Mötley Crüe Deconstructed
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
by Brent Jensen
ED NOTE: Taken from the book No Sleep til Sudbury now available on Amazon.com
Mötley Crüe was only successful for two reasons. The first is because young people are so willingly prone to give in to their basest instincts as human animals. The second is because Nikki Sixx knows this.
Nikki Sixx is a concept created by alter ego Frank Feranna. It's not real, and neither was Mötley Crüe. Mötley was a visual production accompanied by a musical soundtrack, all cobbled together and helmed by young Frankie - essentially a proto-KISS regurgitation based on what he absorbed from them and other acts that placed an equal or greater emphasis on image as they did musical content. I'm speaking in the past tense to emphasize focus on Mötley's '80's days, in line with what most Mötley fans are focused on.
Sixx wasn't stupid. He understood that image was a propulsive element that didn't even need to be paired with musical skill. He was also a hardened punk who wasn't afraid to step up and take charge as a leader. In creating Mötley Crüe, Sixx was essentially an architect who set about building a mechanism that could make him famous. There wasn't anything terribly musical about this, given the fact that Sixx was described by many, including Geffen A&R whiz Tom Zutaut, as someone who could barely even play his instrument. It was more about Sixx's aptitude in studying the variables involved in his heroes' ascent to fame, and how he could apply those variables to his own situation to join them.
The fact that this group was quite literally a 'Mötley crew' was no accident. Sixx recruited teenage drummer Tommy Lee from his Sunset Strip band Suite 19, and while Lee would probably be the best musician in Mötley, Sixx may have wanted him in the group more so because of Lee's flashy stick-twirl playing and for hitting cymbals so hard that he actually broke them regularly.
As his guitar player, Sixx brought in a guy named Bob Deal, self-reinvented in 1981 as Mick Mars. Mars was the oddest fixture of this band because not only did he stand apart from other more androgynous-looking Sunset Strip types by resembling a member of The Munsters, he had also just turned thirty around the time the band formed, making him a full eleven years older than Tommy Lee. But Sixx got an experienced Mars when he was desperate, after having already been around the block for the last decade as the guitar player in mediocre bands like White Horse.
Tommy Lee knew Vince Neil from high school and from his goofily-named band Rockandi, and apparently because Neil a) looked good and b) did a great Robin Zander according to Lee, it was decided that Neil would get the frontman job in the Crue. Vocally, Vince Neil was more or less on par with Stephen Pearcy from Ratt and just slightly better than the guy from Pretty Boy Floyd. But in Mötley Crüe, talent wasn't necessarily the order of the day. It was more about getting people's attention in the same way the New York Dolls and KISS did before them. Mötley would figure the rest out later.
Mötley Crüe was essentially a rite of passage for post-graduate KISS fans that were fourteen in 1983, and this is where Frank Feranna's concept squarely hit the bullseye. As a KISS fan himself, Sixx knew it was a tried-and-true formula that just required some tweaking for a new generation. Simmons breathed fire; Sixx lit his legs on fire. Simmons spit blood; Mars drooled blood. Having a smoking guitar that lit up was not in the budget, so Neil beheaded mannequins with a chainsaw instead. And Mötley's 1983 record Shout at the Devil sounded like Mötley Crüe looked. The best thing about being young is that you're afforded the liberty of being stupid, and the best thing about Shout at the Devil is that it's a stupid record for stupid young people.
After he got the attention he sought with Shout at the Devil, Nikki Sixx tried his hand at Bowie's game of perpetual reinvention and donned a polka-dotted jumpsuit for follow-up record Theatre of Pain. The characters-as-musicians fantasy element is best demonstrated in the intro of the "Home Sweet Home" video, with each Mötley member typecast in their stereotyped role – Neil as the blond surfer dude, Mars as the dark, creepy goth, Lee at a beachfront house party surrounded by fellow stoners, and Sixx sitting at the bar of some live music booze can, blasted out of his mind.
Remember - that's characters-as-musicians, not the other way around.
Sixx's masterstroke during the Theatre of Pain era was indeed the "Home Sweet Home" video. It was fashioned to be a Mötley Crüe mini-documentary romanticizing Sixx's sex, drugs, and rock and roll vision years before Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" video did (and even before Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" vid, though Jon and Bret cleverly raised the ante by doing their videos in black-and-white to attempt film noir dramatics). The "Home Sweet Home" video microcosmically represented what Sixx wanted us to believe Mötley Crüe embodied. It was all there in dramatic slow motion - live concert footage of Neil and a female fan sharing his microphone to sing to each other, another female fan lifting her shirt for the camera, Sixx wincing in faux-pain and plugging his ears with his fingers while succumbing to the madness that is a Mötley Crüe concert, and the obligatory footage of the bus moving through its long and weary slog along an endless highway. Sigh.
Though it appear as such, it's clear that Mötley Crüe is not a heavy metal band. If you joined the Mötley Crüe circus as a result of the experience Shout at the Devil provided, then it was an honest mistake. But Shout at the Devil only sounded the way that it did to get your attention, and also to provide a metallic backdrop to the image that Sixx lifted from his old London bandmate and later W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless. It wasn't a real metal record any more than Mötley was a real metal band.
Mötley Crüe was a shape-shifting musical menagerie that evolved by the estimations of what Sixx deemed necessary to achieve and maintain stardom. Period. Sixx used his influences as a starting point – Too Fast For Love was angry Sweet and T.Rex, right down to the handclaps in the initially unreleased track "Toast of the Town". Shout at the Devil was the edgier sonic equivalent of what KISS probably looked like through Sixx's eyes. Shout at the Devil is no more metal than KISS' Creatures of the Night, and it employs the same devices. The only difference is that in KISS' case, Creatures of the Night was overcompensation for their soft concept album Music For The Elder.
In retrospect, the Mötley Crüe fantasy was an escapist production not at all unlike a Broadway show, complete with compelling actors filling the roles of what were perceived initially as heavy metal musicians, at least based on the imagery involved. Tommy Lee was the best actor of all because he didn't even know he was acting until much later, around the time when the Methods of Mayhem project came about. And we all know that Vince Neil isn't really a singer; he just plays one in Mötley Crüe. For his part, Nikki Sixx was almost like a pioneering Paris Hilton of the movement that people would later call "glam metal." He manufactured an identity for himself using the influences and tools available to him and invented a world-famous brand, inspiring thousands of kids who were looking for answers within themselves to continue the cycle. And in turn, this was his tangible achievement. All of the music that would come later was simply by-product.
To see Frank Feranna and Nikki Sixx for what they really are doesn't mean they should be revered any less. I just enjoy them in the same way that I would enjoy a movie – as fiction. Feranna is a smart, resilient mofo and I tip my hat to him, because despite Mötley Crüe's record sales and established position in hard rock history, Frank Feranna's real achievement was his ability to sell his dream to the world, in turn selling our own dreams back to us.
Also see our 2010 Mötley Crüe article
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