(2) def leppard, "pour some sugar on me"
(3) ratt, "round and round"
on the way to the elite 8
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 3/20.
BRIAN OLIU ON RATT'S "ROUND AND ROUND"
The secret is that “Round and Round” is a testament to the world—a lens blurred by whatever mist is left over by hair spray and fog machines; each choreographed chunk of a guitar riff a proclamation of loudness; that this, somehow, is our true self.
The secret is that the band name was a bad pun on “Mickey Mouse”—what if the cupcake sheen of Southern California hid the true rodent; that everything was much more sinister than it seemed. How we think nothing of a mouse, yet everything of a rat—their elongated bodies, the gaps in their teeth.
The secret is that the popularity of Out of the Cellar is accredited to combining the large sweeping riffs of early glam metal, with the more technical staccato picking style found in 1970s prog and British rock.
The secret is that as a child, my parents found a rat underneath my crib—a story they did not tell me until I was much older, and something that I am eternally thankful for. Of how this story was told after me, as a melodramatic teenager, was upset at the sight of a field mouse scurrying across the tile floor before disappearing into a coffee mug. Things could be worse, my parents told me, and this was true: the ratio of body to fur is important when thinking about rodents.
The secret is that, yes, it is Tawny Kitaen on the cover of Out of the Cellar, crawling toward a back alley crawlspace covered in fog and smoke. Kitaen was the high school girlfriend of guitarist Robbin Crosby, dying her bleach blonde hair bright red for the shoot, because Crosby preferred brunettes.
The secret is that I never listened to hair metal when I was younger—at least not on my own. I grew up on a steady diet of Motown’s Greatest Hits, pop country, and the soundtrack to The Big Chill—the same rotation found in the tape deck of my mother’s Volvo; the one with the torn ceiling and the chunk of foam missing from the passenger-side front seat. My mother had a love for Van Halen—the vastly underrated Sammy Hagar years, and would play “Love Comes Walking In” on repeat on those mornings where I would purposely miss the bus because I couldn’t bear the name calling as I tried to find an empty seat for my body and backpack, both stretched to their limits.
The secret is that my familiarity with “Round and Round” comes mostly from those Hair Metal Compilation commercials that would play ad nauseam during late night cable television binges. Each song would only get about three seconds of air time, typically choosing to highlight the chorus of these iconic hits and quite often choosing the moment of the song where the title was sung for maximum effect. Here I go again on my own. Every rose has it’s thorn. Round and Round. With love we’ll find a way just give it time.
The secret is that everyone in the video is a fan: the butler, when setting the table, reveals a metal studded bracelet. No one is disgusted when, instead of what presumes to be a dinner roast, is revealed as a swirl of rats under a metal serving plate. The noise from the attic is welcomed—it is not interrupting anything.
The secret is in the house I grew up in, there was a tiny crawlspace where I would hide. I wouldn’t dare go too far, because my mother told me that the insulation would make me itch. One time, I got to close, and it brushed up against my arm—I was worried that the itch would be so bad that I’d want to scratch off my own skin, but the sensation never came.
The secret is that the song appears to be multiple songs at once: a story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Sonically, this is a theme in most hair metal songs: there is always room for a guitar solo that doesn’t quite match the rest of the song—an extended break where the audience is treated to a self-aware aside where it is the guitarist’s time to shine.
The secret is that I too feel this way about writing—that it is impossible for me to craft something without telling my own truth; that somehow, some way, I will get my solo, even if it doesn’t adhere to the story.
The secret is that the cover features Kitaen on her hands and knees returning to the cellar, rather than away—as if this is a return of sorts; she has seen the real world and wishes to go back underground, through the dense fog toward something known, rather than being amongst the unfamiliar.
The secret is Stephen Pearcy, the lead singer of Ratt, wanted to be a top fuel race car driver and had no interest in music. When Pearcy was eleven, Pearcy was the victim of a hit and run accident while on his bicycle and was laid up in a hospital for six months. During that time, a friend brought him an acoustic guitar.
The secret is that ideally, everything should be compartmentalized. Crosby later played with Bon Jovi. DeMartini played with Whitesnake. Pearcy formed a band with the drummer from Cinderella. The spinning model in the video is known best for playing Dirty Diana. Tawny Kitaen is known as the woman in the Whitesnake videos, not the cover model for Out of the Cellar.
The secret is that no one is really surprised when Warren DeMartini comes crashing through the ceiling and lands on the dinner table—it’s as if they knew that this was inevitable; that the floor would give out in the middle of the dinner party.
The secret is that when I was eleven years old, I wanted to be a lot of things too: a musician, a chef, a writer. While a friend and I were waiting in my mother’s Volvo while she returned a book to the library, my friend pulled the emergency break, and the car started to roll down the slope of the parking lot. Panicked, I jumped out of the backseat of the car, only to have the front tire of the car roll over my ankle. I did not go to the hospital for six months. I did not pick up a guitar for the first time. I don’t know why I’m telling you these things.
The secret, of course, is that Milton Berle plays two parts in the video: the head of household and the wife.
The secret is that Milton Berle agreed to be in the video at the request of his nephew Marshall, who was Ratt’s manager at the time. Berle’s characters are the first to leave the scene of the video due to the loud music because family favors don’t extend to full-day shoots.
The secret is that we are perpetually in the attic, waiting to be heard.
The secret is that the debutant, the one with the long gloves, the one with the pearls, is secretly a lover of RATT—she hears the double guitars and feels drawn to the attic, slowly climbing up the stairs in hopes that the door remains open for her.
The secret is that Robbin Crosby, the writer of “Round and Round”, had a pancreatic condition that caused him to balloon up to over 400 lbs. “It’s not like I am a pig or a slob,” Crosby said in an interview just before his death in 2002.
The secret is that I wanted to leave the theatre during The Witches, when Anjelica Houston’s character turns Luke into a rat—how he gasps when his face begins to elongate and his body starts to shrink into nothing. Instead, I stayed, not wanting to be chided by my friends—of how the fat kid got what he deserved, just like in the film—how dare we feel too much.
The secret is that I too weighed close to 400 lbs, but it’s not like I am a pig or a slob.
The secret is that we find meaning in everything that we see: that our lives are circular, cyclical.
The secret is at a recent fundraiser in town, a woman was dancing along to the sounds of the cobbled together cover band. The woman was by herself and moved in a way that can only be described as “kind of ridiculous”. And yet the dance looked so familiar—not necessarily in that the woman was emulating something, but in the fact that it struck a chord somewhere in the same way that memory is circular. I had seen the dance before—it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was the dance of the woman in the “Round and Round” video: the odd tight spins, the long arms not knowing what to do with themselves.
The secret is that the model in the "Round and Round" video is dead too.
The secret is that the lyrics seem to be two concepts spliced together. If you were to hear only the chorus, it is a love song—about how through everything love perseveres, if we give it time. That love, and therefore a happy ending, is always inevitable. And yet when you listen to the verses, it is a song of revenge: of abusing ourselves, of putting those who oppose who we are on “your shelf”. The pessimism is apparent: that everything is the same, so it’s no use fighting anything anymore.
The secret is that there are multiple Ratts: Ratt featuring Stephen Pearcy, Ratt, Bobby Blotzer’s Ratt Experience, Dirty Rats, Rat Bastards. Somehow the true Ratt exists between all of these variations; if you were to spin the gyroscope in such a way to meld all of the parts together, you could find a way to assemble something that resembles a whole.
The secret is that upon re-watching the video, I was waiting for the debutant to turn into a rat—how low she gets to the ground, how it appears as if she is molting out of her skin.
The secret is that I am trying to find myself in these songs: of how when my mother’s new car came with a six-CD changer, I burned her a mix of her favorite hair metal songs: of how when I was looking to fill out the 90 minutes, I included “Round and Round” solely because of that hair metal compilation commercial—that in hopes a sum of parts can somehow become whole.
The secret is that in admitting things you believe to be secrets, you find yourself confessing things of little consequence in the grand scheme of things: secrets, when out of context, get lost in the drywall. There is no shedding of gloves, of kicking through a dress, of smearing of makeup to transform yourself into something truer than what you have been.
The secret is the neon light is always on us; tonight and all nights.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, and elsewhere.
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.