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The 20 albums that invented Hair Metal

Hair Metal may have emerged from L.A. circa 1983, but its roots go all the way back to Led Zeppelin's early albums.
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By Martin Popoff

I very much enjoyed putting together this list because it’s not so clear how to chart this pre-history, is it? Then there’s the confusion over the term glam rock. To my mind, glam rock was that ridiculous UK thing that ran sort of ’71 through 75 with Slade, Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter, T. Rex and David Essex. I’m hesitant to mention Queen or Roxy Music or Bowie, because really, it’s a fashion term, as illustrated by a quick look at the wildly divergent musical styles of these bands. So yeah, because that was clearly called glam, I prefer to go with the term hair metal for the totally different thing starting in L.A. in 1983. So again, it’s quite the conundrum which records to include as the ramp-up, but a fun exercise nonetheless. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Led Zeppelin – untitled (IV) (November 1971)

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Armies of hair metal practitioners got together in the ‘80s and made Led Zeppelin the gods of what they were doing. Whether it was through covers, acoustic songs with mandolin, or Black Crowes, Great White, Whitesnake, Kingdom Come or Bonham, Zeppelin was tacitly floated as the source of all this. Sure, every drummer professed love for Bonzo, but it was the idea of a golden god as vocalist—the look, the stance, the screech—that really set the scene, not to mention the debauched lifestyle of Led Zeppelin lore.

New York Dolls – New York Dolls (July 1973)

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From UK glam, I wanted to get the US issue of Desolation Boulevard in here but I couldn’t quite justify it, nor is there any reason to tie the two glams together. But complicating matters, a small pocket of what one might call glam acts from the US do indeed fit the narrative, and that would be Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and these New York wise guys. Billion Dollar Babies was another record I wanted to get in, and ‘80s guys loved Raw Power, but the Dolls are more apt, given that the music was essentially happy hard rock, and the look was hard androgynous, birthing Twisted Sister and Mötley en route to Poison.

Montrose – Montrose (October 1973)

Montrose album

This is a bright, heavy, happy hard rock album and the blueprint for Van Halen, probably the most important record of the pre-history. Montrose also included a future hair metal guy in the ranks, namely Sammy Hagar of ditzy 5150 and OU812 fame, not to mention Sammy Hagar and V.O.A. which are hair metal enough. Point is though, on a purely musical basis, Montrose could have been parachuted onto the Sunset Strip in 1984 and it would have fit right in.

Kiss – Alive! (September 1975)

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Visually there aren’t a lot of links, other than the likes of Mötley and W.A.S.P. (and pyro), but there a couple things at play here. First, Alive! is practically any ‘80s glamster’s Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and second, Kiss musically and lyrically did as much to set a blueprint for that ‘80s music as anybody. Plus they are a rare case of a band that participated fully themselves. Aerosmith did to some extent, Ozzy as a solo artist, Scorpions, Priest a bit and Alice, but Kiss jumped right in with both boots.

Aerosmith – Rocks (May 1976)

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As a fulsome package, Aerosmith are the closest thing to a proto-hair metal band pre-Van Halen, from lifestyle and look, through five-man configuration, to the band’s bluesiness made modern, to the party rock lyrics, everything. Ask any hair metal hero and they will say so, further citing Rocks as the band’s best album, and the one they got the same year they got their first guitar.

Van Halen – Van Halen (February 1978)

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I’d say that not only was this the record that best set the blueprint for hair metal, but it practically saved hard rock in L.A. Nothing was happening. Huge city, but the punk was late and only okay, their new wave horrible, and hard rock sort of a joke at the bottom of an unappetizing food chain. Van Halen roared to life (after almost dying a few times in the previous four years just like everyone else), and gave us Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on steroids, a front man super hero and the first actual guitar hero since Jimi Hendrix. That set the template for 10 years of what were essentially variants on Van Halen, in which the focus was also the ring leader and the six-string shredder.

Def Leppard – High ‘n’ Dry (July 1981)

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This is sort of a stand-in for itself and On Through the Night. The deal here is Def Leppard right from the beginning were a virus killing the NWOBHM, and by High ‘n’ Dry, cognizant that the gig was up and there was something vastly different and American-sounding and indeed American-based around the corner. But credit where credit is due, like Van Halen (and II, Women and Children First and Fair Warning) and like the first Crüe and Dokken, High ‘n’ Dry is a pioneering record of a fresh new sound to come.

Dokken – Breaking the Chains (July 1981)

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I remember experiencing this record smack in the middle of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and thinking, there’s something extra competitive and special here. The songwriting is easily digestible, anthemic and fun, puts you in a good mood, there’s nothing wrong with fine singing and good production, and look, they’re actually American. Who, across all of the US, was stupid enough to do hard rock in 1981? A couple teenagers drinking beers and listening to Fire Down Under behind the backstop could count the bands on four hands. Breaking the Chains was so good that when it was reissued in 1983, it fit right in. And yes, like On Through the Night, it kinda made the NWOBHM smell funny.

Loverboy – Get Lucky (October 1981)

Loverboy Get Lucky album

Look, I resisted talking about Boston, Styx and Foreigner (or Starz , Angel and Derringer), but Loverboy, well, this was more of a valid bridge band, with the coordinated and choreographed good looks, the tough but keyboard-sweetened songs, and anthems like “Working for the Weekend.” And if you don’t think they mattered, Get Lucky went four times platinum, with the three records around it each going double platinum.

Mötley Crüe – Too Fast for Love (November 1981)

Motley Crue's Too Fast For Love

Preposterously, Nikki says Mötley weren’t a hair metal band. Embrace it. Embrace it fully, because in fact they were the very first hair metal band which should count enough to wash out the bad taste of that derisive term, right? But it’s all here, the decadence, the simplicity, the melody, the punk rock, the conceptual chaos, the indulgence (weirdly from the drummer and the production), as well as the squalid, street rat thing. It’s practically a concept album about flyering.

Scorpions – Blackout (April 1982)

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Might seem like an odd choice, but it’s here somewhat to represent itself, the band and Love at First Sting—and Judas Priest!—this idea of a ‘70s band dumbing down for this new life in the ‘80s criss-crossing America playing music from Hollywood. The operative tracks are the party-rocking “Arizona” and “Can’t Live Without You” but even more so “No One Like You” and “When the Smoke Is Going Down” which help invent the power ballad.

Van Halen – Diver Down (April 1982)

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I picked this for the back cover. And the covers, quite notably, “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” and “Happy Trails” which sort of suggested to hair metal bands that they too could try be funny (they rarely were). Plus with Diver Down, Van Halen showed they didn’t care about anything, writing, quality, how long the album was gonna be. Which is hair metal, right? Care-free.

Twisted Sister – Under the Blade (September 1982)

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Complicated, this pick. First there’s the feminized look, but as Dee rightfully explained, it’s more What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (and Alice Cooper). As well, there’s a bit of Def Leppard and Dokken going on here, with Twisted shifting attention back to America with a party rock sound. Last, the second record is even more hair metal, so maybe I should have picked that, and then the third record is the huge hair metal hit, so I could have picked that—“We’re Not Gonna Take It” is about as hair metal as it gets.

Def Leppard – Pyromania (January 1983)

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Mixed feelings about this one. I suppose I’ve never been able to put aside that the band’s from Sheffield, and it’s still kind of early to call anything hair metal proper. But the lyrics are squarely party rock, and there’s those pioneering multi-tracked gang vocals as well as the electronic drum sound. The slight boy band look of the guys too can be seen as one form of a hair metal image. And how do you square the record’s immense diamond-certified success? As much as it’s a hair metal record, Pyromania is almost like an island state governed in parallel with hair metal.

Quiet Riot – Metal Health (March 1983)

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I’m inclined to put Metal Health up against Too Fast for Love as the very first hair metal album. Both have their idiosyncrasies putting them a little to the left (Out of the Cellar has none), but what Metal Health has going for it is its placement in what I’ve always considered the first hair metal year proper, 1983. Plus you don’t get much more hair metal than “Metal Health” and this treatment of “Cum On Feel the Noize,” written by Slade, an original-era glam band. Adding to the year zero vibe, you have what is essentially a baby band (no need to discuss the first two records—this is a new joint) selling six times platinum.

Ratt – Ratt (EP) (August 1983)

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I’m usually against EPs, but I distinctly remember getting this and the Great White EP at the same time and they really represented something important, a ground-level excitement, which is the hallmark of a burgeoning scene—grunge got going off some great EPs as well. Ratt was fully seven tracks and hair metal was getting off to a strong start, because it was heavy enough in the aggregate for any self-respecting metalhead suspicious of this new L.A. thing.

Kiss – Lick It Up (September 1983)

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You gotta give it up for Kiss. There’s being opportunistic and chasing trend, but somehow (maybe it’s ‘cos they’re super-heroes), here they are in on the ground floor and bloody successful at it at that, with Lick It Up selling platinum on the strength of “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” and the title track, both squarely early hair metal anthems. To drive home the point with a sledgehammer, given the band a few months to get it together, but nobody was going to out glam Kiss when it came to wardrobe.

Mötley Crüe – Shout at the Devil (September 1983)

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Mötley’s important enough to get in here twice, and here they are setting the MTV agenda for hair metal with iconic videos for down ‘n’ dirty anthems from the bad side of town like “Looks That Kill,” “Too Young to Fall in Love” and the insanely anthemic title track (okay, no video on that one).

Ratt – Out of the Cellar (March 1984)

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Forget Poison, Cinderella, Bon Jovi and Warrant. My rose-colored version of quintessential hair metal includes Dokken, early Great White and most of all, Ratt—early, late, reunion-era, heck, all of it is of the same high quality. Out of the Cellar is in possession of all the good habits of the genre, including killer vocals, smart enough lyrics, expert weaves between two hot shot guitarists and tough but plush production. You can’t write a better song than “Round and Round,” which, through its inherent awesomeness as well as its iconic video, drove this fine record to triple platinum.

Dokken – Tooth and Nail (September 1984)

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We end our cruise down Sunset Strip with another band, like Ratt, that ticked every box for early years hair metal mania, further rewarding Dokken closing band status for the covert, behind the scenes work they did back on Breaking the Chains. Like Out of the Cellar, Tooth and Nail was tough as nails, so while the prettiness of the guys brought the gals, the pyrotechnics of George Lynch also gave the band happy standing amongst male metalheads, ensuring that hair metal would be a party to which all are invited.

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