Don’t Call It Hair Metal: Art in the Excess of ’80s Rock

Image of Don’t Call It Hair Metal: Art in the Excess of ’80s Rock
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
ECW Press
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“Don’t Call It Hair Metal is a loving paean to a halcyon time in hard-rock history.”

Hair metal: for anyone who survived the eighties or has ventured down a YouTube music video rabbit hole, the phrase conjures images of spandex, immaculately coiffed perms, scantily clad models, guitars shaped like space cruisers and striped in Day-Glo colors. But what of the oft-derided music behind the flashy presentation? More than what might meet the ear, argues musician Sean Kelly, who makes the case for the art and artistry of eighties hard rock in Don’t Call It Hair Metal.

Kelly is no stranger to the scene; as the leader of his own glam band Crash Kelly and a respected session guitarist, he knows of what he writes, and in enthusiastic, almost feverish prose, he offers an expansive chronicle of hair metal history, with reflections on dozens of bands and their place in the rock firmament. Acknowledging the excesses of the times (“Someday we’re going to be held responsible for depleting the ozone layer,” jokes a rock veteran about the constant use of Aqua Net), he reviews hair metal’s more respected musical antecedents—seventies glam rock, sixties blues and pop—while elaborating on how it built on those foundations and stretched out in new directions.

Moving chronologically, Kelly tips his hat to formative bands like Led Zeppelin and The New York Dolls who provided musical (and visual) inspiration for their descendants before singling out seminal live albums from acts such as the Scorpions, UFO, and Thin Lizzy. As you would expect, the bulk of the book centers on the eighties, when hard rock ruled the charts with Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses, among other notable outfits. While Kelly admits that Don’t Call It Hair Metal isn’t meant to be a comprehensive history of the music, the book covers an impressive amount of ground as he points out milestone albums and bands that speak to him personally.

True to his guitarist roots, Kelly focuses most of his praise on guitar heroes such as Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads who ply new sonic territories with their instruments (with the help of under-heralded craftsmen who innovated guitar construction). From the glitzy L.A. scene to the new wave of British heavy metal, Don’t Call It Hair Metal takes pains to locate each band within the rock continuum, arguing that each drew on disparate influences (British invasion pop, prog rock, punk) to make their own original contributions. Also getting their due are producers such as Bob Rock and Michael Wagener, who helped shape the sounds of classic albums.

The old adage “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” might come to mind a few times while reading Don’t Call It Hair Metal. For the most part, Kelly does yeoman’s work in communicating the flamboyant, wild, energized, playful qualities of the music, even if his language gets a bit unwieldy from time to time.

Case in point, when describing Guns N’ Roses’ sound: “Slash’s combustible combo of Michael Schenker chops and Joe Perry slop, Izzy Stradlin’s Hanoi Rocks gutter glamour and Keith Richard and Neil Young-approved rhythm guitar stabs, and Steven Adler’s ‘Peter Criss at the Disco’ drumming in a heavy metal melting pot that would be the last band of colossal impact in ’80s hard rock.” Clearly music knowledge helps: with all the descriptions of left-hand legato flurries and glissandi pick slides, some readers will be on more solid ground than others.

Nevertheless, Kelly makes for a genial tour guide, and his points are given weight by a bushel of interview excerpts with hard rock luminaries such as John Regan, Todd Kerns, Rick Emmett, Rudy Sarzo, Paul Gilbert, Rikki Rockett, Vivian Campbell, Scotti Hill, George Lynch, Dee Snider, and Mark Slaughter. Kelly also brings a welcome touch of the personal to his narrative, noting life-changing musical moments in his own background (listening to Ozzy Osborne’s Speak of the Devil for the first time) while ruminating on the irony of his own love affair with hair metal, as a well-adjusted Catholic boy became enamored of a rock scene and lifestyle that often ran counter to his values.

Speaking of which, it’s impossible to discuss hair metal without mentioning the debauchery and politically incorrect, sexist elements—and Kelly does so with a balanced perspective. While acknowledging that fun and freedom were the name of the game, as the music provided inspiration for loners and misfits to become rock gods, he also recognizes the debauchery and unsavory attitudes that haven’t worn as well over time.

Don’t Call It Hair Metal concludes with a wistful chapter on the early nineties in which bands like Enuff Z'Nuff and King's X promised to further expand hair metal’s boundaries, only to be shoved aside in favor of Nirvana and the new age of alt-rock. But there’s a happy ending to this tale, as many of the bands profiled in the book have persisted in memory and still tour today, and Kelly even gets his own full-circle moment when he auditions for (and gets) a part in Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale musical with the Twisted Sister frontman himself. Don’t Call It Hair Metal is a loving paean to a halcyon time in hard-rock history, and while many of the excesses of the era might be lampooned today, Kelly makes a strong argument for the music’s importance. If nothing else, it invites one to revisit these oldies, or encounter them for the first time, with fresh ears if not fresh eyes.