I spent all day yesterday in a state of anger and sadness over the recent police killings, and needed something to distract me in the evening. I opted for watching The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. In case you don't know, the original Penelope Spheeris doc was about the early 80s punk scene in LA. The sequel concerns the heavy metal scene on the Sunset Strip in the late 80s, but feels a few centuries rather than a few years away. The film really is a kind of real-life Spinal Tap, and made me laugh at the pretensions of some of the mediocre unsigned bands and cringe at the general air of misogyny. There was also the grim humor in seeing all of that sprayed hair on people who thought they were oh so cool when in four years that look and the music that came with it would be dumped into the dustbin of rock history by grunge.
After an hour and a half of glam metal types crowing about their sexual exploits and drug intakes, it ends with a performance by Megadeth, whose pure thrash metal acts as kind of a rebuke to what we've just seen. While the arc of LA metal bent towards Poison, it was not always thus. The first band from that scene to hit was Motley Crue, and some of their early material had some real bite and menace.
"Looks That Kill" is not one of their big hits, but it was the song that put them on the map, in large part because of the video and the image projected through it. It starts in what looks like the set for The Cave Dwellers or any other MST3K-ready 80s B-movie attempt to cash in on Conan the Barbarian. There are metal babes, but dressed like a D&D playing nerd-boy's wet dream rather than in frilly, lacy 80s lingerie. The boys in the band are dressed like the New York Dolls meets Escape from New York, and are holding menacing torches, chasing the ladies and literally penning them up before rocking out on stage. There's no misogyny like 80s metal video misogyny.
The guy we see least in the video is Mick Mars, the lead guitarist. Most casual music fans may know the names of Tommy Lee (he of the illicit Pam Anderson tape and his own reality show), Vince Neil (the lead singer and star of his own less glamorous sex tape), and Nikki Sixx (the coolest looking one and perhaps the best interview ever on Behind the Music), but not Mick Mars. Mars was not nearly as telegenic, but his musicianship is by far the most crucial element to the song. Sixx and Lee are an okay rhythm section, and Neil has about as much vocal range as Elvis had acting range. The riff on this song, however, is an absolute monster. It is a beautifully trashy hook that would make Johnny Thunders tip his cap. I friggin' hate Motley Crue, but I like this song because the riff is just that rocking.
The video though, oof. Caged women, flying pentagrams, spinning drumsticks, flaming torches and any number of other excesses. The band's success would allow them to go more over the top, but the fly by night, chintzy nature of this video does redeem it somewhat. Here the excess of the LA hair metal scene is just kind of funny and silly. By the late 80s it would be overbearing and devoid of any silly fun. When I watched The Decline Of Western Civilization II, it was a reminder of why a genre of music that seemed to dominate rock died so suddenly. The difference between "Looks That Kill" in 1983 and "Unskinny Bop" (a future entry in this series) in 1990 helps explain why.