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(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Steel Panther, live at Wembley

Heard the one about the ‘joke’ band that plays to bigger audiences than many of the big names they lampoon lovingly?

“We are what we pretend to be,” the cult American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once warned, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Try telling that to Steel Panther. For almost two decades now, this big-haired LA foursome have pretended to be the most sleazy, hedonistic, sexually depraved porno-rock party monsters on the planet. Their tumescent, balls-out anthems are note-perfect homages to 1980s glam metal, but with their juvenile sexism and carnal fantasy elements amplified to hilariously absurd extremes. Their shtick is forensically observed parody, but rooted in a twisted kind of reality. Give a man a mask and he will show you his true self, genital warts and all.

Across four albums to date, with a fifth due in February, Steel Panther have risen from Sunset Strip covers-band pranksters to arena-filling hair-metal superstars in their own right. They’ve toured with Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe, opened for Guns N’ Roses and Judas Priest, and shared a stage with stellar guests including Corey Taylor and Justin Hawkins. They even headlined Wembley Arena last year, returning this October for a second bite of the cherry pie. Which is where Classic Rock meets them for a peek inside metal’s most extraordinary performance art project.

It’s mid-afternoon in a backstage lounge at Wembley, and the Panther’s day-long role-playing routine has already begun. Fully costumed, in lurid leopard‑skin spandex and luxuriant wigs, the four band members line up to meet and greet around 100 VIP ticket holders. The punters shuffle through in single file for quick hugs, gropes and photos. It’s a soulless promotional grind, but the Panther throw themselves into it, whooping and clowning for the cameras.

“Are you guys ready to fucking party?” beams shaggy-blond singer ‘Michael Starr’, aka 51-year-old Ralph Saenz, as the first fans arrive. Guitarist ‘Satchel’ (Russell Parrish) and drummer ‘Stix Zadinia’ (Darren Leader), both in their mid-40s, snap into synchronised pointing poses with well-oiled ease. Pretty-boy bass player ‘Lexxi Foxx’, aka Travis Haley, seems the most reserved, but he still pulls some gloriously silly, pouty faces. He’s the Derek Zoolander of Steel Panther.

It soon becomes clear at Wembley that Panther’s fans are willing players in the performance, acting out their own semi-fictional roles in this meta-metal cosplay pageant. The men sport silly headbands, wigs and spandex, while most of the women are in saucy rock-chick gear, sharing the joke as they offer up exposed breasts for autographs or lean towards the camera for simulated group-sex shots. One young lady brings Starr a shiny ornament as a gift. He immediately holds it against his crotch in a mock erection. Inevitably.

“The fans here are fucking awesome,” Stix/Leader tells Classic Rock after the meet-and-greet session. “They aren’t some passive group, they are fucking in it. They get dressed up. You know what? UK audiences were the first audiences to really get us. When we put our first record out, we came out here a week later, for Download, and we were blown away at the amount of people who knew the words to a record that had only been out one week.”

Of course, it makes perfect sense that British fans adopted Steel Panther early. Not only do we love hard rock in these islands, but we also specialise in ironic comedy. Crucially, most Brits enjoy puerile, sweary, lowbrow sexual humour, so naturally we’re going to embrace a band who are basically a giant cock and balls scrawled across the face of rock. At their best, Panther combine the mighty pop-metal hooks of Def Leppard, the acutely observed character comedy of Alan Partridge, and the knowingly juvenile smut of Viz Comic. The only real surprise is that they’re not actually British.

But does everybody get the joke? The opening act at Wembley are Buckcherry, who have one foot in the sleazy LA rock scene that Steel Panther are satirising. However, singer Josh Todd sees little of himself in the Panther’s ironic celebration of Sunset Strip debauchery.

“We’re not from that era,” Todd tells us. “Everybody lumps us into that category because I’m flamboyant and we look a certain way, but I was never into those bands. We’re from a whole decade after that. But the way Steel Panther plays off that, I totally enjoy it and get it.”

(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Unlike most rock journalists, Todd has met the real people who play Steel Panther. He confirms that their reputation as party animals is all part of their carefully contrived image. “It’s not what you think,” he says. “I know Ralph the singer pretty well – he’s a great guy. I see him around town a lot, I see his kids. It’s just mellow.”

When Steel Panther sit down for their interview with Classic Rock backstage at Wembley they’re already in character, fully wigged and costumed. Which means relentless jokey references to cocaine and group sex, “anal leakage” and groin injury: “You know, your testicles bleed way more than you think.”

A routine query about the band’s pre-show ritual becomes another bawdy comic improvisation. “We do a lot of drugs,” says Satchel. “We do get girls to get naked. But there’s a rule: never blow your load before a show. You can fuck, you can get blowjobs, do all that stuff. But you can’t blow your load.”

Drummer Stix looks troubled. “What if a little dribbles out?” he asks.

“That’s technically not a load,” Satchel says. “One brick in a wheelbarrow, that is not a load.”

All Steel Panther interviews are full of these comic evasions and eye-watering accounts of backstage sleaze – mostly fantasy, but some grounded in truth. “We all know how hard it is to get our own dicks in our mouths,” Satchel nods as he concludes one unprintable real anecdote.

But after a while in Panther’s company, the line between performance and reality begins to blur a little. Talk turns to recent events in rock, including Lemmy’s death. “Lemmy was so rock’n’roll,” says Satchel. “I wasn’t surprised when he died. It was a bummer, but I was amazed he was still alive. I mean, the guy rocked and partied and toured so fucking long.”

Stix agrees. “It’s inspiring to see a guy live like that and go to the very end. It’s cool he did it on his terms. It makes me want to ignore every piece of health advice my doctor gives me. I want to go to Lemmy’s doctor.”

Beyond Steel Panther’s bawdy spoof lyrics, their firm grasp on the throbbing musical balls of 1980s glam metal helps explain why they have enjoyed more success and longevity than most of the original Sunset Strip sleaze-rock bands. Satchel says big, anthemic, melodic hooks are the key.

“That’s one of the things I liked about 80s heavy metal,” he nods. “Def Leppard, Van Halen, the Crüe – dude, all those band wrote fucking hooks. And there’s a generation of kids who are in their fucking twenties now, and even early thirties, that never got to see it. We love all that shit because we loved it the first time. And if we can give these kids a flavour of it, which I think we do, it keeps people coming.”

Steel Panther have been Grammy-nominated in the comedy category, but in truth their image and music go beyond satire. They’re a great pop-metal band in their own right.

“I don’t think it matters what people refer to us as, whether we’re a parody band or whether we’re a real band,” Satchel shrugs. “It’s funny because we’ve been doing it for so long, and having so much fun, we’ve done more gigs than ninety‑nine per cent of the real bands out there. We’ve been together for fucking decades.”

It’s a testament to the open-minded generosity of the Metal Nation that so many fans and other bands have embraced Steel Panther. But there are a few dissenters out there. According to Starr, Tommy Lee considers the Panther “a stupid joke band” who did not deserve to tour with the Crüe. “There are probably some people that don’t get us – I’m not going to name any names,” Satchel nods. “First of all, if a person thinks they are a fucking rock star, you’ve got to be able to laugh at what you do. In a few years, people are going to be laughing at what you do anyway. The people that don’t get us, either their egos are too big and they haven’t got a sense of humour, or they just haven’t given us the chance.”

“To be fair, most rock stars we’ve met, they give it up for what we do,” says Stix. “Because at the end of the day, it’s about fucking tunes.”

Satchel concurs with a lascivious leer. “And they know that if they don’t give it up for us, we’ll probably fuck their girlfriends.”

The mask slipped for a few minutes, but Steel Panther are firmly back in character.

Darkness decends and Buckcherry take the Wembley stage. Stripped down to their skeletal tattoo-covered torsos, they make a compelling sleaze-rock racket, shot through with jagged shards of guitar and funky, bone-shaking rhythms. Todd is a magnetic frontman, energised and jittery, channelling vintage Lux Interior or Iggy Pop. There’s no hint of Panther-style parody here. This is the real deal, and it’s great.

But second support band Bowling For Soup are a much less appetising prospect, their cartoonish fratboy punk-pop anthems too one-dimensional for a big arena. Singer Jaret Reddick’s stage patter is as scatological as Steel Panther, but without the redeeming wit. “How many people like fanny and bum at the same time?” he asks, clumsily groping his way around British slang. If the Panther are Alan Partridge then these super-sized Texans are Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.

And then it’s Panther time. The glammed-up foursome bound onstage to the adrenalised anthems Eyes Of A Panther and Party Like Tomorrow Is The End Of The World. Starr is a dynamic focal point, David Lee Roth-ed to the max with his athletic stage moves and octave-leaping vocal acrobatics. Meanwhile, Satchel prowls the lip of the stage, peeling off superflash guitar licks and making explicit blowjob gestures to women in the crowd, literally tongue in cheek. Foxx mostly hovers stage right, teetering like a startled gazelle, his gangly gait and blank-eyed detachment oddly reminiscent of Nicky Wire.

Panther’s comic stage banter is a crucial part of the show. There are jokes about anal sex, bestiality, genital warts and small penis size, mostly at the band’s own expense. But they also enjoy testing their audience’s tolerance levels with knowingly dumb riffs on casual sexism and racism: “Fat chicks suck the best dick, am I right?” Starr muses at one point. “We basically just ass-raped your ears with our musical dicks,” Satchel quips later.

(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

Just occasionally, near-the-knuckle parody blurs into genuine offence. Five days after Wembley, as the tour wraps up in Birmingham, Foxx makes a throwaway joke about a black woman in the audience probably being a thief. The crowd’s cheers turn to jeers, and rightly so. Even ironically tasteless humour has its limitations.

Occasional misjudged jokes aside, Panther’s secret weapon is their virtuosity, especially Satchel/Parrish. The centrepiece of their Wembley show is his marathon 15-minute solo, which incorporates riffs from Smoke On The Water, Iron Man, Sweet Child O’ Mine and more, climaxing with the guitarist accompanying himself on the bass drum. This would be a blazingly impressive turn from any musician, comic spoof or not.

There are no new songs from Panther’s upcoming fifth album, Lower The Bar, but they win over Wembley with wall-to-wall singalong classics like the penis-themed power ballad Community Property, the gleaming melodic filth-fest Asian Hooker, and the punchy Party All Day, which sounds like all of Bon Jovi’s greatest hits compressed into a four-minute orgy of X-rated excess.

Fittingly, the evening ends with priapic confetti cannons showering Wembley in a blizzard of jizz – or a jizzard, if you will. Nobody leaves a Steel Panther show unsatisfied. We may have just had our ears shafted by 20 variations on the same crude joke, but it’s still an excellent joke.

At the aftershow party, Steel Panther finally drop their masks. Reverting to sombre civilian clothes, shedding their wigs, most of the band are virtually unrecognisable. With his shaved head and big shorts, Stix/Leader looks like middle-aged skater-punk dad. In short black hair and glasses, Lexxi/Haley could be a junior college professor or a software billionaire.

Meanwhile, the assembled throng of fans and friends are still mostly in full fancy dress. Even Haley’s glamorous girlfriend, statuesque and supermodel-skinny, wears a lurid customised top emblazoned with the neon-pink legend ‘Property of Lexxi Foxx’. The band may have left the stage, but the performance art project continues. Dads and daughters, groupies and grannies: tonight, everybody is in Steel Panther.

“One of the coolest things is parents who bring their teenage kids to our shows,” says Stix/Leader, with a grin. “They want to share this genre of music with their kids because it’s fucking fun! There are so many serious bands out there, so many angry bands. We’re like: dude, we’re here to play some fucking killer rock tunes and fucking party. Forever.”

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