Theoretically Speaking S3 | E9: What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ? Part 3

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Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians


…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

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S3:E9 – What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ?
Part 3

Original bands with any kind of success eventually face a conundrum:

  • Do they continue making the same kind of music that made them successful?
  • Or do they try something new?

Staying the same runs the risk of boring themselves and the audience. Changing could alienate that audience. Either way, they might lose some fans but possibly gain others.

Is changing direction worth the risk?

“You make a good point. I may not have made the best choice.”

Whether a band makes it as an artistic decision or a business decision: they’ll probably be accused of selling out.

If they try for bigger success, well, that’s very close to the definition of selling out. If they stay the same, they could be selling out to keep their known audience. It’s rare that an artist can progress, hold on to their original fans, and win new ones. 

Def Leppard had already been accused of selling out.

They had a song called Hello America on their first album and some listeners and music press writers took this to mean they were pandering to the American audience.

At the time he wrote its lyrics, singer Joe Elliott didn’t even have a passport.

So when it came time to make their third album, they made no bones about their choice to appeal to a wider audience. Originally part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, they distanced themselves from it fairly quickly. 

“In the mainstream press, heavy metal bands were thought of as being just stupid, and I didn’t want us to be part of that.

I want us to be mentioned in the same breath as Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles, Pink Floyd.

These were all the kind of bands that we’d seen the global success that they’d achieved, and that’s what we were after.”

Def Leppard Founding member Joe Elliott

His bandmate Phil Collen said that bands that had crossed over between pop and metal sold a million albums in a week.

“Geez, why wouldn’t you want that?” he mused.

Def Leppard looked around at what was happening in heavy metal in the mid-1980s and decided to change along with it.

What was happening in heavy metal?

It started in mid-1970s Los Angeles.

Rodney Bingenheimer was a DJ on KROQ and was something of a tastemaker. Any band he played on his show saw an instant boost in audience and reputation.

Blondie, Cheap Trick, and The Ramones owe at least part of their success to Rodney’s seal of approval.

He was also friends with Gene Simmons of KISS, and recommended that Simmons see a band playing at the Whiskey A Go Go.

That band was Van Halen.

Whiskey A Go Go, Los Angeles.
December 31,1977.

Simmons liked what he saw and heard.

How could he not ?

Eddie Van Halen was the most innovative rock guitar player since Jimi Hendrix, singer David Lee Roth was as energetic and engaging as a Saturday morning cartoon character.

And the band had memorable, melodic songs.

Simmons signed them to his production company, called Man Of 1,000 Faces, and flew them to New York City where they recorded a fifteen song demo at Electric Ladyland Studios.

The timing was bad, however, as KISS was going on the road for an extended tour. Knowing he wouldn’t be around to help them get a record deal, he released them from their contract by ripping it to pieces. He said if they weren’t signed by the time he got back, he’d help shop them to the labels.

They signed with Warner Bros. long before he got back.

Fear not: The ever-resilient Gene would rally to createother lucrative business opportunities.

Van Halen grew into one of the world’s biggest concert draws and had several radio hits. They even hit #1 with Jump in 1984. It’s a keyboard-driven song, and one of the least metal things they did. 

Their early success didn’t go unnoticed back home. Bands decided that if Van Halen could be huge, they could, too, but the general thought was that music wasn’t enough. 

Taking cues from glam rock bands of the early 70s, like T. Rex, the clothes had to be louder, the hair had to be bigger, the antics more outrageous.

Given the updated name “glam metal”, these bands would go brighter and glitzier. It was Los Angeles, after all. Home of movies, TV, and showbiz promotion.

Anything to call attention to yourself.

This kind of flamboyance couldn’t have happened in Detroit or Birmingham. It’s an LA thing.

Some of that music was pretty good. It had metal underpinnings with a pop sheen on top.

Songs put out in the early 80s by these bands still resonate today.

RATT’s first big hit, Round And Round, has been used in movies and video games, and they recently showed up in an insurance commercial.

Mötley Crüe had multiple hits on radio and MTV, and individual members became household names through reality TV and sex tapes.

“Great. Now you tell me.”

Quiet Riot first got attention with their cover of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize and then their original Bang Your Head (Metal Health). The band didn’t want to do Cum On Feel The Noize, preferring to keep all the writing royalties from the album, but producer Spencer Proffer talked them into doing it. They had been avoiding learning the song, so they just ran through it with the tape running and hoped that it would be bad enough for Proffer to give up the idea.

It became the band’s highest charting single of their career, topping out at #5.

Metal Health was the first metal album to hit Billboard’s #1.

With the mainstream success of Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and others, record labels scoured the strip and signed every band in Los Angeles. Musicians from across the country moved to LA to become part of the scene. Poison moved from Pennsylvania. Vixen, one of the few female metal bands, moved from Minnesota.

Bands that were good at promotion succeeded. Musical prowess was optional.

If a band had their image together, girls would go to their shows.

Boys would follow the girls. 

Another thing that brought the girls in was the power ballad.

These are slow love songs like regular ballads but backed with loud drums and guitars, at least during the choruses. They usually had a soaring guitar solo. 

The power ballad goes back to the early 1970s with songs like Badfinger’s Without You, Aerosmith’s Dream On, and Lady by Styx. Some consider Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven and The Carpenters’ Goodbye To Love to be power ballads, too.

Record labels insisted on one or more power ballads on every album, and it was usually released as the second single. The first single was a rocker to show the band’s metal bona fides. The second single brought in the girls.

MTV loved both.

MTV “awards spectacularity,” according to Dr. Robert Wasler, a professor at Case Western Reserve University specializing in musicology, jazz, and popular music.

“Bands that make it are the bands that look good on TV.”

By this time, glam metal was given the somewhat derisive name hair metal.

Heavy metal adherents didn’t think much of these hair metal bands, but a big community built up in Los Angeles around them. The fashion, with all the hairspray, makeup, and spandex, became a way of life for the bands and fans alike. A band’s look became more important than their music.

MTV spread the glam metal trend across the country and new glam bands popped up everywhere. One of the most successful was from the very not-LA state of New Jersey.

Bon Jovi started doing their take on glam metal, hitting #1 on the Hot 100 in 1986 with You Give Love A Bad Name and again the following year with Livin’ On A Prayer

Twisted Sister were originally from New Jersey, too, but relocated to Long Island before hitting it big with We’re Not Gonna Take It. The trend went worldwide with bands like Hanoi Rocks from Finland and Loudness from Japan.

What all of these bands shared, in terms of songwriting, was strong melodies.

Take away the distorted guitars and pounding drums, and you’re left with good pop songs. It’s pop dressed up as metal.

The ever-melodious Bill Bios

That’s not to say that non-glam metal bands didn’t have great melodies. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden had very definite melodic hooks on their albums from the same time period. They were stars of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and kept a harder edge than, say, Def Leppard.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Mötley Crüe hair metal, but the bands they inspired rode that train for all it was worth.

The difference between this first set of bands and the glam metal groups that followed is a matter of their influences. 

Van Halen listened to everything that came before them, doing covers of divergent acts like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Kinks, and Roy Orbison. Eddie Van Halen said that Roth “doesn’t even own a stereo. He listens to the radio, which is a good variety” of material. Roth’s solo cover of Louis Prima’s Just A Gigolo wasn’t metal at all, but it showed he knew music from three decades prior.

The hair bands listened to glam rock, a little psychedelia, and each other.

They tried being like Van Halen without going to the source material. That’s not to say they’re bad, they’re just not as well-rounded. It’s why a lot of them sound similar to each other.

Keeping within that small echo chamber of their own subgenre meant that there was less innovation. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was revolutionary. He sounded like no one else. Other guitarists trying to sound like him weren’t doing anything he hadn’t done already. New releases started sounding a little stale.

With so many of these bands sounding alike by the end of the 80s, the scene was drying up all by itself.

But two things put an end to it for good:

Guns ‘n’ Roses put out their first album, Appetite For Destruction, in the summer of 1987. Four singles were released from it.

The first didn’t chart at all but the next three went Top Ten.

They were from Los Angeles, too, their sound was a lot grittier and more serious than their fellow Angelenos’ bands. They were putting the heavy back in heavy metal, something that had never gone away in the underground scene but was lacking in the mainstream.

The other nail in hair metal’s coffin was grunge.

I’ll devote another article to grunge, but it changed everything, starting with Faith No More, The Melvins and Mother Love Bone, and exploding with Nirvana’s Nevermind.

There’s much more to the heavy metal story, but there are a couple other genres we need to cover first for it to make sense.

See you here next week.

Suggested Listening: Full YouTube Playlist

Runnin’ With The Devil
Van Halen
1978

Shout At The Devil
Mötley Crüe
1983

Photograph
Def Leppard
1983

Until I Get You
Hanoi Rocks
1983

Round And Round
RATT
1984

Crazy Nights
Loudness
1985

In My Dreams
Dokken

1986

When The Children Cry
White Lion
1988

I Remember You
Skid Row
1989

Miles Away
Winger
1990

Fly To The Angels
Slaughter
1990

I Saw Red
Warrant
1991

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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Phylum of Alexandria
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January 20, 2023 11:24 am

I grew up listening to hair metal, thanks to my sister. But once I developed my own tastes and preferences I came to hate it. That may have to do with my coming of age in the advent of 90s alternative rock, and then my teen shift to punk rock.

But it took many, many years before I would start listening to those old bands again. I think I finally got into Van Halen around 2012.

I love them now! David Lee Roth is like David Johansen’s healthier younger brother. Their first two albums are the best. You just cannot f— with “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love.”

The 80s hair metal, it’s something I’ll never love-love, but I can really dig the best of the singles. Including the power ballads.

At the end of the day, they’re catchy, radio-friendly songs, some better than others. Like what John Lennon said about glam rock, “It’s just rock n roll with lipstick on.”

And a lot of Aquanet.

lovethisconcept
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January 20, 2023 12:54 pm

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love is quite possibly the best thing VH or any other hair metal or hair metal adjacent band ever did.

Last edited 8 months ago by lovethisconcept
mt58
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mt58
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January 20, 2023 1:22 pm

Can I get some virtual therapy here?

Whenever I hear Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love, I have a particular and very specific reaction. You would expect it to be joyous headbanging or some such thing. The record soars, and every word of Love’s comment is 100% spot on.

But when Eddie’s guitar starts here, I am strangely awash in melancholy. I feel lonesome and wistful about… I have no idea.

It really, really gets to me. I don’t avoid it; in fact, I played it last night when laying out Bill’s excellent article. He reminded me about the brilliance of VH, and I sought ATBL out.

This has been a thing for 45 years. What’s up with that?

OK, I feel a little better. Definitely bill me for the session.

lovethisconcept
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January 20, 2023 1:49 pm
Reply to  mt58

But that’s what is so brilliant about it. It sounds like it’s going to be a mindless, joyous headbanger…but then it isn’t.

“I’ve been to the edge.
And there I stood and looked down.
You know I lost a lot of friends there.”

Me, too, guys, me, too. And I never hear this song without thinking of them.

Oh, and no charge for the session. Sometimes this whole site is therapy for me.

Last edited 8 months ago by lovethisconcept
Phylum of Alexandria
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January 20, 2023 2:10 pm
Reply to  mt58

Bill you? Isn’t that what this series is doing?

mt58
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mt58
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January 20, 2023 3:05 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I’d considered the minor key, et al, and figured that was part of it. But there’s something else going on.

Maybe: there’s something about a self-invented alpha-goofball like DLR, singing with such seriousness. I respect the juxtaposition, and don’t think that he’s anything but completely sincere. I’m buying all of it.

I remember an instance of hearing it on a bleak and rainy Sunday afternoon, but it doesn’t feel like it was a first encounter.

Sorry. Carry on.

thegue
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January 20, 2023 2:34 pm

“Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” is the best Van Halen song, bar none.

That playlist above is walking me down Memory Lane!!!

LinkCrawford
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January 20, 2023 11:53 am

I could get on board with the more poppy nature of the hair metal side of metal…but I could never gel with the image they projected. They were either trying to tell you how tough and scary they were or trying to convince you what bad boys they were. Neither resonated. But I could still dig songs like “Panama” by Van Halen, “Round and Round” by Ratt, “Turn Up the Radio” by Autograph, “Photograph” by Deaf Leopard, “Wait” by White Lion, “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi, etc…

But I would not have enjoyed going to see any of these artists live (except Van Halen at the Wiskey a Go-Go in 1977).

cuzittt
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January 20, 2023 1:00 pm

Hair Metal was my first love… and while I don’t often go back to it (Busy with newer music… because things keep moving), there are many albums that I do go back to and can listen front to back and think they are great.

I kept telling my brother (the guitarist) that this was heavy shredding guitar POP. There was always a pop sheen even over the heaviest stuff (Dokken – Tooth and Nail for example) and some of the vocal harmonies were heavenly (different band, different genre, different scene (France)). My brother eventually agreed.

But, I can’t emphasize enough… the guitars were what made Hair Metal Hair Metal.

(I am not going to argue against Kix here because so many bands (and record companies) pushed bands into the hair band pocket (and many rebelled in certain ways… Skid Row got heavier, Cinderella got bluesier)… but Kix was equal parts AC/DC and Cheap Trick. To me, they are in the overall metal category… but I don’t treat them as Hair Metal.)

As always, a fantastic article. I look forward to where you go next before coming back.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 20, 2023 1:19 pm

I did begin to get into hair metal; Hysteria, Open Up and Say…Ahh! & Final Countdown were three of the first albums I bought. Then Madchester and indie music caught my attention and there was no way you could read the NME and like the preening, posturing of the hairspray gangs. Nothing like a bit of teenage factionalism, there’s no way if like this genre that you can like that one, that would result in expulsion from the union of lank haired moody indie kids.

I’ve never really gone back to the hair care bunch. There’s some catchy songs and there’s plenty other stuff that I dismissed cos I was too young or opinionated to appreciate it that I’ve now revisited. Maybe its time I gave them another go.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 20, 2023 5:10 pm

I came of age in in the hair metal heyday… Def Leppard, Cinderella, Poison, Guns ‘n Roses. That was the soundtrack of my middle school years. Then I went into more real heavy metal (Metallica, Queensryche) before taking The Cult / Jane’s Addiction exit lane to alternative and grunge. By the time Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden came around, I was primed for the Seattle explosion.

Anyway, I can’t be unbiased about the music I came of age to. On some level, I may be embarrassed about liking early Skid Row or White Lion (my first concert was White Lion opening for AC/DC when I was 14). But I don’t regret it, and I revisit those old songs with fondness.

cappiethedog
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January 21, 2023 1:37 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

My friend’s boss is one of the guys in Flop. He’s in IT at a school in the northwest. He texted me. Do you know who Flop is?

I sent him the music video for “Anne”.

OMG.

I think he remembers.

cstolliver
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January 20, 2023 5:33 pm

Heard “Photograph” last night at the bowling alley (they were definitely cranking the ’80s) and it was just as awesome as ever. I’m not much into heavy metal, grunge or G’N’R, but the power ballad gets me more often than not. Of your recommendations, in addition to Def Leppard, I’d go with “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” “Miles Away” (although I prefer “Headed for a Heartbreak”), “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” I also won’t turn off “Livin’ on a Prayer” or Bon Jovi’s “Edge of a Broken Heart” (not the same as the Vixen song) either.

To me, the most consistent catalog in this genre is Def Leppard’s: I’d listen any day to a set list with the singles from Pyromania, Hysteria, Adrenalize and Retro Active, even the goofy ones like “Armageddon It.”

cappiethedog
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January 20, 2023 6:54 pm

Enuff Z’Nuff was promoted as a “hair metal band”. It wasn’t my genre of choice, but I bought their debut. They don’t really sound like Poison or Motley Crue. They were promoted as a “hair metal” band. Hair metal-adjacent, perhaps.

“I Could Never Be Without You” is an underrated power ballad.

Che Boludo
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January 20, 2023 8:27 pm

About selling out: It’s important to remember in show business that there is the show,……….there is the business.

I tried to be a professional musician and I hated it. Tough gig. My peeps and I played the kind of music you see in dive bars but you can play several nights a week and earn a living. I also know some of top bands that tour globally and are they best around, but those groups do put on a show and they know it and they earn.

It’s a job and career for many people. I don’t think you should criticize musicians for selling out unless maybe its a gross disregarding of their values, both musical and personal, just to make more money (I guess if you are already rich and famous).

You guys, we all sellout every time we go to a job we have or have to play politics. They wouldn’t call it work if it were fun.

Che Boludo
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January 21, 2023 6:49 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

THis also makes me wonder about huge bands that play 2 hour shows for a few months every couple of years vs. the bands playing 200 nights a year for 3-4 hours. Who ends up the truly better musician or band.

Keith Richards and the Stones are great but I guarantee none of the band is playing as much as the truly working musicians. Then again The Stones might be a poor example. They are now basically a revue. Better than you’d see in Vegas, but hey, the people in Vegas play more every week than the Stones. Honestly, those classic rock review types shows, the band is rarely as tight as the working bands.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 21, 2023 10:22 am
Reply to  Che Boludo

Yeah, the ghosts of the Romantics can be felt in our desire for pure Art unsullied by the oily hand of commerce.

Nice if you can get it, but it often came from trust funds and other comforts! The rest of us gotta work.

cappiethedog
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January 21, 2023 6:11 pm
Reply to  Che Boludo

I worked on the production side at my daily. I knew a guy who played in an honest-to-goodness hair metal band. He was the lead singer. They were called Beach Bomb Baby. If you were metal, playing at a strip club called Gussie L’Amour was the apex of hair metal-cred.

“That was you?”

I didn’t see them personally, but I remember the ad.

He burned me a CD.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Unfortunately, Beach Bomb Baby was hitting their stride concurrent with the Seattle tsunami. Sometimes I say too much. He just wanted to reminiscence. He already knew this. I made him sad.

I apologized.

dutchg8r
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January 21, 2023 1:00 pm

Look at all that amazing hair those guys had!! Such commitment to their craft too, cause that takes a long time to grow it that long, and then the effort into teasing it and spraying it and styling it – can you tell I was envious because I was lazy and couldn’t be bothered to go to all that effort on my own hair back then?!

I’ve blabbed about my fondness for this era of glam metal enough, y’all don’t need me to go into it again. But it never, ever fails to put a smile on my face and immediately get me air drumming any time I encounter hair metal in the wild. It’s funny Vdog, I honestly never understood why Jump is one of my least favorite Van Halen tunes until just now – it was too keyboard-y and not guitar-y enough for me.

It is a terrible conundrum for those bands, because them trying to expand musically and experiment is like Josh Groban deciding to go death metal. The fanbase would revolt, and revolt quite angrily. Another reason I love how Duran have evolved over the years – it never felt forced. They managed to find ways to change with the times and technology while finding a way to blend it into ‘their’ dance-oriented sound. And as a result they’ve managed to give us fans good songs that could fit into many different genre’s. Their catalog is like a bawk of chawckletes…. 😁

That said, I also greatly admire Def Lep’s ability to go the AC/DC route and just keep churning out fresh updates to a tried and true formula, testing the waters a bit along the way to be just different enough to keep themselves interested after all these years.

I would totally listen to a Zamphir Does Ramones album btw, that’s awesome….. lol

Thank you for this chapter Bill!

mt58
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January 22, 2023 11:48 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

Coming soon, if I can figure out how to do it:

Beat On The Brat With A Mahogany Pan Flute.

> …But it never, ever fails to put a smile on my face…

In my opinion: this is the perfect litmus test for…

everything.

Aaron3000
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January 22, 2023 12:45 pm

So where does this fit into the metal continuum:

https://youtu.be/RFjCm96zGSY

dutchg8r
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January 22, 2023 8:45 pm
Reply to  Aaron3000

Holy crap.

George.

Ozzy.

Mashed up.

A guest solo from Eddie Van Halen.

You have no idea how wide my smile is right now, I can’t stop giggling. That’s like I had a bad jello shot fever dream while listening to one of my music playlists….

🥰

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 23, 2023 7:55 am
Reply to  Aaron3000

“Metal: Brilliant.”

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