Would the hard rock scene of the 1980s reached its level of cultural saturation without music videos and MTV? The rapidly expanding cable TV subscriber base made it worthwhile for record labels to sign huge checks in hopes that an eye-catching video would elevate their artists above the rest of the pack. Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister broke the ice, and were soon followed by ascendant bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Guns N' Roses, who made visual spectacle and grandiosity (or endearing cheapness) part and parcel to their appeal.
We enlisted Richard Bienstock and Tom Beajuour, the authors of the new oral history Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion, to take us on a guided tour of the scene's most groundbreaking, controversial, and iconic music videos. Their book is a treasure trove of stories, drama, and details from one of the most over-the-top eras in rock, and music videos played a major story in defining the aesthetic and attitude of the moment. Featuring tales of agonizing video shoots, impressing Michael Jackson, and chasing David Bowie down the street, here are eight of the most archetypal and illustrative videos of '80s hard rock.
The 1990 debut single and video from Nelson was a preemptive strike against perceptions that the twin-led band (the sons of early rock 'n' roll star Ricky Nelson) were pretty boys who couldn't play. The video's creative team also came up with a concept that made things much, much more complicated.
Tom Beaujour: The beginning and end shows them singing and playing guitar together, and they're sending signals there. What they'd actually done as their entire promotional campaign for months before their record came out, because they knew nobody was going to believe that they could play or sing, and because they were celebrity kids and how they looked, they went from radio station to radio station and mall to mall with an acoustic guitar.
Richard Bienstock: The production of the video itself was totally bananas. It was directed by Jim Yukich and produced by Paul Flattery, and they had done Genesis's "Land of Confusion" and all of these other mega-videos. These guys went to Nelson and said, "Here's how we're going to do this, we want the snow to fly upwards, we want the birds to fly backwards, so we're going to film you playing the entire song backwards." This is what happens when you have a quarter-million dollars to spend on a video, is everyone in Nelson learned to play and sing the song completely backwards.
People would slag them for not being able to play, but not only could they play, but they were able to learn to play the whole thing backwards, including singing, so they were actually onstage, performing it all backwards, drumming backwards, which the drummer said was the hardest thing he ever had to do. So not only was it incredibly colorful, but it was also incredibly laborious and this insane conceit. You really see the epic scope that people were willing to go to at the end of this thing and the amount of money involved and the power these video directors had, to dictate to a band, "OK, go home and learn to play your song backwards."
After Poison's debut single and video, "Cry Tough," failed to chart, the band went to the New York Dolls-aping "Talk Dirty To Me" and cranked up the goofiness for a video that perfectly captured their party energy and colorful style.
Bienstock: This was incredibly impactful on both myself and Tom when we were children. I think we both remember seeing this video for the first time and immediately being all-in with all the guys, but especially C.C. DeVille. He just looks awesome, there's rows of pointy, brightly colored guitars, and it was everything I wanted out of music and music videos at that time. It's done on a shoestring budget, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, which is to make these guys look like tons of fun, like you're partying with them, and if it's something you're into, you just want to be a part of it.
Beaujour: I was 15, and I thought it was another version of Cheap Trick's "She's Tight," and as a power-pop fan, it was awesome. They had already put out a single from their first album that hadn't done anything, so they had no money to make this video, they piggybacked it on a Stryper video and used the same set. What [Poison drummer] Rikki Rocket says in the book is that they knew exactly what they were doing, they went into it and said, "We don't have enough money to create continuity in this video, so we're not even going to worry about it."
Poison always had a very clear idea of how to market themselves, and they knew that this would work. Rikki Rockett tells a story in the book about going up to Michael Jackson at an awards show and says, "Mr. Jackson, I'm Rikki, I play in this band Poison…" and Michael Jackson goes, "I absolutely know who you guys are, every time your video for 'Talk Dirty to Me' comes on, I sit down and watch it, because I don't want to miss a second, because it looks like you guys are having so much fun." So even to the master of all videos, this one successfully communicated. It's sort of a mess, but to us, it was ground zero. I probably wouldn't have written this book if that video hadn't captured my imagination at the time, and at the end you see all of the silly-string and the balloons, and that was really what Poison did at all of their shows.
Ratt enlisted their manager's uncle, television icon Milton Berle, to star in the video for "Round and Round." The clip was directed by Don Letts of Big Audio Dynamite, who had helmed numerous videos for The Clash in addition to "Pass the Dutchie" and Elvis Costello's "Everyday I Write the Book."
Bienstock: The look of the band and their demeanor is totally different from Poison, which is interesting because you're talking about 1984 versus 1986, and that was one of the differences in this music just in those two years. In 1984 you still had Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot, and they were looking a little bit goofier, but you also had Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. and Ratt, bands that were trying to look tough, and that smiley, neon type of hair metal came in the middle of the decade with Poison and Bon Jovi and those types of bands.
Beaujour: It made the light bulb go off in the labels' heads. You can tell that this mansion is really just some shithole warehouse, there wasn't a lot of money being spent on these early videos until it was clear there would be a return, which videos like this made clear. "We do this, the money comes back." I checked, and Warren DeMartini playing his solo on the table in this video precedes "Hot for Teacher" by several months. So whether or not there is a connection or inspiration there, I don't know, but this one came first.
Perhaps the most Spın̈al Tap video on the list, "Looks That Kill" finds Mötley Crüe decked out in leather and chains, herding women into a cage, and wielding torches, all to ridiculous effect. A misogynistic mess any way you slice it, the video nonetheless marked the beginning of the band's ascent.
Bienstock: "Looks That Kill," for me, was the one that started my whole journey into this music, for better or for worse. In my defense, I was 7 at the time. Corey Taylor from Slipknot, who wrote the foreword for our book, starts with "Looks That Kill," so he clearly saw this video and that flipped the switch for him. The video has not aged well, it probably shouldn't have been on even back in the day, but what you had was something that really kicked off their career, and also it shows how iconic not just that video was, but how iconic that look was for Mötley Crüe. Their A&R guy at Elektra, the only thing he cared about was that this record open up and be a gatefold, and on that gatefold you have these four guys in those costumes, because he knew, despite everything else, the music, if you open it up and see these four guys, you'd be hooked.
Beaujour: I've been watching this show The Boys lately, and it's absolutely clear here that Mötley Crüe here are being marketed as antiheroes and villains. You see two different bands in this era: the ones marketed as bad guys, i.e. Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses, and the ones marketed as fun guys, like Poison and Warrant. It's clear that these are supposed to be evil people, which makes it all the more interesting that they made it in Middle America, because they're definitely not god-fearing.
Akin to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," Warrant's "Cherry Pie" was a last-minute addition to the album that eventually bore its name. Model Bobbie Brown (who went on to marry Warrant singer Jani Lane) and the band cavort in a white void to make one long sex joke, but the playful video was excruciating to make, and Lane found the song's success to be a burden for the rest of his life. It was a huge hit at the time, but also for an easy target as the scene's popularity began to wane.
Beaujour: What you don't realize watching this video, because it looks like everybody's goofing around, is that these things were incredibly grueling. I think this was 72 straight hours that they're on set doing this video. There's a scene where Steven Sweet has cherry pies on his drums that he hits and destroys, and each one of those was a real cherry pie, so every time they did that shot, they not only had to replace the pie, but clean the entire set. When Jani has that giant smile across his face, like the Cheshire cat smile, that's not CGI, that's a prosthesis.
The song "Cherry Pie" wasn't even supposed to be on the album, but they handed it in and Donnie Ienner at Columbia said, "I need another single, and I want it to sound like that Def Leppard song 'Pour Some Sugar On Me.'" So Jani Lane goes home and writes this song literally overnight, then they record it and it becomes this giant hit and the defining piece of work of his life. He goes to the grave bemoaning the fact that he's the "Cherry Pie" guy. It's one of those videos that was an easy target when it became time to tear this music down, because it's not only sexist but it's puerile, but also pretty funny.
These videos cut both ways, they were fun to watch, you could say, "These guys are cool, they're funny," and through another lens, it's more difficult to stomach. Compared to "Looks That Kill" where they're hunting women, or other videos where they're restrained, this was much more a fun and games sort of thing. It really did come to define this band, and I'll go down saying that Jani Lane was one of the best songwriters of the era. It's a shame that he was only remembered for this one song, and even more of a shame that he regretted it.
Bienstock: You could almost look at this as the most '80s of all these songs, it really encapsulates everything people think about this music, but it comes so late in this era. "Man in the Box" is just a few months away, then Nirvana and Pearl Jam, these are all about to happen, but Warrant can have a huge hit with a song like this and a video like this, and in my opinion, that's part of why it becomes such a punching bag. When the tide turns just a couple of months later, this song and video, because it was so huge, was fresh in everyone's mind, so it's the easiest one to point to and start beating up on.
Faster Pussycat never broke huge the way many of their fellow Sunset Strip bands did, but their brand of raunchy rock was brought to the screen by notorious B-movie director Russ Meyer, who had directed the band's namesake 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.'
Bienstock: In the book we explore what a shoestring budget the entire Faster Pussycat/Elektra partnership was based on. There was no money there for the band, and very little support for the band at the label. One of the things they had going for them was that they were signed for so cheap and the record was put together for so cheap, so they just put it out there. The video goes nowhere, but it's a funny story because the guys in the band are tickled that Russ Meyer is working on their video. It also shows how a label like Elektra would just throw any concept at the wall and go for it if they thought it might help move the needle even a little bit. In a lot of cases it did, like Milton Berle in the "Round and Round" video, and then you have a case like this, where it didn't help at all.
AllMusic: Is there a secret history of B-movie directors making music videos?
Bienstock: There's actually a secret history the other way, with these guys who became feature directors, like Michael Bay doing Winger videos, and the band actually not being that thrilled about working with him. But that's where a lot of these guys got their start.
By the time Guns N' Roses made the video for "It's So Easy," they were already riding high on "Welcome to the Jungle," "Paradise City," and "Sweet Child o' Mine." But thanks to some unexpected additions from Axl Rose, the video was banned from MTV. The video shoot also featured significant behind the scenes drama involving a rock icon.
Bienstock: [Faster Pussycat frontman] Taime Downe was one of the co-owners of the Cathouse, which is the hangout place for these bands in the mid to late '80s, so they want to show everyone on their own turf and what a Guns N' Roses live experience is like. As far as what happens with the video, the reason it winds up not getting played is because Axl Rose goes rogue and inserts all of this other footage of him and his girlfriend doing S&M stuff, which their manager says was Axl trying to do his own Story of O film, when it should have just been a live performance of the band at the Cathouse. So because he inserts all this other stuff, it gets banned by MTV.
The backstory of the video is that David Bowie is there, and according to some people, he was chatting up Erin Everly, Axl's girlfriend. He freaks out and says something like "I'm going to kill you, Tin Man!" because David Bowie had his band Tin Machine at the time, and he chases him out of the Cathouse and down the street in Hollywood. So you hear this story from [Cathouse co-owner and Headbanger's Ball host] Rikki Rachtman and [GNR bassist] Duff McKagan, and Duff is talking about how nuts it is to watch his singer go crazy on this guy who is also all of their idol, and even had dated Slash's mother. So he's almost this father figure to Slash and is their idol musically, and now Axl is chasing him down the street, out for blood.
Beaujour: When you look at it, it could also be a Pearl Jam video, because you have people stage-diving, there's a pit, and it's really indicative that there was, even in L.A. pre-grunge, there was this whole other parallel scene to the Sunset Strip. This is where bands like Guns N' Roses are co-existing with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction, there was a whole other, cooler, much more punk rock informed sub-strain of the L.A. scene, of which Guns N' Roses was part, beyond what people tend to think of when they think of the Strip and the glammy bands.
By the time Junkyard came around, the bloom was off the '80s hard rock rose. The band took a Southern rock approach, somehow managed to release a ballad called "Simple Man" that wasn't a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover, and offered a welcome change of pace for two punk veterans who were eager to try something new.
Beaujour: It's really indicative of the end of the era and the strange absurdity of it. You've got a band with a guitar player from the legendary punk band Big Boys, Brian Baker from Minor Threat and Dag Nasty, and they were so happy to be along on this ride after just having eaten so much shit on the road and slept on so many floors and so many van tours.
The label took them to the Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family had lived, and then the idea that a bunch of women are going to magically appear and start dancing in front of them. At that point in the era, it was such a strange idea, but you could see how nearly every other idea had been used up. The woman in the front, Josie Bissett, she was also a star on Melrose Place, so they're going for it in trying to market this. The guys in the video recall it as being a terrible experience, because none of the actresses who came to the shoot would talk to them. They were just so grossed out by the dudes in Junkyard that they wouldn't even go near them, and they said it was like reliving eighth grade when none of the pretty girls would talk to them. You can see that lack of chemistry in the video.
Bienstock: It encapsulates the late '80s, end of the era treatment of a lot of these bands, where a lot of these videos look like this. The band Tora Tora was telling us about this video they shot in an airplane hangar, they're all on these different planes, this whole big budget thing, and it wasn't even shown on MTV, so it was just trashed. So the labels were spending tons of money to present these bands in ways that were often inauthentic to who they were, and the bands knew it at the time, but you just go with it, because it's what's happening.
Beaujour: When you get to this point, it's worth noting the number of videos that have a western theme. Ratt had done "Wanted Man" years earlier, but this was preceded by probably 20 similarly styled videos. Bon Jovi goes from "Wanted Dead or Alive" to "Blaze of Glory," where he takes it to the next level, and that was the thing for a little while. There were probably 20 tropes, and by the time you've gone from '81 to '91, they've all been fully exploited.
Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion is out now on St. Martin's Press.