Author Martin Popoff is a man who knows his heavy metal. All you’d have to do is check out his list long-and-winding list of books he has issued over the years, and especially, two of his recent books, ‘The Big Book of Hair Metal: The Illustrated Oral History of Heavy Metal’s Debauched Decade’ and ‘Kickstart My Heart: A Motley Crue Day-by-Day.’ Mr. Popoff was kind enough to answer some questions for Alt Nation, and as it turns out, in addition to being a metalhead, he also fancies his punk and alt-rock, to boot!
In the Crüe book, ‘Kickstart My Heart,’ there is a quote from Nikki Sixx
in which he recalls being able to tell that Nirvana was going to alter the
landscape of rock n’ roll around the release of ‘Nevermind,’ which I found
Yeah, you always wonder how much truth there is to something like that, when
you’re looking back. I can’t remember the exact quote and I’m too lazy to look
it up, but there’s a significant difference about saying something like that
around ‘Bleach’ or around ‘Nevermind.’ I mean, I couldn’t care less if they were
going to alter the landscape or not, but I knew instantly the moment I heard
‘Bleach,’ that this was a cool, incendiary form of punky, heavy metal, and
there were things that Kurt was doing on the guitar there that by some
definitions were heavier than anything we’d heard out of any hair metal
band. Plus the vocals, the lyrics, I don’t ascribe too much of pontificating
about emotion or anger or intensity or energy on these things, but let’s
just say the overall vibe was of anarchy, of a need to retool metal. Grunge
was already a good three years old by the time ‘Nevermind’ was going to pop up
on big huge bad Geffen, home of the bad wind that was Guns N’ Roses.
Although you seem to write primarily about heavy metal, do you enjoy
alt-rock and punk, as well?
Definitely, although alt rock can mean a million different things. And so
can punk, I suppose, and the only punk that I really care about and am an
expert on is the original punk of 1976 to 1979. I know and love all of that
up and down, and I can see having a few punk books in me. And I do indeed
have a Ramones coffee table book coming out in the next few months. I’m
gearing up to write ‘Who Invented Punk?,’ having done a whole bunch of
research on that, and it’s a story I find fascinating. That will be the
companion book to my insane ‘Who Invented Heavy Metal?’ book out last June,
and I may even do ‘Who Invented Thrash?.’ Alternative rock, however? I just
get carsick thinking about that term. I’m more interested in the meanings
and the bands that fill up the spaces known as new wave and post punk.
After reading ‘The Big Book of Hair Metal,’ I felt like it was a good
companion piece to my book, ‘Grunge is Dead,’ as it sets the stage for what
happened in the ’90s in rock music and was interesting to read what was
going on concurrently in LA and Seattle throughout the ’80s and early ’90s.
I seem to think that for the most part, there is “good glam rock” (the early
to mid ’70s variety) and “bad glam rock” (the mid to late ’80s variety). Do
you agree? Disagree?
No, couple things here. First off, the first glam rock, as it existed in the
UK from about 1971 to 1974, really has very little to do with the LA glam
rock of the late ’80s. They basically just had the same name. And even
there, few people call hair metal “glam rock.” That music from the UK was all
over the board, and seldom heavy, except a little bit, Mott the Hoople,
Slade, and quite a bit, Sweet. The only thing they had in common was going
for an androgynous look, along with makeup. To me, the more interesting
comparison of good and bad is the quality of the originals from LA, wild
card Van Halen, but then not wild card, Ratt and Dokken, and then the
insipid nature of all the copycats through most of the rotten core of the
middle ’80s (especially Bon Jovi), and then, what somebody could do a whole
book on, the super high quality of the hair metal bands as they learned and
matured and even got influenced by their own distaste for the ’80s, but also
learning from grunge or other alternative forms of metal, stuff happening in
California like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, and made what I think
are pretty well, the best bank of hair metal albums, which arrived in 1992
1993, with 1992 being a particularly good year. Basically every crappy hair
metal band from the ’80s made some of their best music in the early 90s, and
then new bands like Love/Hate, Collision, Saigon Kick, I Love You, Liquid
Jesus, even people like King’s X, Skid Row. I think this is one of the great
unwritten stories of hair metal, how, once the pendulum swung to Seattle, a
bunch of bands in LA were making really good music.
According to your calculations, what were some of the most over-the-top
hair metal bands, songs, and videos of the ’80s? Could Vinnie Vincent
Invasion’s “Boyz Are Gonna Rock” be a winner of all three categories?
Sure, Vinnie Vincent, everybody talks about Nitro, although they forget how
really underground that was. Whitesnake, Warrant, Winger, always the
notorious “three W’s.” Even Guns N’ Roses. I really absolutely do not give them
a pass for being any better than any of the hair metal bands. They were
simply, and quite insipidly in a subcategory I called dirty hair metal, but
hair metal all the same. Firehouse, I also found particularly egregious. But
yes, of course, big poofy, almost misty looking hair, slow motion, shiny
everything, as many girls in the videos as guys, there are all sorts of
Were you sad to see grunge and alt-rock exterminate hair metal, or was it
– to quote Salt-n-Pepa – “very necessary” at the time?
No, it absolutely was necessary. Everybody at the same time was getting
pretty disgusted with the prima donna behaviour, the hedonism, the overt
materialism, and just the watered-down copycat nature of all the new bands
coming along. I’m not one of these guys that found no value in hair metal,
or hated it, because I was metaller than thou. My attitude was always, if
you are a huge metal fan, the more dedicated and more obsessive a metal fan
you are, then why wouldn’t you like more metal, widen your net, and include
hair metal? In other words, Paul Baloff, maybe a metal poser is one that
sees a whole metal category and dismisses it…because you aren’t metal
enough! If you’re into metal, then you should like hair metal! I’m not
saying all of it, or any power ballads for that matter. But the fact of the
matter is that was music completely based around guitar-and some pretty
pyrotechnic guitar playing, when it came to solos. Pounding drums,
screeching, high vocals. There’s lots of metal content across that genre.
Still, there was total magic and excitement around grunge. I was living in
Vancouver at the time, which is satellite enough to Seattle, and buying all
of those early EP’s and albums by Green River, Soundgarden, Nirvana,
Mudhoney. But as I think back, I was still buying every other metal genre as
well, including hair metal, which, like I say, got a lot smarter at the turn
of the decade. But grunge, man, that was incredible. It was dangerous. It
was not verse/chorus. Songs could be short, long, a lark, majestic. You were
constantly being surprised.
How difficult is it to assemble the “day by day” type books you have
assembled on Ozzy, Iron Maiden, and now, Mötley Crüe?
I love this format, because it allows for a really clear, easy reading look
at the story, and an easy way to suggest connections to things like
competing bands, solo careers, personal lives, recordings, as you move
along. And with Mötley, there were so many interesting things to talk about,
given how crazy their lives were. But there was also lots of solo material
along the way, especially stuff coming from Nikki, so that’s all covered in
there as well, plus of course, Vince and Tommy. But I love the idea of
researching, unearthing, nailing down dates for this stuff, and then boom,
right there, putting an elucidating quote about that event. And people love
the fact that with this format, it’s a true coffee table type read, where
you can pick it up at any point, and be instantly interested, rather than
trying to figure out where you left off, or who these characters are in the
story. And then all the yummy photography, pictures of memorabilia, etc.,
further enhance the tale along the way. The Mötley book is just gorgeously
laid out, and every page. I think the word for it is sumptuous.
What are your thoughts on when the Crüe “went grunge/alt-rock” on their
1994 self-titled release?
That is one of Nikki’s favourite Mötley records, and I’m pretty sure it’s
Tommy’s favourite, and Mick likes it a lot as well. And in fact, its way up
there for me as well. Nothing will beat the magic and the magic times of
‘Shout at the Devil,’ but in terms of bravery, cool, pioneering production,
fat drums, just cool writing, yeah, I love that album. And I might be in the
minority, but I really like ‘Generation Swine,’ as well. I just like the fact
that they were fearlessly experimenting, and making some of their smartest
music. Because they really were a stupid band on ‘Theatre’ and ‘Girls, Girls,
Girls.’ It was basically kiddy metal, like the last two Twisted Sister
albums, at that point. It seems like although that album was viewed as a commercial failure
shortly after its release, it has garnered a cult following over the years.
Absolutely. It went gold, simply based on curiosity. But of course, changing
a lead singer is always a tough thing to do. Plus the timing was really bad.
It’d been a long time since the last album, even grunge at that point was in
a mature phase, and we were moving to things like hard alternative,
industrial metal, other electronic forms of music. 1994 was the nadir for
heavy metal, although the rest of the ’90s weren’t much of a picnic either.
But yeah, I instantly loved it, and still do.
Care to predict if Guns N’ Roses will reunite?
No, I couldn’t care less. Especially if the question is specifically
predicting if they will reunite. That’s all gossipy and amorphous and
rumour-milled like talking about sports. Pretty meaningless. The stats and
the scores is all that matters. Talking about who is better is just
insanity. I just really think those guys are the luckiest band on earth.
‘Appetite’ was a pretty good album, nothing more. I even like ‘Use Your
Illusion,’ those records, better, and even then, it’s hard to separate the
sort of miscreant personalities and all the stupidity from the music, and
just enjoy the music for what it is. But I think Love/Hate and Badlands, and
even Skid Row by the time of ‘Slave to the Grind’ were three and four times
the band Guns N’ Roses ever were. So I really couldn’t care less if they do
reunite and run around and play those songs. But I have to give them credit.
People often reduce them to one album. Sure, I won’t give that album nearly
the props everybody else does, but in terms of the material they put out, in
the space of not too, too long – which, again, time is clouded by ‘Chinese
Democracy’ – they did put out the equivalent of about five records worth of
material between ’87 and ’91. So they weren’t exactly slouches.
For more Martin, visit www.martinpopoff.com.