• Ozzy, Mötley, Poison… On the Sacred Role of the Hair Metal Ballad

    When in Doubt, Slow it Down

    The following is from Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock’s oral history of metal Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion.


    BRUNO RAVEL: C.C. DeVille once said, “You come out with your rock songs, and then you put out your ballad, and then you buy a house.” He was right.

    BEN LIEMER (editor, Circus magazine): Everybody had to have their big power-pop power ballad, right? And you gotta drop your two heavy tracks first so you don’t lose credibility. Understand? Then the power ballad comes six months down the marketing cycle because that’s what’s going to sustain the sales and break a band even bigger, get all the girls who aren’t involved, and help sell out shows. But because the band came out rockin’, the guys aren’t turned off.

    SHARON OSBOURNE: Everything was the ballad. You always had to have those ballads.

    MADELYN SCARPULLA (radio promotion, product manager, Mercury/PolyGram Records; manager, Kix): The Scorpions, that was a band for dudes. But then they would throw in a ballad.

    KLAUS MEINE: Scorpions was always about a powerful riff, but we would also go for the emotions with ballads like “Still Loving You.” So of course, we saw all these girls in front of the stage.

    RUDOLF SCHENKER (guitarist, Scorpions): With “Still Loving You” we had a baby boom in France. Because making love and babies, the French people liked the slow songs very much.

    MICHAEL WAGENER: The women loved ballads and those were the people who bought the albums back then. They spent the money on it. And if it’s a good ballad and it has emotion, then they loved it, and it paid the rent.

    NIKKI SIXX: “Home Sweet Home” for us was our “Dream On” or our “Stairway to Heaven.” All of the bands that we loved always had that one song on their record and we liked that.

    MICK MARS: I believe that that was one of the first hard rock ’n’ roll power ballads.

    RICK KRIM: “Home Sweet Home” introduced the concept of the power ballad. Every band had to have one, because that was the song that usually took them to the masses. You hit them over the head with the giant power ballad and get your double-platinum-record plaque, which wasn’t hard to do at the time. If you had even a sniff of a hit, you had at least a gold record.

    ROBIN SLOANE: It was a hard rock ballad and we made this beautiful black-and-white video. And I think that sold a lot of records for the band and really made them an MTV staple.

    TOM WERMAN: Mötley was a big deal by then and they had to live up to their reputation and they were doing drugs big-time on Theatre of Pain. Tommy was dating Tawny Kitaen, so he was distracted, and obviously there are lots of distractions when you’re stars…

    NIKKI SIXX: It came from a guitar figure that I had had since I was 17 and had never really been able to flesh out. And then one night, we were leaving rehearsal to go up to the Whisky to have some drinks and then over to the Rainbow to do our usual shenanigans, and Tommy started mimicking the riff on the piano and adding his own flavor to it. Everything fell into place and we wrote the song in 15 minutes.

    If it’s a good ballad and it has emotion, then they loved it, and it paid the rent.

    TOM WERMAN: I can’t remember how we rearranged it because I can’t remember the original, but I definitely orchestrated it.

    NIKKI SIXX: The record company was totally against us putting “Home Sweet Home” on there. They thought that since we had never done a ballad before, people would think that we were pussies. I was just like, “Look, we wrote this song and it’s going on the album.”

    TOM KEIFER: “Nobody’s Fool” was originally a song that started off as a ballad and picked up into a double-time kind of thing in the tradition of “Stairway to Heaven.” It was our producer Andy Johns’s decision to change it when we were in pre-production for Night Songs.

    JEFF LaBAR: Andy thought that the original arrangement didn’t make any sense. At first when somebody says something like that, it’s always like, “What the fuck?” But in hindsight it was like, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s better this way.” We added a bridge in the middle of it to break it up and then just totally took out the end section.

    FRED COURY: Andy Johns wanted to replace Tom on “Nobody’s Fool.” He said, “We have to get someone else to sing this.”

    MICHAEL WAGENER: When you were doing a rock album in the mid-to-late ’80s, you never considered the ballad to be the song, even though it always ended up being the moneymaker. In every case, I made all my money on ballads. But the guys weren’t that focused on the ballads. They wanted to rock! The ballad was sometimes a necessary evil. “Okay, we’ve got nine songs… and the ballad.”

    VITO BRATTA: “When the Children Cry” was written in the vein of “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. Just guitar and vocals. Believe it or not, at that point we weren’t really thinking of hit songs so we didn’t look at that as a ballad. And believe it or not, we weren’t that kind of band. We eventually became that kind of band being pushed by people, but we weren’t gonna be the, you know, “Oh, I love you, you love me.” But boy… were we driven in that direction.

    MIKE TRAMP: I sat and wrote most of “When the Children Cry” in Staten Island at my manager’s house, where I lived. Vito came over later and I said, “Listen man, I got this here, let me play it for you.” And he sort of converted it into what it became. The lyrics are even more current today than they were back then.

    VITO BRATTA: I remember at the time people were like, “Listen, you gotta have drums and bass.”

    JAMES LoMENZO: That was the one that kind of put us in a place where even more people came out. We could tour on our own merit and fill theaters on our own. And that was a big deal.

    SHARON OSBOURNE: Ozzy had been working on “Close My Eyes Forever” and he goes, “I don’t think this is for me,” and yada yada.

    The ballad was sometimes a necessary evil.

    OZZY OSBOURNE: I started writing it when I was at Betty Ford [drug and alcohol rehab center]. Sharon was managing Lita Ford and I said, “I’ve got this song. Lita can have it if she wants.”

    SHARON OSBOURNE: I’m like, “Please record the song with Lita.” And Ozzy says, “Fuck off!” But he did it. And it was a huge fucking hit.

    LITA FORD: Sharon and Ozzy had come to visit me in the studio to bring me a housewarming gift—a big stuffed gorilla—and Ozzy and I ended up staying up all night. We played pool. We did drugs and drank alcohol. There was this little room off to the side of the control room, and it had guitars and keyboards. We went in, and we never came out. We just went in there and I started playing guitar and Ozzy started singing. The next thing you know, we had “Close My Eyes Forever” 95 percent written. There was one verse missing lyrically, which I went home and finished the next day.

    SCOTTI HILL: The ballads were getting cheesier and cheesier, sugarcoated, and the bands were just jumping on that. And it was such a deliberate thing. Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t a tough-guy thing anymore. It was fucking, you know, “Let’s hold hands and swing on a fucking swing.”

    JOEY ALLEN: Well, when 900 out of 1,000 people in your crowd are women, they’re not gonna like the heavy songs as much as they like, we call them, uh, “panty wetters.” That’s bad to say nowadays, but back then that’s what we called ’em because they were the songs the chicks dug.

    JERRY DIXON: We were on the road for 18 months, and it was weird back then because when our first record finally did come out, you really didn’t have a gauge of the success other than your shows. The shows kept getting bigger and bigger and more people started showing up. When the radio machine kicked in, that transition was awesome. You turn the radio on and “Heaven” was on three stations at the same time, and you’re like, “Holy shit, look at this.”

    MADELYN SCARPULLA: Top 40 radio was the brass ring. The goal was to make sure to cover the base at rock radio with the rock songs and have those do really well. Then when the ballad came, you would have sold enough records in the market that the Top 40 station would already be aware of the band and give a flying shit.

    TOM WERMAN: You wanted to get on AM radio.

    TAIME DOWNE: We were Top 40 with “House of Pain,” so it’s like, knowing Casey Kasem was saying our fucking band name on AM radio somewhere was pretty fucking cool. We figured if the label wanted a ballad, we might as well write one, you know what I mean? So Greg wrote the music shit for “House of Pain” and I wrote the melodies and the lyrics.

    GREG STEELE: I always loved Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they had a song called “Tuesday’s Gone.” It’s one of my favorite songs. And at that time I had a girlfriend who loved when I played acoustic guitar. So I literally wrote all the music to “House of Pain,” using “Tuesday’s Gone” as inspiration, in ten minutes and gave it to everybody. But Taime just wasn’t into ballad stuff. It gave him writer’s block. And so it took about a year and a half before he even came up with lyrics for it.

    VICKY HAMILTON: He wrote that song “House of Pain” about his father. His relationship with his father.

    TAIME DOWNE: It was hard writing something that personal. I changed the lyrics and shit, I don’t know, a dozen times. Everything felt stupid. Just doin’ a ballad alone, me and Greg were like, “Ah, cheesy shit… ” But we fucking did it anyway.

    TOM WERMAN: With ballads, I used something that I self-deprecatingly call the “kitchen sink approach,” which was to throw everything I could think of on there by the time the song was over. I love synth pads. I love string pads. I love pedal-tone notes that go through everything. They kind of hypnotize you and tug at your heartstrings. I love oohs and aahs and harmonies and I’m good at arranging them. Especially with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison, it was a simple country song that Bret Michaels played in rehearsal, and I said, “Wow, that is a hit.”

    FRANK HANNON: Bret Michaels, I have to hand it to him, man. Tesla toured with Poison in ‘87 and I remember watching him work on that song every day at soundcheck. He was strumming those chords and singing the lyric, walking around with a twelve-string acoustic backstage. On that tour, everyone was really fucked up and partying except for him. He was pretty straight and really a hardworking guy, and he would chip away at developing that song. And it’s a great fucking song. I mean, there’s no doubt.

    I used something that I self-deprecatingly call the “kitchen sink approach,” which was to throw everything I could think of on there by the time the song was over.

    RIKKI ROCKETT: The label didn’t like the song. They were like, “Ah, this is too ‘in the saddle.’”

    BRET MICHAELS: When we played “Every Rose” for our label and management, they told us it would end our career. They were like, “This song is not Poison. It starts with an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got this cowboy thing going on and it’s just sad.”

    “DIZZY” DEAN DAVIDSON: That song was like Kenny Chesney meets a rock band. If Tim McGraw did that right now, it’d be a hit all over again.

    TOM WERMAN: It was a country song. So I said, “We’re going to arrange it… we’re going to put strings in here and we’re going to put in, like, Eagles oohs and aahs.” And I remember someone saying, “I dunno, man, our fans may really beat us up for this.” Because it was so sweet and not hard rock ’n’ roll, which is what they all wanted to be. But it worked. It worked with all of them. It worked with “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Kix, and it worked with “The Ballad of Jayne” by L.A. Guns.

    MICK CRIPPS: I was a big Mott the Hoople fan, and “Ballad of Jayne” was basically based around being like that. Then me and the rest of the guys kicked it around and finished it. Kelly [Nickels, bass] and I weren’t super happy with the lyrics and Kelly was watching some documentary on Jayne Mansfield. He was fascinated by the obvious, put it that way. And he wrote a new version about the tragic death of Jayne Mansfield. So that’s how it became “The Ballad of Jayne.” The version on the record is a little bit different from the demo, but the record company and producers wanted it to be more of a ballad.

    ALLEN KOVAC: Me and the A&R guy kept telling Tracii that would be the hit. Tracii didn’t even like that song. He, of course, knows everything, and he never liked a song unless it was hard.

    TRACII GUNS: I bitched and moaned about “Ballad of Jayne” going on the Cocked & Loaded record. Because we were supposed to be a hard band. I always felt like, yeah, we could definitely have success with this song, but are we telling our male audience that we’re not really metal? I kind of thought that we traded something for something at that point, you know what I mean?

    MICK CRIPPS: It was number one on MTV for, like, three weeks. Massive. I think we sold half a million records after that single came out.

    TRACII GUNS: Of course, when we got to our third record the label was like, “We need another ‘Ballad of Jayne.’” I’m like, “No, man. We need another rocker like ‘One More Reason to Die’!” I told Allen Kovac, “Allen, I think we’re losing sight of what the band is.” And Allen would say, “Yeah, don’t lose sight of what you are, but remember that you wanted to be successful.” So there was always that kind of push and pull.

    DANA STRUM: Slaughter really did write and record “Fly to the Angels” thinking it was more like a cool Led Zeppelin thing than an ’80s rock ballad. It was kind of like our junior attempt to do something Zeppelin would do.

    BRIAN BAKER (guitarist, Minor Threat, Junkyard): I was like, “Can we really call our ballad ‘Simple Man’? That’s a Skynyrd song!” And the answer is, “Yes, you can!” Apparently it doesn’t matter.

    CHRIS GATES (guitarist, Junkyard): For the “Simple Man” video, the one that never got played, they convinced us to hire this guy who had done power ballad videos for other people. And he had this concept and we’re going, “We don’t get it, but it’s worked in the past. I guess we’ll trust him.” And they dragged us out to this Wild West set and hired a bunch of girls to sway rhythmically in front of us. And literally none of them would even talk to us when they weren’t shooting. They wanted nothing to do with us. It was like, “Dude, we could’ve invited a bunch of pretty girls out here who liked us.” Once again, we’re reliving, like, junior high.

    BRIAN BAKER: The girl from, I think, Melrose Place? She was the woman who was shown the most for whatever reason, because she enjoyed simple men or she just really liked good western sets. I don’t really know.

    DAVID COVERDALE: I mean what the fuck do the lyrics of “Here I Go Again” have to do with a beautiful woman rolling across a couple of Jaguars? It’s madness! But it was eye-catching. And then when people got to see it, the music resonated, too. And radio was all over it. So, yeah, MTV just turned Whitesnake into a global phenomenon. It was immense. One time I looked at it and I went, “Wow, one video saved me from doing five years of tours.”

    What the fuck do the lyrics of “Here I Go Again” have to do with a beautiful woman rolling across a couple of Jaguars?

    NUNO BETTENCOURT (guitarist, Extreme): “More Than Words” put us on the map. It gave us power. It gave us success. It made it possible for us to keep pushing ahead. It changed everything. People recognize us, the mainstream knows who you are. I guess that’s what having a hit feels like.

     BRIAN “DAMAGE” FORSYTHE: Atlantic Records thought that our album Blow My Fuse was done. We got informed that they were done with the tour support and that it was time to start thinking about the next record. There was no plan to make “Don’t Close Your Eyes” a single.

    STEVE WHITEMAN: We played a show at Irvine Meadows [Amphitheater] in California with Great White. And after our set Great White’s manager, Alan Niven, stopped us on the way offstage and said, “What’s that ballad you guys play and why is that not a single?” And we said, “Don’t ask us, ask Atlantic Records.” So he called Doug Morris at Atlantic and said, “You’re sitting on a hit single.” The next week, we’re flown to New York and we’re shooting the video for “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

    BRIAN “DAMAGE” FORSYTHE: A month later that song got released and it just took off.

    STEVE WHITEMAN: The song went huge, and that record is the only reason we were able to come back and still have a career. We did three tours on the strength of that single, and the people who saw us liked us. It gave us something to stand on. It gave us a legacy.

    NUNO BETTENCOURT: People always ask me the stupid question, “Was ‘More Than Words’ a blessing or a curse?” It can’t be a curse. Anything that you write and that you create that becomes a hit is a blessing. Period.


    nothing but a good time

    Excerpted from Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Copyright © 2021 by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock.

    Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock
    Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock

    Tom Beaujour is a journalist as well as a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Revolver, America’s premier hard rock and heavy metal monthly. Beaujour has produced and mixed albums by Nada Surf, Guided by Voices, the Juliana Hatfield Three, and many others.

    Richard Bienstock is a journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and other publications. He is a former senior editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored and co-authored several books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

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