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