In the cycles of cool, there’s one style that’s never really had its moment of being taken seriously. Glam metal – the 1980s explosion of sex, drugs and hairspray that expressed everything that was most excessive about that decade in American culture – has been treated as kitsch by pop culture, and as something to drown in irony by hipsters, but not often addressed on its own terms.
With a very few exceptions, like Penelope Spheeris’s 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, this world-bestriding musical culture has rarely been documented by those who actually loved it – and certainly not in more recent years, once the flames of the stage pyrotechnics had died down.
Which is where Justin Quirk’s new book Nothin’ but a Good Time comes in. The writer and broadcaster has unironically loved the erupting guitar solos, chanted choruses and dayglo theatre of the 80s sound since his early adolescence – and has now written a definitive history of Bon Jovi, Poison, Motley Crue et al.
Tracing roots from classic British heavy metal and 70s glam rock, but also some other more unexpected sources, and how they met in the crazed consumerist culture of Reagan’s America, and particularly in L.A., Quirk digs deep into what was behind this hedonistic spectacle. Underneath the big hair and big sounds, these were real people and real culture, and the stories he unearths tell us a lot about the real world outside the dive bars and stadiums.
We spoke to Quirk to find out more about his own reasons for loving this music, and what drove him to take it seriously when so many others wouldn’t.
Can you sum up what the appeal of glam metal was for you as a kid in the London suburbs? Was it aspirational or impossibly alien? Did you appreciate the sonic ambition of it all at the time?
It was completely alien. Part of it was that it felt very outsider, and something that other kids weren’t into – I’d just started learning the guitar, so you’d see these guys being featured in magazines like Guitar World and it was clearly a more grown-up world than Smash Hits. So it had that kind of feeling of being a secret society, which I think is always appealing for a certain kind of – usually male – music fan. But then on an actual musical level, it was pretty accessible – it’s not like trying to start off listening to Napalm Death or Venom or something. As for the sonic ambition, probably not at the time, but what I realise now is that I hit it at just the right point – I was 11, 12, when in very quick succession you get Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and huge releases from Poison and Bon Jovi coming out. That’s pretty much the high watermark of this stuff, and I walked right into the middle of it.
As a DJ and curator in your “grown-up” life, you've shown very sophisticated tastes, that a casual observer might find antithetical to glam metal. How did your relationship with this music change as you grew up? Did you ever abandon the glam at any point as you were broadening your tastes?
I think there are two levels. Firstly, there’s what you’re into publicly, and what is occupying your mind at that point. After [Guns n’ Roses’ follow up to Appetite] Use Your Illusion came out and was such a disappointment, I think a lot of people were very disillusioned and drifted off metal. All of the momentum seemed to go out of it – so much expectation had been heaped on that release, and it just didn’t live up to it. It’s the exact point where [Nirvana’s] Nevermind comes out, the mood changes in music and suddenly this very different, much more stripped-down stuff is coming out of Sub Pop and those labels. I was just leaving school at that point so maybe it was a natural breaking point – you’re 16, you want to be exploring stuff which feels cooler and has more ‘ideas’ around it. Metal generally was moving in that direction – Kerrang was writing about bands like Jane’s Addiction, you started to be able to get [politicised US punk label] Alternative Tentacles records much more easily in London, so I kind of went off in that direction.
But despite that, there’s always a level of music that’s just lodged in the back of your memory and you always come back to. And regardless of what else I was into, there was never a time when I couldn’t have put on the first Skid Row album, or Aerosmith’s Pump and it wouldn’t have sounded as good to me as it always did. As for how it links to everything else I’ve been into, I think I’m always interested in a kind of extremity – whether that’s in dub, or disco, or folk, or any other phases I’ve gone through, I’m always interested in stuff which is pushing at the margins. And the older I get, the less interested I am in what happens in music, and the more interested I am in why it’s happening at that point. That was really the aim of the book; even if you hate this music (and a lot of people do), the story of why it happened when it did is fascinating. You can’t really tell the story of American culture through that decade without seeing this as the ultimate expression of it.
Of course, it's been an area that hasn't been taken that seriously critically, but was there anything specific that fired you up enough to get this book project going?
Just a sense that we’re now far away enough from it that you can get that critical distance – and that if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Because eventually, everything gets reassessed. I’ve read brilliant pieces of work about genres which for decades were a joke from glam rock to Oi! Don’t forget how long disco was reduced to ‘wearing afro wigs to Carwash’ and treated as an absolute laughingstock before books like [Peter Shapiro’s] Turn the Beat Around went back to it and showed its importance. And the more I started thinking about it, the more things I saw which felt like they fitted into the story. As a decade, the 80s is so important to where we are now, and this was a huge part of it.
Though metal is insular, and ignored by outsiders, in this book you draw parallels across boundaries, whether it's between Def Leppard and their electronic contemporaries in Sheffield, or Kiss and Funkadelic in Detroit; how conscious was this?
Semi-conscious. Part of it was an attempt to just broaden the book out a little and draw in readers who weren’t already glam converts and show that it functioned as part of something bigger. And part of it was to try and work out in my own head where and how this stuff developed – because it does come out of an odd confluence of styles and influences. All these things – Kiss, Funkadelic, WWF, video nasties, etc. – are floating in the air when this scene is crystalising, and a lot of the fun with this kind of writing is drawing out those kinds of hidden connections.
From [Boston’s] “More Than a Feeling” to [Bon Jovi’s] “Livin' on a Prayer”, soft rock / AOR / glam metal was an absolute pinnacle of songwriting craft, if not in sophistication then certainly in devastatingly effective hooks and structures. Where do you think this came from?
They’re brilliant. A hugely significant character in the book is Desmond Child. He’s pretty much the premier songwriter for hire in glam metal circles, and he just cranks out this unstoppable run of hits. All the big Bon Jovi tracks, Alice Cooper’s “Poison”, Aerosmith’s comeback records, Cher’s biggest 80s singles and so on. Later on, he writes all those absolute bangers for Ricky Martin like “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. But what’s interesting is that he comes out of disco. He’s originally in a group called Rouge, they have a Paradise Garage hit, he’s around [avant-garde disco and proto-house cult musician] Arthur Russell when he does “Kiss Me Again”. And what he achieves – his masterstroke which kind of ‘makes’ glam – is that he bolts the structures and drama of disco onto the production and heaviness of rock. It’s what sets this music apart from, say, New Wave of British Heavy Metal which is much stodgier. At its best, glam metal is basically disco, with distorted guitars and less syncopation. People always pick up that Def Leppard were huge glam rock fans, but if you listen to a lot of the vocal work on Pyromania – something like “Too Late For Love” or “Bringing On The Heartbreak” – a lot of it sounds weirdly close to ABBA.
You make no bones about the bleakness of the drugs and misogyny that fed into this music; the descriptions of Appetite for Destruction's darkness, in particular, are striking. Do you feel conflicted about loving music that is in many ways so decadent and gross?
Not really. Certainly, a lot of the lyrics and artwork is ‘of its time’, but there’s surprisingly little material that I came across which is actively racist, homophobic or sexist. It’s certainly not exactly inclusive in most cases, but I think it’s more that alternative voices and other perspectives just didn’t appear in the slightest in those scenes, so they weren’t considered. This isn’t really a justification, but I think it’s easy to forget how polarised scenes were then. I remember it being a massive deal when you saw Axl Rose wearing a Public Enemy t-shirt or an NWA cap as those worlds didn’t really cross over. Public Enemy being on the cover of Kerrang was a bit of a ‘Dylan goes Electric’ moment from my recall.
I think what I do feel differently about now is realising how in many cases the grime and squalor in those glam records, which I assumed were a kind of theatrical affectation, was very real. As a teenager, I listened to this stuff and found it enjoyably rebellious and transgressive. I listen to something like the first Guns n’ Roses album now and it feels like a portrait of incredibly damaged personalities, and a place which is falling apart, as much as certain things by Syd Barrett or Neil Young’s On The Beach are. That maybe makes it less enjoyable, but it also gives it a much deeper dimension than I picked up on as a kid. Or when you listen to Motley Crue and think that for all their party-monster idiocy, Razzle from Hanoi Rocks is dead because of Vince Neil [the Crue singer crashed a car while driving drunk in 1984, killing the Hanoi Rocks drummer and causing permanent injury to two other passengers]. It definitely gives the music a shadow which wasn’t there when I was 12.
At the end of the book, you talk about the ridiculous US rave spectacle of EDM as a possible aesthetic successor to glam metal. Has loving a kind of music so crass made you think twice about others' tastes even when you don't understand them?
Oh, definitely. If you’ve ever walked around Kingston as a perfectly nice, middle-class child wearing a leather jacket and listening to [Bon Jovi’s] “Wanted Dead or Alive” and actually taking it profoundly seriously are you ever going to be in a position to laugh at some kid because he wants to walk around Tomorrowland covered in body paint, flexing his muscles and listening to Steve Aoki? I think it’s difficult to make the case that one of those things is inherently more ridiculous than the other.
Cover Image: Spiritland
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs