Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of ’80s metal

Mötley Crüe, Slash, Lita Ford, Dokken and more share the wildest stories from the heyday of L.A.'s Sunset Strip

Topics: Books, heavy metal, Hair metal, Tipper Gore, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Editor's Picks,

Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal Mötley Crüe

While the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was taking over the club scene in the UK and Europe, a batch of bands in and around Los Angeles — triggered by a love for KISS, Van Halen, and glam groups like the New York Dolls and the Sweet — were about to shake Sunset Strip like a 7.0 earthquake. With flashy, androgynous images and brash, solo-saturated songs, the “hair metal” bands were visually compelling and musically engaging. In the beginning, groups like Mötley Crüe and Ratt were almost as heavy as Judas Priest and Dio, the band Ronnie James Dio formed after leaving Black Sabbath. But as the scene gained popularity and a major label feeding frenzy began, many musicians tailored their songs for mainstream radio, retaining some of their heaviness but drawing more emphasis to melody and heart-on-sleeve sensitivity — and sexuality.

With the dissipation of New Wave, MTV latched on to the visually striking glam metal videos — many of which were for syrupy power ballads. Before you could say, “Can I see some ID?” Skid Row, Cinderella, Dokken, Warrant, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and countless others were storming their way into millions of suburban households around the world. Their videos almost always featured young women in provocative poses, multiple costume changes, and musicians in heavy makeup looking almost as feminine as the girls they stalked. And the stalking didn’t end when the tape stopped rolling. Even before the dawn of the eighties, a handful of outrageous L.A. bands including Van Halen and Quiet Riot planted the genre’s seedy seeds.

By the mid-’80s, L.A. was populated by wide-eyed, big-haired hopefuls pouring in from all over the country — indeed, from all over the world — lured by the promise of success and the accompanying fringe benefits. Hollywood was just a short commute from major venues like the Forum, Long Beach Arena, and Universal Amphitheatre, and it was home of infamous clubs like the Whisky, Starwood, Troubadour, and Roxy Theatre. Major record companies dotted the city and record stores lined Sunset Boulevard and LaBrea Avenue. A lucky few future rock stars lived in the L.A. area, where, in the late seventies, they got a bird’s-eye view and a jump start on a scene that would overtake their city in a few short years.



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VINCE NEIL (Mötley Crüe): The first concert I went to was Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Black Sabbath opening. Then Foreigner, and Eddie Money, I think, at Anaheim Stadium. I was probably fourteen; friends who were sixteen had a car. Everybody was smoking pot. I remember looking around during “Freebird,” and it was a stadium, you could see, like, the concrete bending; or maybe it was just me being high, but it was a surreal experience, and that really got the music fired up in me. By the time I was sixteen, I was already in a band playing Gazzarri’s.

LITA FORD (The Runaways): I used to hang out at the Long Beach Arena; that was my club! My mother, being from Rome, and my father from London — they were naïve to the bad things in life. It didn’t enter their minds. I never had any girlfriends really; I always hung out with the guys. In high school, I would hang out with all the black musicians. We would ditch school and go and jam. After school I’d bring home a half dozen black guys, and my mom would cook everyone dinner, and we’d eat and play music.

DON DOKKEN (Dokken): In the late seventies I’d see George [Lynch’s] band the Boyz. Half the time he would pass out. I remember him being carried out at the Starwood; an ambulance came and they hauled him away on a stretcher. Hyperventilate, anxiety. He’d eat a big dinner before the show, get too excited, hold his breath, pass out. I’d be like, “Oh, there’s the Boyz, there goes George. They’re carrying him off the stage.” He passed out, then as they were carrying him out, he was waving at the audience.

LITA FORD: In 1975 in the Runaways, it was hard to be taken seriously as a musician when you’re young and dressed like that. Plus, some of the girls were screwing off too much and I didn’t like that. I wanted to work, I wanted to jam, I wanted to get paid. I didn’t want to fuck off as much as they were. And when I got pissed off about it they would look at me and go, “What’s your problem? Why are you so mad?” They wouldn’t show up for photo shoots because they’d be too fucked up. Trying to get them off their butts or out of bed or into sound check was difficult at times. I mean, I was into sex and drugs and drinking, too, but it never got in the way of my work. We did well, but it wasn’t until after the Runaways that I was really accepted as a musician, and especially a guitarist. I learned from the guys. I never followed any female guitarists because there weren’t any. I wanted to play lead guitar, and I put together a three-piece because I didn’t want anyone to forget that I was the only guitar player and those were really my solos; I could actually play. But I had to work hard in the vocal department because that wasn’t my greatest strength.

TRACII GUNS (L.A. Guns, ex–Guns N’ Roses): I started seeing live music when I was about fifteen or sixteen. The first band I ever saw was at the Troubadour. I was a lot younger than those bands I was seeing, but Starwood gigs were more of the beginning of the L.A. punk rock scene. I saw the Crowd and the Weirdos at the Starwood. Rock bands that were happening played Florentine Gardens and clubs like that. Then I saw White Sister, London, Mötley Crüe, and Sarge, Angelus, Dante Fox — that’s my whole rock-and-roll education as far as what went into putting L.A. Guns together. We came out around 1983, ’84, and those bands were all around since ’79, ’80. Then there were the bigger ones before L.A. Guns, like W.A.S.P. and Ratt. By the time we put Guns N’ Roses together out of L.A. Guns, we perfected this kind of heavy, but bluesy, but a little bit punk attitude ingredients to make this perfect cake.

SLASH (Velvet Revolver, ex–Guns N’ Roses): [Ex–Guns N’ Roses drummer] Steve [Adler] started me on guitar. I met him in my early years of junior high and I wasn’t doing really well, and he wasn’t either, so we started ditching Bancroft Junior High in eighth grade together and hanging out. I went to Steve’s house one day, and he had an amp. I didn’t know what lead guitar was, but I always wanted to do something musical. He had some KISS records, and the amp and guitar, and we blasted all of it at the same time. I decided I was going to play bass and he was going to play guitar, then somehow we switched and I started playing guitar, and he started playing drums.

STEVEN ADLER (Adler’s Appetite, ex–Guns N’ Roses): [In my teens] I was the one guy hanging at the Starwood. I was there every day because it was two blocks away from my house. I would hang there for sound check, and that’s where I learned to play drums. I never took a lesson until recently. I learned from the drummers in the bands playing there.

SLASH: Steven and I used to get into clubs. I saw Nikki Sixx’s band London back then, I saw Snow and Quiet Riot. I never saw Van Halen then, though. Simultaneously, there was this punk scene that was going on, so those were actually mixed, the beginning of the metal scene in L.A. was the tail end of the punk scene, so I was around for both of those. For young, impressionable musicians who aspired to rock stardom, Hollywood could be as intoxicating and dangerous as it was for hot eighteen-year-old actress wannabes just off the bus from the Midwest. Rockers rarely ended up in porn but were nonetheless taken advantage of financially, emotionally — even sexually. And if they had an ounce of talent and a taste for drugs and alcohol, their unhealthy appetites were easily sated.

DON DOKKEN: There were piles [of cocaine] on the tables upstairs at the Starwood. Coke and quaaludes; you just snapped your fingers and it happened — it was free. David Forest was the booking agent. I ran into him years later. He put us with Van Halen and Quiet Riot. I thanked him and he said, “I didn’t really like your band, but you got a cute ass.” I would see young musicians go into the offices that were above the stage and come out an hour later really wasted on ‘ludes and blow. As far as sexual favors happening, I have no idea. I wasn’t there — let’s just say a lot of crappy bands got gigs there. There would always be, in the private VIP section upstairs, KISS, Aerosmith, Ozzy, John Belushi on any given night; it was the place to hang, score drugs, and get laid.

STEVEN ADLER: People would pull up beside me in their cars and ask me if I wanted to smoke a joint. I’d be like, “Hell yeah!” The next thing you know, you’re completely baked and they’re touching you all over and you don’t know what the fuck’s going on. All you know is that an orgasm feels good. Anybody can make you come, and in that state, I didn’t have the presence of mind to give a damn. I was used, abused, whatever. Let’s get high, let’s party. One time I was walking along Santa Monica Boulevard and ran into two clean-cut guys who must have been in their twenties. We started talking and they said they had some bitchin’ weed back at their pad, so I went with them to smoke. We arrived at this dumpy little apartment and there was another guy there, only he was in his forties, a completely scruffy-looking loser. Right away, I felt uneasy. I’ll spare you the details, but they hurt me pretty badly. Part of my mind just kind of shut down, and that day my reality became a bad dream. They didn’t beat me up, but they did everything else, and it was pretty devastating. I was just fourteen at the time.

DON DOKKEN: I remember Devo were playing at the Whisky and they came to our show at the Starwood. I asked them why, and they said, “We love Dokken because you’re the epitome of what we don’t want to be.” I didn’t know they wore saucers on their heads at that point.

VICKY HAMILTON (ex-Geffen A&R, manager): I cocktail-waitressed at the Starwood when I first moved out from Indiana. That was right when that whole thing went down with Eddie Nash and the murders and Laurel Canyon. [In 1981, Starwood owner and reputed gangster Eddie Nash was charged in connection with the bludgeoning deaths of four people at their home at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. Nash’s friend, porn star John Holmes, allegedly helped organize the robbery in an effort to pay back a drug debt to the leader of a crime syndicate.] I can’t remember if it was the FBI or what, but they pulled bags of quaaludes from the safe at the Starwood. I lost my job because they closed down the club. [Nash was acquitted of planning the murders but pled guilty to related charges.]

* * *

In the early days of the Strip Scene there was a camaraderie among many bands that later diminished. Established musicians offered tips and even equipment to start-up groups, having no idea that the newbies would soon become major competition in the game to land high-profile gigs and record contracts.

VINCE NEIL: David Lee Roth helped me out a lot, personally. He would come to all our shows. We’d be playing at the Troubadour, and there’s Dave — and this was in his heyday. A couple of years earlier, when I was in Rock Candy, I was bootlegging T-shirts outside Van Halen concerts at Long Beach Arena, wanting to go in to watch them, but I didn’t have enough money. But Dave came because we always had tons of girls. Our audience was 80 percent women. He’s a big star, and I’m just a nobody singer, and he said, “Hey Vince, meet me at Canter’s on Fairfax. I want to talk to you.” I borrowed someone’s car and there’s Diamond Dave with his black Mercedes with a skull and crossbones painted on the hood. He sat me down and went through all the aspects of the business of rock and roll. He said, “You need distribution, and this, and watch out for this, and be careful of this.” He’d go, “OK, when you find out what your best side is, always use that side [for photos].” For him to take the time to sit down with just some dude, that’s pretty cool.

BLACKIE LAWLESS: Nikki didn’t steal [our pentagram logo]; I gave it to him. That whole setting himself on fire thing — I gave that to him. Nikki and I had played together before. W.A.S.P. was just being put together, but we didn’t do shows together. I looked at Nikki like my brother. The pentagram came because I’d left a [Satanic] cult and afterward I didn’t want anything to do with it. He came to me after and asked if I was going to use it. I said, “Nope. You can have it.” But I warned him he’s messing with very bad stuff. Everyone I know who messes with that stuff, tragedy has fallen on them at some point in life. It’s just not something you want to be a part of.

VINCE NEIL: We only used the pentagram for one album, and it’s called “Shout at the Devil” — so you use a pentagram! Nobody’s really into the devil. It’s showmanship, it’s whatever image you’re trying to project. It’s all a bunch of bull, really. Ronnie [Dio] was not a devil worshipper, but he loved medieval history. Same with Ozzy. He is the furthest thing from a devil worshipper I’ve ever met. Mötley Crüe earned their bad-boy title with little effort. Even before the overdoses and near-fatal car crashes that could have ended the band’s career, they lived for the moment, throwing caution to the wind in favor of cheap, and sometimes costly, thrills.

DON DOKKEN: The first time I saw Mötley Crüe, we were playing with them, at the Roxy. We both were showcasing. Dokken had done “Breaking the Chains”; it was out in Europe. The whole scene had crumbled, all the rock bands had moved, the Starwood was gone, the Whisky had gone punk, everybody had moved to the Troubadour. It was the only club left. Gazzarri’s was waffling. Golden West Ballroom was gone. Clubs were falling by the wayside. I didn’t understand Mötley because they didn’t have a [major] record deal, yet they showed up in limos, brand new equipment, Marshalls, all these cool stage clothes, big-ass hair. I was like, “How the fuck did they afford that?” Mötley never did a gig with crappy gear. They came on the scene with full-on arena gear because they had [KISS manager] Doc [McGhee] backing them.

VINCE NEIL: If you look at the Mötley Crüe progression of looks, they are all different. When we did [1981’s] “Too Fast for Love,” we just wore what we could because we didn’t have any money. We basically shopped at the hardware store, got chains and made our own stuff. Then for [1983’s] “Shout at the Devil,” it was a theatrical leather look, not a biker leather look. Then we completely went to the other end and did the glam thing with [1985’s] “Theatre of Pain”; there was no leather at all. Then, when everybody started doing that, we changed to the motorcycle look for [1987’s] “Girls Girls Girls.” We never pigeonholed ourselves into any look. Entertainment is supposed to be an escape. It’s not supposed to let you know how miserable you are.

TOMMY LEE (Mötley Crüe): A lot of bands recently seem to have been there to make the crowd depressed. I could never figure that out. That, to me, is like sitting down at a bar and drinking to remember. In the early days of hair metal, new bands had to be resourceful to look good onstage even though their wallets were usually empty. For most, gigging and merch sales didn’t pay the bills, especially after pay-to-play became widespread. Girlfriends, strippers, or parents sometimes supported the rock star hopefuls. Often, however, musicians sold drugs or toiled at day jobs. One of the most common part-time gigs for aspiring rock stars was telemarketing — boiler rooms of musicians with fake names selling equally questionable goods and services. Tower Records Sunset and Aaron’s Records were other spots where Los Angeles’s long-haired and hungover could be found trying to earn a buck. The ubiquitous scenario spawned a standard joke. Q: “What do you call a musician in L.A. without a girlfriend?” A: “Homeless.”

JANI LANE (1964–2011) (Warrant): [Drummer] Steven [Sweet] and I were living in Florida and had no money. We had a friend who was a bass player, Al Collins, and he talked his parents into buying him an old ’77 Cutlass. I sold my drums, and Steven and I worked at the merry-go-round to make enough money to move to L.A. Another guy in Florida was trying to start his own line of children’s clothing, so we also worked in his basement making children’s T-shirts, like a sweatshop, for about two weeks to save up $600 between the three of us. We had a car and a U-Haul trailer and we broke down in every state on our trip to L.A. Suddenly, we realize that we have $20 left and we’re almost out of gas. We get a room at a motel across from the Hollywood Bowl and stayed there for a week. We went down to the store every day and got a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and put the peanut butter on the bread using a Social Security card. That’s how we lived the first week in Hollywood.

GEORGE LYNCH (Lynch Mob, ex-Dokken): At one point, I was a liquor delivery driver in South Central L.A. I did the routes no one would take [because they were in such dangerous parts of town]. My route was Martin Luther King Boulevard. In fact, on the day I signed my record deal, I was in my liquor van, and I had to drive to the Elektra building in L.A. and sign the contract, and then I went right back on my route.

DON DOKKEN: People had strippers taking care of them, but I really was on that Top Ramen and hot dogs lifestyle. We were way broke.

GEOFF TATE: Living on Top Ramen was the way you survived. You only had a day job simply to keep you in rent money and pay for your musical instruments for your gig.

BLACKIE LAWLESS: I tried telemarketing for about a month and I just couldn’t do it. You’d have to cold-call a hundred people a day. I was selling fluorescent lightbulbs over the phone for a hundred times more than you could get them in the store. My phone name was Ted James. The worst thing I ever did was around the summer of ’78. I was on my last leg at this place because I wasn’t making any sales. I had cold-called this one lady who had a pet shop in Burbank. I said, “Ma’am, let me tell you what’s going on. My dad’s really upset about what happened to my lil’ sister and if you buy a lightbulb it would really help my dad out.” She said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, have you heard about the Hillside Strangler? That was my sister.” The boss was standing next to me and I thought he’d be mad, but when I got off the phone he yelled out, “You see this? He’s genius. Everyone in the room must do that.” It’s sick, but indicative of Hollywood.

SLASH: I got nabbed [shoplifting] at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, which was my parents’ favorite record shop. I was hired at the very same store six years later in the video division, and during every shift for the first six months, I was convinced someone was going to remember that I’d been caught stealing and have me fired.

JANI LANE: We were living nine guys in a two-bedroom apartment. I spent a month shrink-wrapping porno videos in a basement in Canoga Park. I had a paper route delivering the L.A. Times in stage clothes at three in the morning. I was stocking 7-Elevens. I did everything I could to survive. But we were literally starving. We couldn’t pay the rent. Steven [Sweet] and I were like, “Maybe we should head back to Florida and regroup. We can play in a cover band for a while there and save some money.” Two days later as we’re packing, there’s a note on the door and it says, “Hi, we’re the guys in Warrant. Our band broke up in San Diego last night and we need a singer and a drummer. Can you write music?” I played them “Down Boys,” “Heaven,” and “Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich” and they were like, “Wow, he can write.” So we formed the band and took over L.A.

* * *

For ambitious young rockers, the ultimate goal was to score a label deal. Many who were talented or lucky enough to do so didn’t bother looking at the terms of the contract and found themselves in financially unfavorable situations. Even those who achieved both fame and fortune often became ensnared in interband rivalries, domestic debacles, and a myriad of other problems.

BRET MICHAELS (Poison): For Poison’s record signing I thought there’d be some big party for us with a limo and caviar, and we ended up sitting in a warehouse in El Segundo, California, boxing and packaging and shrink-wrapping our own record, “Look What the Cat Dragged In.” I was sitting on the floor in leather pants.

DOKKEN: We thought we’d get rich once we were signed and selling records, but even the Elektra contracts were garbage. For every dollar they made, we made twenty cents split four ways. In Dokken, it was a four-way split, which came back to haunt me, because I wrote most of the hits. That’s what started the war between [guitarist] George [Lynch] and I. When I signed that contract, we were at the L.A. airport ready to go to Japan for our first tour. The deal was still intact — that I owned 50 percent, and they divided 50 percent. They show up at the airport with a contract that says it’s a four-way split, or we’re not getting on the plane. I called [our manager], Cliff [Bernstein at Q Prime] and said, “I can’t sign this.” He said, “Sign it and we’ll work it out.” But it never did happen. He just wanted us to get on the plane. I was hijacked. We spent the next five years together getting very famous, and I hated them, and they hated me.

* * *

While bands and groupies had no ethical qualms with the lifestyles they led, others were appalled by the unbridled hedonism in metal videos and song lyrics — especially a group of Washington, D.C.-based politicos who banded together in 1985 under the name Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group included Tipper Gore, wife of future vice president Al Gore, and Susan Baker, wife of ex-U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker. Metal was far from their sole target: Along with W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, and Judas Priest, the group also took aim at Frank Zappa, Prince, and Madonna.

FRANK ZAPPA (1940–1993) (1985 speech to the Senate): The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design. It is my understanding that in law First Amendment, issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.

SUSAN BAKER (PMRC): The material we are concerned about cannot be compared with “Louie Louie,” Cole Porter, Billie Holliday, et cetera. Cole Porter’s “The birds do it, the bees do it,” can hardly be compared with W.A.S.P.’s “I f-u-c-k like a beast.” There is a new element of vulgarity and violence toward women that is unprecedented. While a few outrageous recordings have always existed in the past, the proliferation of songs glorifying rape, sadomasochism, incest, the occult, and suicide by a growing number of bands illustrates [this] escalating trend that is alarming. Judas Priest [wrote “Eat Me Alive,”] about forced oral sex at gunpoint, [and that] has sold over two million copies.

ROB HALFORD: [For “Eat Me Alive”] We were all fucking pissed out of our minds in a little studio in Ibiza being very hedonistic, and I was writing whatever came to mind. I don’t know where the title came from. We were falling about in the studio because we all thought it was really funny. I don’t think we knew that song was going to end up on Tipper Gore’s hit list. It was just a moment that had a lot of repercussions, and I’m glad it did because that’s what rock and roll is about. I still think it’s very important that rock and roll carries that title and energy, and vibrates and irritates.

IAN HILL: Tipper Gore and the Washington Wives were trying to get rock and roll banned, and it was real right-wing Nazi-type stuff. Obviously, that was never going to work. The thing is, heavy metal bands aren’t the establishment. The establishment is people like Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand. And that’s the kind of thing the people in power listen to. They don’t understand anything else. And some of them think, “Well, if I don’t like it, nobody else should either,” and try to put a stop to it, which is rather ludicrous. I’ve got no problem whatsoever with rating records. It’s the same thing with movies. But trying to ban it as something that’s detrimental to the country — I mean, c’mon.

From the book “Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal” by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman. Copyright 2013 by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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