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The Unabashed Male Beauty (and Sexism) of ’80s Hard Rock

Authors Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock discuss their exhaustive oral history ‘Nothin’ But a Good Time’ and how hair metal’s party-hearty ethos reflects the Reagan era and still speaks to fans

Big hair and spandex, guitar solos and makeup: What would the 1980s have been without hair metal? Whatever you want to call the genre — hard rock, glam metal, utterly silly — it ruled the Reagan era, utilizing an upstart music channel called MTV to unleash photogenic, good-time bands that married pop hooks to heavy riffs, all in service of selling a fantasy of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism complete with sexy girls and nonstop parties. 

Little of it was critically acclaimed and many of the groups aren’t well-remembered, but for a fan base of a certain age, time-capsule bands like Cinderella, Quiet Riot, White Lion, Faster Pussycat, Warrant and Winger are as beloved as more enduring acts such as Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses — never mind the fact that several of those forgotten bands actually sold out arenas and had multi-platinum records. Largely centered around the Sunset Strip in L.A., where clubs like the Whisky a Go Go were launching pads for these cock-of-the-walk bands, the 1980s hard rock explosion reflected the cultural landscape — drugs, excess, sex sex sex — while simultaneously relishing in its shamelessness. You either loathed the music or loved it — and part of the reason you may have loved it was because so many others found the scene so juvenile.

One could hardly ask for a better guide to this musical epoch than Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion. Written by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock, this expansive oral history includes interviews with members of all those aforementioned bands, as well as Van Halen, Poison, Skid Row, L.A. Guns, Stryper, Dokken, Twisted Sister and others, as they chronicle the rise and fall of hair metal. Often funny, occasionally surprisingly moving, the book paints a portrait of an age that was defined by ambitious artists hellbent on chart-topping success and all the perks that came with it — booze, women, rock-star bad behavior, etc. 

Including firsthand testimonials from journalists, producers, booking agents, video directors, label executives, promoters, publicists, managers and even Ozzy Osbourne, Nöthin’ But a Good Time doesn’t shy away from the scene’s unsavory, sexist side, but as Beaujour and Bienstock write in the introduction, “[I]f you’re hoping for an outpouring of regret or a litany of mea culpas, you’ve come to the wrong place. Our primary goal was to uncover what really happened from the people who lived it, not to make them apologize for it.”

And yet, what emerges over the book’s pages is a slow, collective realization that the party can’t, in fact, last forever — and that, as these musicians grow older, they both tire of some of their antics while also adopting a more mature worldview. (Also, musical tastes change, and audiences eventually move on to other sounds — in particular, those emanating from Seattle in the early 1990s.) I’ve been critical of 1980s hair metal before, and while Nöthin’ But a Good Time doesn’t necessarily change my mind about the genre’s more cartoonish extremes, the vividness of the voices captured in these pages fleshes out the central characters — and, poignantly, spotlights some musicians who were cursed to always be on the periphery of superstardom — in a way that you can appreciate the insecurity and personal issues that drove them to fill arenas. And the authors’ inclusion of Lita Ford and the all-female hard rock group Vixen adds welcome nuance to the book’s exploration of the gender politics going on at the time.

Beaujour and Bienstock know this world intimately but also have enough critical distance to recognize what was sometimes gross about how these bands objectified women in song and in life. (Although, to be fair, 1980s hard rock hardly had a monopoly on sexism — the emerging hip-hop revolution could also be a boys’ club.) Among their other accomplishments, Beaujour co-founded the hard rock magazine Revolver and served as its editor-in-chief — in interest of full disclosure, I wrote for Revolver during his stint more than a decade ago — while Bienstock has appeared in The New York Times and Billboard, as well as co-authored Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, all about the frontman of Nirvana, the band often credited for single-handedly killing hair metal. 

Nöthin’ But a Good Time pushes against that received wisdom, though, and it’s something that Beaujour and Bienstock discussed when I interviewed them last week. We also talked about the double-edged sword that is the power ballad and why the 1980s’ ultra-macho rockers were utterly unembarrassed to expound on how gorgeous their male bandmates were. 

Reading the book, one of the big takeaways is that, amidst all the music and craziness, there’s also a real sense that these guys obsessively thought about how the business worked — they were savvy about marketing and promotion and cultivating their look. Talking to these musicians, did you sense that they had that skill innately, or was it something they developed?

Bienstock: I think it’s a combination. There are some guys who are just clearly savvy. Number one on that list would probably be Nikki Sixx — he knows pretty much from the beginning what this Mötley Crüe thing is going to be. You have the woman [DeeDee Keel] who at the time was the booker at the Whisky a Go Go talking about how Nikki would come up to her office during the days and map this whole thing out and make calls — he had everything in mind from a very early age about how he was going to pursue this thing, and it worked to an amazing degree. You had guys like Bret Michaels, who I think were somewhat similar in that way — they just had this drive and this very clear picture in their head of what they were trying to achieve. 

You see it with a lot of these early guys — I don’t know if you’d call it “savviness” as much as street-smarts. They were really scrappy guys who were talented and creative, but didn’t really have much else — meaning, no money, no interest from labels or support in that way. But they just had this unrelenting drive and that, mixed with the creativity, led them to be able to create these insane stage shows and these insane looks. They could go out and self-record and self-release a record, or find a small label to team up with — or just one person that might believe in them and go from there. I guess it’s different types of savviness, but it’s what a lot of these bands don’t get enough credit for — that DIY ideal [of] just doing it on their own without having any sort of real money or major label behind them at the beginning.

In some ways, Nöthin’ But a Good Time is also a snapshot of where we were culturally in the 1980s.

Beaujour: When you think about the movies that were coming out at that time, it’s, like, Zapped! with Scott Baio and Porky’s. I mean, this was a time where the objectification of women was par for the course — you know, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, you don’t see Judge Reinhold naked. 

It would be a lie to say these guys were super-aware or concerned about what was going on politically. It seems that they were part and parcel of a culture where hijinks, some level of sexism, excess and conspicuous consumption of the 1980s are all there — and the completely un-ambivalent relationship that they have to success. MTV in the 1980s isn’t about being humble and “I can’t believe we made it, and now we have to do all these things and play in front of a big audience — it’s just such a drag.” There is no ambivalence — irony isn’t a thing. There’s an earnest embrace of young male sexuality that isn’t yet tempered.

Having said all that, a lot of the people we spoke to — and we mentioned this in the introduction — they’re not sort of regretful of what they did. But they’re as aware as everybody else that perspectives have changed. And I believe that their perspectives have changed as well. 

It was an interesting time, and it’s one of the things that makes the music, in a weird way, seductive to people now. The oversexed nature of it — it was randy and tongue-and-cheek — is what makes it attractive. But also, if you want to start knocking holes in it, [that’s] what makes it an easy target.

You discuss in the book how there’s been this resurgence in recent years for these 1980s bands — especially, at least before the pandemic, on tour. Because we’re in the midst of #MeToo, do you feel that renaissance is, in any way, a counter-reaction to that movement? Not necessarily a rejection of #MeToo, but a sense of “Everything is so problematic now — I just want to enjoy the music I used to love when I was younger and not have to worry about all that”?

Bienstock: I don’t know that I’d go that far, because I don’t know that people put that much thought into it. For a lot of people, it really is nostalgia, but I don’t mean that in a negative way — I mean it in a very positive way. 

[The hard-rock revival] started almost 20 years ago at this point — you saw these bands go through the 1990s and really struggle, and then you saw by the early 2000s, Poison was packing sheds and they were playing with Quiet Riot and all these other bands. You had the Rocklahoma festival and Monsters of Rock cruises, and those have been going on for a little while now and preceded the current #MeToo movement. 

For some people, maybe a little bit of what brings them back to [1980s hard rock] and the nostalgia part of it is wrapped up in this idea that you could act this way and think about these types of things and have this very sexually-driven music — and, clearly, it’s very sexually-driven from the male point-of-view and the male gaze. But, at least to me, I don’t think that that’s really so much of the appeal to people as much as it represents a time — [although] that sounds a little contradictory to what I just said, [because] it represents this time that doesn’t really exist now. 

But more than that, it’s this time in music when rock ‘n’ roll was larger than life and really celebratory in a way that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t celebratory today. When the 1990s came, grunge became more about this angsty type of thing, and if either of those two [attitudes] are still present in modern rock ‘n’ roll, it’s probably still more of a grungy thing. If you were to turn on a modern-rock radio station, you’d still get more of Five Finger Death Punch or Breaking Benjamin then you do the Poison, “Nothin’ but a Good Time” side.

Beaujour: But there is a redemption angle. Honestly, one of the things that makes this music so compelling to us, as fans, and why we wanted to make this book is that this is a genre that was canceled in its entirety. In 1993, I started working at a guitar magazine, and all of the guys whose bands had been on the covers of the magazines for years — they were the guitar gods — by 1994, it’s like this stuff never happened. This music was completely shunned for an entire decade. I don’t know if it’s a response to the current #MeToo movement, but there’s a certain relief that this music can resurface. 

We documented it in the book, but every band, every producer, most of the people at the record company — anyone who worked in the quote-unquote glam metal/hair metal [scene] during its peak was unable to work for an entire decade. The music was viewed with such toxicity from, like, 1993 until at least 2000 that these people couldn’t get a gig. Every radio station stopped playing it, MTV stopped playing it, magazines stopped covering it. The guitar companies that had endorsements with these artists dropped them. It was as if they had committed some atrocious crime — where, in most cases, their crime was that they were no longer in fashion. They were completely blown off the map and then excluded from the popular discussion for, like, a decade.

At the time, Nirvana represented a more enlightened way of thinking strongly anti-homophobia, strongly feminist. Grunge was almost positioned as the cure for these 1980s bands and what they represented. Musical styles change all the time, but the rise of the Seattle scene almost seemed to be a societal moral judgement against 1980s hard rock.

Beaujour: Kurt Cobain himself was absolutely not having the homophobia and sexism that was present in the hair metal years. Nirvana did turn down tours with Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses. As the spiritual leader of the grunge movement — much to his chagrin, actually — his position filtered down [to other groups]. But a lot of the people involved in these bands are emphatic in our book that they weren’t trying to actually supplant or damage another genre.

Bienstock: What Tom says is true. Kurt Cobain really was this particular case where he actually did have some issues with this stuff and voiced them. Whether very directly or indirectly, people knew where he stood. But we speak with people like Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains in the book — we speak with Kim Thayil from Soundgarden — and without being asked the question directly, they both sort of stated, “One of our goals with our music wasn’t to kill another style of music,” because that would be an insane goal to have with your creativity. They were just there doing what they do, and maybe they were coming at it from a different perspective. 

But certainly in those early days of grunge, there was a lot of crossover — these bands were playing gigs together pretty often. Bands like Alice in Chains had glam roots — Jerry Cantrell talked to us about having been in a band with Vinnie Chas from Pretty Boy Floyd just a few years before, and because of that, Alice in Chains hung out with Pretty Boy Floyd. 

They didn’t necessarily see this divide right off the bat — and me as a fan, I didn’t see it either. To me, [grunge] was certainly different music, but it was all just heavy rock ‘n’ roll with guitars. That’s why Alice in Chains were on Headbangers Ball, and Nirvana was on Headbangers Ball right after a Mötley Crüe video. But it did eventually become this divide not only separating the bands but also fans — you had to take sides and, overwhelmingly, the tide just turned.

I grew up in this era, so I remember the videos: tons of sexy women but, also, the guys had their hair all done up, they had the makeup. They looked very feminine. That disconnect always fascinated me, and it’s in the book as well: You have so many straight male musicians talking about, “Oh, that guy had such great hair,” or “That guy was just absolutely gorgeous.” These guys were completely unapologetic about talking about the beauty of other men.

Beaujour: It was awareness of the packaging that goes back to Brian Epstein or Andrew Loog Oldham or even Malcolm McLaren. The packaging of a rock band is important. There will always be an outlier, but there aren’t a lot of legendary bands with an overweight bald guy — it hasn’t happened. This goes back to the ambition of it, but I think people were aware of the fact that when you’re putting together this unit, it can’t have weak links. You’ve got to have a really good-looking singer and a good-looking guitar player — it’s just being honest that that’s how a band ultimately will thrive. One of the things about bands has always been that it’s really good-looking 24-year-old guys or women.

But it does happen a lot in the book, you’re totally right: When [White Lion guitarist] Vito Bratta sees [singer] Mike Tramp for the first time, he was like, “Oh my god, the guy was so good-looking!” It happens a lot because these guys are smart enough to know, “If I’m going to be in a band and go up on stage and try and get a record deal, I’d much rather my singer — hopefully be able to sing — but also be great-looking.” The singer who precedes Sebastian Bach in Skid Row — this guy, Matt Fallon — you can go on YouTube and hear him sing those songs, and he’s a really good singer. But if you’re trying to really go for the brass ring and you have the opportunity to have Sebastian Bach fronting your band, it’s going to do a lot more work for you.

So, it was a willingness to address that elephant in the corner in a way that maybe people aren’t open about in other bands — but they’re probably doing it, too. If they have five people coming in to audition, I’m sure most bands are aware, on some level, of the looks and presentation of the people that they’re auditioning.

You have a whole section just on power ballads, which were such a thing in this era. There’s another interesting disconnect there: They’re these really sentimental, sensitive, melodic songs in order to get women to listen to your band.

Bienstock: It was a double-edged sword. It could also make you a multimillionaire if you had a hit [ballad]. There was a little bit of a push-pull within bands, and you see this in the book. Some of them don’t necessarily think of this as the big-power-ballad moment — it’s just sort of a lineage of what they listened to in rock ‘n’ roll growing up. Then there are other bands where they know this is a thing that they have to do to push them from being a support act on an arena tour to being the headline act on an arena tour.

[Some] bands maybe really make their career off of it, whereas Mötley Crüe has a big power ballad, but that’s not what made them who they are. But in the case of Warrant, a song like “Heaven” is the thing that solidified them in the public consciousness — that makes it so you’re seen a little bit more as a softer band. It’s such an arbitrary thing ‘cause all these bands had these songs — it’s just part of playing rock ‘n’ roll music.

Beaujour: By the end of the era — like 1990, 1991 — grunge toppling hair metal wasn’t some amazing feat. We discussed it in the book, but by 1991, you’ve got bands imitating bands, and the machine is set on autopilot. There was a cynicism there: “Yeah, you’re going to have your record, you’re going to do your two singles — your rocking singles — and then you’re going to have your ballad.” And every band is marketed in the same way, and there are bands putting ballads on their records that they probably wouldn’t like to. 

But at the same time, Vito, from White Lion, brought up that when he wrote “When the Children Cry” — he wrote the guitar parts — he really wasn’t thinking about having a hit. He was thinking about how much he liked “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and trying to do a similar song. So to say that no guy in a rock band can like a slow, quiet song is false. But there [were] moments where the [ballad] was used to push [an album] from two to five million records [sold]. And we have people discuss that in our book — like C.C. DeVille said, you buy a car with your first two singles, then you buy your house with the ballad. 

We’re beyond that potential with rock bands now, but this was a time where if you did do a record correctly and produced it correctly and had a ballad on it, you were going to sell six million records. Looking back, is that cynical? No, that’s the record business, and if I’m in a band and I can sell six million records, I’d like to sell six million records — especially if I’ve already sold two. The ability to have an enormous hit was there. Now, it wouldn’t matter what you did — you’d never be able to have a rock band do those kinds of numbers.

In terms of 1980s culture, AIDS was part of that world. Was there any sort of demarcation point for these bands where the whole “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” thing got tamped down a little because the fear of AIDS started rising?

Beaujour: A couple people — Robbin Crosby from Ratt, but I think that was for other reasons — did actually succumb to [AIDS]. Maybe it’s on us — maybe it’s our fault that we didn’t ask the question — but I don’t think there’s any real moment in the book where people talk about changing their behavior radically. Maybe it’s ‘cause we’re focusing mainly on 1986, 1987, 1988, but I don’t think that we really address it as something that impacted the events. 

What I will say is, it’s possible that that is what made this music seem increasingly anachronistic. By the time you’re reaching 1990, maybe a song like “Smooth Up in Ya” isn’t appropriate in an era where there’s a disease killing people. But it didn’t come up that much in our discussions. 

Bienstock: No, it didn’t. And I don’t know that it’s something they’d be able to really point to. Like, all of a sudden in 1983, they didn’t all just change what they were doing backstage as well as onstage. And I’m not so sure that, in some ways, rock bands ever have changed that much — you can read histories about the grunge scene, and there’s some pretty debauch stuff going on there as well, as there has been in every scene since then. 

So I don’t know that they were changing that much as a result of the culture — if anything, maybe because they were [at] a different age in 1993 than they were in 1983. Some of these people had kids and families, so it might’ve just been more of a gradual thing that way. But what you do see is a change in the lyrics and the music — not in the sense where they’re coming out as being more politically correct or political in any way, but they’re just laying back on that sort of “Smooth Up in Ya” type of stuff and a lot of the really overtly sexist and really sometimes misogynistic stuff that was okay in the 1980s. And maybe that’s not even something that’s consciously talked about amongst the band — maybe [they] just sensed in the culture that it’s time to move on from that. So you’re seeing less of that in the music in the 1990s, for sure.

Last thing: Because so much of the book is about these guys trying to become stars, Nöthin’ But a Good Time almost feels like a sociological study. After talking to so many bands, did you walk away with a theory of why some groups, like Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses, ended up more successful than the others?

Bienstock: Part of it is just an intangible quality. But part of it is also, just looking at these bands in hindsight, you can kind of pick out certain things and be like, “Well, of course that’s why it happened.” I don’t know if you could necessarily say that if you were there at the time, but if you look at Mötley Crüe — I mean, the band had all the pieces. They had the perfect singer for it. They had a guy writing great riffs. They had Tommy Lee on drums, who was just a monster. You know, the looks thing — they had that pretty down pat for the style of music. And then you have Nikki, who knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted to go about achieving it and just wasn’t going to stop until he got it. 

So, you had all these pieces coming together that, in hindsight, it looks inevitable, but then again, Mötley Crüe wasn’t Nikki Sixx’s first band — he wasn’t going to make it with London. So there’s this intangible piece, which might just be the combination of the four of them together. Same thing with Guns N’ Roses. I mean, Axl and Slash is a pretty stellar team in every way, but there was a lot going on there, and a lot of people in and out of the band — and a lot of the band falling apart and then coming back together and all these things. You do have these guys that rise to the top who deserve to — whether it’s your Axl and Slash, or Nikki, or even like a Sebastian Bach later on, or a Bret Michaels — but there’s a little bit of luck involved. 

The other real ingredient is this perseverance. The guys that make it have all of these pieces, but they also have the insane drive that maybe some of the other guys that had great voices or that looked beautiful or could shred [didn’t have]. There were a million guys that could shred on their guitars, but not all of them became household names. You had to have the right mentality and the right personality to just keep going, no matter what — and to keep pushing through, like, maybe 10,000 [other] bands by the time you get toward the end of the 1980s.

Beaujour: You also had to have a clear point-of-view. Once you look at a picture of a band and you hear their song or you see their video, you immediately know whether you’re buying into it or not. You see Mötley Crüe, and you’re like, “That’s a gang. These guys have a point-of-view.” 

There’s something about the package and the personalities — and it could even be from animus within the band. I saw Guns N’ Roses at the Ritz for that famous show that was broadcast on MTV umpteen times. Obviously, I’ve seen many, many shows in my life, but I could actually remember — I was 16 at the time — watching that show and knowing at that moment that I was seeing something important and electrifying and exciting and special. I knew then that I was going to remember that show — and I’d remember it even if I hadn’t seen it on MTV umpteen times later. 

There is a certain energy and danger that a real band for the ages projects. Even if they’re great at their craft and good-looking, [only] one in a million bands has that.

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