Of all the unfortunate musical developments of the 1980’s, MTv had to be rock bottom. One of the worst things to even happen to Heavy Metal, MTv split the genre down the middle, and forced our heroes to take sides: Go glam or go underground. Some of the greatest hard rock and metal bands of the late 70’s/early 80’s succumbed to the allure of big hair and big bucks… Def Leppard, Krokus, Scorpions, Saxon, Whitesnake, Y&T, even Judas Priest all upped their image ante while sugar-coating their music for a new generation of fans who learned about metal on the visual medium of TV, rather than from their older brother’s record collection.
While the old guard of mostly British and European metal bands abandoned their artistic integrity for a chance to crack the lucrative American market, a new breed of metal band began to develop in America. These bands picked up where the early years of the NWOBHM had left off, injecting a dose of hardcore into an already punk-informed movement. This new sound and style was also a response to the MTv-driven rise of glam; metal fans who weren’t into the whole pretty-boy thing had nowhere to go but down, meaning underground. Gentlemen, this is Thrash.
The gulf between these two styles was enormous. Thrash was about precision, speed, and aggression, where Glam was about surface flash, image, and style over substance. Thrash lyrics dealt with fighting the corrupt system and dystopian futures; glam lyrics concerned themselves with sex, love, partying, and …sex. To be fair, the thrashers were image conscious, too; their tough-guy uniform consisted of long hair, torn jeans, leather jackets, and denim vests. The glam contingent favored gender-bending make-up, big hair, and flashy clothing. There was virtually zero common ground between these two musical movements. Which side were you on?
Although not accessible enough be played on commercial radio or MTv, thrash nonetheless found its own way to success. When Metallica achieved Gold status for their 2nd LP ‘Ride the Lightning’ in 1984, the genre began to be recognized as valid not only by the metal mainstream, but also by the major record companies. The labels felt that a band that could sell 500,000 copies of a record without commercial radio support was a band worth looking at. Metallica was picked up by Elektra; Megadeth by Capitol, Anthrax by Island, and Slayer by Sony offshoot Def Jam. These four bands were about to graduate from the underground to the big leagues, where they would seriously threaten faltering stalwarts like Priest and Maiden; their impact and success would lead to these pioneering bands being dubbed ‘The Big Four’.
Meanwhile, back in Hair Metal Hell, a different formula for success had established itself. Bands with zero talent were selling millions of records based on their looks alone, while their wildly expensive and artistically vacant music videos bombarded the masses in heavy rotation on MTv. By the mid-’80’s, this ‘pop’ metal ruled the airwaves, both on TV and on the radio. By 1986, Pop/Glam/Hair metal was the most popular form of rock music in the world. The stage was set for a battle of epic proportions.
In the 13 months between February 1986 and March of ’87, the so-called ‘Big Four’ would make their grand statements, releasing four genre-defining albums that would establish thrash metal as a valid sub-genre of heavy metal forever. That very same year, in a parallel universe, Hair Metal’s elite forces would detonate 4 highly successful glamma bombs of their own. Heavy Metal had torn itself in two. Peaceful coexistence was out of the question. It was the girlz against the boys in the battle for the soul of Heavy Metal.
February 1986: A Declaration of War
Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’
By 1986, Metallica were already recognized as the leader of underground metal. With the colossal ‘Master of Puppets’, they led that niche genre out of the underground, into the mainstream, and forward into battle. This band had come a long way as writers in just a few records, and MOP showcases the full extent of their full reach and scope. Everything about this album screams ‘Epic’; the riffs, the arrangements, the sounds, the song lengths. While ‘Tallica still steadfastly refusing to release a single or video to promote their work, ‘Puppets’ nonetheless reached #29 in the US. Thrash Metal was moshing up the American Top 40… The young upstarts had become the conquering heroes. Metallica seemed unstoppable. Just seven months later, they would face their greatest challenge.
May 1986: Counter Strike
Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’
How many countdowns are there, anyway? And if this one was final, how come I keep hearing this song, 28 years later? This impossibly cute Swedish band somehow found the formula for the perfect earworm in the album’s title track, a song that has gone on to become the ultimate anthem. Second single Carrie (following the standard hair metal formula of 1st single: anthem, 2nd single: power-ballad) was a bigger hit, but ‘TFC’ has firmly established itself as an inescapable piece of modern pop culture. That, my friends is the definition of evil.
August 1986: Trilateral Offensive (and I do mean offensive)
Cinderella’s ‘Night Songs’
Hidden under all of that hair, Cinderella was probably a halfway decent bar band before MTv changed the game. While the front cover pic instantly takes this album out of the running for any serious consideration, the tunes and the playing inside are fairly solid. Having friends in high places certainly helped Cinderella; Jon Bon Jovi got the band signed to Polygram, sang backups on ‘Night Songs’, and arranged to have them appear as the opening act on the entire 7-month ‘Slippery When Wet’ tour. Second single ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a virtual rewrite of Def Leppard’s ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’, hit the Top Twenty. Thanks, JBJ.
Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’
Hair Metal’s biggest album. It’s interesting to speculate about where JBJ’s career would have gone had he not enlisted the songwriting assistance of veteran hit maker Desmond Child to write for ‘SWW’… Child, the infamous ‘song doctor’ who later co-wrote several key songs for post-make-up KISS and post-drugs Aerosmith, among many others, co-wrote ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. Both songs were worldwide smashes, and the primary factor in the record’s mega-success. Ya, these guys could play, but more importantly, the time was right for a gang of pretty boys (and Tico Torres) with catchy tunes, cowboy boots and fringe leather jackets.
Poison’s ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In’
Poison, on the other hand, had zero musical ability, zero songwriting skills, and zero shame. ‘LWtCDI’ was similar to Motley Crue’s debut from just a few years before, in that it was a crappy album, released by an independent label, recorded on a shoestring budget by a bunch of talentless hacks, but still made a pretty big splash because of the band’s ‘look’. This time around, however, the timing was perfect and the market primed and ready to eat this crap up, to the tune of a Billboard #3 slot and 3 million copies sold. The cover is notorious for confusing and embarrassing thousands of hetero guys (‘Check out the hot chicks!’) and the music within is 100% garbage (more on garbage later in this post). Perhaps a better title would have been ‘Look What the Cat Coughed Up’.
October 1986: Shock and Awe
Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells (But Who’s Buying?)’
When Dave Mustaine recruited players for his post-Metallica band, he purposely chose musicians with a jazz/fusion background. The result: Megadeth reached new levels of technicality and precision, raising the bar for musicianship in metal in the process. ‘Deth’s second album, ‘Peace Sells…’ features a plethora of meticulously arranged, impeccably played songs that featured a boatload of classic Mustaine riffs that Metallica would soon sorely miss. This mixture of dynamic ensemble playing and muscular musical menace, along with a healthy dose of politically aware lyrics, further established thrash metal’s mainstream credibility.
Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’
The intensity level of Slayer’s music is truly frightening. That’s Slayer’s thing: scaring people. Slayer scared lots of people with their third album ‘Reign in Blood’, including the suits at Columbia Records, who, at the last minute, decided they didn’t want to distribute the album due to its artwork and lyrics; Geffen/WB stepped in and the rest is history. At a brief but harrowing 29 minutes, ‘RIB’ is never boring, not for one single second; each song a short blast of unprecedented intensity, disorienting solos, and panic attack vocals all delivered with crystal clear, in-your-face production. ‘Reign in Blood’ so successfully achieves everything it set out to accomplish that it is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, no matter the genre.
March 1987: Reinforcements from the Eastern Front
Anthrax’s ‘Among the Living’
Anthrax may have been late to the party with ‘Among’, but it’s no less important a record than the other Big Four entries. Anthrax was the only B4 band with a credible lead vocalist (at least in conventional rock music terms), and a viable single in ‘Indians’, which gave ‘Among’ had the best shot at radio play. Anthrax was also the only band of the Four with any discernible sense of humor, throwing in a few yucks while bringing the noise. The songwriting may get a little clunky here and there, but the chops on display are truly monstrous. The mix of melodic vocals and hardcore speed/thrash crunch on ‘Among’ would prove to be hugely influential. Arriving to bat clean-up, ‘Among the Living’ is another groundbreaking thrash album and a worthy bookend to the 13 month Great Thrash Offensive.
It’s widely acknowledged that 1991’s ‘Clash of the Titans’ tour, featuring Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (Metallica was filling arenas on their own) was the height of trash metal’s popularity, but by 1992, both genres were in serious trouble. Metallica, who almost single-handedly led the thrash movement from its ‘Garage Days’ origins to mainstream acceptance and multi-platinum successes, abandoned thrash metal on their untitled 5th album, and as the public tired of a never-ending parade of ‘power ballads’, most of the major hair bands had either fizzled or self-destructed. Then along came Grunge. Game over, man.
So as the dry ice cleared, who could we declare the victor? The glammy stuff certainly sold more records than the scary stuff did by ’92. If sales are your only criteria, then the poodles won overall. If influence, longevity, and continued relevance count, then the story has a very different ending. Released at the height of hair metal’s popularity, BJ’s ‘Slippery’ went on to sell 12 million copies to ‘Master’s 2 million; but 25 years later, Metallica’s 2008 album ‘Death Magnetic’ has racked up over 2 million units sold; Bon Jovi’s latest, ‘What About Now’, has sold just over 1 million. While Jovi’s last few have hit #1, the remaining 3 Big Four bands have been consistently nipping at BJ’s heels, with each of their most current records climbing to at least #12 on the Billboard Top 200. And what of Cinderella, Poison, and Europe? Please.
Perhaps the most interesting fact I discovered while researching this post was that the cover art used for Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ was a photograph of a wet garbage bag with the title written in the water. That’s fitting; I mean, everyone knows what you find inside garbage bags, right?