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Mad, bad, and dangerous to know: a short history of rock's wildest stars

Alice Cooper
(Image credit: Chris McKay / Getty Images)

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know – that goes for a multitude of some of our best-loved rock bands. After all, what’s the point of rock’n’roll if there isn’t at least a little rebellion there for us to wonder at or be in some ways jealous of. They get to do the things that ordinary people can’t/won’t/don’t get the opportunity to do. 

It’s somehow deemed okay in their world if those bad boys over-indulge in everything, whether it’s drink, drugs, sex, fighting… Hell, it’s almost part of the job description.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘dangerous’ is defined as a word to describe “involving or causing danger”, where ‘danger’ is either “a liability or exposure to harm” or “a thing that causes or is likely to cause harm”. Which includes doing something that you probably shouldn’t – or at least that your parents probably wouldn’t approve of. 

Funnily enough, at least three dangerous protagonists are actually sons of clergymen: Lemmy was the son of a vicar; Alice Cooper is known as Vincent Furnier to his father, a Pentecostal minister; while Axl Rose’s stepfather was also a Pentecostal preacher. 

The epithet “the most dangerous band in the world” has been levelled against many rock groups over the years. In fact the establishment thought rock’n’roll itself as a concept was dangerous: Elvis Presley was dangerous due to his thrusting pelvis; The Beatles were dangerous because, among other things, they had long hair, and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was allegedly inspired by an acid trip (John Lennon maintained right up to the day he died that it wasn’t, and after having admitted to experimenting with mind-expanding substances, why would he have cause to lie about it? But that’s another story. 

The Rolling Stones were dangerous because they roamed the world, partied in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, drank and indulged and enjoyed the pleasures of willing young ladies across the globe. Led Zeppelin were dangerous too, and the litany of things they got up to includes the alleged incident with the groupie and the red snapper in a motel in Seattle. 

The list is endless. But then there are other bands who are deemed dangerous for different reasons – not because of the harm they inflict upon themselves or those around them, but rather the harm they could inflict upon the moral fibre of the impressionable youth of the world. 

What about all those bands and artists who endeavour to outrage ‘polite’ society with their stage-show antics, cover art and even lyrics? We’re talking early Alice Cooper, late-80s W.A.S.P., and even, in today’s, world Eminem. Clad in black, with make-up to match, in his stage show Alice Cooper chopped up babies and skinned pregnant women. He was always in trouble with the conservative establishment, and after a young fan accidentally hanged himself while imitating Cooper’s stage act this only became heightened.

Alice was to the 1970s what Marilyn Manson (or Dani Filth, the low-rent British version) is to the current chemical generation. Manson has had his fair share of controversy, but whether he is truly dangerous remains open to debate. There were the accusations that as the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre were Marilyn fans, ergo Marilyn really was the Antichrist, and responsible. 

Then there were the accusations of assault levelled against him, when concert security guard Joshua Keasler claimed that Manson, wearing only a black G-string, began grinding his crotch into his head and neck. 

Although Eminem has very little in common musically with the aforementioned artists, just consider his show – he wields a chainsaw; Alice Cooper had a guillotine and gallows, Blackie Lawless a rotary saw blade on his codpiece with which he used to simulate the rape of a nun on a cross. Now if that isn’t done to shock, what is it done for? 

And it’s the same with lyrics. Eminem’s were accused of being misogynistic and violent, but the same accusations were being thrown at all sorts of hard rock music years earlier (including W.A.S.P.’s Fuck Like A Beast, with the 'Parents Music Resource Center' (PMRC) calling for the labelling of certain CDs which were deemed ‘dangerous’ or ‘potentially damaging’. 

Spearheaded by Tipper Gore (wife of future US presidential candidate Al Gore), the PMRC came to being in the 1980s when religious fundamentalists and some parents’ groups waged a campaign against many recording artists to limit what those artists could or couldn’t put on their records. 

The PMRC wanted to ban, or if that failed at least sticker, albums that included themes or imagery related to sexuality, violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the even went so far as to try to prosecute record companies and shop owners for ‘occult’, and producing or selling such records. 

After many well-reasoned arguments, including Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider addressing the US Senate, a compromise of sorts was reached: the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced the now ubiquitous Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics sticker, which was to be put on any album that the issuing record company felt might contain controversial material.

An early example of a stickered album was Guns N’ Roses’ debut Appetite For Destruction – which had got the band in big trouble right from the start with its original cover artwork. Now these guys were the real deal, and perhaps were the most dangerous band in the world. They at least had the right credentials, and even took to giving themselves that title. 

GN’R were an accident waiting to happen. The band – Axl, Slash, Izzy Stradlin’, Steven Adler and Duff McKagan – emerged from Los Angles in the late 80s. They walked it like they talked it – early photographs were seldom complete without one of them firmly clasping a bottle of Jack Daniel in his fist. 

But it wasn’t just drink that made them dangerous, as even Axl announced from the stage when GN’R opened for the Rolling Stones (themselves not the most clean-cut of groups): that if “certain members” of the band didn’t stop “dancing with Mr Brownstone” he’d quit the band, which was a reference to the increasing heroin use by Steven, Slash and Izzy.

But Axl was a loose cannon all of his own. He married Erin Everley (who made allegations of mental and physical abuse in the divorce proceedings that quickly followed). Axl himself alleges to have been sexually abused by his natural father and beaten by his step-father, a Pentecostal preacher. And who knowns, perhaps that influenced his volatile nature. 

By this time, Axl was holding an extreme vendetta against Vince Neil, the frontman of that other ‘most dangerous band in the world’, Motley Crue. The well-publicised feud between Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue began after an altercation involving Vince Neil and Izzy Stradlin at a nightclub in Los Angeles. GN’R and the Crue were continually at each other’s throats in the music press, and Axl went on record (to Classic Rock’s Mick Wall) to challenge Vince to a fight. 

“I hate to give Vince Neil or Motley Crue any credit like this, you know. But he’s going around saying a bunch of crap and I just want to call him on it,” Axl fumed. “It’s like, he’s a liar and he’s a wimp. And if he wants to do something – any time, you know? At wherever. Name a place. Bring who you want. I don’t care. Just whenever you wanna do it, man. Let’s just do it. I think it’d be fun. 

“It’s like, cos this way I can basically get away with it legally and everything, man. I can have a full-on brawl and get away with it.” 

Like his bandmates, Axl was also known to dabble with illegal substances. He even told RIP magazine that he’d had “lost weekends” on smack, but that he was able to keep it all “under control”. And he did.

It was other elements of his personality, coupled with his out-of-control bandmates, that made GN’R such a lethal combination. The band were deemed dangerous lyrically, too, with their drug allusions – Mr Brownstone, for example – and Axl’s ill-timed comments about almost every minority group in the incendiary song One In A Million (from the GN’R Lies album) meant he was now perceived as a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist.

As we know now, Guns N’ Roses all but imploded. But for that brief moment the band truly lived up to their adopted appellation.

But it wasn’t just the big rockers who were mad, bad and dangerous to know. Punk spawned a succession of volatile performers, both on and off stage. The Sex Pistols continue to be written about, talked about and dissected. Their songs were short, sharp and spiteful. And punk bands always had much more attitude than they did technical musical ability. They were antiestablishment and revelled in it. 

But then rock’n’roll – real rock’n’roll – had always been that way, whether it was the Stones, The Who, the Sex Pistols or whoever. An outcry occurred when the Pistols made their infamous appearance on The Tonight Show, on December 1, 1976. The dialogue between host Bill Grundy and a sneering Johnny Rotten went as follows: 

Bill Grundy: “Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms have all died…” 

Johnny Rotten: “They’re all heroes of ours, ain’t they?” 

Grundy: “Really? What were you saying, sir?” 

Rotten: “They’re wonderful people.” 

Grundy: “Are they?” 

Rotten: “Oh yes. They really turn us on.” 

Grundy: “Well suppose they turn other people on?” 

Johnny Rotten: [under his breath] “Well that’s just their tough shit.” 

And so it went on, profanity after profanity, Rotten goaded by the perplexed Grundy. 

After having changed the face of music, both in terms of image and sonics, the Pistols were saddled with a rather more unsavoury legacy. That of Sid Vicious, the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and his heroin addiction.

Yes, drugs and drink will forever be a part of rock, and it would be foolish to believe otherwise. So when Alice In Chains' Layne Staley sang ‘What’s my drug of choice/Well what have you got?’ it was an indication that any potent substance could be adopted by rock stars. And that makes them dangerous – generally to themselves. 

Just look at the casualties: Staley himself, Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, Free’s Paul Kossoff, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone to name but a few. And remember that Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx died of a heroin overdose, too, although, bizarrely, only for two minutes. 

While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were nicknamed The Glimmer Twins, Aerosmith vocalist/frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry were given the unenviable moniker The Toxic Twins – and with very good reason. By the time the late 70s rolled around, Aersomith were, by Perry own admissions “drug addicts dabbling in music, rather than musicians dabbling with drugs”. 

Nowhere was safe from their excess, either: cocaine was consumed in huge quantities; vintage wine was consumed by the case-full. The band even took to using chainsaws to destroy hotel rooms; the obligatory television hurled from a hotel room window – the higher up the better – was almost tame by comparison to the other destruction that was being wrought. 

But despite the chaos that ensued, Perry told Classic Rock’s Ian Fortnam that he never thought that band were totally on the edge. “I don’t know if I ever felt that it got out of control; maybe I was delusional," he laughed. 

“Maybe if you were standing on the outside there were times that it looked like we were losing it, but I never felt like we were out of control. That's one of the hazards of that kind of a lifestyle.  

“Much later on, when I decided to get clean, I’d realised that that way wasn't working any more – not artistically, musically, functionally or emotionally. So I knew there wasn’t any other alternative than to get clean. At least it was worth a try, because I figured if that doesn’t work you can still go back out and drink and do drugs. But that was much later on. During those days in the 70s I never really felt like we were off the tracks.”

These days Tyler is similarly open about their off-the-rails days, confessing that with his first band paycheque he bought, "a big bag of pistachios, a bottle of Boone’s Farm [apple wine] and a little bag of blue crystal meth, which I hid in the back of our freezer.” 

It didn’t stop at a bag of pistachios, and Tyler went off the rails in terms of drugs, drink and girls. In 1976 he even confessed to a Hit Parader journalist that he wasn’t even enjoying it any more, as he says in the band’s autobiography Walk This Way: “I don’t have that much fun on the road any more. It used to be pussy, cars and money. 

"No, not much fun, because I’d like to ball everything I see everything, but at least once a day. But I – well, not really have to be careful, you know? Hard to have fun any more’ve had the clap twice now, so… you what … I’ll tell you ’s fun: finding the right stewardess and turning her upside down in the back of the plane. Ever done it? You come so fast, it’s the greatest, just knowing you might get caught… This pace is ruining me. Look at my face. I fly every day of my life. I put on three coats of moisturiser in the morning so my face doesn't dry out… Whaddaya mean, settle down? Are you nuts? Have kids? Do you see ’t dry the way I’m living now? I’d make them insane…“

"This drunkologue was published, almost verbatim, and it got back to our families. My mother didn’t much care for my comments about the stewardesses. No one else’s mother did either. I heard about it.”

A couple of other notorious hellraisers who also enjoyed a tipple liked were The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, coincidently both drummers. While both bands were living life to the full, somehow Bonham and Moon were living it a little fuller.

Moon was larger than life in more ways than one. His drumming was The Who’s heartbeat, his amphetamine-fuelled style defining the band and the time. He regularly destroyed kits, and once even blew one up. And as for hotel rooms, no one was safe. He once paid some taxi drivers in New York to cut off a street so that he could chuck the furniture from his room into the street below safely – well, at least he had safety in mind!

And how can one forget the legendary ‘Lincoln in the pool’ incident at the Holiday Inn, Flint, Michigan? Moon also co-founded The Hollywood Vampires, an elite drinking club in Los Angles, with Alice Cooper.

Recently, Cooper remembered the craziness of his friend on the So Graham Norton TV show. “He used to come over to the house and stay for days,” Alice recalled of ‘Moon The Loon’. “My wife and I would go out, come back, and he’d have cleaned up the kitchen and living room – and he’d be in a French maid’s outfit.”

Like Moon, Alice’s downfall was also booze, but he luckily got wise and didn’t let it destroy him as it eventually did his friend. Alice voluntarily went into recovery and was treated for alcoholism in a rehab centre in 1978. Moon, meanwhile, was too dangerous for his own good. He died the same year that Cooper got himself clean. 

Let’s not forget, either, that Ozzy Osbourne hasn’t always been the loveable, shambling rogue and friend to the Queen that we got to see on The Osbournes every week. He was once as dangerous as they come. On the road with Sabbath, he drank too much, took too many drugs and got himself into all sort of trouble. 

It’s hard to think that Ozzy was once arrested for trying to kill his doting wife Sharon, and on another occasion again for urinating on the almost sacred the Alamo – while wearing one of Sharon’s dresses. 

Someone who always personified the dangerous side of rock was Lemmy, the man who effectively was Motorhead, and for a long time the ultimate elder statesman of heavy metal. He made no apologies for living his life on the wild side. Throughout his career he was uncompromising and unapologetic. 

After starting life with psychedelic folkster’s Hawkwind, Lemmy got in trouble with the law, arrested by Canadian border police in 1975 for cocaine possession. However, by sheer luck of circumstances he managed to escape their wrath.

As he recalled in his autobiography White Line Fever: “The really fucked up – but also lucky – thing about the whole situation was that I didn’t even have any coke,” he says. 

“Some chick at the show had given me some pills, and I had about a gramme of amphetamine sulphate. Cos it was early, and I wasn’t thinking, I stuffed my contraband down my pants. Not a good idea – they searched us to the skin, and the cops got my stash. They took the amphetamine sulphate and put some of it in one of those vials that you shake up – if it turns a certain colour, then you’re in trouble. But it doesn’t differentiate between speed and cocaine. Well, it turned the right colour – for the cops, that is. ‘This is cocaine, buddy. You’re going to jail!’ I said: ‘I don’t think so.’ But the bastard kept me. And the rest of the band went off to Toronto.” 

As luck would have it, Lemmy’s case was thrown out on a ‘wrongful charge’ loophole, since his stash was actually speed and not coke. Hawkwind, rather hypocritically, fired Lemmy because of his arrest. But he was to exact his own form of revenge: “I came home and fucked their old ladies,” he says. “Not the ugly ones, but at least four.”

Sex is another another prerequisite for rock’n’roll. How many photographs have we seen with A.N. Other rock star with a pretty (or not so pretty) scantily clad woman (or two) on each arm? In fact, the aforementioned Lemmy was seldom pictured without being in the company of a topless lady friend. Despite admitting that playing a Motorhead gig is “better than screwing”, it hasn’t stopped him. 

“He is a cunt, he is a bastard, he does knock off other people’s birds,” said bandmate ‘Philthy’ Phil Taylor. “But he’s also incredibly funny. Every time you go out with him it’s a memorable experience.” 

Kiss’s Gene Simmons is also a king lech – you really wouldn’t want your daughters anywhere near him. He has been judge of Miss Nude USA, and that just about sums up his raison d’être. Simmons admits to forming the band “to get rich and get laid. And any rock star that tells you different is lying. Everybody yelling your name and paying for the privilege, girls wanting to have your children and guys thinking you’re cool.” 

Let’s face it, he’s a menace to womankind and he admits it, summing up his band’s success in his own terms. “For me, the real gauge of success was the amount of skirt I had access to,” Simmons told Classic Rock. “The money’s always nice, but you can’t fuck money. But if you have money it attracts skirt – it’s like ants to a picnic.” 

Led Zeppelin – and especially drummer John Bonham – were kings of danger. Alcohol was his big deal, and he was involved in one of rock’s most lurid tales. According to myth (and also road manager Richard Cole’s book Hammer Of The Gods), while Zep were staying at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle in 1969, they caught some small mud sharks from the hotel window – the hotel lived up to its name – and Bonham and Cole decided to pleasure a willing groupie with their catch. 

Bonham also got in trouble with the law, whether it was for speeding in his sports car or for assault when he and manager Peter Grant got violent with a security guard at Oakland Coliseum. 

Jimmy Page was also known to be somewhat dangerous, but that was usually to himself. Page liked a drink – just recall that classic photograph where the young guitarist looks to be pouring a whole bottle of Jack Daniel’s down his throat in one go. And tales have been told that in Zeppelin’s later years Peter Grant would have to carry Page from hotel to car to their plane because the guitarist would be too wasted to manage it alone. 

Despite all of these tales of rock’n’roll abandon, many of the protagonists are thankfully still around to tell their tales. Older, sober (in some cases) and maybe somewhat wiser, but still dangerous in their own distinctive way.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 57