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hair metal, christian rock, grunge, the year 1990, and the years leading up to it… a rambling bit of rock history.

May 20, 2011

It was 1990. Late May in Modesto, California. Warm. Finishing up my junior year at Fred C. Beyer High School. The actor Jeremy Renner had graduated 11 months earlier from the same high school, and the actor Timothy Olyphant had graduated 3 years before Renner. Olyphant graduated before I arrived at Beyer. Renner was a senior when I was a sophmore. I never, as far as I know, met the dude, but it’s cool that both these actors went to the same school as I did.

The city in California where I was living is not on the coast, not in Orange County, or the lands where the remaining hippies migrated to and started cultivating marijuana, and whose livelihood of growing and selling this supposed miracle drug was later mostly usurped by Mexican cartels. That area of CA is up north of where I lived.. three to four hours up north.. Humboldt County.. you probably have heard of Humboldt County if you, or someone you know, smokes weed.

No, the part of California where I lived wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was where I lived.

I was still a Christian in 1990. I listened to some secular music, and some Christian music. Certain Christian bands, such as blues rock band Rez (originally called Resurrection Band, then Rez Band), strange, heavy alternative group Dig Hay Zoose, extreme industrial band Under Midnight, and a thrash band called Deliverance were .. pretty awesome. And, the band King’s X (one of my favorite bands to this day) was still Christian. That band later wrote some songs with anti-Christian lyrics.. at least one of the guys had a crisis of faith, and the band was no longer Christian. But anyway..

1990 was pretty much the last dying gasp of the hair metal scene, which had reigned on MTV for almost a decade. Motley Crue, Stryper, Def Leppard, Extreme, Twisted Sister, Ratt, Poison, Whitesnake, White Lion, Britney Fox, Winger, Cinderella, Bon Jovi, Warrant, and a host of others had come and mostly gone by 1990. A few acts were just starting to make the scene though. Two of the last gallons of hairspray-wearing bands managed to carve out a bit of a career for themselves and make some money.

These two band were Enuff Z’nuff, which released its first album in 1989, and Steelheart, whose first album came out in 1990. Enuff Z’nuff, which I shall henceforth abbreviate as EZ, was a band with the most feminine-looking dudes I had ever seen in a rock video. I am guessing they were all dudes. The singer had a strange voice, but a few of their songs really were worth listening to, and their guitarist, whose name I do not remember, was outstanding. That was one hallmark of ’80’s hard rock that I especially liked. (And still like). Hair metal bands, if they wanted success, fame and fortune, absolutely had to have a virtuoso lead guitarist who could play a wide variety of phenomenal, transcendent, and yet decadent music.

EZ had such a guitarist. I don’t remember exactly if their album came out in 1990, but I was still listening to them that year. Check out the EZ song “Fly High Michele,” if you want to hear one of their best tunes.

The other latecomer to the hair metal scene was a band called Steelheart. These guys had big hair, but didn’t go for the heavy makeup and ladies’ stockings look of their predecessors. The guitarist from Steelheart was decent, but no standout. The real star of that band was the singer. I don’t remember his name or any of the other members of Steelheart.. but that’s ok. I DO remember the sound. The singer, especially. Seems that guy had a vocal range of 4 octaves (or more?), and could sing higher than any man on the planet. So high it was almost ear-splitting. Imagine Mariah Carey as a hard rock singer.. with her huge vocal range.. you get the idea.

Most of Steelheart’s debut album was like so many other albums that had been released the past ten years, in that it had 2 or three songs worth listening to, and the rest were filler.. These were the days before the internet, MP3 files, and making our own CD’s. We had CD players by this time (although I might not have purchased mine by 1990), but if we wanted to make our own selections of music, we used dual tape decks and made our own mix tapes. This took a lot more labor than downloading songs on the internet, and instantly putting them on a digital device. But, I really loved making my own mix tapes – pretty much everybody did.

Steelheart.. I still listen to them on occasion. The movie “Rock Star” came out in 2001, and was about a fictional band practicing their trade in the ’80’s. The movie was not nearly as funny as “This is Spinal Tap,” nor was it meant to be. It was a comedy drama, I suppose. The music of the fictional band, called Steel Dragon, was written and recorded by guys who played in real rock bands back in the ’80’s. Zakk Wylde was on lead guitar – awesome dude.. was Ozzy’s guitarist from 1987 up until this past year or so, with a break from 1995-2001. Jason Bonham, son of Led Zep’s John Bonham, had brief success in the band Bonham. JB of course played drums, like his father did. On bass was Jeff Pilson from Dokken. And on vocals for some of the songs, not seen, but definitely heard, was the singer from Steelheart.

Marky Mark Wahlberg played the singer in a Steel Dragon tribute band. His character was fanatically dedicated to sounding like and looking like the singer of Steel Dragon. Early on in the film, SD’s singer left, because he came out… he sort of quit and sort of was fired.. something like that. The band was bothered because the singer was gay. Steel Dragon wanted to play on, and searched for a new singer. Wahlberg’s character was perfect, and went from fan to star.

This story might sound familiar. It is rumored to have actually happened with the band, Judas Priest. The band likely knew their star singer, Rob Halford, was gay, but much of the public did not. Halford was growing dissatisfied with the band, and, supposedly, the band was not pleased with him being gay. Halford and the rest of Judas Priest made a less than amicable parting in 1992, and a guy was hired who formerly performed in a Judas Priest tribute band. Halford eventually returned to Judas priest in 2001. (The original singer of Steel Dragon in the movie did not return to the band, in case you’re wondering. He formed a Riverdance-style troupe).

The true story of Judas Priest and the fictional story of Steel Dragon differ somewhat. In the film, the fictional band Steel Dragon enjoyed much success with their new singer. Judas Priest did not have the same luck. They didn’t do nearly so well with their new singer. Although Priest was formed in 1969, during the ’80’s they got somewhat lumped in with the hair metal bands, because like the hair metal guys, the members of Priest (with the exception of Halford) had long hair. Also, they all wore costumes onstage.. biker/S&M gear mostly. Considering that hair meta and costumed musiciansl was very much out of fashion by the time Halford left, even if he’d stayed with the band, I don’t think Judas Priest would have done so well… better, but not as well as they had been doing earlier in the decade.

The movie “Rock Star” took place sometime in the mid-80’s, so it makes sense that the band in the story did well after replacing their singer. Singers were replaced here and there, and bands continued to enjoy success. The most memorable real life example of singers being replaced and bands still succeeding was Van Halen. Their talented, charismatic and crazy singer, David Lee Roth, left the band (or was fired?). Roth went on to have a successful solo career, and made several rather creative videos – before pissing off the two amazing musicians that were part of his original solo band – Steve Vai on guitar, and Billy Sheehan on bass – both guys are now considered rock legends, and still have a following.

Van Halen more than soldiered on without Roth.. they managed to thrive. This is because the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex Van Halen (who were the guitarist and drummer) and Michael Anthony who played bass, and who was an incredible backup singer, made a VERY wise choice when they hired Sammy Hagar to be Roth’s replacement. Hagar was already a rock veteran. He was previously the singer of the band Montrose. Although that band was never spectacularly successful, they did manage to record at least one excellent tune called “Rock Candy.” After Montrose, Hagar carved out a solo career, and had a huge hit with the song “I Can’t Drive 55.” At that time, in California, the speed limit on the freeways was mostly 55 MPH.. too damn slow, especially for Hagar.

Good ol’ Sammy was more than ready to be the singer for Van Halen, and the band made 4 studio albums and one live album with Hagar. Yes, it was possible to lose a singer and still be famous. That is what happened in the movie “Rock Star.” A side note.. Van Halen somehow managed to remove Sammy Hagar as well. Then Van Halen sucked. They got another replacement. This was most unwise. Their replacement singer was Gary Cherone… formerly of the band Extreme. Extreme was a great band, and Gary fit in rather well with that band.. but was awful as Van Halen’s third singer.

Getting back to the film “Rock Star”.. Mark Wahlberg, although a decent actor, was not the best singer. He was a rapper before he was an actor, but white boys usually cannot rap, and Wahlberg, aka Marky Mark when he was rapping.. yeah.. not so good. Even though he was a lousy rapper before he took up acting, and even though he never was a stellar singer, he was still tapped for the leading role in “Rock Star,” and two other guys did most of the actual singing on the recordings, which Wahlberg lip-synced to.

There was one AMAZING song written for the movie. It was called “We All Die Young,” and was sung by Miljenko Matijevic, the guy who once fronted Steelheart. After watching “Rock Star” several times, and finding out who the singer was, I downloaded the same two Steelheart songs I loved so many years ago. These songs are “Can’t Stop Me Lovin’ You,” and “I’ll Never Let You Go.” Amazing (and amazingly high pitched) vocals!

As I mentioned, Steelheart stood out almost entirely because of their vocalist, and not their guitarist..who was good, but didn’t get much attention. This was a rarity. As I mentioned earlier, hair metal bands, if they wanted success, almost always needed amazing guitarists, and these guitarists often got lots of attention.

This trend was set back in the ’60’s. Eric Clapton from Cream (and a dozen other bands), Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Tony Iommi (I am probably not correctly spelling the names of some of these dudes, but I still haven’t had breakfast yet, and want to continue writing without stopping before I get too hungry to continue.. so my apologies to the guys whose names I am botching). .. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Pete Townshend of The Who, and of course, the incomparable Jimi Hendrix.

The superhuman guitarist tradition continued into the ’70’s. After being booted from Black Sabbath, Ozzy had an outstanding solo career, and in his early years as a solo artist, he had Randy Rhoads to back him up on guitar. To say that Randy Rhoads made some waves in the music community is a massive understatement. People today still talk about Randy Rhoads a lot.

It wasn’t only Rhoads who was making his mark. AC/DC had Angus Young (still an absolute killer guitarist), Aerosmith had Joe Perry (not nearly as good as some of his contemporaries, in my opinion) Rush had Alex Liefson, Ted Nugent was a singing, loin-cloth wearing mad man of a guitarist during the ’70’s, and Van Halen’s first album came out in 1978. Eddie Van Halen was later hailed as the most original and innovative guitarist since Jimi Hendrix.

In case you are wondering why you don’t see the band Kiss on this list, that’s because although the guys from Kiss wrote many hit songs, and took over the world, it was mostly due to their insane stage show, not their musicianship. I don’t think the guys from Kiss were ever very good musicians. So they don’t make the hit parade of bands with superhuman guitarists. They also are almost never played on classic rock radio stations. Sorry Kiss..

Why was the band named Kiss? The rumors that KISS stood for Kings In Satan’s Service (I was also told the “K” stood for “knights” or “kids”) were untrue.. even though pastors and youth leaders around the world were (and probably are still) saying such nonsense. No, actually, Gene Simmons and the rest of the guys wanted to name the band “Fuck,” but their record label did not approve.

The Kiss guys took off their famous makeup sometime in the ’80’s, just as the rest of the bands were putting on more makeup.. odd timing. Kiss put on regular women’s makeup instead, and also clothed themselves with ripped spandex and so forth like the rest of the hair-metallers.

The ’80’s hair metal bands continued with not only the hot shot guitarist tradition, but also the glam hair and makeup that had been started earlier, by not only Kiss, but David Bowie and Alice Cooper as well. It was quite a time for rock and roll.

But all things come to an end. I remember having a conversation with a friend, back in 1990. We were discussing how sick we were of guys looking like girls, and the same song structure over and over. Verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, guitar solo, chorus, fade out. That’s it.

In the ’80’s, there were only a few bands that played hard rock, were successful, and managed to do something different. Living Colour – a band made up entirely of black guys, blew everybody’s minds with their debut album “Vivid.” I still listen to songs from that album, especially “Cult of Personality” and “Open Letter to a Landlord.” I was watching videos of these songs at 2 am last night, before I went to bed.

Another odd band with a huge hit was Faith No More. Their song “Epic” was the first rap rock tune I can remember, and the band’s only rap rock tune. Although not achieving huge and lasting mainstream success, they did make several albums.  I still listen to these guysl. They were far too creative and weird to find more success than they did, especially in the ’80’s.

Guns-N-Roses had a different look and sound than that of most hair metal bands. They had a much tougher edge to them. Axl, the lead singer, only made his hair look crazy and hair-sprayed for one video, and after that, didn’t look like any other singer.

Two other original hard rock bands were starting to gain a following back in the ’80’s – Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You’ve no doubt heard these bands.

But most hair bands stuck with the usual formula I mentioned earlier and all these bands still had pretty much the same look.. overly pretty. Us music fans got tired of the pounds of makeup each band member wore, and the white suede boots, the glitter, the hair styles, the spandex, the lace. Yeah.. we needed something different, and we were saved by grunge.

Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and a bit later, Stone Temple Pilots. I never was a fan of Nirvana, but Pearl Jam changed my life with their debut album. Alice in Chain’s first hit, “Man in the Box” was quite intense and excellent musically, but was a blatantly blasphemous song, and I was still a Christian back then, so I didn’t get into Alice in Chains until they came out with their second album, called “Dirt.” On that album was their second major hit, the classic grunge song, “Rooster.” Soundgarden I got into later. Same with Stone Temple Pilots. I was more than thrilled with these new bands and style of music.

But I never completely lost my taste for stratospheric guitar playing. I still listened to AC/DC, Extreme, Living Colour, and especially Van Halen, well into the ’90’s. The last two bands in that list are on my hard drive even now. The only time I didn’t listen to these bands was from 1992 to…1994 or ’95, when I was horribly obsessed with Christianity, and would almost always during this time listen to Christian music, no secular music at all. I even got to the point where I’d almost completely stopped listening to music, and just listened to sermons.

Then.. the fever gradually broke, I left the faith, and went on a medication that helped a lot with my OCD symptoms, and I got back into secular music, especially the songs and bands that had made albums while I was dealing with my obsessions.

I have, of course, been listening almost entirely to secular music ever since. With only two exceptions. This past year, I resumed listening to two bands I really liked during my Christian days. Both of these bands were from the Chicago Christian community called JPUSA. The “JP” stands for “Jesus People.” This past year, I went back to listening to REZ (formerly called Resurrection Band) – their sound is so original.. raw, intense guitars, hard rock deeply influenced by blues, and one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. I think their best song is called “Where Roses Grow.”

The other Christian group I still play from time to time is a Celtic band called “The Crossing.” I doubt if they are still together, but it is possible. Their songs with vocals tend to be overtly Christian, but not all of them are like that. Their instrumentals are so good, they are right up there with The Chieftains, and any other top Celtic acts.

But otherwise, with the exception of some classical pieces, I don’t bother with Christian music. I’m not a Christian.

There are likely still very good Christian bands out there.. but you won’t likely hear them on contemporary Christian radio, like the K-LOVE stations. What you will hear on the majority of Christian music radio is absolutely HORRID music.. praise music utterly devoid of originality, talent, creativity, solid vocals, brilliant musicianship, well-written lyrics, or any other quality people who truly appreciate music would want to hear.

There was a South Park episode years ago that got it exactly right. The terribly profane South Park kids decided to form two rock bands and compete against each other. Cartman, the most obnoxious (and funniest) character, decided to form a Contemporary Christian band, because this form of music was by far the easiest music to write and play. Because making this music requires no talent, at all. Cartman formed a group called Faith + One (I don’t know why the writers of SP came up with that band name, but anyway) with two other South Park characters – Butters (the most innocent of the South Park kids) and Token (because he was the token black character on the show).

Cartman told the other two kids all they had to do to make Contemporary Christian Music (usually called CCM) was find some old love songs, cross out such words as “baby” and “honey,” and replace those words with “Jesus.” For example, the Peter Frampton classic lyric “ooh baby I love your ways..” could be re-written as “ooh Jesus I love your ways..”

Faith+One went on to score hit after hit of I love you Jesus songs (with really raunchy lyrics), but at the end of the episode, did not win a Grammy award. Cartman’s band instead won another award that was given only to Christian artists. This pissed off Cartman to no end, because the bet he had made with the other South Park kids was that he, Cartman, would sell the most albums and win a Grammy. No Grammy, no victory.

To my knowledge, the Grammy’s do have a category for Gospel or Contemporary Christian or something like that.. but I could be wrong. I do know that there is an award that only goes to Christian artists. This is called the Dove Award. There is a Dove Awards program every year that is a Christian version of the Grammy Awards show. It is my guess that the Dove Awards program does not feature all the bumping and grinding that the Grammys program has.

What bands win Dove awards? I have no idea. Hopefully at least some Christian groups that win these awards are not the woefully untalented, hideous bands that are played on most Christian radio stations today.

Honestly, I don’t know what happened. In the late ’70’s, ’80’s, and even into the ’90’s, there were many Christian groups in various genres that were creative, fantastic, musically inspiring. Such groups as Petra, REZ, Stryper, Dig Hay Zoose, White Cross, Barren Cross, Deliverance, Steve Taylor, The Crossing, Guardian, Tourniquet, Crashdog, Daniel Amos (the band took the names of two Old Testament prophets –  and was sort of like Devo, only better) and others.

Some CCM groups were even rather good. Petra was considered contemporary Christian, but they had a hard rock edge. The first concert I ever went to was a Petra concert. They played at an indoor soccer arena outside of Chicago. I was probably 12 at the time. The concert was amazing!! All that smoky dry ice floating everywhere, pyrotechnics, all sorts of lights, and such music! Petra, for awhile, was really was an original band. Nobody in the Christian or secular music scenes sounded like them. Their first singer, Greg X. Volz, had an excellent voice. He eventually left the band (or was let go?). Volz released one solo album, which was good, but his album didn’t sound like Petra, and very few people bought it. Petra got another singer, who was far inferior to Volz. The band made a few more successful albums, but in my opinion, after Volz left, the band just wasn’t worth listening to.

Another artist considered CCM was Steve Taylor – one of the most creative and controversial songwriters I’ve ever heard. His music is quite hard to describe. He’s never sounded like anybody else. Rock.. yes.. but sometimes new wave alternative sounds, sometimes sparse and bleak songs, sometimes gutsy rockers with saxophones… LOTS of variety to be found on his albums. I don’t know when Taylor hung up his spurs, but he was sure popular during the ’80’s.

Controversial? Yes indeed. There’s one song he performed in drag. Steve would go off stage for a moment, and come back dressed as an old lady – one of those cranky elementary school teachers, well past retirement age, who is still inflicting education on students. Yes, Steve walked out just like this.. a frumpy dress, ladies’ loafers, wig. Not average behavior for a Christian singer.

He did something else which was even more controversial. The first song on his album “I Predict 1990” was called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” A rather rockin’, joyous and jolly song about.. blowing up an abortion clinic.

Taylor made a sick joke out of it. He sang the song from the perspective of an ice cream man, who was concerned about losing customers, because so many babies were being aborted. Here’s a small segment of the lyrics from this song..

“Now I don’t care if it’s a baby or a tissue blob, but if we run out of youngsters, I’ll be out of a job. So I did my duty, cleaning up the neighborhooood. I blew up the clinic.. real goooood!!!”

This guy.. was crazy.. if the mainstream media got hold of that song… I shudder to think.

So many Christian artists and bands, with so much talent, but instead of playing these groups, Christian radio stations around the world emerged with music so boring and uninspiring it will put you to sleep, if it doesn’t make you nauseous. And millions of people listen to this! Astonishing.

There were, of course, Christian groups back in 1990 that were making awful music, but back then there were more than enough great.. even awesome bands to choose from. And there was an underground music scene, too. Mainstream music always starts in underground music scenes. A few artists emerge, sell albums, maybe even get on the radio.. And a lot of bands and artists never make it very far.

Such was the case with a young man named Lincoln Brewster, who I and some friends went to hear on a rather warm evening in May of 1990.

Three of us guys piled into an old beat up volkswagon bug.. one probably made in the early 1970’s. I don’t know how one of the guys found out about this concert, but he did, and we rode out to a tiny church in a bad neighborhood.

Here we were, I and my friends and a few other people, in a miniscule church. A guy stood up, adjusted his amp and other sound equipment, put on some canned (pre-recorded) background music..

…And proceeded to play some of the best guitar music I have ever heard!! It was over two decades ago.. but I still remember.

Some years later, Lincoln Brewster was hired by a famous singer named Steve Perry. Steve Perry was the lead singer for Journey, a ’70’s super group whose songs are still played.. everywhere. Perry decided to make a solo album (his second, I believe) and wanted an excellent guitarist to play on the album and help him write songs.

The result was the album “For the Love of Strange Medicine.”Most of the album I do not like much.. but there are these two songs.. Absolutely Inspiring!! The first one I love so much is called “You Better Wait,” and it has one of the best intros of any song I have ever heard.. ever.It is a very interesting song, musically speaking, and Brewster’s playing is heartfelt and fantastic!!

The second song from this album with is utterly amazing is a ballad called “Donna Please.” It is one of the most passionate, tragic love songs I’ve heard. And again.. Brewster.. WoW.. brilliant brilliant!! More subtle playing than on “You Better Wait,” but still. Awesome.

Lincoln Brewster’s musicianship on these two songs are in large part why I have decided to buy an electric guitar recently. I’ve felt that inspired by Brewster.

The man never became famous though. Just one album with Steve Perry, that’s as close as Brewster got to fame. I decided to look and see if he had made any solo albums. I was hoping for some amazing instrumental recordings.. many guitarists make such albums .. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, for example. Brewster certainly has more than enough talent and skill to make such albums.

Turns out..Brewster does have some solo albums.

To my utter horror and shock, these albums are NOT instrumentals. Instead, they are the same CCM shlock that countless other artists have made .. this awful contemporary praise music that can be heard on CCM stations across the country. Each song and band indistinguishable from the next. Brewster is such an amazing guitarist, and yet this is the kind of “music” he has decided to record. Just sickening.

But, I will continue to listen to those two Steve Perry songs, and continue to be inspired by Brewster’s playing on those songs. Last time I checked to see what Lincoln Brewster was up to, he was a youth leader or minister of music or something like that at a large church in the same city in which I first heard him play back in 1990.

Well.. that’s enough of a rock history lesson for now. Lets just say that 1990 was a big year. The hair metal bands were fading and grunge was just starting up. The music world changed forever.  I still love some hair metal tunes, but I’m glad the music world changed.

Thanks for reading.

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