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.
S3:E9 – What Makes Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal ?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Runnin’ With The Devil
Shout At The Devil
Bang Your Head (Metal Health)
Until I Get You
Round And Round
In My Dreams
Nothin’ But A Good Time
Edge Of A Broken Heart
When The Children Cry
Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)
I Remember You
Don’t Close Your Eyes
Fly To The Angels
I Saw Red
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