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A cultural history of Glam Metal: where it came from, how it defined America in the 1980s and how it all came crashing down.

If Glam Metal is remembered at all nowadays, it’s as the punchline to a joke, the basis for a novelty fancy dress costume, or a hilarious relic of a bygone age. There’s never been a serious, critical reassessment of this bloated, hairspray-misted aberration. Music’s accepted chronology records that in 1991 (‘the year punk rock broke’) after almost a decade of commercial dominance, Glam Metal was killed dead by Grunge. Like some mutant branch of the evolutionary tree, it was overtaken by a younger, faster version of itself and hit a genetic dead end, leaving behind only some rudimentary cave paintings of a stocking clad ‘bitch’ an empty bottle of Jack Daniels and nothing of any value.

However, this is a wilful rewriting of history. For the larger part of 1980s, Glam Metal was legitimately one of the largest forces in popular music both commercially and creatively. The music built MTV and broke the territories (Japan, Eastern Europe) that the rest of the industry then poured into. Bands pushed at the frontiers of technological production (Def Leppard’s Hysteria was painstakingly pieced together by its producer like a digital collage before such practises became commonplace in electronic music); bands sold out stadiums to vast crowds of people who the music press never spoke to; fans and artists alike died in horrifying accidents from the muddy quagmire of Castle Donington to the motorways of Florida; the genre inspired epic works of cinema from Wayne's World and The Wrestler to The Decline of Western Civilisation. It was a legitimate cultural force that united kids like me in the suburbs of London with heroin-addled losers in California and rebellious, mullet-sporting teens in the Communist bloc.

Glam Metal soundtracked an era where America regained its cultural confidence. Where everything – from WWF and Vegas shows to action films, the advertising industry and contemporary art – became bigger, brasher and more aggressive, before curdling into something darker as the decade ended. The music functioned as a pile-up at the end of American post-war musical culture where the tropes and tricks of the previous 40 years (cowboy blues, vaudeville, heavy rock, show tunes, punk, west coast balladry) collapsed into one last smouldering heap before pop finally turned in on itself and succumbed to a crippling, self-referential wave of irony and repetition. Kurt Cobain referenced Boston’s More Than A Feeling in Smells Like Teen Spirit because it was arch and clever – Dave Lee Roth did an enormous star jump off the drum riser at every Van Halen show because he was signalling his silverback dominance of every other male within his purview. The bands left behind a body of songs so untouchable that they get covered today by everyone from Mariah Carey to Taylor Swift, but the originators get no critical credit. Of course, there was a lot of terrible music by people like Grim Reaper, Anvil and Tigertailz, but they’re still an important part of the story.

On the day that I write this, shaggy-haired pop-metallers Firehouse will take the stage at the Creek Hill Barn in Virginia’s Shrinedom festival, after a display from the local fire brigade and a mini helicopter team. Alongside their glam metal peers, Slaughter, Lita Ford, Warrant (minus deceased singer Jani Lain), Motley Crue’s Vince Neil (minus Motley Crue) and Local DJ Tod Pronto, they will keep the flame of glam metal (just about) burning.

I want to tell the story of all these men and women, the story of Glam Metal, and the story of the music that defined both their lives, and mine. \M/

Video images courtesy of Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), Jeff Krulik and John Heyn.

Justin Quirk is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster from London. He first wrote for The Guardian’s music pages when he was 19, and began contributing to Kerrang! shortly afterwards as a reviewer. Since then he has written for everyone from Arena and Esquire to the Times, Sunday Times and The Independent about art, music and culture, regularly appears on the BBC World Service and Soho Radio, and DJs at places like Spiritland and Merchant’s Tavern in London. As a teenage metaller he spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around Kensington Market (because his friend Chris has met Slash outside there), covered his schoolbooks in posters ripped out of metal magazines, saw Guns n’ Roses twice, got stranded at a curfew-busting Skid Row show, made his older sister (a goth) take him to Donington Monsters of Rock, failed to get into an AC/DC video as an extra, played Metallica’s ‘One’ for his music GCSE exam, saw everyone from Thunder to Mötley Crüe, and got regularly chased through suburban shopping precincts by skinheads. This is his first book.

In the last week of August 2014, a Californian musician uploaded a six-minute long video to Youtube, showing himself taking part in the Ice Bucket Challenge – not so unusual in itself, with 2.4million-and-counting of these charitable enterprises online around that time. However, this Ice Bucket Challenge was different: firstly, the man had bags of ice balanced on his head and in his crotch rather than being poured over him; secondly, rather than passing the challenge on to his friends and family, he called out (‘while my jewels freeze’) three of his high profile colleagues – Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and John Meyer; and finally, he communicated each word of his speech in blinks, painstakingly spelling out one letter at a time via an interpreter, while he sat motionless in a wheelchair.

Once touted as potentially the best metal guitarist on earth, 45-year-old Jason Becker has spent the best part of the last 18 years completely paralysed, since being diagnosed with ALS when he was on the verge of rock megastardom. But in that time he has not only defied medical wisdom by staying healthy and alive, he has also continued to compose and create his own astonishing music, been the subject of an award-winning documentary and helped to invent a communication system which has revolutionised the lives of other patients like him worldwide.

Despite being confined to a chair and unable to physicall perform, his public existence largely limited to a Twitter profile and sporadic musical releases, his influence continues: in 2012, Guitar Player magazine named him as ‘the greatest shredder ever’; in 2014, Seymour Duncan released his signature model pickup with Carvin following up with a signature line of guitars in 2015. And both fundraising gigs and a documentary about Becker’s life have taken place under a title you could only hope to find in the blackly comic world of heavy metal: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.

Since 1995, Jason Becker has released four albums. Not exactly a punishing workrate for a regular artist, but Becker’s life, composing and recording techniques are very far from normal. Since ALS paralysed his body, he has continued to create music, moving away from the pyrotechnic, lightning-fast metal of his youth to more textured, complicated pieces, often instrumental, sometimes with layered, treated voices giving the work an ethereal, hypnotic feel. 

Soon after Becker’s paralysis, his friend Mike Bemesderfer devised a software programme connected to a visor-mounted sensor. Becker could click a virtual keyboard by moving his chin, altering the velocity of each note and gradually, painstakingly assembling them into entire pieces of music. His album Perspective was the result of this exhausting process, with his epic ten-minute composition, End of The Beginning going on to be performed by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and the Diablo Ballet in 1999. On its release, Eddie Van Halen appeared on video with the immobilised Becker to describe him as having been ‘just one of the best rock and roll guitarists on the planet.’ The understandable sense among viewers was that in Becker they were watching a man who was living on borrowed time.

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Jason Becker was born in 1969, the second son of Pat and Gary Becker. A month premature, allergic to milk, prone to rashes and steadfastly refusing to speak to his schoolteachers, his mother described him as a ‘kinda high maintenance’ child. But despite this, the Beckers were an uncommonly close-knit family. Gary – a painter – originally attempted to teach his five-year old son the guitar. ‘He was bored and never came back for lesson two,’ recalled the father in Jesse Vile’s 2012 documentary, Not Dead Yet.

What followed was the kind of lightning-flash of creative growth that arts teachers dream of encountering in their students. Becker barely removed his guitar, and by sixth grade was performing Bob Dylan songs at school shows. He then learned note-perfect renditions of Eric Clapton’s total output, played a Bach fugue for local promoter Jim Oceam at 14 (‘I just realised I was in a room with a genius’) and was soon enough of a showman to have mastered playing the guitar with one hand while executing yo-yo tricks with the other. Home video footage from the time shows a young man still growing into his skinny frame, wispy moustache and frizzy hair, but physically controlling his instrument in the manner of someone with decades more experience and a nascent grasp of stagecraft and showmanship.

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