Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Motley Crue’s career from their debut, 1981’s Too Fast for Love, to their last album, 2008’s Saints of Los Angeles.
A few years after retiring as a touring band, Mötley Crüe are back in the spotlight with the new Netflix movie The Dirt, a film adaptation of the tell-all biography of the same name. It portrays a band that peddled moral depravity and was met with monetary reward; a band whose primary songwriter overdosed on heroin, was revived at a hospital and then left home to do more smack; a band whose drummer had tumultuous relationships with actresses and models; a band whose singer was behind the wheel in a car crash that killed a fellow musician. However questionable the band’s behavior — bad enough that there’s no way they could find success as a new outfit in 2019 — focusing on their debauchery ignores the quality of the band’s music.
Ostensibly one of the leaders of the glam-metal movement that dominated ’80s radio and MTV, Mötley Crüe played more furiously than their peers. No band better embodied the decrepitude submerged beneath the Sunset Strip except for maybe Guns N’ Roses, who are their juniors. The Crüe took influence from glam bands like Sweet and arena rock acts such as Aerosmith and Cheap Trick but zeroed in on the most simple elements of those sounds in a punk-like fashion, which may be why “Shout at the Devil” and other songs have aged so well. Simple machines seldom break.
They left the technical virtuosity to bands like Van Halen, and the polished aesthetics to bands like Poison. With their rudimentary-but-effective songs, mostly written by bassist Nikki Sixx, they had more musically in common with Venom than most glam acts — a comparison that their overtly sexist lyrics and flirtations with satanic imagery only underline.
Still, the band’s musicianship often gets overlooked. Guitarist Mick Mars eschewed flash in favor of tasteful, bluesy licks; drummer Tommy Lee kept the spirit of John Bonham — and a little James Brown fun — alive in songs like “Live Wire”; bassist Sixx provided a steady low-end; and what Vince Neil lacked in vocal range he made up for in machine-gun delivery.
Famous and famously misunderstood, Mötley Crüe’s output deserves deconstruction as the new feature film The Dirt introduces the band to new audiences. — Joseph Schafer
09. New Tattoo (2000)
The Ol’ Situation (Analysis): It’s tough to tell who the most necessary musician in Mötley Crüe is. The general weakness of their work sans Vince Neil suggests that his voice might be the secret sauce, but on New Tattoo, Neil takes some very respectable glam rock tracks and drags them down. Instead, the band’s penultimate record suggests Tommy Lee might bring the je ne sais quoi — New Tattoo is the only Crüe record he sat out. Lee opted to leave the band while serving jail time following an altercation with then-wife Pamela Anderson, but it would be inaccurate to blame his absence all on domestic issues. Though the original Crüe had reunited for 1997’s Generation Swine album, Lee and Neil found themselves at creative odds.
Without Lee, the band recruited longtime Ozzy Osbourne drummer Randy Castillo to sit behind the kit, and while his performance is serviceable, he’s no live wire. Instead, he capably keeps time on the most reactionary of Crüe’s records. Future Sixx:A.M. singer James Michael co-wrote much of the record alongside Nikki Sixx, and plays to all of his future bandmate’s most classic rock-inflected and radio-friendly ideas. Stripping out the alt-rock and industrial influences that dirtied up Generation Swine at least made the music sound more like classic Crüe, but the 11 tracks on New Tattoo bring nothing new to the table. It’s a safe listen, but nobody listens to Mötley Crüe to feel safe.
Hooks That Kill (Best Song): Randy Castillo’s sole songwriting credit in Mötley Crüe’s discography is a hidden gem. “Punched in the Teeth by Love” isn’t that sonically different from, say, “Treat Me Like the Dog I Am”, and both songs try their damnedest to reclaim some of the black magic from Too Fast for Love. The former, though, sounds genuinely nasty and punky. One could almost believe they found it on a rehearsal demo somewhere. Three and a half minutes of pumping bass and snarling guitar make this the finest — and shortest — cut on New Tattoo.
Go Away Mad (Worst Song): The Crüe bring the momentum of New Tattoo to an absolute halt by placing “Hollywood Ending,” a paint-by-numbers ballad, right after “Punched in the Teeth By Love.” As far as hair metal balladeers, Vince Neil could deliver during the verses but seldom had the pipes to make soaring high notes work for him, even in the ’80s. In 2000, his nasal howl made the chorus to this otherwise unremarkable song borderline-unlistenable. — Joseph Schafer
08. Saints of Los Angeles (2008)
The Ol’ Situation: This was supposed to be the big comeback for Mötley Crüe. Their recently published memoir, The Dirt, was on everyone’s minds and for the first time in a decade, the original lineup of the band was in the studio together. Unfortunately, the Crüe started listening to a new generation of awful nü-metal bands and L.A. vampires who were citing them as an influence. And with the songwriting duties relegated to Nikki Sixx and members of his side project Sixx:AM, the album that emerged from this murk was a mess of winking references to their wild past and uncomfortable attempts to catch up with the then-current sound of heavy rock.
What saves Saints of Los Angeles from complete thud rock ignominy is the contributions of Lee and guitarist Mick Mars. The former has always been the band’s secret weapon; a nimble and fluid player whose dalliances with hip-hop and electronica did wonders for his ability to swing in even the most burdensome tune (and there are plenty of those here). Producer James Michael helps the cause by recording Lee’s playing, especially his fleet kick drum work, with clarity and expanse. As for Mars, if anything came out of the contributions of Sixx:AM member DJ Ashba, it was that he helped push the guitarist into some truly depraved tones while still holding true to the glammy/heavy sound that he’s called home since the ‘80s. If only the rest of the record were treated with such care and respect.
Hooks That Kill: Though it shares a title with a certain Pink Floyd tune, “Welcome to the Machine” has more in common with “Have a Cigar”, as Sixx and company gripe about the state of the music industry (“It’s so automatic/ Hocking broken plastic/ Royalties you’ll never know”). With Mars’ buzzsaw guitar work and a slightly punky edge, they could have toppled the Capitol Records building with this one. Better than suing Napster.
Go Away Mad: A special place in hell’s playlist is reserved for “Chicks = Trouble”, a truly ugly tune that puts the blame of poor business decisions, drug overuse, and STDs on the “centerfolds” that came calling when the band was at its height. Dr. Feelgood, heal thyself. Or at least try to clean the coke off the mirror every now and again so you can look a good look at yourself. — Robert Ham
07. Generation Swine (1997)
The Ol’ Situation: Mötley Crüe wrote the majority of 1997’s Generation Swine without Vince Neil in mind, which is ironic since the record may be best known as Neil’s return to the band. From the onset, Crüe’s then-label Elektra insinuated — and later outright insisted — that the band needed Neil, but Sixx and Lee preferred writing with John Corabi, whose voice and disposition allowed the band to explore new sonic dimensions.
Generation Swine embraces the hard rock sounds of the nineties in small doses — songs like “Flush” sport grunge guitar tone and mild industrial flourishes. The sound doesn’t exactly suit Crüe, but with a little imagination, one could see Corabi making the most out of this material. Neil, in contrast, doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with it and relies on vocal effects to give the material some much-needed drama. He only sounds at home on the ill-advised re-recording of “Shout at the Devil” near the album’s end.
Creating the record proved torturous. The band began working with Bob Rock behind the boards before firing him for overproducing the material — imagine if Metallica had followed their lead sooner. In his stead, they hired Scott Humphrey, who was then better known as a studio keyboardist. Humphrey and the band, particularly Corabi, did not see eye to eye. Corabi left, and Neil returned to sing over multiple songs the former had helped write. Just how many songs remains unclear. The Crüe claim Corabi only deserves credits for “Flush” and “Let Us Prey,” two highlights. Corabi claims he wrote something like 80% of the album, and sued the band when it was released. As such, Generation Swine can charitably be called a fascinating misfire, the kind of album that deep rock nerds can grow to love — if they imagine Corabi was singing on it.
Hooks That Kill: Picking the best song on Generation Swine is tough: none of the songs totally work, but several of them make for interesting curiosities. The synth-driven power pop of “Glitter,” though, is so synthetic and processed that it could have been any other band performing it. It sounds like no other Crüe tune, but unlike most of the record, it functions inside Neil’s vocal comfort zone. When Nikki Sixx brings his incredibly fuzzy bass tone to the fore, this song goes out of this world — if only more Sixx:Am tunes sounded like this.
Go Away Mad: Rockers writing songs about their children seldom works — someone in Mötley Crüe had to know this when they decided to slot “Brandon” at the end of Generation Swine. It’s as if they hoped listeners would think “Shout at the Devil ‘97” was a bonus track and would turn their CD players off before listening to this string section ballad sung by Tommy Lee about his son. Look upon its chorus, ye mighty, and cringe. It may be the worst Mötley Crüe song full-stop. — Joseph Schafer
06. Mötley Crüe (1994)
The Ol’ Situation: The early ’90s weren’t an easy time for the Crüe. They had to watch Guns ‘N’ Roses get all the attention in the L.A. scene. And there were all those unwashed kids from Seattle selling millions of records and pushing them and the rest of the glam-metal bands they came up with off the magazine covers. If that weren’t bad enough, they were without a lead singer after Vince Neil was either fired or quit, depending on who you ask. So they did what any commercially minded group would do in their shoes: they wrote a bunch of songs that tried to keep up with the tectonic shifts in their industry and hired a singer with a little more grit and flexibility — John Corabi of The Scream — to fill the frontman gap.
While superior to any album they did afterward, Crüe’s self-titled disc was a valiant effort that missed the goalpost by inches. This wasn’t a band built for nuance, which left the Temple of the Dog-like “Misunderstood” and the psych-lite “Loveshine” flapping weakly in the wind. And trying to rub mud and distortion over the familiar fist pumping anthemics was not a good look. Yet, there are still a handful of songs that, if you scrubbed them up and gave Neil a swing at them, could have been classic Crüe. The band did what they had to do to see another day but at this point, they were on life support.
Hooks That Kill: “Til Death Do Us Part” was supposed to be the title track for this album, which might have given it a little boost of attention. The song deserved it, too. Featuring an unusually ruminative lyric from Sixx and Corabi that talks of taking responsibility for bad decisions while still standing firm in their beliefs, it finds the ideal way to adapt the hard rock of Dr. Feelgood to the rising tide of grunge and heavy metal.
Go Away Mad: Oh, to be a fly in the room when the band was introduced to the song “Loveshine” and Nikki Sixx had to ask with a straight face if Tommy Lee knew how to play any Indian percussion and where they could get a sitar. The sentiments are super sweet, but nothing else about this track was a good idea. — Robert Ham
05. Theatre of Pain (1985)
The Ol’ Situation: When the Crüe set out to record their third full-length, there was a very real possibility that Vince Neil wouldn’t be there to see it through. The sessions for the album were undertaken beneath the looming shadow of his arrest for vehicular manslaughter after a drunken car crash that resulted in the death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle Dingley. That accident, combined with their superstardom, lent Theatre of Pain a tone of fearlessness as the band started to reveal the deeper influences at play. The greasepaint of KISS is all over tracks like “Keep Your Eye on the Money” and “City Boy Blues”, while they wrapped up “Tonight (We Need A Lover)” and “Use It Or Lose It” in the tight leather of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
And, of course, there was their cover of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” which they polished to a glammy sheen. On paper, that sounds like a mess, but the Crüe made the tonal shifts feel comfortable and logical, proving their musical acumen with grace notes (Neil’s honking harmonica solo in “Smokin’”) and adventurous, almost violent guitar work from Mick Mars. Then they went and laid the template for all future power ballads with “Home Sweet Home”, a song that cracked open the rough exterior of the boys to reveal their soft pink centers. It was, gratefully, not their last hurrah as a band as was feared, but if Neil had been jailed and a hard stop halting their momentum, this would have been a great final chapter.
Hooks That Kill: “Louder Than Hell” may be taken directly from the KISS playbook (specifically “I Love It Loud”, from the 1982 album Creatures of the Night), but the Crüe made it their own with some fantastic wailing from Neil and a quick, nimble, and needling solo from Mars poking right through the song’s center.
Go Away Mad: Mötley Crüe’s efforts to get political in their music has never gone well. They stumbled right out of the gate with the album closer “Fight For Your Rights,” a decently rocking tune that awkwardly squeezes in references to MLK, slavery, and Christian hypocrisy. I could write a doctoral dissertation trying to unpack the lines “So break the chains/and solve the pains/and we all become one race,” but we don’t have that kind of time. — Robert Ham
04. Girls Girls Girls (1986)
The Ol’ Situation: The Mötley Crüe story turns on Girls Girls Girls. The leaner, meaner and punkier Crüe that wrote their first three records had splintered, separated by the monetary rewards of their earlier recording efforts. Worse, every member’s substance abuse had reached the legendary proportions that define the band’s reputation still. Sixx, in particular, was spiraling out of control, prompting the band’s management to bring in celebrity drug counselor Bob Timmins to assist him. That intervention didn’t get Sixx clean, but it did result in the excellent deep cut “Dancing on Glass”, and motivated the band’s leader to finish Girls Girls Girls.
The result is Crüe’s darkest record. Cloaked in black leather and riding motorcycles on the album cover, they could almost pass for a Motorhead clone — and like Motorhead, the band dips more than a few toes into the blues for their inspiration. Tunes like “Bad Boy Boogie” and “Five Years Dead” could be blues-rock standards put through a glam filter.
Girls Girls Girls peaks early, with the bloodthirsty opening cut “Wild Side,” followed by the lascivious title track. Grooving, thick and incredibly catchy, the two songs became live stapes instantly and propelled the album to #2 on the Billboard 200 chart. It’s a shame that the rest of the album doesn’t live up to their standard.
Hooks That Kill: Nikki Sixx exhibits his best lyrical talents when he’s examining the vile nature of urban living. “Wild Side” would be a fun-but-toothless piece of groovy hard rock in any else’s hands. Sixx, though, shows his brilliance by framing the lyrics as a twisted version of the Lord’s Prayer. In the song’s finest turn it slows to a crawl at the 3:30 mark and letting Vince Neil snarl some of his most cynical slices of life: “No Escape / Murder and rape / Doing time on the wild side / A baby cries / A cop dies / A day’s pay on the wild side.”
Go Away Mad: Power ballads have a way of stinking up even the most light and poppy metal albums, but the lone lighters-in-the-air tune on Girl Girls Girls is the surprisingly dark and violent “You’re All I Need,” which makes picking the worst track difficult. On a record this consistent, the sole low point goes to the inessential interlude “Nona,” an homage to Sixx’s departed grandmother. It’s not bad; it’s just total fluff. — Joseph Schafer
03. Shout at the Devil (1983)
The Ol’ Situation: The Satanist angle never really looked good on Mötley Crüe, even if the small waves they created by daring to name their major label debut Shout at the Devil and put a pentagram on the cover. All these years later, it still feels like a front to draw some attention to the band’s collective cause of world domination. Did that take away from the unabashed fun of pumping your devil horns in the air as you sing along with the chorus of the title track or quietly nod your head as you join in blessing the children of the beast? Not one bit.
What did fit the band like a nice codpiece was the possibilities afforded them by a major label budget and more time to lean into a sound that added a little L.A. sleaze and a bump of coke to the glam rock sound. And they were bold enough on their sophomore effort to look within. Sixx crafted a handful of songs to speak to what he knew, like getting screwed over by a former manager or getting the shit beat out of him by the cops and being aware enough that applying the company of booze and babes to every problem might be zero sum game. That still left plenty of room for the kind of hard driving anthems that gets a party started and get one’s head a-banging.
Hooks That Kill: Let’s say for argument’s sake that Sixx and the boys really did sell their souls to the Dark One. Knowing that and then hearing a song like “Looks That Kill” starts to feel like a fair trade. From the vaguely misogynist lyrics to those unbelievable chords and pealing solo ripped out by Mick Mars to the chanted chorus, this was the future of heavy rock in America personified.
Go Away Mad: There weren’t many glam-metal bands who were willing to cop to their love of the Beatles, so good on the Crüe for placing the Fab Four in their personal pantheon. But did that appreciation have to extend to a calamitous take on “Helter Skelter”? Next time, just tell the press how much you listened to Abbey Road when you were a kid and be done with it. — Robert Ham
02. Dr. Feelgood (1989)
The Ol’ Situation: Crüe’s output barely gets better than Dr. Feelgood. Following multiple near-death experiences — Sixx’s heroin overdose and Neil’s deadly car crash — the most dangerous band in music delivered maybe their meanest record, not to mention their best-sounding. Dr. Feelgood takes the grooving menace of “Wild Side” and “Girls Girls Girls” and tries to deliver that sound for an entire record. It doesn’t exactly succeed, but when the engine is running, as it does during the title track, this record’s a freight train. Bob Rock acquired his superstar producer status with Dr. Feelgood by adding insurmountable mass to Crüe’s low end. Together, Sixx’s bass and lee’s drums sound like Godzilla’s footsteps as he tramples Los Angeles to dust. To the Crüe’s credit, Rock wouldn’t have been able to get such tight performances out of them before — this was the band’s first sober album.
With sobriety, however, came the internal turmoil that typifies the rest of the band’s career. The group fought so much while making Dr. Feelgood that Rock had them record their parts separately from one another. This internal friction didn’t show in the music until later, though. Dr. Feelgood is maybe the lightest, most optimistic Crüe album. Songs like “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)” and “Without You” showcase a more uplifting side to the band. As nasty as Sixx’s lyrics get, the songs themselves are so sugar coated that you can’t help but smile while listening — small wonder it’s their best-selling record, and only Billboard #1.
Hooks That Kill: “Kickstart My Heart” would be one of the best songs on Dr. Feelgood in a vacuum, but the story behind its writing puts it over the top as maybe the Crüe’s finest tune. Nikki Sixx wrote the lyrically nonsensical tune after two paramedics brought him back to life post-overdose with a shot of adrenaline to the heart. Bob Rock also helped perfect the song: listen to its vastly inferior demo version and discover that the song’s rocking start and voicebox solo were all devised in-studio.
Go Away Mad: Dr. Feelgood, in-general, loses steam as it goes on — that’s its only weakness. Side B shies away from riff-heavy tunes in favor of syrup and sentimentality. “Time for Change” ends their album on its lowest note, with some flimsy overtures at contrition from Neil. The cheesy synths and plinking piano don’t help matters. What is this song even about? According to one interview in Rolling Stone, Sixx doesn’t even know. The song packs a big, satisfying chorus, but putting it at the end of the album means Mötley Crüe missed the golden opportunity to end their classic ’80s run with a song called “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away).” — Joseph Schafer
01. Too Fast For Love (1981)
The Ol’ Situation: Too Fast for Love is the crystallization of being a horny male rocker in his early twenties. Your metabolism is high and you still have a surplus of brain cells. Your dick and liver are both relatively spotless. All you want to do is drive your friends and the ladies haunting Sunset Strip wild with your tunes. You’ve got a collection of KISS, Cheap Trick, Sex Pistols, and Slade records informing your musical output. Plus you’ve got this older dude that can hang with you and your buddies and can play the guitar like he’s choking out a banshee with one hand and shoving a fork into L.A.’s electrical grid with the other.
Like all great debut albums, Too Fast for Love is engorged with possibility and physical and toxic delights. It’s about shedding the skin of one’s past and running full bore into future, fueled by white powder and brown liquid. It’s about getting sucked clean by a starlet and joining in a back alley brawl for kicks. It’s about that bleached-blond singer reaching those high notes by the slimmest of margins while a cowbell rattles through the room. It’s about being fearless and joyous and careless. It’s about that can of hairspray that can be used for cosmetics or to torch the curtains in your shitty apartment for a laugh. It’s what every young wannabe rocker used as a roadmap to their future and a soundtrack for cruising at top speed. It’s about Mötley Crüe at their best, well before the money and the darkness crept in and stirred up a metric ton of shit.
Hooks That Kill: The jerking movement of “Public Enemy #1” feels like a muscle car getting coaxed to life and set out on the highway. A perfect vehicle for a song of young lovers on the run from their crummy home lives and some awful deeds. All that is in the rearview mirror. Up ahead is open around and hours of heavy petting while the tape deck spins.
Go Away Mad: “Merry-Go-Round” was supposedly inspired by Sixx watching a mentally challenged man refuse to depart from the titular ride at a Seattle amusement park. He turned into an embarrassing metaphor for the dismal prospects of the working stiff, complete with a open arms and open legs of the woman waiting at home. Not even Mick Mars shredding into Thin Lizzy territory can hide the stench of this stinker. — Robert Ham