(2) def leppard, "pour some sugar on me"
(7) lita ford, "kiss me deadly"
and will play in the national championship
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 3/28.
ELENA PASSARELLO ON DEF LEPPARD'S "POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME"
I must admit, this essay on Shredness hasn’t been easy to figure out. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is an awesome song, of course. Listening to it now—almost exactly 30 years after its single release—is still a foam-finger-in-the-air, chest-bump-the-peanut-vendor, climb-a-stripper-pole-ass-first kind of experience. The song’s drum line remains indefatigably stirring, especially when you remember it was pounded out by a guy with twenty-five percent fewer appendages than any other drummer in this tournament (including the drummer who recorded “Rock of Ages”). And the song belongs to what was then the most expensive album in human history and what remains the best-charting Hard Rock record of all time.
But all these superlatives aside, does “Pour Some Sugar on Me” literally SHRED? To answer that, we gotta go the tape, a.k.a. the concert-footage video of the Leppards (the Def?) rocking a few thousand of Denver’s finest one February night in 1988.
Our beloved March Shredness selection committee’s official criteria for any qualifying entry is that the song “must be in the style/genre of Hair Metal [from] 1983-1992.” They go on to define said style/ genre by three features, all of them easily evaluated by watching the “Sugar” video.
It’s tough to call any coif on this band big when in league with the follicular efforts of Messrs. Snider, Rockett, Sixx, etc. I’d rate Def Leppard’s overall hair game as fair to middling. Lead singer Joe Elliot brings MacGyver realness to his layered dishwater mullet, but it doesn’t look like any mousse was ever involved. Back on the drums, Rick “The Thunder God” Allen has pulled his curly lob into a little broccoli floret at the nape of his neck. Guitarist Phil Collen’s hair is short enough to get him a job at the DMV; at one point in the video, Collen offers a little headbang and barely a strand of hair moves. Bassist Rick “Sav” Savage and guitarist Steve “C’mon, Steve!” Clark register a little closer to the Hair Metal ideal; their shaggy layers fall way past their shoulders and sport the texture of labradoodle clippings.
But the only truly big hair in this video appears whenever the camera cuts to the crowd, often lingering on select Def Heads (Leppers?) of the female persuasion. The hair on these young women is uniformly glorious, especially considering they’re not supposed to be the ones in the spotlight. Their bangs launch from their foreheads in cotton candy mushroom clouds, permed to the bejeezus belt and whipping about in these vicious little slaps as the girls shake their hoop earrings from side to side. This, for me, was the official hair of 1988’s babysitters—older, cooler girls full of secrets, with Gucci Crew tapes and gum for days and boys who they called on my cordless phone. Ten-year-old me thought of them whenever this video aired, hoping with all my flat-haired heart that one day my bangs would spike that high and my eyes—ringed in that same navy blue pencil—would find a person, or even a pet, to gaze at the way that these Aqua-netted confections gazed at this band.
In this criterion, “Sugar” falls further behind. Even those girls in the audience just wear tank tops and jeans. The single “flashy” article of clothing I was able to spot after myriad viewings is Sav’s cropped bolero with leopard (Leppard?)-print epaulets. But he pairs the jacket with unbedazzled dark pants and what look like white Reeboks. In fact, the whole band is shod in either sneakers or some nondescript, flat-heeled boot—save The Thunder God, who drums barefoot (perhaps for technical reasons). TG’s also wearing gym shorts(!) and a baggy t-shirt that appears to have his own image silkscreened on the back. Phil Collen’s got on a pair of Obama Mom jeans and a white undershirt for half the video, and for the other half, he’s kept the jeans, but is now bare-chested. He looks like a suburban Dad out mowing the lawn.
My favorite non-flashy sartorial choice belongs to Joe Elliot, who struts around the stage IN A DEF LEPPARD TANK TOP. Holy brand management! And what’s this? In the video’s black-and-white backstage footage, Elliot has on A DIFFERENT DEF LEPPARD SHIRT. Good lord, Joe, was it laundry day or something? Even Peter Cetera had enough sense to select a Bauhaus tee over some Chicago ’84 World Tour merch for the “You’re the Inspiration” video. Wearing your own shirt to your own arena show is the polar opposite of Shredding; it’s akin to putting a novel that you wrote on your syllabus. It’s like that time Mumford and Sons got kicked out of Atlanta’s Claremont Lounge strip club for Snapchatting themselves doing karaoke to their own music. Anyway. Elliot’s lower half does deserve more credit. Though not exactly “flashy,” the jeans he sports are aerated with two perfect ladders of horizontal rips, the kind of distressing that your mom would sigh over if she saw similar pants hanging, new, on a rack at the mall. If anything in this video undeniably involves shredding, it’s Joe’s dungarees.
“SHREDDY, OSTENTATIOUS GUITAR SOLOS”
And here’s where the Shred truly hits the fan. One of my favorite Hair Metal tropes is when the video cuts to a lead guitarist pantomiming his (it’s almost always “his”) scorching—and requisite—solo. In all these clips, the rocker also sells the Shred with corporeal details, like a leg up on an amp or a wagging tongue or a head tipped heavenward in ecstasy. Bonus points if the hairy, flashy soloist is back-to-back with an equally histrionic band mate. But if you’re following along in your YouTube hymnal, you’ll note that this moment does not exist at any point of the “Pour Some Sugar” vid. That’s because there are no prominent guitar solos in this song. Come at me on this; I’ve spent the past weekend combing thru every measure like a litterbox, listening for any run of music that might qualify as a Shred-guitar solo and coming up short. And in the video, most of the guitar footage involves Phil or Steve striking a chord and then floating their pick-hands away from the strings to balance on the sides of their axes while they bop sexily through the next resting measure.
Even the general moments of discernible guitar action are never “shreddy” or “ostentatious.” The entire structure of “Sugar” is built on power chords, which seem to me the opposite of Shred solos, as they involve only the lowest strings and claw-like, close-to-the-headstock fretwork. We do hear the signature “Sugar” lick on top of those chords throughout (starting at 0:32 of the YouTube clip), but said lick only consists of three mid-range notes and a little string bend, repeated. You can find noodlier licks (and bigger hair, and flashier outfits, and actual solos) in 1988 hits by Richard Marx, Taylor Dane, and Jefferson Freaking Starship. So if one had the stomach to do so, one could argue that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” Shreds less than Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a.k.a. the love theme from the movie Mannequin.
Sure, once the second chorus gets going (around 2:47), Steve Clark plays a lead line over the three-chord stomp we all know and love, but his contribution is a single mid-range note (an F3) repeated over and over and over again, without variation. If this is Shredding, it’s Shredding a la Philip Glass. C’mon, Steve. And perhaps one might make a Shred-case for the eight measures leading into “if you got the peaches/ I got the cream” (which I misheard as “you got the beat ‘cuz I got the feet,” until, like, yesterday). That spot in the song is a perfect launch pad for a searing solo, but instead we hear Clark volleying back and forth between one measly pair of notes using a plucky, reverbed touch. A similar guitar attack is often employed by U2’s the Edge, and I will challenge anyone on the planet who thinks that the Edge can Shred to a screwdriver fight.
In all fairness, I detect something closer to a traditional solo in the final twenty seconds of “Sugar,” but it’s so buried in the sonic lasagna that producer Mutt Lange famously built for Hysteria—exponentially tracked vocals, effects-drowned drum hits, layers of woofs and slides and feedback. You couldn’t sing or air guitar that melody if you tried. I’ve been listening to those thirty seconds with quality headphones all afternoon and I still can’t quite make it out, other than the fact that it’s slow and decidedly un-Shreddy. To fully detect the line, I’d have to be the rock dork equivalent of the princess sleeping on her pea.
This embarrassing amount of headphone time did teach me something, however. In the past three decades, I’ve listened as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” blared from the speakers of infinite Jumbotrons and titty bars. I once heard (and can never un-hear) an auto-tuned-within-an-inch-of-his-life Tom Cruise writhe through the song for the film Rock of Ages. But I’d never given the track a careful listen. Having done just that several dozen times, I now know that “Sugar” isn’t the blunt-force object I assumed it was; this song is spectacularly crafted. Crisp, pounding, and shiny, it’s like sunlight hitting the top of an ocean wave, if the wave was hot, sticky-sweet, and potentially riddled with chlamydia.
The whole album is a marvel, really. Lange’s reported vision for Hysteria was a Hard Rock take on what Quincy Jones did with Thriller: engineered within an inch of its life, jam-packed with radio singles, and full of crossover influences. Weirdly enough, Thriller’s crossover efforts include a toe-dip into metal, thanks to the thirty-second extravaganza of dive bombs and hammer-on-pull-offs that Eddie Van Halen dropped into the middle of “Beat it.” I’m pretty sure “Beat It” is the first Shred guitar track ever to go platinum, and it’s most certainly Shreddier than anything “Sugar” has to offer.
Unlike the other songs on Hysteria, which took most of Reagan’s second term to complete, “Sugar” smacks of spontaneity. This is owed, perhaps, to the fact that Joe Elliot and Mutt Lange tacked the song onto the end of their sessions. The other Defs (Leps? DefLep Schrempf’s?) weren’t even in town when the two started writing; Elliot was cutting vocals alone in the studio, farting around on an acoustic guitar during his coffee break. He’d only figured out “Sugar’s” five-word chorus when Lange walked past him and heard gold in that short line of song. The pair then worked backward, building the lead-in to the chorus (the rising chords behind “take the booooottle!”), and finally the verse structure.
For lyrics, neither had any story or idea in mind. Run-DMC’s reimagined version of “Walk this Way” had basically ruled 1987 radio, and Lange saw “Sugar” as a chance to piggyback off the resulting rap-rock fervor (note the thirsty add of the verbatim phrase “walk this way” to the album’s intro to “Sugar”). But instead of hiring actual rappers, Lange and Elliot just scat-sang through the demos, babbling in quarter notes and then in double time. Elliot says they got the final lyrics via a game of telephone, trying to interpret one another’s gibberish phonemes from the demo into actual words and phrases. The whole composition process took less than a single day. And holy shit, it worked.
I see nothing in our Shredness criteria about lyrics, but maybe this is where “Sugar” gains some ground. Like a lot of good Hair Metal content, the words stick as slogans rather than as poetry. They’re not unlike the work of the big-haired, flashy-outfitted 70’s rocker Marc Bolan—“demolition woman can I be your man” could’ve come straight off Electric Warrior. And speaking of Bolan, something about the lyrical looseness of the lyrics to “Sugar” allows for a wobbly, T-Rexy sexual double vision that’s present in quite a bit of our Shredness cohort.
I know in my bones that such lyrical inexactitude is part of the fun—both in 1988 and today. My buddy Patrick once unearthed a tape of himself singing “Sugar” at some amusement park karaoke booth back in the 80’s, long before his voice changed. Years later, he’d play the tape for me when we were running errands in his Hyundai and I’d lose my shit at the sound of his old chipmunk soprano growling through “love is like a bomb, baby” and “easy operator come a-knockin’ on my door.” The absolute glee in his pipsqueak voice! In it, you heard how Pat knew these words were fun and edgy, but still PG-13 enough to keep him from getting grounded.
I think the pull of “Sugar”—and much of Shred as a whole—is how it can be understood as sexy even if the listener’s not yet sure what sex entails. The practices and body parts alluded to in these lyrics are not exactly direct; I’m a 39-year-old woman who’s been around the block a few times and I have loads of questions for Mutt and Joe: What exact substance is Elliot covered in from his un-moussed “head” to his Keds-clad “feet”? Is this coating the titular “sugar,” or is it something else? Are we describing a physiological byproduct here? If so, whose glandular system is the source of it? Does it “pour” from the “easy operator” or from the man on whose door she knocks? Or should I just be imagining two fully consenting adults dumping champagne all over each other?
The fact that these lyrics boil down to a bunch of hot-nonsense make the song both filthy and virginal, which seems crucial to this genre. Hair Metal sex-talk often sounds like an inexperienced fifteen-year-old trying to brag about all the steamy stuff he does with his girlfriend who “lives in Canada.” Which is to say that when the catchy innuendo typical of this genre marries Lange’s downright Apollonian sonic architecture, there’s no way the product of said union is leaving our consciousness for decades, Shred solos or no.
Which leads me to my present pickle. “Sugar” might not fit our definition of Shred, but the song has lasted like a champ, and it still rocks. What’s more, I think it carries a surprising musical depth that deserves acclamation. But is that enough to advance it in this competition, especially when (and I’m biting my hand as I type this) its very first opponent is a song performed by a band with bigger hair, flashier outfits, and even a tongue-out shreddy solo…and said band is the same damn band that recorded “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?
My only hope for saving this song, I suppose, is to argue that “Sugar” still embodies Shred without checking Shred’s crucial boxes. I’m not even sure this is true, because all that I’ve covered, especially the glimmering production of the song, makes “Sugar” feel less porous and more complex than the majority of its bracket-mates, “Rock of Ages” included. But perhaps none of you care about any of this. Maybe you’ve already figured out that Shred at its very best is a feeling more than a practice. And perhaps in our collected kabillion listenings to “Sugar,” we have felt the Shred in enough intangible ways that our sticky, sweet energy cancels out the band’s uninspired clothes, their chill hair, their neglected whammy bars. Maybe this crowd-generated feeling is what elevates Def Leppard to the Penthouse of Shredness.
I’ve spent too much of my adult life desperate to never substitute feeling for substance, and this might be where I must—where we all must—make an exception. Maybe feeling the ways “Sugar” Shreds is enough to give it wings. Perhaps the white-hot sensation of a thousand guitar solos, of myriad “oooh-Alberto”-stiffened mullets, of countless pink spandex leggings has, for the past thirty years, been thriving in the abstract. You can find evidence of this Shred miracle in every babysitter bopping across her wide-eyed charge’s living room, every Florida catwalk that’s humped IN THE NAME OF LUVVV, and every tween screaming Mutt and Joe’s baby-brained dirty talk into an amusement park recording booth. You can certainly find it in the countless bros who’ve air-guitared their way through the track, pantomiming a blistering solo over the measures where one never existed.
It’s not unlike the moment in Barrie’s Peter Pan when all the children clap their hands and a flashlight turns into Tinker Bell. I can see her right now, newly alive and kicking on the sheer force of youthful belief. Watch her flit to the window, tossing her poufy bangs, shouting while the crowd lifts up its hands to her. The kids sing along as she launches up to the stars, all of them howling the lift into the final chorus, do you take Shredness? One lump or two!
The most metal thing about essayist Elena Passarello is that she and Mastodon's bassist went to the same high school. Here is a photo of what she looked like the year Hysteria was released.
BETH NGUYEN ON LITA FORD'S "KISS ME DEADLY"
I never learned the difference between heavy metal and hair metal, or any other kind of musical metal, because for years they all meant the same thing: screaming, unattractive white men with unwashed hair, with mouths that formed hideous shapes in order to emit their wails, matched by equally shrieking electric guitar sounds that absolutely had to be played at top volume. Back then, in the 1980s of my youth, I didn’t like anything about these guys. But my two older sisters did, and they had total control of the radio. School mornings, they’d wake up extra early to tease their bangs as high as they could get them. Their music would wear me down until I too knew all the songs by heart.
But every once in a while there would come a song and a singer that made me want to listen. “Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford thrilled immediately with its opening lines. My sisters and I were growing up in a deeply conservative town in Michigan where many of our friends weren’t allowed to go out on Sundays, much less watch MTV or listen to lyrics like
I went to a party last Saturday night
I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
The first time I heard those lines I was thirteen, old enough to know that I would never in any way resemble a woman like Lita Ford. Not that I wanted to be her, any more than I wanted to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. But I was fascinated by these women, who were wild or outrageous in different ways. I loved watching them because—I only understand this now—they were interesting women in worlds that didn’t want them even to be. I could admire them, and root for them, without wanting to be them.
Lita Ford was a rare hair metal women among all those hair metal men. She wasn’t going to be in the background, playing a vacant-eyed sex object in some guy’s video. When Lita Ford sang and performed, you paid attention; she didn’t even have to scream and wail. Sure, she carried the look, with hair that went big rather than shiny, big and so full of spray that I knew if she whipped her head around and her hair hit you in the face, it would hurt. She wore black leather, tight; black eyeliner and frosted lipstick. I understood this was a uniform she was required to maintain. I was more interested in how she took control of the stage, the screen; she played guitar with a bravado I could not fathom, her body hunched, simultaneously concentrating and preparing to spring forth.
Nothing to eat and no TV
Looking in the mirror don’t get it for me, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
I see Lita Ford at a party, dancing close with some guy. He’s no one special but it’s a dance, a song, something to do. Another girl tries to push her way in, but Lita isn’t going to stand for that. She elbows the girl away. The girl elbows back, using some shoulder. And that’s it. Lita turns and swings and they’re off, pulling each other’s hair and yelling. Then Lita is out on the rain-soaked sidewalk, alone, pulling her leather jacket over her shoulders. She needs a cigarette. She walks alone, angry at first and then—fuck them. She tosses the half cigarette toward the curb. She doesn’t care where it lands.
This isn’t her music video. It’s my devised narrative, starting where I was at age thirteen; it’s how Lita Ford has stayed in my mind all these years.
This is the life she’s ended up in—so what. The hair, the leather, the nights that don’t turn out the way she thought they could. The morning is always too bright. There’s nothing to eat in the house. She has to ask her dad for money and he argues with her. It’s the same thing she’s heard for years: what is she doing with her life, when is she going to get her act together, she’s a mess. He goes right to the edge of what he means to say, what men always end up saying: you look like a whore and you act like a bitch.
It ain’t no big thing, Lita says, to her friends, to herself. She gets another cigarette, puts on that same leather jacket.
Lita Ford finds her own way.
When I google Lita Ford in 2018, I discover that she’s been out of music for years, held back by her now ex-husband; they had a rancorous divorce and she hasn’t seen her two children in years. She says her ex has been keeping them from her, has turned them against her. Before the divorce, they’d been in talks for a reality TV show for E!.
I hesitate; I want to know more and yet I don’t want to know any more. I want Lita Ford to stay in mind as she was back in 1987. I suppose, in a way, that’s what we all want, those of us who like returning to another era, to the past that gets deeper, and want to keep it as it is but also let it bend to our own shifting gaze and perspective. I want Lita Ford to be the same but I want myself, my 1987 self, to be different.
What did I know at age thirteen? Almost nothing. I was used to whiteness, sure—raised in its world (this world). But I was also a child of Vietnamese refugees, myself a refugee. Someone who had learned to be careful. My life couldn’t have been farther from Lita Ford’s. I was never going to be someone who got into a fight at a party. Yet I could see her then, as I do now. I see her in the morning hours, that time of rethinking and possible regret. Lita Ford isn’t wasting time on regret. She isn’t waiting for some guy to choose her. If she doesn’t go home with someone it’s going to be her choice. She can hold her own in a fight just as well. It’s not a big thing. It merely exists in a series of continual maneuvers having to do with the body.
I remember saying to my sisters, back in 1987, what does she mean kiss me deadly? The adverb didn’t really follow, didn’t really make sense. It still doesn’t. Sometimes I want it to have a comma as in Kiss Me, Deadly; sometimes I change it to Kiss Me Deftly. Part of the joy of the song is that, like Lita Ford herself, it doesn’t care. It prefers action over talking. Come on, pretty baby. I sing with her every time.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novel Short Girls, and the novel Pioneer Girl. Her work has received an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award, among other honors, and has been featured in numerous anthologies and university and community reads programs. She directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.