The Blog

'Born to Be Wild': The Golden Age of American Rock - Welcome to the Jungle

By the 1980's, mainstream American rock music had moved far away from the protest and revolution of the 1960s and was more concerned with sex, drugs, partying and having a good time. All the time. Hey it was the 80s so it was allowed, apparently.

I directed the final part of BBC Four's Born to be Wild. The 1980s. The documentary series covers the Golden Age of American rock and is the centrepiece of the channel's United States of Rock season which has been running throughout January.

By the 1980s, mainstream American rock music had moved far away from the protest and revolution of the 1960s and was more concerned with sex, drugs, partying and having a good time. All the time. Hey it was the 80s so it was allowed, apparently. And naturally everything was bigger and more outrageous than before, from the epic guitar solos right down to the ludicrous hairstyles.

The single most important influence on the sound and look of 80s American rock was MTV - the 24-hour music television channel set up in 1981 that went on to seemingly create superstars overnight. As music journalist, Rob Tannenbaum, says: "In the music business anything that succeeds is instantly imitated over and over again on a larger scale, until it fails."

In the case of 1980's American rock, this applies to the pop metal bands that came to be collectively known as Hair Metal on account of their hilarious barnets. Inspired by Van Halen and led by Mötley Crüe, a succession of LA rock bands (and others from other parts of the USA) took over the TV channel with their raucous, pop metal anthems. Following MTV exposure their popularity exploded all over the country. Naturally there was a record company signing frenzy and by the end of the decade America's airwaves were saturated with this so-called Hair Metal.

The fashion was even louder than the music and the songs and lyrics were crude, lewd and unashamedly sexist. It may have sold in its millions but it wasn't for everyone.

In the documentary, heartland hero Tom Petty completely dismisses it: "That hair band stuff was just the absolute lowest point I'd ever seen rock get to. I thought they really humiliated women to a great extent."

Of course 80s American rock wasn't all about hairspray and spandex. Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty himself were all producing songs of more serious substance that recalled America's great tradition of rock 'n' roll whilst speaking to the nation's heartland. The decade also produced one of America's all time classic rock bands, Guns N' Roses. They saw themselves as the antidote to the soft metal of bands like Bon Jovi and Poison.

As Slash remembers in the documentary, "We couldn't stand all of these flamboyant boys that looked like girls. It was actually pretty silly looking back on it. In the Guns N' Roses days we hated that, we were like the antithesis of that."

Bass player Duff McKagan felt the same: "There was a lot of commercial, spoon-fed, sugary music, and it was flooding radio and MTV. At some point, if you're 18, you gotta be pissed off."

And Guns N' Roses certainly sounded pissed off. While some of LA's Hair Metal bands exaggerated their rebellious lifestyle, Guns N Roses were the real deal, dragged up on the back streets of West Hollywood.

Duff again: "We lived in this dark underbelly of the real Hollywood. Drugs, dealers, guns... that informed us a lot more than Sunset Strip or Spandex pants."

This street urchin attitude came through in their lyrics while the music was a culmination of all the classic American rock bands that had gone before them - Alice Cooper, Kiss and Aerosmith. Guns N' Roses nabbed all the best bits, added some British punk rock attitude and mixed it all together to create a band that epitomise classic American rock - great musicianship, outrageous behaviour, unashamed arrogance, big songs, even bigger riffs and grandstanding guitar soloing.

Their lifestyle did catch up with them though. To be honest, when you look at how hard the band partied back then I felt quite lucky that any of them were still around to be interviewed for the series. Due to various addiction problems, drummer Steven Adler suffered a serious stroke, Slash now has a pacemaker fitted (that once kicked in half-way through playing live on stage) and bass player Duff McKagan drank so much his pancreas exploded!

Of course American rock music didn't die with the end of the 1980s, but for this series we concerned ourselves with the era of classic American rock, featuring hugely successful bands that may have not been the most hip and cool but captured the country's imagination on a mass scale with a certain look and swagger. It was an era when singers were gods, guitarists were axe-men and songs were anthems. Once Grunge came along in the early 1990s it ridiculed this traditional rock star image overnight. This is where our series ends.

And Tom Petty summed up this end of an era perfectly: "I think the seismic eruption in rock was the Nirvana period. Kurt Cobain came and mowed them down like wheat before the sickle. And you saw what was left of those hair guys, trying to get into plaid shirts and looking a little less sprayed up because they were done for. And if that can happen to you then you're doing the wrong thing.

He concludes by saying, "Right after that, rock slips from the music of the day into the background. Hip-hop is in the foreground now. Young people identify with that music, and rightfully so."