Veteran music journalist Tom Beaujour said that in 1986, when he was 15, hard rock music “was being beamed straight into my adolescent brain.” As a guitarist, he connected with the virtuosity of the bands. But “as a child of two college professors busting his ass to get straight A’s in a New York City prep school,” he added, “I fantasized that I could be as free and badass as Slash from Guns N’ Roses or C.C. DeVille from Poison. I think that deep down, I knew that that was impossible, but there was a deeply aspirational aspect to my fandom.”
Richard Bienstock, Beaujour’s longtime journalism colleague, also came under the influence of hard rock as a youngster. “Seeing Mötley Crüe’s ‘Looks That Kill’ video in ’83/’84 warped my 7-year-old brain in the best ways … or at least I think it did,” he says. “Either way, I was fully ‘in’ from that point on – I brought my third-grade homework to and from school in a Shout at the Devil folder with a pentagram on it. I listened to plenty of non-glam stuff back then and still do now, but I never stopped loving this music, even through the lean years in the ’90s.”
If you want to relish a provocative oral history of hard rock and hair metal in the ’80s, join Beaujour and Bienstock, March 16 at 8 p.m., at their virtual book launch on Zoom to hear them discuss their book “Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion” (560 pp., $29.99, St. Martin’s Press). The talk will be hosted by Hoboken’s Little City Books store and moderated by James Mastro (a member of The Bongos and Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, and the owner of the Guitar Bar stores in Hoboken and Jersey City).
RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a Zoom link. You are not required to purchase a book to join the session, but the store owners would be grateful if you did so.
Guitarist Steve Brown, a member of the Jersey band Trixter who also has played with Def Leppard, will join in as a special guest. “He is interviewed at length in the book and his perspective on the whole era was incredibly helpful to us,” said Beaujour.
During the conservative Reagan Era, hair metal musicians escaped conformity and alienation by adopting an androgynous aesthetic (similar to 1970s glam rockers) with long, teased hair, spandex and heavy makeup, while playing explosive guitar solos and melodramatic power ballads. After years of struggle, they eventually achieved great commercial success.
The book shares sordid stories of excess by musicians and industry veterans, including managers, producers, label executives, roadies and fans.
Mastro said that in the ’80s, “I was more new wave than hair wave, so I didn’t pay much attention to the hard rock bands, most of who came out of the L.A. scene. ‘Nöthin’ But a Good Time’ is such a fun read that it makes me think I may have been on the wrong end of the hair dryer during this time. … Tom and Richard must have had some serious scare tactics or truth serum at hand, because the stories they’ve coaxed out of all the scenesters are hysterical, terrifying and ear-opening. I look forward to getting even more nitty-gritty from them when we have our chat.”
Readers get a sense of the personalities of those who comprised the scene. The authors interviewed more than 200 musicians, including members of Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, Bon Jovi, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Winger, Warrant, Cinderella and Quiet Riot, as well as Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford and others, examining the decade from 1981 to 1991 (when grunge started dominating the rock world).
In the foreword, Corey Taylor of the bands Slipknot and Stone Sour writes about the rush he felt when he first listened to hard rock in the ’80s. Certainly, even for those of us who prefer tamer music, there is a common thrilling experience when the visceral sound of rock blares.
Taylor describes hanging out in his living room when he was 10 years old: “A bolt of lightning struck my life that afternoon and I was never the same again.” The lightning was Mötley Crüe’s “Looks That Kill.” (watch video below)
He soon learned that in ’80s hard rock and heavy metal, “there was something for everyone, all wrapped in leather, spandex and silk scarves,” he writes. “It was a world of huge choruses and sexual tension, and it gave you the feeling that life after childhood did not have to suck as hard as it appeared to suck for our parents … Sure, in today’s mindset it was sexist, offensive, tasteless, Neanderthal, misogynistic, exploitive, aggressive, and based entirely on fantasy … but that was the point. It was supposed to be beyond the realms of this gray, concrete life.”
While the authors capture the decadent decade, they also reveal the artists’ personal journeys beyond parties. Vito Bratta of White Lion was one of Beaujour’s favorite interview subjects, he said, “because he had done very few — like, two — interviews in the last 30 years and was one of my biggest guitar heroes growing up. And he was incredibly generous with his time and clear-eyed about his experience.”
He also enjoyed speaking with Brian Forsythe of Kix “because he is honest to a fault and hilarious. I think the common theme with all of the interviews is the shared work ethic … People think of these bands as people who just partied and somehow got lucky along the way. But they made their luck through relentless effort and practice.”
Bienstock said one of his favorites was Osbourne. “He’s incredibly funny and open,” he said, “and I got the sense during our interview that this era of his career – the post-Blizzard of Ozz, pre-‘No More Tears’ years – is not one he spends much time talking about. To hear his take on what he thought about the clothes he was wearing, or the younger bands he was touring with like Mötley Crüe and Ratt, was a fun way to spend an afternoon. I would also mention the Skid Row guys, because they’re all a riot and their story is wild and super entertaining.
“If there was any overall theme explored, it was, like Tom mentioned, how driven these musicians were in the quest to make it. And in addition to that, the incredible creativity expressed by these bands, especially in the early days. That drive to succeed fueled them to be as over-the-top musically and visually as possible, and to learn how to put on a killer show in the process. Not to mention inspired some of the artists to develop an almost super-human technical facility on their instruments.”
Bienstock said he and Beaujour were inspired by the growing tradition of oral history rock books, including Mötley Crüe’s “The Dirt,” the NYC punk history “Please Kill Me,” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001-2011.”
“I think that we were inspired by how those books capture multiple perspectives and voices and allow one to focus on small details and specificities in a way that would not translate in the prose context,” said Beaujour.
“One of the goals was to write the book we wanted to read,” said Bienstock. “And, at least to my mind, that meant something where I was getting the stories direct from the people who were there, rather than filtered through a third party. I think that’s one of the great things about an oral history – it allows the reader to be dropped in right on the action, unfiltered.”
Their decision to write about ’80s hard rock and hair metal seemed more of a calling than an assignment.
“I wouldn’t even say we ‘chose’ it,” said Bienstock. “It’s the music we both grew up loving and still love, and has probably dominated 90 percent of the conversations we’ve had with one another for the past two decades. That has continued to be true of our conversations now that the book is done … although it might even be closer to 97, 98 percent at this point.”
Beaujour agreed and explained that they wrote about this subject “because it’s the genre that Rich and I are totally obsessed with. Even after four years of this, we’ll spend an hour on the phone dissecting the relative merits of Ratt videos or Tesla albums. I simply do not tire of this subject, and neither does he. A podcast seems inevitable.”
They first met when Bienstock worked as an intern at Guitar World magazine “in around 1996 or 1997, when I was the managing editor there,” said Beaujour. “We’ve collaborated on different magazines on and off since then, and always found ourselves talking about our shared passion for glam metal, as well as about the possibility of doing this book.”
“Even with a few years’ age difference, it always felt we were on the same page with our love for this stuff … which was sort of a different page than most people around us were on,” said Bienstock.
“Guitar World was one of my first real jobs, and because of Tom, I think I took it for granted that you could go to your place of work every day and just carry on super-intense discussions about the merits of Warren DeMartini (of Ratt) vs. George Lynch (of Dokken and Lynch Mob), or White Lion vs. WASP. I realize now that this is highly unusual behavior. If nothing else, writing a book about it legitimized this behavior.”
Their writing process “was like doing a giant puzzle,” said Beaujour. “We would compile as many interviews as we could on a different band or aspect of the book and then weave them together into a narrative on that topic. Then we interweaved all of the different topics together like a rope or lanyard so that they all move forward in time together and hand off the story to each other.”
Bienstock said that in the first year or two of the project, “we didn’t even think about the writing process. It was all about going after and interviewing everyone we could wrangle. … From there it was a matter of determining which stories we wanted to write, and making sure that it all flowed in a way that also told the larger story about the era and the scene itself.”
Beaujour was surprised to learn that many ’80s hard rock and hair metal artists had to transform themselves when their music became less popular. They “really had to hide their identities when the music fell out of favor in the ’90s,” he said. “Brian Forsythe, who I mentioned earlier, had had a platinum album and Top 10 single to his name, yet when he went to audition for the Wallflowers in 1993 or ‘4, he didn’t even mention having been in Kix, because he knew that would automatically disqualify him. Brutal.”
Another interesting tale revealed the scene’s influence on and connection to other forms of music. “One story that comes to mind,” said Bienstock, “is how in the mid-’80s, the designer behind Jani Lane from Warrant’s leather-and-belt-buckles outfit was summoned to a rehearsal studio by Michael Jackson, who not only knew who Warrant were – and this is even before they had a major label record out, mind you – but also said he wanted that same look for himself. That look became the famous outfit Michael can be seen wearing on the cover of Bad, and also in the music video for the title track.” (See video below of Warrant performing “Down Boys.”)
Jackson was also aware of Poison, whose 1988 hit “Nothin’ But a Good Time” gives the book its title. The band’s drummer, Rikki Rockett, says in the book that Jackson once told him, ” ‘Every time your video comes on, I sit down because you’re having such a good time. I don’t want to miss a second of it.’ So if some dude says, ‘Oh, you guys suck,’ it’s like, ‘Who fucking cares?’ ”
I asked the authors to explain why ’80s hard rock and hair metal attracted such a huge fan base. “This music was maybe the last time that completely insane, over-the-top guitar playing was shoehorned into what were otherwise hooky, three-minute pop songs,” said Bienstock. “It was the best of both worlds for people who were into both guitars and melody.”
Beaujour noted that the bands created visually compelling performances and wrote “great, guitar-driven pop songs that were sharply produced. And then MTV would beam the videos into every home in America nonstop. It was the kind of delivery mechanism no longer afforded to rock music. Also, bands would make sure to have a huge ‘power ballad’ on every record that, if they were lucky, could transition over to pop and AM radio. It was a formula that worked very well … until it didn’t.”
Many of the bands were based in Los Angeles. “But there was a flourishing East Coast scene that stretched from Maryland, where you had Kix, to Pennsylvania, where you had Cinderella and Britny Fox, to New Jersey, with Bon Jovi, Skid Row and Trixter, to New York, with Twisted Sister, White Lion, Danger Danger and others,” Beaujour said. “So it was much more spread out here. But there were great clubs in New Jersey like Studio One in Newark and the Fountain Casino in Aberdeen Township. … The prize for the most important club in the area, however, goes to L’Amour, which was in the depths of Brooklyn. Kids drove from all the tristate to see bands there.”
In their introduction, the authors write that the book “chronicles a bygone era where notions of sexism and gender politics and the disease of addiction were still relatively crude. Like the culture around them, most of the artists in the book have evolved and have become fathers, mothers …”
Their intention, they write, is to “uncover what really happened from the people who lived it, not to make them apologize for it.”
Beaujour said the journey for women in metal circles has evolved since the ’80s, but qualified his thoughts: “I wouldn’t want to presume to know what someone else’s experience is. I will say that back then it was very hard, as I discovered interviewing all of the surviving members of the all-female band Vixen who had to deal with high levels of toxicity … before finding each other and starting their band.
“I do think that women are starting to play rock instruments at the same age as boys now, so that the playing field is more level, and that the music instrument companies are very aware that half of the people buying their gear are not dudes.”
Maxine Petrucci, a member of Madame X in the ’80s and Vixen in the ’90s, says in the book: “In Texas I remember some guy was just screaming: ‘That’s not them really playing? That’s not them really playing!’ And then he jumped on stage to see if we were really plugged in. It was really strange. But it was like, Okay, I take that as a compliment. And a couple of times we heard, ‘They must be transvestites. They’re guys that became women.’ They couldn’t accept the fact that we were really girls doing it.”
“I can’t begin to grasp what it was like to be a woman in this world in the ’80s, nor could I comprehend some of the sexist crap they still have to deal with today,” said Bienstock. “I do know that the stories we hear from artists like Vixen and Lita Ford in the book are in some ways not very different from the stories we still hear in 2021, which is discouraging. If I were to point out any perceived positive changes, one is that I don’t think women in rock, and in particular hard rock, are so quickly categorized as a novelty now, like they were in the ‘80s. Nor do I think players like Nita Strauss or Yvette Young or Orianthi have to deal with people questioning whether it’s actually them playing their instruments, the way Lita Ford told us people used to doubt it was really her. At least I hope they don’t, because they’re insanely talented. As is Lita, for that matter.”
The world of rock ‘n’ roll has changed considerably since the ’80s. “Back then I think the highs were higher and the lows lower,” said Bienstock. “I’m not sure how many bands live the struggle the way the acts routinely did back then. Especially the bands in the early ’80s.
“Say what you want about the music – whether or not you enjoy it is a matter of personal taste – but it takes a certain type of personality to live the way the guys in Mötley or Ratt or Poison or Guns N’ Roses lived back then and be able to persevere. If you had the constitution, as well as the talent and the creativity and a little luck, the rewards could be astronomical – multiplatinum records, arena and stadium tours, 24/7 coverage on MTV and in the magazines – which is something that’s just not possible for rock bands today.”
Former MTV executive Rick Krim discusses the significance of Mötley Crüe’s power ballad “Home Sweet Home” in the book. “Every band had to have one (a power ballad), because that was the song that usually took them to the masses. You hit them over the head with the giant power ballad and get your double-platinum-record plaque, which wasn’t hard to do at the time. If you had even a sniff of a hit, you had at least a gold record.”
Some people argue that grunge music pushed away ’80s hard rock and hair metal, but Bienstock has a more nuanced sense of these seismic changes. “I would say that there were larger cultural forces at play – people were already tiring of the sort of big hair, over-the-top look and decadent style even before grunge,” he said. “Mötley Crüe and Poison and Bon Jovi looked different in 1989/1990 than they did in 1986. By the beginning of the ’90s, a grittier, more-indie focused spirit was taking hold in other forms of entertainment, like film. An economic recession came in. As much as grunge fostered a change in the musical landscape, it also took hold because that change was already happening.”
Why was heavy metal vulnerable to a decline in popularity? “The music had become bloated and imitative and probably run its course,” said Beaujour. “The biggest bands were fracturing, exhausted and no longer doing their best work. So glam metal was extremely vulnerable, and possibly even on the ropes when this new wave of very good bands came along and just stole the thunder.
“I don’t think that most of the grunge bands were even particularly hostile to glam metal bands, and in fact there were tours where groups like Alice in Chains opened for Extreme. That said, I think that Kurt Cobain found the misogyny and homophobia that was present in glam metal to be totally anathema to his beliefs. And since he was the anointed leader of the movement (much to his chagrin) people fell in behind him.”
Danny Goldberg, Nirvana’s manager, shared with the authors: “I don’t think Nirvana ever wanted to kill anyone’s career … there was a yearning from a new generation for new stars … There was a cultural contrast and honestly, as one of Nirvana’s mangers, I loved that contrast because it imaged Nirvana as something special to their fans and differentiated them from other bands. Kurt was passionate about gay rights, and Axl Rose referred to people in one of his lyrics as ‘faggots.’ ”
Both Beaujour and Bienstock are musicians and have been involved with the music industry from a very young age. Beaujour’s career vision was prescient. “When I was in high school and people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, my stock answer was, ‘I’m either going to be a rock star or work at Guitar World magazine.’ Either outcome was music-related. Music, and guitar-driven music more specifically, and the guitars that are used to make guitar driven music, are the only things that really interest me.”
Beaujour is co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Revolver, a hard rock and heavy metal monthly, and has produced and mixed albums by Nada Surf, Guided by Voices, the Juliana Hatfield Three, Long Neck and others at his Nuthouse Recording studio in Union City. A regular contributor to Guitar World, Guitar Player and Tape Op magazines, among others, he plays in two bands: the comedy/black metal band Witch Taint, and the psychedelic rock band, Painted Doll.
Bienstock’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and other publications. He is a former senior editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine, and has authored or co-authored several books, including “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” He plays in a Denver-based cover band with the music journalist Steve Knopper.
What’s next? “The book has been optioned, so hopefully we’ll spend the next few years working on a documentary version,” said Bienstock. “We’re also planning a podcast using this subject matter as a launch point for larger discussions about rock and the music industry.”
Beaujour has a different assessment. “I’m fully expecting to have a mild nervous breakdown after the book comes out,” he said. “Working on it and towards its release has been such a huge part of my life for a very long time.”
For more on the event, visit littlecitybooks.com.
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