Monday, October 22, 2007

The Cultural Legacy of Ratt


Pictured above are the autographs of four members of the heavy metal group Ratt, obtained at an afternoon in-store appearance and signing at Sound Waves record store at Westhemier and Montrose in Houston, Texas, on December 20, 1990. That night, the group would play The Backstage, although fifteen year old me did not attend that show.

In 1990, Ratt was comprised of bassist Juan Croucier, guitarist Warren DeMartini, lead singer Stephen Pearcy, guitarist Robbin Crosby, and drummer Bobby Blotzer. (You can attempt to decipher the signatures above to determine which one of the five members was not present for the signing.). On the radio at that time was "Lovin' You's A Dirty Job," their Desmond Child penned single from their then-new album, Detonator (released just four months before).

Seventeen years ago, on August 29, 1990, Steven C. Salaris, a Usenet poster, reviewed Detonator in the alt.rock-n-roll.metal newsgroup:
I just picked up the new Ratt album, "Detonator". I am just about done with my first listen to the disc and I think it is really good. The album seems to me to be a lot tighter production than their last two sloppy excuses for albums. This is got a pleasing punch and uplifting sound to it. It is a "fun" album. Stephen Pearcy's voice sounds good and the guitar work is reminiscent of "Invasion of Your Privacy". It has some commercial overtones in it, I think Ratt is going for the big double platinum commercial success. Their is a song on the disc called 'Givin' Yourself Away' which is destined to become a radio/Dial Empty-V hit. The song is a Faster Pussycat/L.A. Guns style ballad. Yawn. Anyways, I like it and that is all that matters to me. I hope all of you out in net land who buy it like it too.
(See also here for a similar September 27, 1990 Usenet review by Ted Batey of Carnegie Mellon University. By the way, in his mini-review Salaris predicted accurately; "Givin' Yourself Away' would be released as a single in 1991.).

As for me, in December of 1990, I knew enough about the band to go to the in-store signing at the record store. (I certainly knew their 1980s hit, "Round and Round."). Apparently, that December, Ratt had just embarked upon a 12-city club tour to prepare for an arena tour in 1991. Wrote the Houston Chronicle's music critic, Marty Racine, on the day of the band's December 20 Houston show:
L.A. arena rockers Ratt are returning to the cellar whence they came - back to the clubs, that is, on a special 12-city "Detonator "tour that stops at the Backstage tonight. Yeah, but what we want to know is, will Denise Wells be in attendance? Wells is the one charged with (and later cleared) of breaking city statutes by using the men's room at the Summit during a George Strait concert. In a highly publicized stunt right out of a Hollywood think tank, Ratt lead singer Stephen Pearcy sent Wells a lifetime backstage pass...1
(No word on whether Wells attended the show.). That year may have been difficult for Ratt., who had postponed their planned arena tour to 1991 due to a number of problems. Conceding that intra-band strife, a failure to find a suitable opening act, and the general unpopularity of arena tours for hard rock bands at that time caused the larger tour's delay, Pearcy would spin the smaller gigs as series of "warm--up shows for hard-core fans."2


(Pictured above is the tablature of "Lovin' You's A Dirty Job," which appeared in the December 1990 issue of Guitar magazine, signed by the band at the aforementioned December 20, 1990 in-store appearance in Houston.).

Heavy metal, or hard rock, had but a year left in its reign of the charts. By December of 1990, such bands faced less than a year before the release of Nirvana's Nevermind and the coming disregard of what would later be called with nostalgia and slight derision, "hair bands." But no one in 1990 could know with certainty that the end was near. The critics would tell us later that the coming of Nirvana and grunge was "important," just as the rise of punk rock in New York City in the late 1970s was similarly of import. Cobain and Vedder and Cornell and the rest would flush away the remnants of heavy metal, which would only resurface again on nostalgia programs on VH1 (which no self respecting fan of hard rock or modern music watched in 1990). The progenitors of glam metal were left to history as a silly fad or at most as relics of an era of excess, and most music listeners (and critics) seemed to agree.

In 2002, Crosby died. In a December 29, 2002 review of celebrity deaths published in the New York Times Magazine, commentator/hipster Chuck Klostermann wrote that Crosby's death was actually more culturally significant than that of Dee Dee Ramone, bassist for the seminal/influential/hip punk band, the Ramones. In so doing, Klosterman argued:
The Ramones never made a platinum record over the course of their entire career. Bands like the Ramones don't make platinum records; that's what bands like Ratt do. And Ratt was quite adroit at that task, doing it four times in the 1980's. The band's first album, ''Out of the Cellar,'' sold more than a million copies in four months. Which is why the deaths of Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby created such a mathematical paradox: the demise of Ramone completely overshadowed the demise of Crosby, even though Crosby co-wrote a song (''Round and Round'') that has probably been played on FM radio and MTV more often than every track in the Ramones' entire catalog. And what's weirder is that no one seems to think this imbalance is remotely strange.

What the parallel deaths of Ramone and Crosby prove is that it really doesn't matter what you do artistically, nor does it matter how many people like what you create; what matters is who likes what you do artistically and what liking that art is supposed to say about who you are. Ratt was profoundly uncool (read: populist) and the Ramones were profoundly significant (read: interesting to rock critics). Consequently, it has become totally acceptable to say that the Ramones' ''I Wanna Be Sedated'' changed your life; in fact, saying that would define you as part of a generation that became disenfranchised with the soullessness of suburbia, only to rediscover salvation through the integrity of simplicity. However, it is laughable to admit (without irony) that Ratt's ''I Want a Woman'' was your favorite song in 1989; that would mean you were stupid, and that your teenage experience meant nothing, and that you probably had a tragic haircut.

The reason Crosby's June 6 death was mostly ignored is that his band seemed corporate and fake and pedestrian; the reason Ramone's June 5 death will be remembered is that his band was seen as representative of a counterculture that lacked a voice. But the contradiction is that countercultures get endless media attention: the only American perspectives thought to have any meaningful impact are those that come from the fringes. The voice of the counterculture is, in fact, inexplicably deafening. Meanwhile, mainstream culture (i.e., the millions and millions of people who bought Ratt albums merely because that music happened to be the soundtrack for their lives) is usually portrayed as an army of mindless automatons who provide that counterculture with something to rail against. The things that matter to normal people are not supposed to matter to smart people.

Now, I know what you're thinking; you're thinking I'm overlooking the obvious, which is that the Ramones made ''good music'' and Ratt made ''bad music,'' and that's the real explanation as to why we care about Dee Dee's passing while disregarding Robbin's. And that rebuttal makes sense, I suppose, if you're the kind of person who honestly believes the concept of ''good taste'' is anything more than a subjective device used to create gaps in the intellectual class structure. I would argue that Crosby's death was actually a more significant metaphor than Ramone's, because Crosby was the first major hair-metal artist from the Reagan years to die from AIDS. The genre spent a decade consciously glamorizing (and aggressively experiencing) faceless sex and copious drug use. It will be interesting to see whether the hesher casualties now start piling up. Meanwhile, I don't know if Ramone's death was a metaphor for anything; he's just a good guy who died on his couch from shooting junk. But as long as you have the right friends, your funeral will always matter a whole lot more.
(Emphasis added; see also here for some blog commentary on Klosterman's piece). Klosterman offers a simple but inescapably accurate premise. Ratt, and popular bands like them, fall victim to the professional appreciaters (as Nick Hornby calls them), or rather, those who make their living fancying themselves superior to those who enjoy music that is, quite simply, popular. You know them,; you remember them. These were the students walking down the hallway in their "Meat is Murder" t-shirts looking disdainfully at you in your "Use Your Illusion" gear. Both the Smiths and Guns N' Roses have their merits, of course, but there are those who use their taste in popular culture to put themselves on a pedestal above those who do not appreciate that which we do. They are now all critics, either for mainstream publications or of the armchair variety with their blogs and podcasts. Their unifying trait is that their taste in music is almost certainly better than, and more important than, yours. If something becomes overly popular, or worse, if it is enjoyed by the kind of people that they find culturally offensive, then the music cannot be of import or significance (even if it is a metaphor for a larger trend).

There lingers, it seems, a nostalgia for Ratt on the Internets. Indeed, I'm not even the first to ruminate upon a 1990 Ratt in-store signing. See here for one writer's memory of a December 18, 1990 in-store at Spec's in Tampa (with photographs, no less, of an event only two days before the one I attended in Houston.). Says another blogger in a more recent entry: "Warren DiMartini was one of the few guitarists in the glam metal era that was actually talented." I'm not familiar enough with the Ratt ouevre to agree or disagree, but I can reserve judgment.

UPDATE (11/12/07): In a recent email, Salaris, now a parish priest in Missouri, reflects upon his 17 year old review of Detonator and his time as a heavy metal fan during that era:
Some of you may remember a time when MTV actually aired videos! It was mostly through MTV and metal-oriented magazines like "Hit Parader" (remember that one?) that introduced me to bands like Ratt. "Round and Round" was the first Ratt song I ever heard. At that time, late 1980's to early 1990's, metal bands like Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Stryper, etc. were hitting it big. Besides simply enjoying that type of music along with other styles like progressive rock, I also really liked the girls that were also into Ratt-type music. For me, metal = BABES!! Not the preppy/yuppie types that predominated the college campuses beack then, but the big-hair, leather-n-lace, short skirts and high heels types! In college and grad school, my friends and I would go to concerts and clubs to enjoy the music, the "scenery," and meet girls. To be quite honest, my friends and I were NEVER into the decadent lifestyle of the bands that we enjoyed so much. Yeah, we drank and had fun, but we never did drugs, and we never got into trouble with the law. I was too much of a nerd and my parents brought me up to be smarter than that. Music was an outlet for me, particularly when I was in graduate school working on a Ph.D. in mammalian physiology (I wrote that 1990 review of Detonator one afternoon from the desk in my lab while my experiments were running). We would emulate those rockers not by living like they did but by growing our hair long and trying to dress like them. I even took vocal lessons for a short while. It was part of who I was and for me it was a way to "rebel" against parents and the "establishment." In grad school I met Sheryl, a pre-med/electrical engineering major who turned out to also be a metal-babe. Sheryl and I quickly became more than friends. Weekends consisted of dressing up and going out to clubs and parties. Again, because of our studies and career goals, we never got into anything "decadent." As Sheryl would comment, "I don't need to shut down half of my brain to have fun!" I couldn't agree more. Sheryl and I have been married for 14 years and we have an daughter who is just about to turn 5-years-old. As I got older, bands like Ratt and Motley Crue had less and less appeal to me. I matured and they did not. I still think of myself as a "metal head" but the metal bands that have stayed with me are Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest, and similar bands that I consider "thinking person's metal."

1. Racine, Marty. "Moon Man slides into his `Night'/New Orleans guitarist busy with blues blend," Houston Chronicle, December 20, 1990.
2. DeVault, Russ. "Night Beat: Ratt's Monday Date A Warm-Up for a Monster Tour Next Year," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 14, 1990.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"These were the students walking down the hallway in their "Meat is Murder" t-shirts looking disdainfully at you in your "Use Your Illusion" gear."

Another thing about these people that would annoy me is they were all about being outsiders and having an outsider image yet they are probably the clickiest people you can run into.
Klosterman was right on with his article, I read that when he first wrote it and forgot how great that was.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but you couldn't get any "clickier" during that era than a group of punkers. They were like GANGS! The only difference in the coutercultures is that one became popular and exploited by the record industry. I lived in one of the most notorious punk areas in the US at the time. The metal heads and punkers got along fine. And believe me, neither side gave a damn what the "music critics" thought.

Why would anyone write an article, shrouded in pretense, for the sole intent of disparaging Robin Crosby. That's what this is really about. It's obvious that he has "disdain" for his type. A moron could phonetically slur their way through the BS and see the true motive of this mean-spirited jerk.

I'm not impressed with Klosterman at all. AAMAF, when he's dead, I'm going to open a new blog and talk about how irrelevant he was. Ironically, no one will read it because no one will know he's gone or even care. LOL! Dumb FUCKER!

Joseph Kuby said...

Robbin Crosby was a groundbreaking guitarist. The origin of groove metal, grunge and sludge metal can be heard on Ratt's 1983 self-titled EP.

As for Detonator, that's probably the best of the pop metal albums. Every song is a classic.

Top Secret, particularly, is a masterpiece which inspired one critic online to imply it sounded like what if Rob Zombie and Marty Friedman collaborated with each other.