About a week ago Rolling Stone published its list of the “50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time.” Now, we all more or less know the deal with these lists – they will inevitably cause you to nod in agreement at parts and complete go off at others, driving you insane both by who is included and, just as importantly, who is left out. Really these lists are conversation fodder, and if used that way can be a lot of fun. This one is no different.
I came of age musically during the rise of hair metal in the year 1983. These bands, many of which had languished in the Los Angeles club scene for years, were breaking into the mainstream, with all the good and bad that entails. That year brought us many of the true classics of the genre – Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, Twisted Sister‘s You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil (though their 1981 debut Too Fast for Love may very well qualify as ground zero for hair metal – the opening salvo if you will). The videos set the stage for the look and feel of hair metal bands to come, and they were all over MTV. Studded leather and hairspray ruled, and makeup became more and more de rigueur. It was wild and ridiculous and fun. A lot of people, of course, hated it, and that just made it that much better. I realize that looking back on it now it all seems pretty preposterous, but it sure didn’t feel that way back in 1983. It felt new and different. In large part because neither me nor any of my friends had ever heard of the New York Dolls.
Call it hair metal, call it glam metal. I don’t care. I still love listening to it today.
Which brings us back to the Rolling Stone list. I was certainly curious to see what album held down the number one spot, so I followed the link and scrolled to the bottom of the page and… wait for it… Def Leppard’s Hysteria.
Wait, what? WHAT??????
Now there was another important rock album that came out in 1983 that I didn’t mention above, and that was Def Leppard’s break-out LP Pyromania. To be clear, I LOVE that album. It’s a killer rock album. But is Def Leppard really hair metal? I mean, seriously? And Hysteria… super great album that generated a ton of hit singles to be sure. But is there a single song on it that in any way, shape, or form could be classified as “metal”? Go listen to it. I’ll wait. “Run Riot,” a song you’ve probably never heard before unless you’re a big Def Lep fan, is probably as close as they get to metal on that album. Keep in mind, I’m not disparaging Hysteria – it’s a great album. But metal? No. I’m not sure Def Leppard ever qualified as hair metal.
I could go through the Rolling Stone list album by album and give my thoughts, but I want to focus on the one album that I was most curious to see on the list – Ratt’s 1984 Out of the Cellar, the album that brought us the mega-hit single “Round and Round”. And I was pleased to see that RS got this one more or less right, with Ratt cracking the Top 10 and holding down the #6 spot. Because for me Out of the Cellar is the best hair metal album of all time. Ever. Bold statement? Yes. Accurate? Who the hell knows! This is purely subjective, and my feelings for this album can’t be separated from my personal experiences with Ratt’s music. It’s certainly more hair metal than Hysteria (I also don’t quite get Bon Jovi posting up at #3 with Slippery When Wet, but that’s a whole different post).
I’ve been wanting to write about Out of the Cellar for a long time, and the one thing that’s held me back is my inability to find a decent, reasonably priced vinyl copy. Which seems totally insane to me, because in the late1980s/early 1990s when I was in the midst of my first phase of haunting used record stores you couldn’t look through a 99 cent bin and not find at least five copies of this album. It was everywhere. It seemed like they literally multiplied there in those bins. So mentally I’ve had a hard time justifying spending say $15 on a really nice copy. I’ve found plenty of $3 copies, but all totally thrashed to the point I’d never want to play them on my turntable. So yesterday I finally decided to bite the bullet and was even willing to drop $25 if I could find a copy of the 2013 re-release… and totally struck out all over town. WTF? Where did all these Ratt albums go?? I did find a nice copy of their following release, Invasion of Your Privacy, so I bought that. And then in a fit of frustration I bought a copy of Out of the Cellar on CD, brand new, still sealed, for $5.99, cheaper than I could even get it on iTunes.
Now if this is such an important album, you may be asking yourself why I don’t have a copy. Well, I’m pretty sure I included my CD copy in one of our many CD purges over the years, but I made the mistake of failing to burn all of it to my iTunes library – for whatever reason I only had some of the songs. But since I feel this is a killer album start-to-finish, I wanted a copy of the whole thing when I finally sat down and wrote about it. So here I am today with a $6 CD, and a vinyl copy of the album that I didn’t care enough when it came out to even buy.
My guess is that most people don’t remember many songs on Out of the Cellar other than “Round and Round.” “Back for More” and “Wanted Man” (a much better song than “Round and Round,” IMO) both made it onto the charts, but neither managed to crack the Top 30 on the Mainstream Rock chart, let alone make a dent on the Billboard Hot 100. But for me this was the first album I can ever remember regularly listening to from start to finish as opposed to just skipping around to specific songs. I rarely listened past the first two songs on Metal Health; but my Out of the Cellar cassette was just played on a constant loop.
Stephen Percy had some decent range with his raspy vocals, able to work both low and high, and the band harmonized with him well in selected spots. There’s certainly more than a little effect-work added to his voice, but it’s glam, man. The guitars have some standard metal intricacy, but what defines the guitar sound to me are some of the spots where the lead actually pops out of the rhythm for a moment and throws out a little bit of flair, similar to a drum fill. The snares are snappy, and that gives the bass a little more room to control the low end (listen to “In Your Direction” to hear what I’m talking about).
I, like probably most people, originally bought Out of the Cellar on the strength of “Round and Round,” and it remains a great song to my ears. But one of the things I learned from this album is that sometimes there are way better songs on an album than the one that became a hit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that not only is “Round and Round” not the best song on Out of the Cellar, it’s not even the best song on side A… and to be honest, it’s probably the fourth best (of five) song on that side. The album opens with “Wanted Man,” which is probably my top pick, with it’s slower and heavier approach that most of the rest of the album. If Ratt ever gets truly heavy on Out of the Cellar, it’s here. “You’re in Trouble” and “In Your Direction” are some killer tracks as well, making this one of the best sides of hair metal music I’ve heard.
The B side isn’t nearly as good, but there’s still some OK stuff there. The high point is “I’m Insane,” a pretty fast number by Ratt standards. “Lack of Communication” was one of my favorites back in the day, but I’m not as sold on it today as I was then. “Back for More” is decent, but “Scene of the Crime” is pretty terrible.
Ratt followed Out of the Cellar with Invasion of Your Privacy in 1985. Expectations ran high, but overall the album failed to deliver. “Lay It Down” was the most popular song on radio, and it almost cracked the Top 10 on the Mainstream Rock charts, though it only made it to #40 on the Billboard Top 100. The only other single, “You’re In Love,” barely cracked the Top 100. I remember “Lay It Down” getting a decent amount of airplay but feeling that it was a bit too polished and poppy at the time.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to Invasion of Your Privacy all the way through, or at least I was until I dropped the needle and “You’re In Love” kicked off, because it sounds awfully familiar. And not too damn bad, actually – this is a lot more like the Ratt from Out of the Cellar than “Lay It Down” ever was. Admittedly, the thunder/lightning sound effect is sort of cliche, but “You’re In Love” is a solid sleaze rocker. And, you know, “Lay It Down” is a bit dirtier sounding than I remember – at least the non-chorus parts, because the chorus is a bit too poppy. Songs like “Closer to My Heart” move in the ballad-ish direction, something Ratt more or less avoided on Out of the Cellar, and it wasn’t one of their strengths. The B side is much more like the old Ratt, with the exception of “You Should Know by Now” which is lackluster and seems a bit like a KISS ripoff.
I’m glad the folks over at Rolling Stone put out this list, even if I don’t agree with their top choice. If nothing else it got me off my ass to listen to Ratt. Now I just need that vinyl copy of Out of the Cellar…