Monday, December 21, 2015

Did Frank Zappa somehow predict Mötley Crüe?

Frank Zappa (black tux, yellow shirt) on the cover of his Tinseltown Rebellion album.

The infamous glam metal outfit Mötley Crüe formed in 1981, the same year Frank Zappa released his mostly-live Tinseltown Rebellion album. Why is that significant? Well, the title track of Zappa's LP is a screed against the shallow, image-conscious music scene in Los Angeles. Two genres, punk and new wave, are mentioned specifically in the harsh, satirical lyrics. The song is about how musicians in L.A. were more concerned with how they looked than how they sounded, leading to a glut of crappy, amateurish music. According to "Tinseltown Rebellion," the bars and clubs in Hollywood were being besieged in the early 1980s by "record company pricks" looking for flash-in-the-pan acts to exploit and then most likely abandon after "a week or two perhaps," and there were plenty of young musicians lining up to be exploited in this way.

In his lengthy Zappa-analyzing book, The Negative Dialetics of Poodle Play, author and punk loyalist Ben Watson takes Frank to task for unfairly and inaccurately portraying punk rock here. Real punkers, he insist, did not use cocaine, as Frank alleged in "Tinseltown Rebellion." Sure, the arena rockers of the 1970s snorted plenty of the stuff, but punk was rebelling against all that. Besides, Watson argues, punk rockers couldn't have even afforded coke if they'd wanted it back then. It was an expensive drug, and punk was commercially negligible in those days. I might argue that Zappa also mentions new wave, a slicker, more commercial genre that rose from punk. Certainly by 1981, some new wavers were selling enough records, tickets, and T-shirts to afford cocaine. Whether they did or not, I don't know. But they could have if they'd wanted to, is my point.

Maybe Frank Zappa was just using the terms "punk" and "new wave" because those were the only labels available to him at the time to describe a kind of music that was cropping up in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I mentioned at the start of this article that Mötley Crüe formed in '81. They were, of course, a fixture of the Los Angeles club scene in the 1980s, but I don't think anyone would describe them as punk or new wave. Not by a long shot. Instead, they were part of a movement now known as "glam metal" or "hair metal," a subgenre that definitely did regrettably emphasize image at the expense of music. Zappa would not have known who Mötley Crüe were when he wrote "Tinseltown Rebellion," but that's nevertheless the band that comes to my mind when I hear this song. Take a listen.

Mötley Crüe at the Whisky.
So now we get into specific references in the lyrics. The song starts: "From Madame Wong's to Starwood to the Whisky on the Strip, you can hear the crashing, blasting strum of bands that come to be real hip." Okay, I can't find any documentation that the Crue ever played Madame Wong's, an establishment that catered to punk acts, but they were famous for their appearances at both Starwood and the Whisky A Go Go. So two out of three ain't bad. Here's another line from the song: "So off they go to S.I.R. to learn some stupid riffs and practice all their poses in between their powder sniffs." That's Studio Instrument Rentals, a famous rehearsal space in Los Angeles. When you go to S.I.R.'s website, one of the first things you'll see is a paragraph about the company's history: "Artists including Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Jane’s Addiction, KISS, Mötley Crüe, Green Day, No Doubt, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey all call SIR home." So another reference checks out.

And what about those "powder sniffs?" Well, Mötley Crüe is justly famous for its love of chemical intoxicants. Even the cover of their official autobiography, The Dirt, is designed to look like a Jack Daniels label. The band is most closely associated with alcohol and heroin, but they did their share of cocaine, too. In my research, I even found a cute little story about lead singer Vince Neil buying a baggie of cocaine that turned out to be baby powder. The unnamed band in the song plays music that is "real dumb" and "somewhat insincere." Check and check. (Though the Crue's masterpiece, "Girls, Girls, Girls," is probably very close to their hearts.) Zappa also mentions "leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer." The Crue certainly wore plenty of leather, and their over-the-top stage makeup gave them an androgynous appearance. So, once again, the song fits them very well. Zappa did not accurately predict the Crue's longevity, however. While there probably were plenty of flash-in-the-pan groups on the glam metal scene in Los Angeles, Mötley Crüe stayed popular for decades, only recently retiring.

Again, let me emphasize that "Tinseltown Rebellion" is not about Mötley Crüe. It couldn't have been. When Frank Zappa wrote it, the band was just starting out. But what the song manages to do very well is predict where the Los Angeles music scene was heading in the 1980s. Mötley Crüe simply exemplified that era better than just about any other band.