Mötley Crüe. Ratt. Whitesnake. Bon Jovi.
These bands rocked the MTV generation more than any other, and helped make the Glam Metal of the 1980s indivisible from the culture of that decade.
Let’s take a look back at the music, the clothes and the HAIR that helped characterize this slice of music history.
What Was Glam Metal?
Not to be confused with the British “Glam Rock” of the 1970s (including artists like Queen and David Bowie), Glam Metal was a subgenre of hard rock and heavy metal that used more elements of pop and punk music than heavy metal. Indeed, glam metal is also sometimes called “pop metal” or “metal pop.”
Glam metal bands played music with catchy hooks, memorable guitar riffs, and singable lyrics. The music was often more accessible, and less violently angry than either punk or hard rock offerings, making it particularly popular with suburban youth, and more playable on pop and Top 40 radio stations.
Equally important to the music, however, was fashion and the glam metal “look.” Taking inspiration from both the British glam rock artists of the 1970s (such as David Bowie) and the theatricality of some U.S. artists like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Van Halen, glam metal bands rocked a notably transgender aesthetic, and made full use of the new music video format afforded by MTV (which in the 1980s played almost exclusively music videos).
The basic template of glam metal music is to take a traditional heavy metal sound and mix it with elements of both punk and pop music. This means punk-style stripped-down instrumental trios of bass, guitar, and drums would center their songs on lead guitar riffs, often combined with shred guitar solos. Eddie Van Halen, of Van Halen, is considered the most influential guitarist of the generation (though Van Halen itself never fully adopted the glam aesthetic).
The songs of the glam metal genre additionally go beyond the threadbare musical punk aesthetic, to use melody and extensive harmony, especially in the characteristic power ballads of the era. One good example of this kind of strong, emotional song from a glam metal band is “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, by Poison, released in 1988.
All of the above continued the metal or hard rock musical tradition of stacked amplifiers, lyrics of rebellion, debauchery, love, and lust- often directed at a particular woman. British band Def Leppard’s second album High and Dry, released in 1981, is sometimes given as an example of the definition of the sound of glam rock for the decade of the 1980s.
This new combination of melodic and musical became wildly popular as it allowed a new generation of listeners- who may have been put off by heavy metal- to appreciate the party atmosphere and guitar sounds of metal music. By the mid-1980s, glam metal was mainstream.
The “blueprint” for the glam metal/hair band aesthetic is sometimes credited to the Finnish Band Hanoi Rocks, who were themselves influenced by the New York Dolls. The basics of this look are teased hair, heavy make-up, gaudy clothing, and brightly colored or glittering accessories.
Glam metal bands often wore tight denim, or leather jeans, spandex, and headbands- often in neon colors. Animal prints were very popular, and heavily applied eyeliner, eyeshadow and lip gloss were very common.
But it’s really the hair that everyone remembers. There’s a reason that these bands are often called “hair bands” and that the genre is often termed “hair metal.” Bands like Cinderella, Whitesnake and Poison all featured members with sky-high hairdos that are back-combed, teased and hairsprayed with Aquanet to stiff, impressive peaks.
The first wave of glam metal bands played dates and venues in California, starting in 1981. Los Angeles-based Mötley Crüe, Ratt and Dokken in LA, as well as Night Ranger from San Francisco, played a series of clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip through the early and mid-1980’s.
The second wave of hair metal used their theatricality to take full advantage of the new MTV platform. Hair metal bands like Bon Jovi and Stryper were in heavy rotation on the music television platform, and almost always topped the channel’s daily dial countdown. Starting in 1987, MTV started airing a program called the “Headbangers Ball” which played heavy and glam rock, becoming one of the channel’s top-rated programs.
By the early 1990s, glam metal was on the decline. Many of the top bands lost key members, including Vince Neil (of Mötley Crüe) and C.C. Deville (of Poison).
Glam metal also suffered from the rise of grunge. Seattle and the northwest began producing bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, whose plain aesthetic highlighted glam rock’s excesses and made the “glam” seem ridiculous.
We can still enjoy the music, however, and the internet will always hold images of the glory days of glam rock!