Answering a musical question that few have asked, Rhino's Youth Gone Wild begs for an explanation. Even those with the longest of cultural attention spans are not yet leaping at the opportunity to revisit the still-twitching corpse of pop metal, as documented on this three-disc compilation featuring 42 of the innumerable so-called hair bands that dominated the hard rock of the previous decade and some of the present one. If it seems as if only three or four years ago this stuff was all over the damn place, that's because it was. But apparently that is exactly the point. "The Spandex Empire has passed so utterly and irrevocably into history," critic Alan DiPerna proclaims in the liner notes to YGW, "that it is already ripe for recontextualization."
Ripe, indeed. But there are limits to nostalgia of the instant variety, and three volumes of heavy-metal hits that still ring with an insidious familiarity will likely exceed the threshold of even the most dedicated former headbanger. DiPerna is surely correct in predicting the impending jokey revival of hair-metal culture by irony-minded thirtysomethings of the future (you'll know it's started when the original members of Mtley Cre reunite for a tour), and perhaps Rhino wanted to stay one step ahead of the curve in this ever-quickening fin-de-siäcle race to recycle previous pop embarrassments before the millennium. But to paraphrase Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, if this is your best, your best won't do.
Maybe it has something to do with the compilers' tendency to choose one-hit grotesqueries over the genre's handful of might-be classics, or the scattershot historical logic behind the collection's 42 tunes, or, jeez, maybe this was all just terrible music. Surely during its supercommercial late-Baroque phase A defined roughly as the interregnum between David Lee Roth's 1985 split with Van Halen and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991 A pop metal and its furry practitioners created some of the most joyless music ever heard, glossy mechanical contraptions assembled by producers and guitar technicians that bore only a superficial resemblance to the thing known as rock and roll.
Of course, there's a stronger case for early-Eighties metal, if anyone wanted to make it. Remember those infamous PMRC hearings when Tipper Gore displayed W.A.S.P. album covers and a makeup-free Dee Snider testified in defense of the morals of metal? This stuff was considered to be dangerous, and in a perverse Reagan-era way maybe it was. Foofing up your hair and wearing lip-gloss was perhaps the one dead-certain ticket to freaking out the guardians of mid-Eighties decency, as millions of kids discovered, and in that sense the hair bands should be awarded their rightful place next to Little Richard and the Sex Pistols in rock's Hall of Parental Concern. Especially in our age of gangsta rap, the now-harmless cartoon menace of metal does indeed seem worthy of a certain recontextualization.
And on Volume 1 of Youth Gone Wild there are some unexpected musical pleasures plucked from the genre's age of comparative innocence. The Scorpions' seminal '84 hit "Rock You Like a Hurricane" ushers things in on the swirling guitars of the always capable Rudolf Schenker, and Ronnie James Dio's doomy "The Last in Line" is less silly and more catchy than you might remember. Motrhead's "Ace of Spades" doesn't really belong here, but it is always a welcome blast of careening, gargling hard rock. Among the collection's generous gaggle of glammy Sunset Strip metal boys, Poison and their 1986 hit "Talk Dirty to Me" come off rather well; strip away the production gloss and the guitar solos, goose the drums, and add some fake English accents, and the tune would make a nice pop-punk nugget for the Green Day crowd.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Finally, you get the aforementioned Snider at his fist-shaking best, shoehorning a universe of platitudes into the three chords of 1984's "We're Not Gonna Take It." If there's a surprise to be found in Youth Gone Wild, it is that this non-sequitur-filled preteen rebel yell is both solidly anthemic (the comparatively lean production helps) and even more oddly stirring than the Who tune it borrows its title from ("We're right!/We're free/We'll fight!/You'll see!"). It may still never be clear exactly what Snider and company aren't gonna take any more, but you damn sure aren't gonna take it, either.
Maybe the first disc was all a grim foreshadowing of things to come. The ratio of listenable tunes declines steeply on Volumes 2 and 3, which are packed to the gills with all the semi-obscure also-rans, squealy novelties, and B-list hairballs that choked rock radio during the latter half of the Eighties. These are, for the most part, bands that have either vanished completely or are now clinging to a sort of living death on the roadhouse circuit after their brief moment at the top. Their names alone should be enough to jar all the memories one might desire: There are the Eponymous Bands (Winger, Dokken, Dio), the White Bands (Great White, Whitesnake, White Lion), the L.A. Make-up Bands (Cinderella, Britny Fox, Ratt), the Two-Syllable Non-American Bands (Switzerland's Krokus, Canada's Helix, Germany's Accept), and so on. There are a precious few curveballs in the bunch (the funky, still-viable King's X, for instance, deserves better than this company, and what in Sam Hill is the late comedian Sam Kinison's yowling version of "Wild Thing" doing here -- or anywhere?), and a great many leaden odes to underage sex and, well, youth going wild.
You wouldn't know it from this set, but there actually was some pretty fair racket produced under the banner of hair metal in the Eighties. Even if you disqualify every megaband that blurred the line between traditional hard rock and metal (Van Halen, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard) and every speed metal act that slowed down enough for some radio play (Metallica, Anthrax) and every Seventies dinosaur that came back to vengeful life (Aerosmith, Kiss), you still would have a generous handful of pop-metal singles capable of providing a few moments of guilty pleasure (Skid Row's 1989 teen morality play "Eighteen and Life" leaps to mind, for some reason) or unapologetic rockin' (Motley Crue's ferocious and almost funky "Dr. Feelgood"). But this collection's single-minded pursuit of the marginal and the anonymous and the simply dull deftly manages to avoid nearly every one of them.
That's the dispiriting thing about Youth Gone Wild. Despite the uncontrollable balls-out partying recommended in title after title ("Lay It Down!" "Rock Me!" "Get It On!" "Goin' Crazy!" "Say What You Will!" "Gotta Let Go!" "I Want Out!" [exclamation points added]), the music is kind of boring. It is so mannered and so perfectly groomed that it rocks with all the risk and abandon of a Bach concerto. It isn't just the faceless fungibility of the singers and their songs (YGW boasts two appearances, for instance, by ace journeyman vocalist Joe Lynn Turner, whose generic pipes allowed him to holler with equal forgetability for both Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and Swedish guitar weirdo Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force). It isn't just the inhuman mathematical precision of the "shred" guitars or the ham-handed thievery of riffs from other, superior sources (Kingdom Come's and Whitesnake's respective infamous Led Zeppelin rip-offs are both conveniently included on the same disc). Rather, it's the whole air of desperation these songs collectively conjure now, not enough years later, as troupe after troupe of sullen technicians whirls their massive manes in orgiastic glee and exhorts the kids to go wild, wild, wild.