My Personal Hair-Metal Hell

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

There are only two bands on Earth that I truly hate. Despite having run the gauntlet of indie record store employee, college radio music director and Senior Music Editor of college radio weekly CMJ between 1988 and 2002, I only really have it in for two bands.

First, the Doors. We’ll leave that one for another time. Second, and the target of my most virulent, Technicolor ire, is Mötley Crüe.

Put simply, Mötley Crüe took some of the greatest influences in rock – the seed of glam that bloomed into the New York Dolls, the pull-no-punches riffs of countless fierce ‘70s bands like AC/DC and Cheap Trick, the parent-spooking studs and black leather of punk – and amalgamated them into the biggest pile of party-hardy excrement to hit the charts ever.

Do I seem bitter? That’s because I was in high school at the apex/nadir of hair metal: 1986-1990. By the time I was 14, I was already a deeply invested music nerd, scouring liner note lists of “thank yous” to find new bands, leaning into my sister’s record collection, and playing holes in the Black Sabbath, Hendrix and Ramones catalogs.

Let’s set the stage, shall we?

There’s me, roughly 1988, tall and weird-looking. Glasses and braces. In every honors or advanced placement class. A disaster in phys ed. Socially a no-go outside of a bit of music chatter with the sprinkling of thrash metal fans in my class. Boasting a crystalline point of view on my personal rock family tree. Employee of the best indie/import record store I’ve ever seen before or since (in the words of Marty DiBergi in Spinal Tap, “Don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore”). And certainly not least, deeply, passionately into what was considered and referred to with seriousness and accuracy as “indie rock.” Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Mudhoney (oh the glory of hearing “Touch Me I’m Sick” for the first time), the Minutemen, Black Flag, Big Black, Pixies, Naked Raygun, the Replacements, Sonic Youth – the list is long and packed with classics.

And then there’s “them.” The class of 1990. Socializing and passing notes, cruising in their beater first cars during open lunch. Hooking/breaking/making up. Going to the lax town beverage store and buying cheap beer and wine coolers. Heading to the beach in groups to formulate and dismantle a million and one interpersonal dramas. And doing every last bit of this to the soundtrack of retch-inducing hair metal bands, blared at top volume.

This was a horror of epic proportions.

Hair metal…is the cockroach of my generation. It will never go away.

I’ve seen teenage guys fist pump and shout along to Slaughter’s “Up All Night.” I’ve seen cheerleaders strutting down the hall together, teasing someone/everyone with “I’m only seventeeeeeeen” in a dubious homage to Kip Winger. I’ve heard someone shout across the school parking lot, “Hey everyone, I have the new Poison tape!!!” I’ve watched a small crowd gather around a car blasting Warrant, everyone bobbing their heads to the dulcet tones of “Cherry Pie.” I could go on. Please don’t make me.

Now imagine me, loping across the parking lot on my way home, nearly pinned by my backpack full of leaden AP textbooks and Russian novels, grinding my teeth from the “WOOOOO!!!” of young women hearing the opening strains of “Bad Medicine.” (If you’ve ever wondered where the female “WOOOOO!!!” came from, it is this period.) My inner monologue: “Why why why why why make it stop make it stop WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE I AM DYING OVER HERE! SHUT! UP!”

I was never what you’d call a “joiner.” I’m still not. But this situation was tantamount to trying to get a college prep education on enemy grounds. In heavy artillery fire. I know that the 1980s offered its fair share of inventions and culture advances, but the decade for me is a miserable washout. By the late ‘80s, we had inexplicably elected George HW Bush, the stock market had crashed, the country was in a deep recession while still remaining weirdly materialistic, AIDS was a deadly epidemic, Iran-Contra hearings were on TV, and you could be beaten or killed for a wide variety of insults to square America, not least of which was being gay. (Remember how shocking it was to find out someone was gay?)

And woven into the fabric of this great nation in the throes of fiscal collapse, governmental skullduggery and overall bigotry was a small army of men in ridiculous garb who were PARTYIN’. And so were YOU, man! Sure, there’s heartbreak, dude, but every rose has its thorn! On a steel horse you ride! And we still have “Dr. Feelgood”!

I tried to interact once. A guy a couple of lockers down from me came in wearing a Quiet Riot shirt. “Hey,” I interrupted, much to his surprise. “Their hits are covers of songs by a band called Slade.” He looks at me, blinks. “No, they’re not.” “Um… yes… they are.” “No.” “Yeeeaaaah, they are.” “Whatever, you made up that band.” Might as well have – stupid internet not ready for fact checking in 1988.

Probably the worst ongoing part of this ugly four years of high school is how many people I know now who are aware that I like loud, heavy rock music and have unwittingly said to me, “Hey, you should listen to Mötley Crüe’s first record. It’s a lot cooler than you’d think. You’d probably like it.”

No. No. No, no, nope. No. (Though I do want readers to know that when the band recently simpered for attention with an announcement of “retirement” and a guarantee that they were doing their final tour, I officially took it upon myself to enforce this promise. If they announce another tour, you best believe I will be at that presser, flipping tables and throwing chairs.)

The thing is, indie rock saved me. And I don’t mean the “indie rock” that’s used as a catchall these days for music that sounds like a pillow fort. I mean the outsider stuff — get in the van, rip shit up, stick it to the man in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. My first concert was Madness. My second was the legendary Fugazi. These bands created a secret society through fanzines, mail order and plain, old word-of-mouth. I fundamentally “got” that. The blue collar ethic, the toughness, the truth telling, the grit, the anger, the melodic beauty that could still hold its own alongside the rage. I still love all these records and plenty of newer ones as well, but in today’s world, where folks listen to Taylor Swift without tongue in cheek, where rock journalism has turned to think pieces on Miley Cyrus, the community is nearly gone. In a music industry run by streaming, everything is the same: stuck in purgatory on your screen in endless, undifferentiated lists you can scroll and scroll and scroll through. No guts. No heart.

And hair metal, of course, is the cockroach of my generation. It will never go away. There are entire festivals dedicated to it. This boggles the mind, but I swear it’s true. Even I’m not 100 percent immune. A few years ago, my favorite band of all time, Cheap Trick, was touring with Poison and Def Leppard. Never mind that those two other bands should be carrying their luggage, but we’ll just take this at face value. Cheap Trick was fantastic as always, and then during the break, when I’d normally split, I said to my husband, “You know, I’ve never seen Def Leppard, and the Pyromania album was pretty great. Let’s stick it out.”

Fifteen minutes later, the animated corpse of Poison cames skipping – and I mean skipping – out onto the stage and launched into “Talk Dirty To Me.” I braced myself. Then their green pyro went off. I grit my teeth and grabbed my husband’s hand like an angry woman in labor. My eyes got stuck back in my head from vigorous rolling. The song ended and Bret Michaels just kept going. “What’s up everybody? Are you out there PARTYIN’?!? Lemme see all the HOT CHICKS! I was ridin’ my HARLEY along the beach, and I saw you people HAVIN’ A PARTY!”


Cockroaches, all of ‘em.

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One Response

  1. Catherine

    Interesting point of view. Not one that I share, though. We are roughly the same age (I graduated high school in 1991) and lived and breathed hair metal. I blame Nirvana for killing my vibe. That’s not to say I couldn’t enjoy Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure, but it wasn’t the music that inspired me or fueled my need for rebellion.

    Def Leppard is my all time favorite band. From the moment I received Pyromania on vinyl in 1985 until as recently as the other day when I saw them in concert, Def Leppard is MY band. Nevermind the fact that I didn’t end up marrying Joe Elliott (he’s actually married to a woman MY age!). That’s another story for another time. However, I was too rebellious, too in need of wanting my own spotlight that I couldn’t be content with “groupie” status. No, I had to have my own band. So, my sophomore year in high school I got my first bass and my best friend got her first electric guitar and we formed a band. The first song we ever played together was “Hysteria.” We were hooked. We were engrossed in the hair metal movement, so to speak. Our band became THE cover band for every hair metal lovers’ birthday party.

    But something really, really awesome grew out of that, which is the point of my response and what I think you missed in your article. Because I was so enraptured by Def Leppard, I wanted to learn everything about them including who their musical influences were. Suddenly, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, Bowie, Montrose, and Thin Lizzy became regular cassette rotations in my 1981 Oldsmobile Omega. My musical diet became more rounded and robust. My bass playing improved. And then I went to college. Worked jobs. Got married. Got divorced. Got remarried. Had kids. You know the story. We’re in our 40’s after all.

    As I mentioned, I saw Def Leppard (with Tesla…swoon) in concert the other day. I hadn’t seen them since 1988. And I’m not ashamed to say I wept like a baby during “Hysteria” when they played slides of pictures from the height of Hysteria mania. It was like reuniting with old friends. Seeing those old pictures and hearing songs that I know by heart but haven’t listened to in years restored some youth that I thought was gone. It was like, “Hey, I was with you back then, and you’re still kicking ass and I’m still kicking ass! We’re older. We’re more cynical. But we made it!”

    I still play bass, but I play in a worship band rather than a rock band. And that’s OK. I like it. And I’m now pulling out my Def Leppard CD’s along with some Thin Lizzy and Mott and reclaiming some of my youth. But I won’t head bang. That will just land me in the chiropractor’s office.


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