How Hair Metal’s Five Biggest Bands Desperately Tried to Survive the Grunge Era

Kevin Nixon, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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In 1991, the entire music world changed with the arrival of grunge. Rock and roll transformed overnight, and bands were trading in their eyeliner and leather jackets for torn-up flannel. But what happened to some of the kings of the Sunset Strip?

Though the Seattle sound may have kicked hair metal off the map, the giants of the genre hung in there for years and tried to adapt to the times. While some of them were up to the challenge, some fell flat on their faces. 

This is just a sample of the hair metal bands that changed with the times, stayed true to themselves or prayed that the Nirvana era of rock and roll would blow over.

Spoiler Alert: it would not. 

Def Leppard

In the world of hair metal, few sounded cleaner than Def Leppard. While the likes of Motley Crue thrived on sounding dangerous, Hysteria was the closest the genre came to full-on pop music. So…what happens when you try to blend that sound in with the likes of Pearl Jam?

Although Def Leppard got in early before grunge on Adrenalize, Slang was where they started to wear some alternative influences on their sleeve. While Joe Elliot maintains that they were looking to not copy themselves, there’s an alternative sheen to songs like “Work It Out” that sound strange coming out of the “Photograph” band. 

Even newcomer Vivian Campbell wasn’t really on board with the rest of the project, remarking later “I remembered thinking ‘we’re spending a fortune here, and no one’s going to buy this album.’” 

Leppard were able to pick themselves up during the second half of the ‘90s, cashing in on the boy band craze and making a return to their original sound on Euphoria. Leppard had already achieved hair metal perfection, but that sound couldn’t compete with the age of irony. 

Motley Crue

Motley Crue is patient zero for all things hair metal. Even though the Crue weren’t intending to start a new wave of music, their brand of theatrical rock became the breeding ground for the Sunset Strip flavor of rock. Once Nirvana came through, The Crue was willing to give the grunge sound a fair shot with Vince Neil out of the picture.

While fans couldn’t get on board with the John Corabi iteration of the Crue, their self-titled album is a lot stronger than most post-1990 hair metal records. Corabi had a much gruffer voice and “Hooligan’s Holiday” has a deeper groove influenced by heavy acts like Pantera.

The writing was on the wall that Neil needed to come back, but their attempt to blend into the alternative scene on Generation Swine met a deaf ear. After trying to become Pantera, the band tried to be Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and Pantera over the course of one album.

The next few years saw the band going in different directions, with Tommy Lee eventually forming Methods of Mayhem which explored more nu-metal soundscapes. All roads led back to Hollywood, and the Crue closed the chapter on their recording career with Saints of Los Angeles, going back to the traditional sounds of their glory days. 

Poison

Even in a genre as flashy as glam rock, no one was more into presentation than Poison. While Bret Michaels may have grown up on Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, their brand of rock and roll was more in tune with pop music than Judas Priest or Black Sabbath. So when it came time for a change, the kings of Sunset were already lost in the woods. 

After firing guitarist CC DeVille, Poison hired Mr. Big guitarist Richie Kotzen for Native Tongue. While the band wanted to shake off their party band reputation, they had no clear direction to go, pulling everything from blues to gospel to world music. In retrospect, Kotzen thought the record sounded a lot closer to one of his solo records than anything Poison would have done.

It was clear Kotzen wasn’t the right choice, and after being caught having a fling with drummer Rikki Rokkett’s wife, Kotzen was sent packing. While the band tried to work things out with guitarist Blues Saraceno for Crack a Smile and More, DeVille found his way back in the band for Power to the People.

While the band hasn’t released anything outside of a covers album in the past decade, Rokkett seems okay to live off of goodwill saying “Right now we are a nostalgia act. I mean I have to be honest with myself. We’re not putting out anything new.”

Skid Row

The worst thing that a hair metal band could do in the ‘90s was make a hair metal album. Although Skid Row was a late arrival to the hair metal scene, their debut in 1990 made a decent send-off for the genre with classics like “18 and Life.” Since the ground was already shifting, they decided to get heavier with age. 

Whereas most hair metal bands tried to wear grunge like a costume, Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind is one of the heaviest albums to come from a hair metal band. After spending time on the road with Pantera, Snake Sabo channeled that heaviness into songs like “Monkey Business,” with a swagger reminiscent of Led Zeppelin.

Even when hair metal was read its last rites, Skid Row kept moving into the next decade. Their third album Subhuman Race was even heavier than their previous effort, tapping into something grittier to compete with the likes of White Zombie. 

As the band’s star grew, so did the tension between each other, which led to Sebastian Bach leaving the band after they called off a gig opening for KISS on one of their comeback tours. 

While the band continues on with new singers, nothing has captured the same intensity of their ‘90s run. Despite being one of the last gasps of hair metal, Skid Row found the easiest way to outrun their genre name. Just drop the ‘hair’ from the title.

Guns N’ Roses

Before Seattle took over the world, Guns N Roses was the first sign things were changing. While they grew up in the same clubs off of Sunset, Guns were channeling the swagger of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith rather than T Rex. As they entered the ‘90s though, Axl Rose saw grunge rockers as his nemesis. 

After making the bombastic Use Your Illusion project, Rose was offended that bands like Nirvana refused to go on tour with him. Kurt Cobain had thought Guns N Roses’ brand of rock was misogynistic, but Rose wasn’t going to take that on the chin.

During Guns’ Illusion tour, Rose tore Nirvana down when he had the chance, even getting up close and personal with Cobain during an MTV Awards show. By the time Guns’ ended their self-destructive roadshow, the writing was on the wall.

Outside of a decent set of cover songs on “The Spaghetti Incident?”, the rest of Guns filed out, leaving Axl as the only member of the band. Grunge might not have helped GNR’s case, but they were always their own worst enemy.

Was It All Worth It?

While not every hair metal band deserved such a cruel fate, the genre’s death was necessary at the time. Fans of hard rock had gotten sick of flashy rock and roll, and bands like Nirvana brought authenticity back into the genre. 

Even after some of these bands fell to Earth, most of them have given their due credit to grunge rock. Before Nevermind blew up, Nikki Sixx stood up for the grunge rockers sayingI said, “Here is an important rock album.” I never understood bands saying Nirvana had anything to do with derailing their career. Maybe those bands just didn’t have the goods.”

Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen also took the diplomatic approach saying “we got lumped in with these awful hair bands, which we didn’t really think we were part of any- way. So when Nirvana came on, it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna fuck us a bit,’ but it was also great music.”

Some hair metal bands took the opportunity to clean up their act once they hit bottom. Bobby Dall credited grunge music with helping him turn his life around after touring saying (30:34), “I ended up taking a long vacation. God bless Seattle.”

Even though each of these bands had their time in the sun, they found their way to the other side. Def Leppard have gone out on tours with KISS, and Motley Crue are going through a renaissance with the release of their movie The Dirt. While hair metal might live on the nostalgia circuit these days, that doesn’t change the quality of these bands during their glory days. 

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