them”. Bitch’s Betsy Bitch provided a necessary corrective by dragging a man around the stage on a leash. “I don’t think I had [sexism] in mind,” she says. “I just wanted to be an assertive, kick-ass, charismatic, theatrical performer. My mindset was, ‘I’m Betsy Bitch and I’m not just going to stand there hanging on to a microphone.’”

Bound for Hell is a departure for Numero Group, a label famed for releasing award-winning collections of obscure soul, funk, gospel and folk. “There was a growing interest in heavy metal, especially the 80s era when metal ruled the world,” says the label’s “resident headbanger” Adam Luksetich. “But that didn’t really play into our decision to do the box set. There’s a rabid fanbase for stuff like this. But for Numero, it’s also about reaching folks that don’t know anything about it.”

Still, the existence of an annotated collection of obscure glam metal by a label that isn’t a specialist does seem to say something about a shift in perceptions regarding the sub-genre. As Luksetich points out, there was a moment when glam metal appeared to rule the world. Buoyed by the success of their cover of Slade’s Cum on Feel the Noize, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health became, in November 1983, the first heavy metal album to reach No 1 in the US.

Boosted by exposure on the fledgling MTV, one multiplatinum album followed after another: Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and Theatre of Pain; Ratt’s Out of the Cellar and Invasion of Your Privacy; Dokken’s Tooth and Nail and Under Lock and Key. By the time Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Def Leppard’s Hysteria sold 12m copies each in the US alone, glam metal seemed to have become omnivorous. Aerosmith, Kiss and Alice Cooper rejuvenated their careers by adopting its sound; distinctly un-metal artists including Heart and Cher released huge singles that bore its influence.

‘I wanted to be an assertive, kick-ass, theatrical performer’ … Betsy Bitch fronting Bitch.
‘I wanted to be an assertive, kick-ass, theatrical performer’ … Betsy Bitch fronting Bitch. Photograph: Kevin Estrada

And yet, in the decades since it was usurped in the public’s affections, allegedly by grunge, its reputation has slumped. Devotees still pack out gigs by its biggest stars, and plenty of people enjoyed the eye-popping tell-all Mötley Crüe memoir The Dirt, but the wider world has tended to look at the music askance, as if it was a regrettable, excessive aberration; tacky, irredeemably sexist fun that should never have been taken seriously.

In recent years, however, there have been not one but two books about glam metal – confusingly, both called Nothin’ But a Good Time. The first, by US authors Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock, bills itself as an “uncensored history”, big on the kind of debauchery detailed in The Dirt. The second, by British journalist and unrepentant glam metal obsessive Justin Quirk, is more serious and analytical, and makes a case for glam metal’s importance. Quirk suggests its success was a necessary corrective to other 80s pop phenomena including post-Live Aid earnestness and “boomer divorce energy” – a rash of huge hits by 60s and 70s survivors with topics including divorce, wistful nostalgia for youth and middle-aged survival (think solo Phil Collins, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer, even the Grateful Dead’s Touch of Grey).

‘Profoundly juvenile’ … Poison performing in 1985.
‘Profoundly juvenile’ … Poison performing in 1985. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Getty Images

“Glam metal,” he says, “kind of drags rock back to where it’s supposed to be, which is the mental and hormonal concerns of 15-year-olds. I think it’s healthy when pop does that, whether it’s Billie Eilish or Ramones. The thing that runs through all of glam metal at its best is that it’s profoundly juvenile. You can say what you like about Wasp but Blackie Lawless wasn’t going to start a conversation with you about his divorce, or how his life hasn’t panned out, or the poignancy of his weekend access visit.” Of its non-specific appeal to teenage rebellion, he laughs. “The only thing I can think of that they were rebelling against was their parents not wanting their sons to go out wearing fishnets and assless chaps.”

Quirk also ties glam metal in with three other things: WWF wrestling, which exploded in popularity at exactly the same moment; the “simple, upbeat, big” movies produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer including Top Gun; and the harmless “performative shock” of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. All this, he says, was “aggressive, obnoxiously loud, self-promoting, gleefully escapist and larger than life” entertainment that fitted with the “overcompensating boosterism” of an era in US history during which, behind President Ronald Reagan’s famous announcement that “it’s morning again in America”, there lurked a stagnating economy, unemployment at 6.6%, the Iran-Contra scandal and the escalating Aids crisis.

“So much of America’s growth at the time was built on appearance,” says Quirk. “As if it was willing things to be the case. And I think glam metal is in lockstep with that. Just as the country is starting to puff its feathers up, you get Mötley Crüe playing tiny clubs in LA, backlighting everything on stage so their PA looks much bigger than it is. It’s a version of the American dream, where ugly people from Pennsylvania can reinvent themselves as LA rock gods.”

‘Glam metal was ludicrous but it was serious about being ludicrous’ … Romeo.
‘Glam metal was ludicrous but it was serious about being ludicrous’ … Romeo. Photograph: Joann LeChance

The popular theory is that glam metal was killed by the rise of grunge. As Mickey Rourke’s glam-metal-loving character Randy “the Ram” Robinson put it in 2008 movie The Wrestler: “That Cobain pussy had to come around and ruin it all … the 90s fuckin’ sucked.” But Turman thinks the scene was already dying even before Smells Like Teen Spirit caught mainstream America’s attention. It had become “over-saturated with lesser bands. The hair was getting bigger and the talent was getting smaller.” She found her head turned by “street, dirty, tattooed blues-based biker rock – Little Caesar, Rock City Angels, Four Horsemen, Junkyard”, before Nirvana’s arrival.

Quirk has another theory: that Guns N’ Roses “were far more instrumental in killing off glam metal than Nirvana were”. They may have shared some visual and sonic similarities with their glam forebears, he says, but the bleakness and malevolence of the worldview depicted on Appetite for Destruction gave glam metal’s escapism “a slow puncture. In a sense, Guns N’ Roses had more in common ideologically with what the Geto Boys or NWA were doing – saying, ‘Look, this is what we live in and it’s horrible.’”

And what could Poison or Winger do to compete once Appetite had sold 30m copies? As the 90s progressed, glam metal’s leading lights found themselves in reduced circumstances, releasing albums that went silver or gold rather than seven times platinum, acrimoniously breaking up or losing members, succumbing to excess.

Won’t sing to you about his divorce … Wasp’s Blackie Lawless.
Not singing about divorce … Wasp’s Blackie Lawless. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Today, even in an era of rock and pop obsessed with the past, their sound has gone unrevived. Certain aspects of glam metal seem a product of a less enlightened era, although Turman points out that, for all the leering sexism in its presentation, there were frequently women in positions of power behind the scenes. “A lot of the bookers at LA clubs were women. It also offered an opportunity for a lot of women to become managers or publicists. There was a lot of opportunity for women to get their foot in the door, including me as a journalist. If you could prove yourself, you could do it.”

In recent years, the only bands obviously influenced by glam metal came with a knowing wink or a distinct hint of pastiche: the Darkness, Steel Panther. “Glam metal was ludicrous but it was serious about the business of being ludicrous,” says Quirk. “It all functions on one level. There were no hidden depths. The significant change in the 90s was that irony became a very powerful currency – it’s become the accepted language of how we communicate culturally. Glam metal doesn’t have that sense of irony, or multiple layers, so it looks anachronistic. Mötley Crüe dressed like Mötley Crüe because they thought it looked good and it was how you got women. There wasn’t any deeper nuance to it – and that locks it in the past.”

Or perhaps we’re just looking for glam metal’s legacy in the wrong place. Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott once told me that he thought their biggest influence wasn’t on rock but mainstream pop, which picked up on their nailed-on melodies rather than the guitar solos. Taylor Swift made a TV special in which she and Def Leppard performed their respective hits together; pop super-producer Max Martin began his career in a glam metal band; One Direction’s Midnight Memories bore such a close resemblance to Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me that the band were encouraged to sue (they declined, on the grounds that “it’s OK to borrow – we did it”).

And perhaps, as Turman notes, glam metal doesn’t really need “an updated version” to maintain a grip on people’s imaginations. If a kid discovers it in 2022 via Spotify, most of its original practitioners are still playing live in various incarnations. Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe and Poison have just announced a vast joint stadium tour. And the ranks of extant glam metal bands might even be swelled by some of the artists on the Bound for Hell compilation. “I was interviewing people in order to write the sleevenotes,” says Turman, “and one or two of them, unbelievably, said, ‘Talking to you and the other guys in the band about this – we haven’t talked in 10 years and …’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve restarted these bands!’”

Meanwhile, out in California, Perry Boyer is planning Witch’s 40th anniversary show for 2023. He listened to Bound for Hell with his wife, after the kids had gone to bed. “We listened to all four sides and it was pretty cool. It made me feel like I was back there.” He grins. “I’d kind of forgotten about it – we’re talking 35, 40 years ago, two-thirds of my life. It’ll never be like that again. Times have changed so much. But it made me remember that I was part of something really cool.”

• Bound for Hell is out now on Numero Group.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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