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Mettling in Metal

Night Ranger
Lance Mercer

Big Hair Days: Night Ranger pauses for the camera before taking off in search of heavy-metal gold on the revival circuit.

The big-hair bands of yore, like Communism, refuse to go away--and Night Ranger leads the heavy-metal revival pack

By Zack Stentz

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
--Karl Marx

IT SEEMS LIKE only yesterday that America's rock critics took heavy metal's cold, stiff corpse, planted it six feet under and danced happily on its grave like young Germans boogieing down atop the Berlin Wall in 1989. In February, Spin magazine ran an article on the shrunken fortunes of big-hair poster boys Skid Row, former arena fillers reduced to playing small clubs and touring in a station wagon.

The story prompted rock writer Johnny Angel to gloat: "Well, how my achy-breaky heart bleeds gallons of tomato juice for Skid Row, Warrant, Poison and all the varmints out of the past. ... Well, dig this, pinheads. He who lives by MTV, dies by MTV."

Indeed, post--"Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Jagged Little Pill, it was adapt or die for the one-time mastodons of rock & roll. Metallica cut their hair and ditched the umlauts above the name. Def Leppard traded spandex and Lycra for grunge-friendly plaid flannel. Jon Bon Jovi looked into an acting career, while Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee settled into life as Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson's male concubine.

Hell, even my Ozzy/Iron Maiden/Black Sabbath­listening pals from high school have muted their enthusiasm for all things metallic. On a recent visit to my redneck hometown of Fort Bragg, some old stoner friends I hadn't seen in nearly a decade invited me to come to their band practice. The last time I had heard them, they were a Judas Priest cover band. But now, even they've gone alternative, albeit the sludgy Alice in Chains­end of the alternative spectrum.

"Metal?" the lead guitarist asked rhetorically. "We'll never get anywhere playing that."

David Lee Roth
Neil Zlozower

Gone Yesterday, Hair Today: David Lee Roth (seen here circa 1986) has rejoined his well-coiffed mates in Van Halen.

WELL, FOLKS used to think communism was dead, too, and look how that seemingly discredited ideology has been stirring back to life recently. And music is just as cyclical and Newtonian as politics, with each action spawning an inevitable reaction against it.

Just as how, during the heights (or depths) of the '70s revival not so long ago, a few brave souls dared to flaunt their skinny ties, Swatch watches and Devo albums, now that we are in the midst of early to mid-'80s indie-rock's belated triumph, signs of another pendulum swing are brewing.

KISS is touring again--in makeup! Van Halen finally ditched hard rocker Sammy Hagar and rehired their one true singer, "Diamond" David Lee Roth. And even local hard-rock/lite-metal heavyweights Night Ranger, whose megahits "Sister Christian" and "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" provided the soundtrack to a thousand make-out-in-the-back-of-the-Camaro sessions, is reunited and playing gigs again, with an upcoming concert at Edge in Palo Alto.

"I had the summer off, and my other band, Damn Yankees, is on hiatus, so I talked to the other guys from Night Ranger and we thought it would be fun to play together again," explains Jack Blades, Night Ranger's affable lead singer/bassist.

Asked about the connection between Night Ranger's re-formation and the similar reunifications of KISS and Van Halen classic, Blades replies: "I imagine if you looked at it from a bigger, more historical perspective, it would look like all those things were connected. But I think it's just coincidence. We had already decided to play together again when we heard the news about Van Halen."

He adds, "We're not doing this to make a bold statement or be part of a trend. We just like playing music together and going places and hanging out in the tour bus, smoking cigars. It'll be just like it was in the '80s, except without all the debauchery."

SO, IT'S TRUE. Everything old and spandexed is new again. Look at rap music by way of comparison. Good-time rapper LL Cool J saw his fame evaporate in the age of Public Enemy and K.R.S.--in part because he preferred to champion the glories of a Big Ol' Butt over those of militant black nationalism. But now, he's been embraced by the new generation of pot-fueled party-music rappers, riding the backlash to the backlash, as it were.

More than anything, though, it's pure and simple economics that drives the current revival. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the modern entertainment industry can't abide a market niche unfilled, and the music scene has a gaping demographic hole where metal's fans once happily moshed.

After all, big-hair music once had a huge audience, and despite my possibly naive, Gene Roddenberry-ish faith in the ongoing evolution of the human spirit, I can't bring myself to believe that the former headbangers have all abandoned Whitesnake's suck-my-dick-and-get-me-a-beer mentality to instead embrace the feminist rage of Ani DiFranco or the impassioned politics of Rage Against the Machine.

Despite the Lollapaloozization of rock and all the predictable "alternative goes mainstream" articles of the last five years, much of alternative music is still too, well, alternative for many listeners. Nirvana, especially, seemed to sense that its huge success was a bit of a fluke, and that many of the bodies in the arenas it filled would have been happier seeing Megadeth and probably were deeply uncomfortable with the band's characteristically alt-rock use of dissonance, eschewing of showmanship and championing of lefty political causes and antisexism.

"I never OD'd or shot myself in the head," sneered Skid Row's Sebastian Bach of late Nirvana honcho Kurt Cobain, but seeing the "woo-woo" girls shrieking from atop their boyfriends' shoulders during a benefit concert Nirvana played for Bosnian rape victims a few years back just about made me want to swallow the barrel of a 12-gauge.

Lately, though, a lot of alternative acts have come across as downright hostile to musicianship and the notion that perhaps some schmo who has forked over 25 hard-earned dollars for a ticket deserves to be entertained by a band, an attitude that is no doubt helping fuel the hard rock/heavy-metal revival.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Smashing Pumpkins and a lot of alternative rock," says Blades. "But these bands who come out on stage and can't be bothered to entertain their audience? They should just stay home and let the Aerosmiths and the Night Rangers play instead."

So, led by its resurrected warhorses, will metal once again occupy the lofty ramparts of pop music that it held for so long against the onslaughts of punk, rap and alterna-pop? It's too early to make a definitive judgment, but the overall fragmentation of the pop marketplace is working against it, as is the rise of a new generation of female artists.

Lita Ford aside, the only time one typically saw a woman onstage at a metal concert was when she was gyrating or writhing in a cage. While many guys may look forward to a return to shouts of "Rock & roll all night!" and "Show us yer tits!" it's safe to bet that most female music fans, once exposed to the crop of feminist-tinged women rockers, won't be eager to take the place assigned them in the big-hair pantheon as grateful groupies or death-deserving bitches.

But to be fair, Night Ranger never engaged in the misogyny that besmirched many of its compatriots, and this relatively enlightened approach was rewarded with a large female audience years before it occurred to Bon Jovi and Poison to court the feminine demographic.

And beyond the macho posturing and pyrotechnics, what many people miss most about the big-hair bands of yesteryear are their clean, well-crafted pop songs. Blades believes it's the music that will lead audiences to rediscover Night Ranger.

"A miniature Stonehenge isn't gonna drop from the ceiling," he promises, alluding to the This Is Spinal Tap metal parody movie. "When people come to see us, what they're gonna get is really good rock songs played by a bunch of guys who are really enthusiastic about their music."

And that isn't such a bad thing, is it?

Night Ranger plays July 15 at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Call for ticket information. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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