It’s hard to imagine the air we breathe or the water we drink without the pioneering work of Twisted Sister or Quiet Riot, isn’t it? How would we ever gauge our current state of metal health? Or whether we were gonna take it or not? Do we rock until we drop, or do we get it smooth up in ya? The hair metal movement of the 1980’s changed us all, forever. Doesn’t even matter if you weren’t born yet, you are still susceptible to its charms and terrors.
Mötley Crüe will be playing at your first strip club visit. Poison will be the soundtrack to your next family picnic. You may very well get buried in a Kiss Koffin.
Hair metal is a virus that infects us all. It was the sound of youth culture at its most decadent, an endless bacchanalia of wine, women, and song that promised every pleasure under the sun and asked only for you to grow your hair long, tell your parents to go fuck themselves, and have a good time all the time.
When it died, it deserved to, but when it thrived, it was truly a wonder to behold, the most wretchedly majestic musical movement ever conceived. Here then, a definitive list of the genre’s most potent rabble-rousers, the anthems that launched a million burnouts, the most effective clarion calls that dizzy decade had to offer…
20. AUTOGRAPH – Turn Up the Radio (1984)
Essentially the lightweight, frivolous flipside to gnarly flash metal like GN’R or Mötley Crüe, Autograph were a radio-friendly throwback to late 70’s glammy hard-rock acts like Angel or Y&T. Formed in Pasadena in 1983 by guitarist/vocalist Steve Plunkett, Autograph were never, for a moment, cool. They really weren’t. They were sponsored by a pen company, for chrissakes. But their drummer was buds with David Lee Roth, and by the mid 80’s everyone with long hair got a record contract, and so it went for Autograph. They released their debut album, Sign in Please (Ugh, the pen metaphors!) in late 1984. It initially tanked, but then this annoyingly irresistible ear-worm took hold on rock radio and shot them into platinum status. It didn’t last, but let’s give ‘em their moment in the sun. A great song and a great ode to a great medium that grows dimmer every day.
19. EUROPE – The Final Countdown (1986)
To understand how this song became such a runaway hit the world over, you have to remember that most people in the 80’s felt like there was at least a decent chance that we’d all die in a nuclear war before we ever got to the 1990’s. Ronald Reagan was the leader of the free world, and he was a war-baiting maniac. So Europe, an unassuming Swedish melodic pop-metal band, wrote a song about the end of the world as we know it, full of piping organs and rippin’ guitar solos, and we all loved it. That’s how unstable we were. If you were born too late for the 80’s, you should count your fucking blessings.
18. SKID ROW – Youth Gone Wild (1989)
Hair metal was littered with flamboyant frontmen, but few were as out-spoken, controversial, and flat-out obnoxious as head-Skid Sebastian Bach. And he could sing like a motherfucker, too. Skid Row always walked a wobbly line between outright heavy metal – their Slave To The Grind album is probably the heaviest record in the hair metal canon – and radio-baiting cheese. Say what you will about ballads like 18 and Life or I Remember You, but this one – their debut single from the ‘89 debut album – is pure rip-snorting, hard-as-nails power-rock, with lyrics (“Never played by the rules, never cared/My nasty reputation takes me everywhere” that captured the essence of glam’s suburban teenage malaise perfectly.
17. DOKKEN – Dream Warriors (1987)
Here’s the thing with this one. This is basically everything you need to know about the 1980’s in one song. The title theme to the box office-busting third entry in the ridiculously popular horror movie franchise Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Warriors IS 1987: teenagers, heavy metal, and horror movies, in exactly that order. Freddy Krueger and Don Dokken were peas in the same pod, cheeseball emissaries of big-box teenage rebellion, purveyors of cheap thrills, easy scares, and the fleet-fingered guitar heroics of George Lynch. It sounds dated and it should. It is the warm and fuzzy memory of sticky cinema floors and weekends haunting arenas with cigarette lighters hoisted to the heavens.
16. WARRANT – Cherry Pie (1990)
Written on a pizza box in 15 minutes under duress at the tail-end of recording sessions for Warrant’s second album, Cherry Pie is at once the best and worst hair metal had to offer during its last year of cultural relevance. Some may even go so far as to call it the first and most lethal nail in hair metal’s coffin. And you can kinda see why. The song was all everything people hated about the genre – it was sophomoric, sexist, trite, obvious, juvenile. But then again, those are all the things people loved about glam, too. Warrant were bonafide stars already – let us not forget Down Boys and Heaven from their ‘89 debut, Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich – but this is the song that cemented their (dubious?) place in rock history. And let’s face it, it’s pretty fucking great. And also quite terrible. Goddamnit.
15. FASTER PUSSYCAT – Bathroom Wall (1987)
Don’t kid yourself – there were very few heroic figures in hair metal. Most of the principal players were cretins. Mötley Crüe were not exceptions to the rule, they were simply the most transparent. The guys taped to your walls in the 1980’s were basically capable of anything: drugs, booze, sex, in every combination possible. Hair metal bands were the electric Caligulas of the Reagan age. And nobody was as sleazy as Faster Pussycat. That was basically their whole angle, they were grosser than everybody else. They were also mainstream rock’s conduit to the underground. Even their name – a reference to sexploitation film champ Russ Meyer – suggested a deep knowledge of the hip and esoteric. While most of the bands in LA paid lip-service to creaky old classic rockers like Zep and The Who, Faster Pussycat leaned heavy on late 70’s punk and Detroit motor-rock. They had street-cred. It didn’t help and wasn’t even necessary, but they had it, none the less. While the groan-worthy power-ballad House of Pain became their biggest hit, this is the one they really meant. It still stinks up the room with the foul stench of whiskey, cigarettes and regret every time it plays.
14. CINDERELLA – Shake Me (1986)
Shake Me wasn’t much of a hit when Cinderella’s debut, Night Songs, hit the shelves in 1986. The mushy power-ballad Nobody’s Fool moved a lot more units. But it remains one of the best roof-rattling anthems of the era, cementing Cinderella’s place as one of the most authentically rock n’ roll bands of the glam wave. As time rolled on their blues influences came to the forefront and the frilly frocks were more of an afterthought, but at this point in their career, you got the whole package – hair piled to the ceiling and searing, blooze-powered hard rock.
13. MÖTLEY CRÜE – Live Wire (1981)
Certainly there are late 70’s precedents you could point to if you really wanted to get technical about it, but let’s face it, this 1981 banger is the mother of all hair metal anthems. Sure, Mötley Crüe would go on to become one of the biggest rock/metal bands on the planet, but their Too Fast For Love incarnation was so weird, so off-kilter, so raw and immediate that it almost seems like a different band completely than the tattooed millionaires who created Girls Girls Girls. On this, the opener of their outta-nowhere debut, Mick Mars presents us with one of the most self-assuredly ugly guitar sounds of all time, pure punk, just a mean-spirited grunt, really. Vince Neil’s yelping, especially on the “wiiiiiireeeee” sound positively mournful, and really, the lyrics are more like a serial killer’s diary than the work of 20-something horndogs. He doesn’t even sound like he knows the lyrics (and, to this day, he usually mumbles his way through the verses), and the whole affair sounds rushed, like a one-take wonder that just happened to change rock n’roll forever. None of it should work, but all of it works. Live Wire is the greatest punk-slash-deathrock-slash-glitterrock anthem of all-time. Pure lightning in a bottle. Rock’n’roll made dangerous again.
12. BON JOVI – Livin’ On A Prayer (1986)
Has there ever been a man more suited to the job of rock star than Jon Bon Jovi? His band of working-class Jersey dudes propelled hair metal into the stratosphere with a combination of looks and hooks that were thoroughly unbeatable, and this one – an uplifting tale of small-town lovers with lyrics worthy of Springsteen – was their magnum opus. A video featuring ol’ Jon-Bon flying around an arena on a harness to the delight of thousands, mostly lips-licking girls, put it all right over the top. Sure, it was a stretch to throw these puffballs into the metal category, but it was the 80’s, man. Everything was metal.
11. SCORPIONS – Rock You Like a Hurricane (1984)
The Scorps were doin’ just fine already, plying their twin-guitar Euro-metal to hordes of headbangers the world over. In fact, they had already reinvented themselves a few times already, from hippie space-prog rockers in the early 70’s to envelope-pushing hard rock provocateurs 10 years later. 1984’s Love At First Sting was not a radical departure from their monolithic ‘82 masterpiece Blackout, but it did take a more commercial approach to their Teutonic riff-mongering. The end result was a platinum selling monster anchored by this near-perfect ode to all-that-is-heavy. The over the top video, featuring the band playing inside a flimsy cage that threatens to be overrun by rabid female fans at any moment, certainly didn’t hurt.
10. TWISTED SISTER – We’re Not Gonna Take It (1984)
The video for this song was such a cultural phenomenon, it propelled Dee Snider from obscure metal singer to America’s second-favourite cross dresser (next to Boy George). A classic tale of boyhood rebellion set to snarly boot-stomp glam, We’re Not Gonna Take It was a masterpiece of kitsch, as tacky and as ridiculous as you could hope from a bunch of gnarly New York bruisers dressed in shredded house-dresses, and so catchy it would not leave your head – or the radio – for years, maybe forever. From their seminal, multi-platinum Stay Hungry album, unleashed on a metal-mad world in 1984.
9. WHITESNAKE – Here I Go Again (1987)
Talk about right place, right time. Whitesnake were a mid-level 70’s hard rock band formed by David Coverdale after leaving Deep Purple, and he probably didn’t have any aspirations to be glam anything. But midway through their gradual transformation from Zep-alikes to more radio-friendly rock n’ roll, hair metal hit like a hammerblow and the still youthful-looking thirty-something Coverdale found himself in the midst of a brand new career as the Robert Plant of the hairspray set. And here’s the thing: he fucking nailed, it man. A lot of hair metal hits have aged terribly, full of artificial drum sounds, embarrassingly juvenile lyrics and dodgy musicianship. Not Whitesnake’s, though. Time has only strengthened their legacy and songs like Here I Go Again sound positively regal in comparison to plastic-fantastic hits from the same era by goons like Danger Danger or the Bulletboys. And has there every been an opening line as great as “I don’t know where I’m going, but I sure know where I’ve been?” There has not. PS Yes, we’re aware it was remake and originally appeared on 82’s Saints & Sinners album, but Tawny Kitaen was nowhere to be found at that point so forget it.
8. OZZY OSBOURNE – Crazy Train (1980)
Who knew this guy had it in him? When Ozzy stumbled out of Black Sabbath in 1979 under a fog of alcohol, most metal fans figured that was it, he’d check into a motel room somewhere and drink his liver to death. And that’s basically what he did for the next couple years. But then he pulled off the most remarkable comeback probably in the history of rock n’ roll. Picking up whiz-kid guitarist Randy Rhoads from the splinters of Quiet Riot, Ozzy reinvented himself as the godfather of hair metal, producing two landmark albums in rapid succession to prove it. Crazy Train’s signature riff is so iconic that literally everyone you know knows it, could identify it in three seconds or less, and will tell you it’s a damn good tune. And it is. The fact that Rhoads died before he could see what a lasting impact it had on heavy metal is a shame, but holy smokes, what a fucking song.
7. VAN HALEN – Panama (1984)
Van Halen were a 70’s rock band that stumbled into the hair metal party and proceeded to wipe the floor with the half-wit kids aping their moves. If anybody knew how to command an arena full of sex-crazed adolescents, it was David Lee Roth, and Eddie’s pyrotechnic guitar playing was so far ahead of the competition at this point that Panama sounds like it was created by an entirely different species. Who cares what Panama was actually about – drugs? A stripper? A car? – it feels like the still-throbbing heart of Saturday night, and as time rolls on and hairlines recede into the ether, Panama has remained as potent and vital and life-affirming as it did in 1984.
6. RATT – Round and Round (1984)
No band exemplified the hedonistic pleasures of hair metal as effortlessly as Ratt did. They were hard and sleazy enough for hardcore rock n’ roll types, but they wore enough make-up and threw in enough pop hooks to reel in mainstream fans, as well. They had a charismatic frontman, a great sense of humour, and for a good few years, a seemingly endless well of radio-baiting hit songs. Round and Round, from their ‘84 debut, was their first and biggest single, scraping the top 10 in the US and propelling them from 70’s leftovers to the next big thing seemingly overnight. It remains one of the most recognizable and still-welcome songs of the entire era. And the video had ancient funnyman Milton Berle in drag, so that was cool, too.
5. KISS – Rock n’ Roll All Nite (1975)
Perhaps this is cheating, since it was released a decade before hair metal hit the ground running, but this song is basically the entire hair metal movement summed-up in two and a half glorious minutes of street-savvy glitter rock. From Kiss’s third album, 1975’s Dressed to Kill, Rock n’ Roll All Nite failed to bother the charts much when it was originally released as a single. The version most people remember was the live rendition from 1976’s Kiss Alive!, the album that broke Kiss as global rock superstars. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this song wasn’t always a hit or even that actual flesh and blood humans wrote it; it still sounds like it had always existed. Rock n’ Roll All Nite is perhaps the closest thing hair metal has to holy scripture. We must all obey its weighty words. Bonus: they spelled ‘night’ wrong. A decade later, everybody was spelling shit wrong, it was a whole thing.
4. POISON – Nothin’ But a Good Time (1988)
Nothin’ But a Good Time was the first single from Poison’s second watershed album, 1988’s Open Up and Say Ahh. Their first album, ‘86’s Look What the Cat Dragged In, established them as essentially the heir apparent to Kiss, a larger-than-life explosion of spandex and bubblegum that was impossible to resist. By this point, they were metal royalty, the absolute kings of glam, and this song was the soundtrack to their coronation. A party anthem in the most literal sense, it still holds immeasurable power. Even though hair metal had peaked at this point and the party would soon break up and wander off to mope in faded flannel, Poison continued to go from strength to strength, and this song has never lost it’s heart-of-Saturday-night allure. Say what you will about ‘em, this song is as classic as rock gets.
3. QUIET RIOT – Metal Health (1983)
If you were not there at the time, it is impossible to adequately explain the impact this song had on pop culture in 1983. It was literally everywhere. Before Metal Health, heavy metal was the stuff of teenage dirtbags, the short-bus cousin to punk. After Metal Health, everybody you ever met was suddenly a metalhead, and the sound of blazing riffage ruled the kingdom for the rest of the decade. For most people, Quiet Riot had seemingly come up from nowhere, but the band had been in operation for a decade already and had previously boasted Ozzy’s greatest fret-handler Randy Rhoads in its ranks. Fuelled by early 70’s glam and the loudmouth razzmatazz of it’s flamboyant frontman Kevin Dubrow, Quiet Riot had been honed and polished for years by the time they got their big break. Their stranglehold on the charts was brief and the backlash was brutal, but for one glorious summer, Quiet Riot taught us all to bang our heads, and we could not get enough.
2. GUNS N’ ROSES – Welcome To The Jungle (1987)
First song on the first studio album from the greatest glam/flash metal band of all time, ever. Glam metal had already existed for years before it, but none of it even mattered until this song was unleashed. Welcome to the Jungle validated everything else. It went beyond art, beyond commerce, it remained cool no matter how popular it got, and every second of it is exactly right. Welcome to the Jungle did not come from nowhere – it is directly inspired by Finn glam-icons Hanoi Rocks and Smack, who were themselves directly inspired by Aerosmith and the New York Dolls – but it still didn’t sound like anything else, and still doesn’t. It was the pinnacle achievement for a band of druggy, half-starved burnouts who turned out to be the architects of a brave new world. Madness, chaos, and many millions of dollars followed in its wake. No wonder Axl whispers “Oh my God” at the top of the song. It’s like he already knew how badly this song was going to fuck them all up.
1. DEF LEPPARD – Rock of Ages (1983)
Of course it’s number one, what else? While 1987’s Hysteria would ultimately become Def Lep’s biggest selling album, Pyromania is the one that broke them into worldwide superstardom, largely because of this song. An endless build-up into an orgy of sticky-sweet screamalong choruses – or maybe the whole thing is the chorus, it’s hard to tell – Rock of Ages hit every rock fan in just the right place, and at just the right time. The first 20 seconds – cowbell, a snicker, the glooben-globbin – is so heroically cavalier that you have already been won over before that gorgeously perfect riff even kicks in. The result of a madman (producer Mutt Lange) tinkering with Lep’s sound on an almost sub-atomic level until every second was absolutely and unmistakably right and true, this is the greatest thing that hair metal ever produced. If your friends don’t like this song, ditch them. If your girl/boyfriend doesn’t like this song, break up with them. I don’t care who you are, this is your anthem. God didn’t give rock n’ roll to you, man. Def Lep did.