first round game
(9) faster pussycat, "poison ivy"
(8) Queensrÿche, "eyes of a stranger"
and will move on to the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/2.
mark athitakis on QUEENSRŸCHE's "eyes of a stranger"
Not long ago I was talking with a writer about how great male novelists—or, rather, male novelists who are considered “great”—tend to be what she called “collector types.” They collect information, details, factoids. They wear their research on their sleeve. They’re admired for their skill at hunting and gathering, for what they (greatly) seek out and for showing off what they bring back from the hunt. They possess firm opinions about the categories where things belong, and where they do not belong, what matters and what doesn’t. They sort.
She was, I suspect, too polite to say collector nerd or collector geek, but it’s the same idea.
The collector-type sensibility is pernicious in a lot of ways, but the subject at hand is Queensrÿche, and collector types have wrecked the way we talk about Queensrÿche, especially when it comes to the question of whether or not they’re a hair-metal band. A quick spin around the internet reveals the scope of the dispute. Here, an assertion that Queensrÿche doesn’t qualify as hair metal because they wrote “complex musical compositions with socially conscious lyrics.” There, a claim that Queensrÿche was not only not hair metal but in fact killed hair metal by being “thinkers-of-big-thoughts more given to high-flown concept albums about technological conspiracy.” Last summer, when SiriusXM’s hair-metal channel, Hair Nation, produced its list of the 25 all-time best albums in the genre, the presence of Queensrÿche’s 1988 album, Operation: Mindcrime, sparked the plaintive cries of the collector type. “Love Queensrÿche but never considered them a hair band.” “Queensrÿche isn’t or wasn’t hair metal.” “Why is Queensrÿche on this list?” “Why is Queensrÿche considered a hair metal band?”
Lastly, off by himself behind the high-school tennis courts with the one-hitter, there’s Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, who in a 1991 interview with Guitar Player dismissed Queensrÿche as “fag yuppie metal.” An especially revealing manifestation of the male sorting instinct, that one. We’ll come back to it.
“Eyes of a Stranger” is the closing track from Operation: Mindcrime, the album around which all discussions of the band pivot—it’s the album that at once defines the band and unsettles it, sparking all those are-they-or-aren’t they arguments. Before Mindcrime, the Seattle band was a likable but not especially interesting under-the-radar prog-metal act in the Rush/Fates Warning/Dream Theater vein. After Mindcrime, it was a popular but not especially interesting hard-rock act best-known for a gentle symphonic ballad, “Silent Lucidity,” that got an absurd amount of MTV play. And it was second-best-known for an acrimonious breakup a few years back that split the group, amoeba-like, in two. One band, with its original rhythm guitarist and drummer in tow, preserves the Queensrÿche name. The other, led by founding singer Geoff Tate, now soldiers on as Operation: Mindcrime. Renaming your own act after one of your iconic albums smacks of amateur hour—it evokes the cover band rockin’ the Badlands Room at the Wild Bronco Casino and Resort following the 6 p.m. buffet (“Sticky Fingers plays your favorite Stones classics!”). But Tate is no dummy—for many, Queensrÿche and Mindcrime are essentially equivalent.
Yet Queensrÿche’s categorization problem has less to do with Mindcrime’s music than its extramusical apparatus: It’s a concept album with a plot, though I’ve never quite gathered up the motivation to untangle it despite many listens and viewings of its companion videos over the past three decades. I know there’s a Dr. X, a Seb Gorka-looking society-manipulating mastermind, or something. He’s recruited Nikki, a disenchanted junkie, or something, to assassinate important politicians, I think. He’s assisted by Sister Mary, a former sex worker who used to be a nun, or was just pretending to be a nun as some sort of cover, or something. Something dramatic, anyhow. If you care to sort it out for yourself, you can listen to the album, which I recommend, but if you’re pressed for time you can watch guitarist Chris DeGarmo try to explain it to a Japanese interview muppet shortly after the album’s release.
A handful of songs made broad gestures about politics and society: The opening anthem, “Revolution Calling,” enumerated complaints that anybody to the left of Bob Dole circa 1988 could comfortably embrace, like how politicians are in businessmen’s pockets and that televangelists are hypocritical philandering phonies. Ideologically speaking, it was pretty toothless—nobody was for corrupt congressmen and philandering televangelists, and offing them, as a plot device, was no more daring than any Schwarzenegger vehicle that clogged cineplexes during the 80s. But it was new, for hair metal. When people declare Queensrÿche anathema to the nothin’-but-a-good-time hair-metal cohort, that’s what they mean, mostly. (Even though flipping the bird at conservatives was a crucial element of the party as well, at a time when the PMRC was still a going concern.) The album had dialogue and sound effects that were somewhat foreign to the genre: hospital PAs, stuff getting thrown across a room, car power windows, rain. And the cover was off-brand too: Instead of band photos or T&A come-ons it substituted ersatz Barbara Kruger agitprop, presenting the band’s name in serifless type laid over an oversaturated black and white image of a mob. This is metal’s Battleship Potemkin, the packaging seemed to say. And what did the average hesher care for Eisenstein? Because Queensrÿche projected real-world seriousness—none of the Hobbitry of Dio or whatever time-space-continuum nonsense Iron Maiden albums were going on about—Mindcrime got Queensrÿche pegged as a seriously serious metal band.
“Thinking man’s metal”—that was the term that attached, barnacle-like, to Queensrÿche. A Los Angeles Times review of a 1989 concert captured the sentiment, popular among certain collector types, that Queensrÿche existed not just distinct from but in opposition to hair metal: “The fervent reception Queensrÿche got was heartening because it showed that metal fans are not all foolish escapists but also thinking people who thirst for music that tries to be substantial, serious and relevant to what they see happening in the world around them.” But Queensrÿche’s openers that night? Warrant, the sine qua non of indisputably lunkheaded, spandex-stretching cock rock. And Queensrÿche itself was never much for that thinking-man’s-metal business. “If you walk into a record store, and you’ve got the bins, and they all have labels, and you walk to this thing that says, ‘Thinking Man’s Metal Band’—it’s just like, pass,” Di Garmo said in a 2002 interview.
And still, over time collector types have continuously attempted to prybar Queensrÿche away from the hair-metal firmament, which does a disservice to both the band and the genre. Queensrÿche wasn’t as smart as they were made up to be, but nor were many of the other bands around so stupid. MTV in 1988, then deep into its heavy flirtation with hair metal, didn’t make a distinction between the seriousness of Queensrÿche or the unseriousness of anything else. Their tour cohorts didn’t care. Nor did the floor of my brother’s pickup or bedroom growing up, a space dominated by hair-metal cassettes and CDs that I enjoyed a lot more than the late-80s Elvis Costello albums I was forcing myself to appreciate: Blow My Fuse, G N’ R Lies, Night Songs, Look What the Cat Dragged In, Permanent Vacation, Mechanical Resonance, Hysteria, Mindcrime. All of it was of a piece.
Sure, Geoff Tate sang about Congress and Bret Michaels didn’t. Warrant had a 900 number that promised details about their lives as tour-bus disease vectors, and Queensrÿche didn’t. If those are the standards, then I get why people might resist calling Queensrÿche hair metal. But those standards have little to do with what made hair metal interesting. And to the point, those things have nothing to do with “Eyes of a Stranger,” a hair-metal song to its deepest core.
What is “Eyes of a Stranger” about? Heartbreak: All alone now, except for the memories / Of what we had, and what we knew, Tate sings. The chorus is no more sophisticated than any other song about losing a lover and not knowing who you are anymore and walking that dusty lonesome road: People always turn away / From the eyes of a stranger / Afraid to know what lies behind the stare. Compare it to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which begins with a dramatic sigh by Bret Michaels that’s more forced and pretentious in itself than the entirety of Queensrÿche’s catalog. Was it something I said or something I did? Did the words not come out right? Or compare it to any other heart-on-sleeve hair metal classic: Bang Tango’s “Someone Like You,” Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” Tesla’s “Changes,” Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Patience.” If Queensrÿche was thinking-man’s stuff, they weren’t thinking so hard that their contemporaries couldn’t keep up.
The lyrics had callbacks to the Mindcrime plot, but, funnily, they’re stronger when they’re divorced from it. Your rosary wrapped around your throat, Wikipedia informs me, refers to Sister Mary having—spoiler alert—hanged herself, or been strangled. But in isolation the line only suggests a good-girl-gone-bad trope that’s a staple of the genre. Straitjacket memories, sedative highs—images of Nikki’s institutionalization, but also irresistible as operatic imagery about how lost love can feel like an expulsion from society. Which is to say that “Eyes of a Stranger” is just a romantic hair ballad by other means; a sensitivity move in glam/NWOBHM dress. If its central conceit is of the thinkers-of-big-thoughts variety—All I want is the same as everyone / Why am I here, and for how long?—hair metal had its share of those songs too. The sensitivity move is as ubiquitous and defining for the genre as Aqua Net.
So what got—gets—the collector types so anxious? Sensitivity in hair metal had its rules. The occasional expression of vulnerability is as essential to the genre as praise-Jesus ballads are to country acts. But such expressions also typically demanded some form of covering—whether through guitar virtuosity, or macho swagger, or literal makeup. The bad boy with the soft heart was as crucial a trope as the good girl gone bad (and that’s essentially what Nikki and Sister Mary are), but you also had to do your best to conceal it, and Queensrÿche circa Mindcrime didn’t. “Queensrÿche didn’t add up to what I imagined they should: badassness, metal studs, lyrical violence, shattered vocal cords,” writes Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan in an essay on this site about her discovery of the band. “I didn’t know then how queer metal could be, the men with the Farrah Fawcett hair, the power ballads with Celine Dion’s range, the Cinderella’s-Ugly-Sisters make-up.” They veered often into what Srinivasan calls “cuddly territory.” Many such bands did. But all that apparatus around Mindcrime—a couple of songs and album art, when you get down to it—made the cuddliness sound strange, exposed the cuddliness. It made them seem out of place, even though musically the band played to genre type.
What was precisely required for a hair act to appropriately balance queerness and machismo is a question for somebody with stronger gender studies and hair-metal chops than I possess. But it’s clear to me that Queensrÿche’s problem is that while sonically and lyrically they were a hair-metal act like any other, they didn’t perform the rituals of not-queer queerness in the same ways as the rest their cohort. They had big hair and screeching vocals and sensitivity in abundance, but a song or two about the one percent will shift the listener’s perspective. Never mind that Mindcrime has not just one but three brokenhearted-boy classics (“Breaking the Silence” and “I Don’t Believe in Love” in addition to “Stranger”). The album registered as different, and difference confuses collector types.
Which brings us back to Dave Mustaine and that “fag yuppie metal” business. People respond to confusion in a variety of ways. Some go on Facebook and insist Queensrÿche isn’t a hair band. Others, like Dave Mustaine, call the band “fag yuppie metal”—cannon-blasting them into a whole ‘nother socioeconomic and nonheteronormative galaxy than the macho working-class planet that was hair-metal’s province in myth but never in reality.
If Queensrÿche cared about any of this at the time, it didn’t show—for a while they thrived as the hair-metal act that was a little bit off, the first kid in the family to go to junior college. But their difference changed how they were defined. In 1990 Queensrÿche was nominated in metal categories at the Grammys; two years later, they were nominated in the rock categories. They’d been removed from their natural home, becoming an ordinary band in the process. And it would mess with how the band defined itself: Under the convoluted breakup agreement the two estranged sides arrived at in 2014, Tate retains the rights to play Mindcrime in its entirety but Queensrÿche can still play the songs from it. One gets the whole; the other can live with the parts. Whose side you take in this dispute seems to have much to do with how much you care about songs and how much you care about apparatus.
No matter: Operation: Prybar has ultimately failed. Early in 2017 Queensrÿche played the Sierra View Music Festival in Oakdale, California with, yet again, Warrant, adding for good measure Bulletboys, they of grafitti-spattered acid-wash jeans and the comically unsubtle hit “Smooth Up In Ya.” Queensrÿche no longer plays Operation: Mindcrime in its entirety, so the songs exist just as songs. If “Revolution Calling” and “Spreading the Disease” are newly relevant in 2018 (The poor stay poor / And the rich get rich / And the cops get paid / To look away / As the one percent rules America), that’s great. But that’s a different conversation. Mostly, Queensrÿche songs just have to do the work of being fine hair-metal songs—some vocal wailing, some guitars, some searching for something to believe in, and asking—like Bret did, and Axl did, like Jani and all the rest did—how they can keep going in a world where love has passed them by.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Humanities, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. He is the author of The New Midwest (Belt Publishing, 2017), a study of contemporary fiction from the region. Here he is in a tie-dye Aerosmith T-shirt circa 1990.
amy rossi on faster pussycat's "poison ivy"
This is a story about timing.
It’s the story of a band who came along at the right moment.
And it’s the story of woman thirty years later finding just what she needs when she needs it.
Faster Pussycat formed in 1985, a perfect year to be playing sleaze/glam/hair metal. They were barely out of their teens (or barely out of high school, in the case of guitarist Brent Muscat). Around that same time, lead singer Taime Downe and his roommate, future Headbangers Ball host Riki Rachtman, started the Cathouse, a nightclub open every Tuesday that only played rock. It quickly gained traction among big names in Hollywood and metal fans alike.
Rachtman’s and Downe’s goals for the Cathouse were basically to have a place to party and meet girls without having to clean up, but it became an indelible part of the scene. If you need further proof: Axl Rose wears a Cathouse tee shirt in the “Paradise City” video.
And of course several segments of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years were filmed at the Cathouse, including the performance of Faster Pussycat singing “Cathouse.”
There is something so gloriously excessive, so perfectly decadent about picking the same name for your song and your nightclub. It doesn’t matter to me which came first. The tipping point for hair metal (I know many bristle at the term, but having come along later, I always called it that) is this: either you like things being pushed past their logical point of excess or you don’t.
“Poison Ivy,” much like Faster Pussycat themselves, embodies so much of what makes hair metal good. Because whatever your preferred nomenclature, this kind of metal is good, and at its best, it’s the most un-ironic, actual fun you can have. The song pulls in blues rock influences, complemented by a caterwauling vocal and a textured, sing-a-long chorus. (Faster Pussycat has the best choruses.) It’s filthy, sexy fun. The writing is clever, and the level of musicianship is strong. And it’s drenched with sleaze, including the line So this is how you get your kicks, licking up everything after me, which is so delightfully raunchy, I don’t even know how to finish this sentence. All in all, “Poison Ivy” is a completely underrated track from a completely underrated band.
Faster Pussycat was the first band from this era that I fell for as an adult, as opposed to the ones I loved from Monsters of Rock commercials and the Big Hair Show (hosted by Mark Arson on 106.1 WRDU every Friday night from nine to midnight), both of which had untapped my teenage desires circa 1999-2002. In 2015, when I was elbow-deep in research for a novel project taking place on the Sunset Strip in the 1980s, studying The Decline of Western Civ and interviews with Almost Famous-style Band-Aids who supported guys in Hollywood metal bands, Faster Pussycat—a little rawer, a little edgier than a lot of what I’d listened to—became first inescapable and then necessary.
I had been waffling about flying to Los Angeles for Mötley Crüe's final show on New Year’s Eve when I checked the lineup at the Whisky. 1/1/16: Faster Pussycat and LA Guns. That sealed the deal. I needed to go to LA not just for book research, but for me. I needed to line up on Clark Street to get into the Whisky, bang my head, scope out the old Riot House, drink Jack and Coke at the Rainbow. It, too, was past the logical point of excess. So it had to happen.
There’s a scene in Decline of Western Civ where Penelope Spheeris is pressing the guys in Faster Pussycat about their goals, their music, their finances. When Brent Muscat reveals how much it costs for them to be on the road, Spheeris is surprised and concerned. Taime Downe quickly interjects with the most self-aware sentence uttered in the whole documentary (non-Lemmy division): “Well, we’re new.” The impression then is of a band who understands how all this works and doesn’t let that stand in the way of having a good time.
If you google Faster Pussycat, the preview text for their website calls them the Kings of Sleeze and “the premiere sound from the underground.” This is true in both senses: their music, in all its sleazy (or sleezy), raunchy glory, wants to pull you down to the gutter where the real party lives, and also, they were going to do their own thing. (Even their power ballad doesn’t fit the mold.)
There are a few people who say the timing of Faster Pussycat’s debut album hurt them because Appetite for Destruction was released about two weeks later. This seems apocryphal. Some things just happen to flourish in the underground, which makes the pleasure of discovery that much greater.
The video for “Poison Ivy” further cements Faster Pussycat’ aesthetic as a group of dudes who were doing it their own way. If you watch it on mute, you might think it was that power ballad—for other bands, that’s usually when the black and white, life on the road footage is rolled out, contrasted against dramatic posing in front of a backdrop.
I spoke to Brent Muscat on the phone (a sentence I still can’t believe is a thing I can type), and he explained that the video was reshot while they were touring because their drummer was arrested for shipping himself drugs. The black and white footage introduces the new drummer, Brett Bradshaw. “It was important to show that we were still out there,” Muscat said of the replacement clips. This unplanned change takes the video in a different direction, offering an almost tender depiction of the band as they bowl, goof around, dance. Just some guys, living their best lives.
Neither those moments nor the ones of them singing in front of the world’s highest powered wind machine seem to have anything to do with the song. Maybe not lyrically. But the mood and the music—fun, loose, somehow both grounded and reveling in it all—it’s there.
I was nervous the night I walked down to the Whisky to see Faster Pussycat. I had been looking forward to traveling alone, to drinking it all in. But walking to the subway to the Staples Center for Mötley Crüe the night before, I was followed and harassed by some guy who saw a woman on her own as a target. It became so intense that I ended up running out of the station to get a Lyft. Once I was safe inside the Staples Center, I was able to have a great time, but I was unsettled. Worried about how I was dressed, how I walked, how I occupied space. And there, I’d had a seat. At the Whisky, I would have to stake my spot.
The tickets said doors opened a good two hours before they actually did, so I dutifully waited in a line that curled up Clark Street. Questionable footwear choice aside, I loved it, listening to everything around me, the memories, the traffic on the Strip. I was transported in time, just like I had wanted.
The Whisky was much smaller inside than I’d pictured, but getting a spot near the stage wasn’t so bad at first, since there were a few opening bands. What I didn’t think about was what would happen when I had to go to the bathroom. If you’re with someone, they save your spot. If you’re not, you have to find another way to muscle back to where you were standing. Right before the final opening act took the stage, I worked up the nerve to ask a very tall stranger who’d probably never had to factor in such things for his concert-going experience if he’d save my space.
Honestly, I don’t remember if Faster Pussycat played “Poison Ivy” that night—not because I was drunk, but in the way that the harder you want to take in everything, the easier it slips through your hands. I remember their cathartic cover of “Killed By Death,” as Lemmy had just passed away a few days before. I remember screaming along and swiveling my hips and taking up my space amid raised phones and rock horns. All I needed was to be there.
I remember feeling like the best version of myself.
As far as I can tell, there are two great sins an 80s metal band can commit now: aging—the continued shock on the part of some concert reviewers that someone might be heavier, slower, and/or balder than they were thirty years ago astounds me—and touring without the “real band.” And these are sins of time. They ask us to ponder our own aging. They ask us to consider what it means that your music taste hasn’t changed when everything around you has. They ask us to realize that relationships forged in one’s late teens or early twenties might change.
In a 2015 interview with the Miami New Times, Downe himself acknowledged, “We were never a huge band.” They are the premiere sound of the underground, after all. But, he continued, they still get to go out and play a bunch of nights out of the year.
On the phone, Muscat, who recently released the single “Tomeka” with his new band Saints of Las Vegas, expressed how lucky and blessed he feels. “We made some great records,” he said. “We’re a part of history, of Sunset Strip sleaze metal.”
The personnel evolves. New projects take flight. But the clubs are still full. The music—and the interest—is still there. Because when it comes at the right time, it stays.
Of course, this isn’t March Seminal Rock N’ Roll Scene Creators or March This Band Is Deeply Meaningful to Me In a Way I Could Not Have Foreseen. It’s March Shredness, so the question is, does “Poison Ivy” shred, on its own and relative to the song on the other side of this page? And the answer is absofuckinglutely.
Muscat listened to it while we talked, pointing out techniques and sharing how certain moments came to be. “There was sort of a phrase from the verse, I remember that when we were in the studio, I worked up to the harmony of it,” he said, noting the lick when it arrives. Because he and Greg Steele shared lead and rhythm guitar duties, he explained, they both have their own distinct parts during the solo. His comes in at the second half, an elastic, hip-shimmying groove that he described as funky and upbeat, a “basic rock and roll bluesy solo.” What more could you want?
The song shredded then and it shreds now. In shreds in a way that’s so youthful and joyful and danceable and decadent that you might forget how hard it’s actually shredding. Don’t worry. It’ll come sneaking up right behind you.
So there’s no nostalgia when it comes to me and Faster Pussycat. This is what I like. This is what I have chosen, or has chosen me. Howling vocals and the halfway unintelligible lyrics and the blistering guitar and the way it all coalesces into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
When I listen to Faster Pussycat, I don’t think about my teenaged self. I don’t associate the songs with ex-boyfriends or old crushes. They are mine and mine alone. I think about who I could be. I think about being a woman by herself in a nightclub, claiming her spot. I think about wearing a leather miniskirt and a tank top with a detached neck cuff, and no one around to question that look. I think about walking down Sunset Strip to see a band I love like so many other women have done in decades past, and pretending it’s 1986, not 2016, imagining myself as one of the girls handing out flyers or hanging out in the parking lot behind the Rainbow. I think about the spaces we fit into when we let go.
And I think about the now. We can’t help our timing, but we’re still here, aren’t we, still singing along, and isn’t that beautiful.
Amy Rossi is a writer living in North Carolina. Her fiction has recently appeared online at matchbook, CHEAP POP, and Synaesthesia Magazine. She blogs intermittently about 80s metal music videos at amyrossi.com/big-hair-video-lair.