The hair boom of the ’80s was historic for heavy metal as a whole, in that it was the first time the genre saw itself rise to the top of mainstream culture — and then plummet into the depths of cultural obscurity. Like any other fad, hair metal had scrappy, interesting roots, taking rock music to a sleazy extreme that brought together people from all walks of life looking for something edgy, unusual, and fun. However, a glut of imitators and the erosion of creativity due to drug and alcohol abuse resulted in hair metal becoming bloated, shallow, and worst of all, boring. As grunge, alternative rock, and thrash swept the world with cool riffs and actual substance, hair metal became the ultimate musical relic, as hilariously dated as disco.
The downside to this, though, is that hair metal had its gems who didn’t deserve the fall. Sure, there were plenty of assholes in pink blazers writing twinkly songs about jailbait, but there were also a handful of bands within that scene whose serrated-tooth riffs and brash attitudes made them more interesting than their peers. Not only that, but their talent inspired metalheads around the world who valued sonic power over what was cool, eventually inspiring everyone from mainstream hard rockers to satanic black metal artists.
Here are 10 hair bands who deserve a place in the hall…
Like nu-metal, hair metal eventually tried hard to escape the ‘metal’ tag and become ‘glam rock’ or ‘arena rock.’ But Quiet Riot were always ready to embrace their chosen genre, titling their 1983 album Metal Health and adorning their record sleeves with an asylum inmate in a steel mask. Even on those records that came after the massive success of “Cum On Feel The Noize,” the band maintained a level of heaviness via singles like “The Wild and The Young” that many of their peers abandoned in favor of pinker pastures. One of those acts that gets lumped in with the sparkly pack, but which metal fans know were their own breed.
While guys like Poison wanted to be made up as models unironically, Twisted Sister understood that the glam look was just another costume, and as such enjoyed dressing up somewhere between Debbie Does Dallas and Mad Max. Not only did metalheads love the grotesqueness of their look, they actually paid attention to the tunes, and recognized the awesome sonic power of tracks like “Under The Blade,” “The Kids Are Back,” and “I Am (I’m Me)” while everyone else stopped after “I Wanna Rock.” Dudes from outer-borough New York dressing in barbarian drag and singing about strutting down alleyways — who could ask for anything more?
In many ways, W.A.S.P. feel like a parody metal band; the fact that they weren’t, and that their early material seems honestly invested in the depravity it promotes, makes them one of the cooler acts in history. With blood-spitting, chainsaw-crotched frontman Blackie Lawless singing about fucking like a beast and guitarist Chris Holmes drinking enough vodka to make Lemmy gag, W.A.S.P. existed solely to excite degenerates and horrify parents. Unfortunately, the band is no longer what it was since frontman Blakie Lawless found Jesus, but albums like 1984’s self-titled record, 1985’s The Last Command, and 1989’s The Headless Children stand as testaments to this band’s leather-clad brilliance.
Historically, Skid Row’s ballads like “I Remember You” and “In A Darkened Room” did them a disservice. The band’s style is less glam and much more cheesy, funky thrash, but because tracks like those blew up on MTV, they probably alienated a lot of fans who would’ve loved them. A track like “Money Business” and the title track of 1989’s Youth Gone Wild were more akin to a band like Accept or even Megadeth, standing taller and angrier than the hits of their peers. One needs only watch frontman Sebastian Bach partying with Slayer at the end of the Live Intrusion video to know these dudes had more steel to them than most.
Because of the heavy rotation that the “Kiss Me Deadly” video received on MTV in its nascency, Lita Ford is more often associated with licking a block of ice on all fours than raging guitars. But Lita has been crushing it since her time in the Runaways, and 1988’s Lita contains some weird, unsung classics, like the sexy-but-antisocial “Back To The Cave,” the ripping “Can’t Catch Me,” and the driving “Fatal Passion.” A footnote to those who never gave hair metal its due, but a major player for those who actually looked for talent within that class of artist.
Most hair bands were concerned about sounding like urchins livin’ under the street, but Jackyl fully embraced the overalls-clad rural side of the genre. Not only did the band’s riffs have a groovy, southern vibe to them, but tracks like “When Will It Rain” and “The Lumberjack” — featuring a chainsaw solo, performed by howling frontman Jesse James Dupree — were a refreshing break from the usual bright-lights-big-needle subject matter of so many other bands. Then again, the original version of the album closed with the song “She Loves My Cock,” so the band certainly proved that they grasped the sleazy side of things.
Listen to that guitar tone! At the end of the day, Saigon Kick’s timing was wrong. A few years earlier and they would’ve been pioneers; a few later, and they would’ve been part of the burgeoning grunge and groove metal scenes. As it was, their proximity to the hair metal boom (and their use of weird Asian references in their name, like Tokyo Blade) resulted in them getting lumped into a genre to which they never truly belonged. Though their big single was the ballad “Love Is On The Way,” the majority of the tracks on 1988’s self-titled record and 1992’s The Lizard have a delicious amount of distortion to them. Definitely worth a revisit.
As hair metal blew up, every country threw a band into the ring; for Japan, that band was Loudness. But rather than simply ape the more sparklier acts of the States and Europe, Loudness took their metal seriously, bringing the fist-pumping chops and battle-cry vocals of the NWOBHM to the mix. Their undeniable smash hit was Friday night rager “Crazy Nights,” but deeper cuts like “Strike of the Sword” and “Soldier of Fortune” sunk their hooks into fans of faster bands like Judas Priest and Raven. These guys went big (…in Japan).
Hard rock supergroup Mr. Big suffered from the same issue many hair metal acts did: their hit was a ballad, so everyone thought of them as some fucking ballad band. But while “To Be With You” will forever be Mr. Big’s most famous song, cuts like “Addicted to that Rush” and “Colorado Bulldog” are solid reminders that the band could crush out a singalong drinking anthem with the best of them. This shouldn’t surprise fans in the know, as Mr. Big’s roster included guitar legend Billy Sheehan, but recent The Dirt viewers seeking some fun-as-fuck ‘80s metal shouldn’t overlook these dudes.
Never forget, every bro’s favorite groove metal soldiers started as an ultra-poofy glam metal band. But the reason why Pantera are included on this list is because their teased-out ‘80s albums are more than just a cool piece of trivia. The band’s early stuff shows Dimebag Darrell (then Diamond Darrell, of course) honing his skills to a fine point, indulging in the shred-worship of classic metal acts with a rabidity most bands just didn’t have. Meanwhile, their first album with Phil Anselmo, Power Metal, contains some true skewerers, like the Priestian title track, the shredtastic “Death Trap,” and the swaggering biker anthem “Hard Ride.” Don’t get it twisted — sparkly shirts or camo shorts, these dudes always rode in knuckles-first.
Words by Chris Krovatin
Words by Chris Krovatin