Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Nothin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion'

Book on keyboard: 'Nothin' But a Good Time.'
'Nothin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

I was corresponding with a colleague about the fact that I was reading a new oral history of '80s hard rock, and he wrote, "I felt like I was marching behind R.E.M. and U2 and a thousand more, in a parallel opposition to metal, which felt like it was not ideologically valid."

If it seems odd to think about Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, and Guns N' Roses in terms of ideology...that's precisely, I realized, the point. Art college rockers R.E.M., Christian rockers U2, conceptual rockers Devo, and even New Romantic rockers like Culture Club had ideologies; punk rockers like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, whose energy informed all those artists, had very explicit ideologies. The hard rockers of the '80s were just looking for...well, the apt title of that new oral history is Nöthin' But a Good Time (buy now).

One of the things this chunky volume by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock reminds readers is that hard rock was dated — and its most enthusiastic practitioners well knew it — by the late '70s, let alone by the early '90s when Nirvana released Nevermind and the party was officially over for hair metal.

Thunderous slabs of rock with screeching solos were cutting edge in the days of Hendrix, and continued to light fires through the reign of Led Zeppelin in the '70s, but by that decade's end, hard rock was regarded as "dinosaur music." Industry buzz had shifted to the post-punk scene. As Stephen Quadros of the band Snow tells the authors, "A lot of the hard rock bands were starting to make concessions. They were starting to wear, you know, white shirts and skinny ties, putting a 'The' in front of their name so they would be accepted by the new wave crowd."

A knot of true believers concentrated on the Sunset Strip, though, saw a way forward from punk that took the New York Dolls as a point of departure: a glammed-up version of punk that kept the surly attitude but emphasized theatricality and licentious fun over dour political pronouncements. When delivered right, to the right crowd in the right club, this new iteration of hard rock felt irresistible. It spoke to the '80s impulse to live in the moment, casting off the baggage of the troubled '70s.

That's where Beaujour and Bienstock pick up their story, with a group of young bands and fans convening at clubs like the Starwood, Gazzarri's, and the Troubadour. Older heads like Quiet Riot (formed in 1973) shaped the model, while Van Halen proved the point that hard rock could be a draw in the Reagan era. The thrusting theatrics of David Lee Roth (who showed Jazzercisers just what spandex was capable of) and the virtuoso solos of Eddie Van Halen set a new template.

This version of hard rock would be the apotheosis of the evolution of "rock" as a music whites claimed for themselves. Although the music descended from rhythm and blues, gone were the reverent blues covers of the early hard rock era. Also gone was the idea that this was music of personal expression; as Def Leppard's Phil Collen says, electric guitar playing became "an Olympic sport" rather than a vehicle of emotional nuance. There were ballads, sure, but they were power ballads; or, as Warrant's Joey Allen calls them, "panty wetters."

The scene was also unabashedly male-driven, and much of what drove the males was access to scenes that evoke constant comparisons to Caligula. It was an era of sexual freedom: after the pill, but before AIDS. The male musicians interviewed here remember a milieu where women on the precipice of legal adulthood (road managers would be tasked with tracking the laws state-by-state) would be constantly available for sexual acts of every description, for anyone associated with a band from the lead singer down to the roadies, offered as perks to men from record labels and men from magazines.

Nöthin' But a Good Time is not the place to look for a critical examination of this scene. Women's voices make up a very small part of the book, which also documents that casual misogyny remains very much part of these artists' worldview. Consider these examples regarding the band Poison.

- Gunnar Nelson (of Nelson) praises the "smartest marketing plan I've ever seen [...] Poison intentionally paid attention and were extra kind to the ugly fat chicks who actually were much more ardent fans."

- There's music exec Wes Hein scoffing at Capitol failing to "understand Poison. This is the label that thought Heart was a cool band."

- There's drummer Rikki Rockett complaining about a "pussified" marketing campaign that made Poison seem too pop, too Duran Duran.

Reading the book sometimes feels like going to a high school reunion at a school you didn't attend. The format of the book doesn't help; although sources' ties to the scene are identified in the front matter, the chapters draw their titles from pithy quotes and there are no subheds, so when you're thrown into a chapter called "Our Hero Is Gonna F---ing Split His Brains Open In Front of Us Right Now!" and a person named Tracii Guns starts talking about how his band auditioned a drummer who wasn't right for Guns N' Roses, you'll need to flip back to the beginning if you don't recall offhand that Guns was a member of another band called L.A. Guns — related to, but distinct from, Guns N' Roses.

The impact of MTV has hardly been understated in music history, but as more histories of '80s music come out, it's become increasingly clear just how vast the network's impact was on the music world. It essentially created a single national radio station that rewarded artists who could pair striking visuals with highly accessible songs. If not for MTV, '80s hard rock might be remembered today as a regional movement that spawned a couple of breakout bands with extraordinary talent; once MTV went all in on Quiet Riot's "Cum On Feel the Noize" and then Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," hard rock became one of the biggest commercial success stories of the '80s.

In its focus on the musicians, Nöthin' But a Good Time also leaves readers wondering about hard rock fans. Who was out there in those thirsty crowds — from clubs on the strip to arenas in the heartland? In an era when country music was the domain of gentle grey giants like Kenny Rogers and pop vocal groups like Alabama, it's easy to understand why L.A.-style hard rock drew vast numbers of the working-class whites who'd make country a commercial juggernaut in the grunge era. No one in the book quite understands why audiences who loved hard rock's not infrequently homophobic lyrics also loved men in makeup. It just worked, these men shrug, and if it ain't broke, why fix it?

From a historical standpoint, Beaujour and Bienstock have made a — literally — weighty contribution. Memories of the '80s are fading fast, perhaps particularly among those who weren't too kind to their grey matter in those years, whether due to drug abuse or due to hanging their heads upside down until it was time for them to flip their hair up for a photo. So the documentation is invaluable, but even in this edited volume it's a lot to take in if you're only a casual fan of that scene.

Within these 537 pages, though, there are certainly some memorable nuggets. There's a story about Stryper, the unapologetically Christian hard rock band, throwing Bibles into a crowd with the best intentions but with predictably painful results. There's Nikki Sixx reminiscing about a groupie whose sexual fantasy was to become a human sacrifice in the Hollywood Hills. There's the story about Axl Rose, in a scene witnessed by many and forgotten by none, literally chasing David Bowie (who also happened to be Slash's mom's ex-boyfriend) down the street because Rose thought Bowie was coming on to his girl.

Rose wouldn't be that much bigger than Bowie forever. While you may open Nöthin' But a Good Time looking for a hit of nostalgia, by the time you close the book you may find yourself thinking that these guys had a better run of it than any of them could have reasonably asked for. I'll give the last word to Sharon Osbourne, whose husband Ozzy remembers telling her circa the mid-1980s, "This is gonna last forever."

Her response: "Wait until 1990."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

March 25: Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond by Sandra B. Tooze (buy now)

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