Yesterday I opened my courtroom and began cracking the “cold case” of who killed hair metal. I visited the prime suspect, that being the grunge scene, and my findings indicated that Kurt and company were in fact culpable in the death of hair metal.
But the fact is this – they didn’t act alone. While the death of hair metal wasn’t a grand conspiracy, there were multiple assailants on the scene. And one of those assassins was born and bred in the same scene hair metal came up in – the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles.
What if hair metal didn’t really kill itself (again, we’ll get to that on Friday) but what if it was killed by itself? It begs questions of what hair metal really was and wasn’t, but there’s no doubt that a late ’80’s band left such a mark on the rock scene that it would leave other bands incapable of topping it.
Suspect Two – Guns N Roses
The biggest of the LA bands would hit in the late 1980’s with the monstrous Appetite For Destruction album. While a bit slow to catch on, this collection of tunes would eventually set the world on fire and propel GnR towards “biggest band on Earth” status. The album has gone on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide and is often found on “best album ever” lists regardless of genre.
Guns N Roses were a product of the Sunset Strip and Appetite… certainly was a hard rock/heavy metal document. It is debatable whether the band fits the “hair metal” term, though. They certainly do in general sound and geography, but their brand of rock snarled and snapped a lot more than even the most weighty hair metal offerings.
Many critics and fans do not include GnR on the hair metal roster. This seems to be often fueled by hair metal being seen as a negative term, and bands who are “better” than the moniker are left without having to wear it. It’s the same argument metal fans make when they say someone like Limp Bizkit isn’t metal, but in reverse – spare the band from the term in the case of Guns N Roses, rather than the term from the band.
I can’t really look at things that way, though. I do think Guns N Roses fits the “hair metal” scene and sound. I look at hair metal for what it is – a music scene in a place and time. Sure it has both positive and negative connotations, but the scene can be explored on a semi-objective basis.
It isn’t really fair to classify every mid- or late-80’s band as hair metal, but in the case of Guns N Roses I do think they fit the bill enough. They had the sleazy look and the party hard attitude that went with the scene. Axl Rose wasn’t just a primadonna, he was the absolute head of that table. The band brought with it chaos and drama that other acts could only hope to get a portion of.
The issue at the end of the day is music, of course. Is Appetite For Destruction a hair metal album? I can see the argument either way. The music is bigger than a lot of hair metal and the songs are bounds above the standard fare rock of the time period. The tunes move in a very aggressive direction not often found in the hair metal hordes. Even their “ballad,” Sweet Child O’ Mine, is a much more rounded song that a lot of formula-ridden hair ballads of the day.
And therein lies the point. Appetite For Destruction was such a hard rock monster that it couldn’t be replicated or even contended with. Whether or not it is a true “hair metal” album doesn’t matter – it is adjacent enough to the scene that every band out there had to contend with it. It was a juggernaut incapable of being touched, even by Guns N Roses.
And barely anyone came close to even touching the surface of GnR’s success. Motley Crue would have a hit with their 1989 record Dr. Feelgood, but that album was something of a victory lap for the band and did not approach Appetite’s greatness in any way. Of anyone, perhaps only Skid Row even scratched the surface with their 1991 effort Slave To The Grind. It was another ferocious album that bent the genre and established the group as having prime chops, but that record still did not threaten to unseat Guns N Roses as having made the biggest statement in hard rock.
Guns N Roses themselves would not touch Appetite For Destruction again. Their proper follow-ups were the Use Your Illusion albums – some great songs and clear marks of the excess of rock music, but also very bloated records that tend to crush under their own weight. (For more of my thoughts on those albums, revisit my series on them starting here.) The band would splinter apart in the mid-90’s and only reunite a few years back as a quasi-nostalgia act, with seemingly little new to contribute.
I do feel Guns N Roses is guilty of contributing to the death of hair metal. There was just no way anyone else was going to top Appetite For Destruction. Whether or not the group was really “hair metal” themselves isn’t relevant – maybe it was an inside job or maybe they were just close enough to the scene to take what worked about it and amplify that a thousand times over. Either way, the band are especially guilty of setting the bar so high that the scene they were born of could not cope.
Tomorrow – a suspect not often discussed but one that looms large over the crime scene.