“Out there in the desert, be there if you dare…” - Hot Desert Night
Ugh, I still feel hoodwinked by these sun-bleached puffballs. Here’s the thing. Metal dudes, at least in the 80s, liked two things, basically: riffs and girls. Glam metal attracted the girls, but who could properly headbang to Dokken or Poison, and what denim-vested hellrat would even want to try? Exodus and Voivod had riffs that could slice your head right off of your neck, but girls weren’t going anywhere near those maniacs.
And so, it was the mid 1980s, and we were at an impasse. What’s a long-haired, teenaged heavy metal creep supposed to do to meet rocker chicks? Sell out and get into Motley Crue? Or live a life of Motorhead-enhanced abstinence? Helluva situation. Well, Icon had the answer. In their world, you could have your glammy, sugar-sprinkled cake and then wash it down with stale beer and fresh blood. For a few months in 1984, they offered us a world where flash metal and heavy metal could coexist in the same band, where earth-shaking, air guitar baiting riffs merged with arena-rattling pop metal choruses, where fishnets met used leather, where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. It was all bullshit, it turns out, and Icon changed their whole fucking tune completely by 1985, but for a minute there, things really looked like they were gonna work out.
Our story begins in the deep-fried hellscape of Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1970’s. High school rock band Driver morphs into the regrettably named The Schoolboys and self-releases a surprisingly aggressive pre-metal debut EP, Singin’ and Shoutin’, in 1980. With it’s punk ferocity, big hooks, and crunching riffola, the Schoolboys EP sounded basically like W.A.S.P. a good four years before Blackie managed to eke out his first single.
Of course, unless you were in New York, London, or LA, rock scenes were still solidly and frustratingly regional back then, so no one outside of the Phoenix area was hip to the Schoolboys at that point. Well, except for one dude. Mike Varney knew what was up. Varney was the king of shred back in the 80s. Prior to forming Shrapnel records, he was known mostly for his San Francisco proto-punk band The Nuns, but in 1980 he decided to dedicate his entire life to the burgeoning field of excessive heavy metal guitar. Varney’s legend looms large over metal’s development in the 1980’s, and he is largely responsible for unleashing shred-masters like Yngwie, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, and many others onto the world. So this guy was in tune with what the Schoolboys were up to. Varney discovered ‘em and planned on signing them, but after changing their name to the far saner Icon, they got snatched up by Capitol records right before Varney’s incredulous eyes, despite the fact that he produced their debut album himself. Sonsofbitches.
But at least he got the record made. Look, there are cracks in the foundation even on the debut, I’m not gonna argue that. There’s a frilly instrumental that hints at the pop-prog they would soon embrace and the album ends with an unmercifully dire power-ballad. Also there’s a couple songs on side two that are just rehashes of songs on side one. But there’s enough good stuff on this album to merit some furious headbanging. Rock On (Through the Night) is a rousing, fist-pumping heavy metal anthem that comes on like a biker metal Steeler. It’s fulla cock and rock and bombast and a crazy Vinnie Vincent kinda solo, and the scream-along chorus (”Rock on through the night/that’s what we came here for!”) is pretty much as good as flash metal gets. Despite the meandering guitar-phasing and jazzy drumming on the intro, Under My Gun is a glam/speed-metal powerhouse of nasty, chugging riffs and menacing, kill-for-thrills lyrics, and Rock N’ ‘Roll Maniac – well, it’s basically Rock On (Through the Night), just louder. The overall effect is pretty dramatic. This is a teenage house party record. You can practically see the television sets getting thrown into pools while it plays.
Here’s what was happening, though. Icon was getting pulled in a lot of different directions. Quiet Riot were the biggest band in the world by the time Icon inked a deal in ’83, and every major wanted their own version, and for Capitol, Icon was it. Only problem was, they were from Arizona and they used to be called the fucking Schoolboys, so they obviously had no idea how to dress like an LA glam metal band. When it came down to the day of shooting for Icon’s back cover photos, the band panicked, grabbed fistfuls of their girlfriend’s clothes, attacked ‘em with scissors, and Voila! A mid-80’s mascara massacre. Ultimately, that photo damned them in a lot of people’s eyes. I mean, they might have rightly been lauded as sealing the gap between speed and flash metal, but you look at the pic for too long, with the burnt-out perms and the fuckin’ bangs and the white leather belt and the cut-up shirts and the Brooklyn-hooker hoop earrings, it’s gonna lead you straight into the arms of Mercyful Fate or Anthrax. Still, Icon enjoyed a good year or so of success playing destructo-flash metal for speed metal kids. I know this to be true, because I saw them on a tour with Savatage and all the dudes with bullet belts were there, wildly rockin’ out. That’s not what Capitol wanted, tho. They wanted power ballads and radio hits, so for the follow-up, they brought in a professional keyboard-metal songwriter, Bob Halligan, Jr. – who’s biggest claim to fame was writing a buncha bad pop metal songs for Canadian puffballs Helix- to ruin ‘em. And he did.
Although 1985’s Night of the Crime is considered a classic by Euro wimp-metal types, for anybody that was a fan of the first record, it was a real kick in the nuts. It was a radical shift to AOR, AKA “melodic rock”. It sounded more like Journey than anything else. Icon’s singer, Stephen Clifford, split before it was released, because he decided to give up rock’n’roll and become a born again Christian. That’s how bad that record was. For all intents and purposes, Icon was done within a year of their splashy debut. Capitol dropped ‘em, but they still managed to limp through the next few years, sometimes calling themselves “Assmaster” (!) to throw off the stink of failure, and eventually releasing another couple records. By 1989, thanks the aforementioned wimp factor, they had actually caught fire again, and toured with Bon Jovi and Skid Row on the continent. But when they got back home, US rockers wanted none of their nonsense, and they broke up. They’ve played a few reunion gigs here and there and there’s been rumours of a new record floating around for years, and they’ve settled into cult status among hardcore AOR fans. Yes, those exist. Ultimately, not a bad run, but I don’t even have enough fingers to count the amount of times that Icon committed flash metal suicide over the years.
That show did fuckin’ rock, tho.
Next week: You probably think this song is about you.