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Hair metal is a tough subgenre to nail down. Most bands that could be tied to it shun the label, and most fans likely do as well. But in simple terms, hair metal is mostly just a signifier of the glam metal influence that carried over from the ’70s, which in the ‘80s got blasted with Aqua Net and eyeliner.
Nestled between the begrudging acceptance that “Turn Up the Radio” kind of rules and flashing Kip Winger at the state fair, there’s room for appreciation of hair metal as generally solid hard rock positioned to look like an ’80s suburban mom’s vision of Satanism. Thudding drums and dunderheaded riffs match up against guitar solo sorcery and glass-shattering vocals in advancement of the party-time ethos, macho chest-puffery and glamorous plumage.
If you can dig out these records without your feather boa getting in the way, then these are definitely 10 of the most essential hair metal records to add to your vinyl collection.
Hair metal grew all over the globe, but likely had its deepest roots on the Sunset Strip. Jetboy, though from the Bay area, lived out the Los Angeles scene experience. The group lost original bassist Todd Crew, who died of an overdose in Slash’s hotel room, and became mortal enemies with Guns ‘N Roses before they even released their debut album. Jetboy may have channeled that anger into Feel the Shake but the results came out ready to party. The title track, “Make Some Noise,” and “Talkin” mash together AC/DC’s elemental blues stomping and the Cult’s swarthiness into dick swinging swagger music.
Like Jetboy, Hanoi Rocks can ostensibly blame another more successful band for the death of a member. In this case, there’s less uncertainty, since it was Motley Crue singer Vince Neil driving drunk when a car crash killed his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle. Before the tragedy, Hanoi Rocks put out its fifth album, Two Steps from the Move. On Two Steps, the Finnish band displayed a knack for turning a corny CCR cover (“Up Around the Bend”) into a jocular celebration jam, for churning out jangly hard rock like “Underwater World,” and for chugging through punk songs about how high school sucks.
*Pyromania *and Hysteria are the twin pillars of psychological diagnoses in Def Leppard’s discography. Pyromania, named for an obsessive desire to burn stuff, capped a prolific run that saw Def Leppard release three albums in four years. Hysteria, named for a more general urge to become unstable, came after a four year lull marked by Rick Allen becoming the quintessential one-armed drummer. Together, those albums transformed Def Leppard from dudes who had to moonlight as human flags into platinum smoke machine rock gods. Singer Joe Elliott may hate the phrase “hair metal” but he can blame cheeky swingers like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for the world placing Def Leppard alongside other teased-out entertainers.
Absurdity levels peaked right off the bat for Poison and its debut album Look What the Cat Dragged In. The Poison boys, led by Bret Michaels before his head was assimilated by bandanas, looked fucking flawless on the cover and made up for any shortage of musical talent by endearing themselves with blockhead lyrics and unlimited coordinated stage jumps. The album produced mega-sleaze hits like “Talk Dirty to Me” and “I Want Action” and connected with every horny teen on Earth. But it’s “Cry Tough” that may outlive it all as one of thee finest turn up jams of the 1980s: “You gotta cry tough / Out on the streets / To make your dreams happen.”
With the exception of Def Leppard for “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night),” which sang the praises of getting wasted, Mötley Crüe is the only other band on this list to be placed in the PMRC’s Filthy 15. Specifically, the umlaut-hungry devil dogs sparked the ire of Tipper Gore with “Bastard,” a quick thrasher that manages to cram talk of stabbings, rape and blowing off heads within its svelte three minutes. Shout at the Devil is littered with Nikki Sixx’s scary-ass lyrics, Vince Neil’s venomous shrieking, Mick Mars chugging riffs and squealing solos and Tommy Lee bashing his drum kit back to hell. When all those elements get funneled into deadly accurate darts like “Red Hot” and “Looks That Kill,” it’s easy to see how this band frightened the bejeezus out god-fearing folks.
A scorching twin lead guitar attack would likely have been enough to sustain a band like Ratt through the ’80s. But the band was deeper than that, possessing Stephen Pearcy’s distinct pipes and a gift for writing hooks. It all came together on Out of the Cellar and particularly on “Round and Round,” arguably the best glam metal song of the era. But Out of the Cellar is laced with many great moments, including one of the more jubilant songs about mental illness (“I’m Insane”) and a funny if implausible story about being surprised when a prostitute demands payment (“She Wants Money.”)
If Mötley Crüe was the NWA of the hair metal genre, then Enuff Z’nuff was De La Soul. The paisley pranksters from Illinois went Technicolor in the video for “Fly High Michelle,” plastered a peace sign on the cover of its self-titled debut album, and conjured big, heart-gushing feelings. Singer Donnie Vie’s plaintiff, nasally snarl helped and the wailing guitar work didn’t sound out of place on Beverly Hill, 90210. But in the summer, when leather pants and heavy makeup are too hot, some smokin’ beach bod rawk like “Hot Little Summer Girl” sounds refreshing.
L.A. Guns was essentially a revolving door swinging around axe man Tracii Guns. Before L.A. Guns released its eponymous debut, Axl Rose had already quit the band twice, and Guns had been a very temporary member of Guns ‘N Roses before jumping ship and reforming L.A. Guns. But when the band finally got it together, complete with a bitching logo, its first proper full-length turned out much leaner and vicious than the band’s knotted history. If ever a song broke through the needless innuendo and got straight to the good stuff, it’s “Sex Action.” Whether writing songs about sex or things do during sex downtime, every L.A. Guns track from “No Mercy” to “Down in the City” makes way for Guns’ fret shredding.
Easily the poofiest locks on this list belong to Britny Fox, Philadelphia glam bros of Cinderella. Similar to the bird of prey qualities found in Cinderella singer Tom Keifer’s voice, Dizzy Dean Davison’s vocals almost sound synthesized out of dolphin sonar and lawnmower noise, making it difficult at times to pick out the words. But a rollicking number like “Girlschool” from a horny hair band can only really mean one thing and Britny Fox delivers its fantastic declarations over sturdy riffs and internal organ-liquefying solos. The band’s debut features many other moments of debauchery but nothing as transcendentally silly as “Save the Weak,” a message song with the call to action, “I’m feeling bad / I’m feeling sad / Let’s lend a helping hand.”
Guns ‘N Roses’ debut is included here not so much as a hair metal album but as the album that ruthlessly curb-stomped the genre. Appetite for Destruction is dirty rock from dirty dudes who didn’t care about their hair or anyone really, for that matter. Compact sleazeball Axl Rose exuded scary dynamic vocals running up and down between demon grunt and ecstatic squeal, while Slash hammered out grungy riffs and at least one piece of guitar work that made the angels weep. Whether all the band’s work ultimately ended up being in service to an unrepentant egomaniac is up for debate, but what’s not negotiable is the uncontrollable urge to rip off your shirt and kick a hole in the wall whenever “It’s So Easy” comes on.
Ben Munson is a writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin. He awaits the day he can pass his Beatnuts albums down to his daughter.