How Las Vegas became Hair Metal, U.S.A
Homegrown talent and onetime hitmakers have made the Valley into the new capital of spandex and swagger
Thu, Jul 5, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Bill Hughes
If you walked from one end of the Fremont Street Experience to the other on the night of June 22, you might have wondered if you’d been transported back in time 25 years. At the Main Street Stage, a cover band was running through Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” for a tiny crowd. A little farther down at the 1st Street Stage, local rockers Dirty Pairadice were entertaining a larger audience with their take on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” as a scantily clad aerialist dangled overhead. And at the other end of the canopy on the 3rd Street Stage, actual ’80s rockers Night Ranger were performing for a crowd so dense that anyone wanting to get out to Las Vegas Boulevard would be forced to give up and instead root themselves in place until “Sister Christian” sent everyone home.
It felt a lot like 1985. But it was actually part of 2012 concert series Rock of Vegas, which brings together tribute bands and major touring acts including Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, Bret Michaels of Poison and Skid Row for free performances. And the series highlights a trend: Hard rock of the 1980s—affectionately and derisively known as hair metal—is making a comeback, and it’s happening here.
In the ’80s, flamboyant hard rock acts like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Cinderella and Dokken sold millions of records, played concerts in arenas around the world, appeared on magazine covers and ruled MTV. Pop-oriented heavy metal played by guys with big hair wearing spandex and leather was the dominant force in rock until the grunge revolution of the ’90s swept it away almost entirely.
Now, some two decades after the height of hair metal, cover bands, local talent and nationally known genre vets have converged on Las Vegas. Companies like Station Casinos and the Fremont Street Experience have seen the value of booking hair metal acts; local venues like Count’s Vamp’d (6750 W. Sahara Ave.) have emerged to cater to hardcore fans of the genre and successful musicians from the original ’80s scene have made our Valley their home. In other words, Las Vegas has become the new hair metal capital of America.
Just off the Fremont Street Experience on that same night, Ron Keel was hanging out backstage following a performance as Ronnie Dunn in the Golden Nugget’s Country Superstars show. Keel was the singer and guitarist of ’80s hard rock bands Steeler and Keel (the latter best known for the anthem “The Right to Rock”), and he moved to Vegas from Nashville in 2006.
“I’m surprised I didn’t make the move sooner,” Keel says. Country Superstars, which Keel co-created and initially launched in Laughlin, brought him to town, but when he arrived he discovered a whole community of rockers who had already made Las Vegas their home. “When I moved here originally, there were a couple of people that reached out to me,” he says, citing local residents Paul Shortino (Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot) and Brent Muscat (Faster Pussycat) as early ambassadors of the local hair metal scene.
Muscat moved to town in 2004 and three years later founded Sin City Sinners, a hard rock cover band that regularly showcases guest stars from hair metal’s heyday. “When I came out here, the idea was that I wanted to start a scene out here,” Muscat says. “I thought it had a lot of potential.”
Muscat knew that Vince Neil lived in town, and he set out to entice more ’80s rockers with the allure of Vegas. “I know all these guys from the ’80s. I’ve toured with all of them,” he says. “So I can just call them up and say, ‘Do you want to come to Vegas and jam with my new band?’ A lot of times in the beginning, the money just went to get these guys out.”
Over time, Sin City Sinners built up a reputation, with guest performers like Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and Lita Ford (none of whom are based locally). Muscat also recruited local residents like Keel and Louie Merlino of Beggars & Thieves to sit in.
“My idea was to model it after the Rat Pack, but make a rock ’n’ roll Rat Pack,” Muscat says.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion, when we all get together or we see each other,” Keel says. “We work on projects together or sing on each other’s records and do shows together. It’s become a really tight community, a type of family.”
Years before either Keel or Muscat moved to Vegas, bassist Dana Strum, who had played with the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, came to town in the late ’80s and started the band Slaughter with singer-guitarist Mark Slaughter (who now lives in Nashville), late guitarist Tim Kelly and drummer Blas Elias. At the time, Vegas wasn’t a welcoming town for hard rockers. “We were writing and creating things that didn’t sound like anything that we were hearing anywhere near town,” Strum says. “It was either old standards or blues-rock.” And coming from Vegas didn’t help the band break into the mainstream, either. “Coming from Vegas almost was a little bit of a hindrance, because we weren’t in the Hollywood scene,” Strum says. “At that time, that was kind of a breeding ground for where so much of this music supposedly had to come from.”
Today, it’s a completely different story. “[Vegas] really is the new Hollywood, in terms of the excitement, the energy, the opportunities,” Keel says. “We all moved to Hollywood for the same reason 20, 30 years ago, because there was a chance you could succeed. And that’s why we’re here now.”
Keel likes to keep tabs on the rockers who live locally—a list that includes Jimmy Crespo, who briefly replaced Joe Perry in Aerosmith in the ’80s and is now a regular Sin City Sinners guest; Lez Warner, who played drums in The Cult; and Jizzy Pearl, singer of Love/Hate and former vocalist for Ratt and L.A. Guns.
Those rockers don’t just come to play old hair metal songs, either: They perform in casino production shows (Keel is featured in Country Superstars and Slaughter’s Elias has been in the Blue Man Group band for more than a decade), succeed in business (Gregg Giuffria, who played in the bands Angel, House of Lords and Giuffria, has gone on to great success as a gaming executive) and open local establishments (journeyman guitarist Keri Kelli co-owns eastside bar Aces & Ales, and Neil has his gentlemen’s club Girls, Girls, Girls). The late Kevin DuBrow, former singer of Quiet Riot, also hosted KOMP’s morning show for a year in the 1990s.
One of Neil’s former business ventures, the West Sahara bar Count’s Vamp’d (originally Feelgoods), has become a sort of de facto headquarters for Muscat’s “rock ’n’ roll Rat Pack.” It regularly hosts shows by both local and touring hair metal acts, and “it’s the one venue in Las Vegas where national acts can come, have great sound, great lights and a loyal fanbase to play to,” Keel says.
Owner Danny “Count” Koker’s wife Korie handles the booking for the venue, which has hosted Slaughter, Sin City Sinners and a regular Ron Keel acoustic night, among many other shows. “We definitely wanted to bring the ’80s back a little and help keep it alive and more out there in the public eye,” says Koker, who counts herself as a die-hard fan. “We were big fans back then, and we’re not letting it go. We’re keeping it for as long as we possibly can.”
Koker supports the local rocker community with events like the touring Drum Wars, which was hosted by brothers Carmine and Vinny Appice and drew the likes of Slaughter’s Elias, The Cult’s Warner and Pantera’s Vinnie Paul. Keel describes his acoustic night, Las Vegas Stripped, as “a bunch of guys with beers and acoustic guitars sitting around singing your favorite songs.”
And the Kokers aren’t the only ones who see the value in booking hair metal acts. Judy Alberti, vice president of entertainment for Station Casinos, has been scheduling shows by ’80s rock acts since the mid-’90s, although she’s increased the frequency in recent years.
“We find that they perform really well,” she says. “As a genre, their performances are all still stellar. We’re never really disappointed in that genre when they show up, with the actual performance, and I don’t think the audience is either.”
Alberti also books plenty of hard rock cover bands, including Sin City Sinners and Los Angeles-based comedic rockers Steel Panther (who started playing Vegas in 1996 at the now-defunct nightclub Drink). In June, Santa Fe Station hosted Metal Month, showcasing cover bands (Arena, Vinyl Tattoo), tribute acts (Whitesnake tribute band Snakesbite, all-female Iron Maiden tribute band Iron Maidens) and local rockers (Jizzy Pearl’s All-Star Band).
A recent weekend at Station properties featured a high-profile concert by Def Leppard, Poison and Lita Ford at Red Rock Amphitheatre and a low-key Sin City Sinners show across town at Green Valley Ranch. The crowd at Red Rock ranged from grizzled rock lifers to young children accompanying their parents (Poison frontman Michaels brought his two daughters out at the end of his band’s set). There were women in leopard-print skirts and men in Stryper T-shirts, some looking like they were wearing the same outfits they wore in 1986.
Poison’s hour-long set was entirely backward-looking, with Michaels sporting essentially the same look he has for the past 25 years, down to his trademark bandana and cowboy hat. Guitarist C.C. DeVille’s hair remained as big and unruly as ever, and drummer Rikki Rockett spent nearly as much time twirling his drum sticks as he did actually pounding on his kit. With a setlist that has remained unchanged year after year, focused on hits like “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Nothin’ but a Good Time,” the guys in Poison clearly knew how to play up fans’ affinity for the familiar.
But it wasn’t all about nostalgia. Def Leppard’s headlining set drew heavily from mega-popular 1987 album Hysteria, but also included a couple of new songs and a handful of vintage deep cuts. And the stage design, with sleek video screens and minimal flashiness, was thoroughly modern.
There was a much smaller crowd at the Sin City Sinners show, of course, but dedicated Sinners fans rocked out just as hard as Leppard fans did, and Muscat and his bandmates skillfully played hard rock staples like “Highway to Hell” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The Sinners were much more subdued onstage than their more high-profile counterparts. Muscat, who sported a massive mane in the ’80s, now has a conservative buzz cut, and was dressed modestly in jeans and a Sinners T-shirt. Only his platform sneakers gave him away as a former fashion trendsetter.
Even if Muscat isn’t rocking huge hair and gypsy scarves these days, he still knows what audiences want from a show. “When people come to Vegas, they want to party and have a good time,” Muscat says. “The genre of music I grew up with and helped create, it fits Vegas probably better than anything else.”
Steel Panther frontman Michael Starr agrees. “I think the style of heavy metal that Steel Panther does is universal,” he says. “Adding Vegas to that makes it a hundred times more exciting.”
It’s not just in Vegas, either. “There’s been some sort of renaissance of hair metal,” says Ohio-based music writer Allyson B. Crawford, who founded the website Bring Back Glam (bringbackglam.com) in 2006. “I’ve just noticed more and more, in commercials and in movies, TV shows,” she says. “It seems like this kind of music has been picked up more.”
Both Keel and Slaughter’s Strum say they’ve noticed more young people at their shows. “If you look at the age of the audience in the front of the shows, it’s much younger than you’d ever believe,” Strum says. “Often if there’s a meet-and-greet or something like that, I’ll ask, ‘How the hell do you know about any of us?’”
For Keel, the appeal to teenagers is obvious. “This is the music of the wild and the young,” he says. “This music resonates with that spirit of rebellion that youth, no matter of what generation—the young people are always going to get off on something that’s exciting, aggressive, sexy.”
And new music in the same style? “I like buying new music from older bands that I grew up with and love,” Crawford says, but for now she’s in the minority. Sin City Sinners and Steel Panther have experimented with adding original music to their covers sets, with varying results. “We’re one of the first [cover] bands in Vegas to be able to do original music,” says the Sinners’ Muscat. “That’s a pretty big accomplishment.” Yet when the band plays a casino gig, it’s still 99 percent covers, and only at local bars like Count’s Vamp’d or the now-defunct Divebar can it devote more time to original songs.
For Steel Panther, which has put out two albums of original music on Universal Republic, that transition has been more lucrative. “The transition’s been really awkward and fun and confusing all at the same time,” Starr says. “When we did our first record, we would do only like two of our original songs, and the rest would be covers.” But now the band devotes up to 80 percent of each set to original songs and has played massive festivals in Europe alongside genuine ’80s veterans like Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister and Slaughter, in addition to weekly Vegas gigs at the House of Blues.
With titles like “Death to All but Metal,” “17 Girls in a Row” and “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’,” Steel Panther’s songs obviously mock hair metal stereotypes, yet the band has been enthusiastically embraced by the musicians it parodies. “They have created a great niche for themselves,” Keel says. “As long as people are having a good time, that’s what we’re here for. It’s okay to make fun of stuff; it doesn’t make it less valid.” And Steel Panther backs up its jokes with serious musical skill. “Those guys are phenomenal musicians, absolutely amazing,” Crawford says. “And you kind of wonder what their songs would sound like if they wanted to play it straight and not do parody songs.”
Crawford is a connoisseur of bands that carry on the hair metal tradition, citing European acts like Crashdïet as examples of neo-glam that are hard to track down in the U.S. (though Crashdïet is playing at Count’s Vamp’d in August). For local band Taking Dawn, following in the footsteps of ’80s hard rock bands comes naturally.
“I’ve been listening to it since I was four years old, I think,” says frontman Chris Babbitt. “I don’t think I had a choice.” Babbitt lists Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe as some of his band’s main influences, and the sound of ’80s hard rock can be heard on Taking Dawn’s 2010 debut album Time to Burn.
“They’re a newer band, but they have more of a cooler ’80s edgy sound,” Korie Koker says of Taking Dawn. When she books new bands, she says, “It doesn’t even necessarily have to sound ’80s, but bands that sound kick-ass. They’ve just gotta really rock.” She’s a big fan of Dirty Pairadice, which is playing five nights a week all summer at the Fremont Street Experience. Like Sin City Sinners and Steel Panther, Dirty Pairadice has struggled with integrating original music and covers. “I was a little disappointed to hear that they’re doing the covers, because I want them to get famous as an original band,” Koker says. “But I understand.”
For every ’80s rocker like Poison’s Bobby Dall, who looks like he could be any suburban dad strolling through Home Depot on the weekend, there are three more like his bandmates, who still favor long, carefully styled hair, outrageous outfits and over-the-top stage antics. Spandex seems to have been largely retired, but people like Keel, Poison’s Michaels and Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis still cut the sleeves off their shirts.
That’s not to say that these guys don’t know how to act their age. Gillis might have been showily attired, but when Night Ranger frontman Jack Blades called out Gillis’ recent birthday, he didn’t shy away from announcing it to the crowd. “I’m embracing my age,” he said to loud applause. “I’m 55 years old!” Regardless, Gillis played with more enthusiasm than many musicians decades younger, and he gave great guitar-solo face whenever he had the chance to cut loose on his instrument. “Nothin’ but a Good Time” might sound like a bit of a cliché when Michaels sings it for the thousandth time, but these guys clearly still believe it.
“I’ve thought for a while that a lot of the people from the ’80s rock groups were caricatures,” says Slaughter’s Strum. “In each group, there were two or three of the four, often almost like WWF wrestling characters. People that you loved to love or loved to hate.” For Taking Dawn’s Babbitt, showmanship is key. “That is our focus, because everybody’s playing these boring songs, and they’re boring to watch,” he says. “And then we’re playing this complicated sh*t, and trying to have fun, and we just don’t even care.”
That image is on display these days in the movie Rock of Ages and the stage version that’s set to open at the Venetian in December. Although some ’80s rockers have endorsed the show (Night Ranger’s Blades was in the short-lived 2006 Vegas production, and Night Ranger guitarist Joel Hoekstra plays in the Broadway show), others don’t approve. “I think it’s a f*cking disgrace,” Babbitt says. “Every time I see it I get even more nauseous. Just the ads. You know what they did? They homogenized all this killer, edgy music.”
Keel agrees. “If you can sit through the trailer, God bless you,” he says. “It looks like a piece of sh*t to me.”
Some see opportunity in the upcoming Vegas production at the Venetian, at least. “The current fans are still going to be fans, but what I’m hoping is it brings a newer audience,” Station Casinos’ Alberti says.
It’s already starting to benefit some in the local hair metal scene; Sin City Sinners have booked shows at the Zebra Lounge inside the Palazzo, and Muscat anticipates more synergy between the band and the stage production. For Strum, it’s just one more sign of how thoroughly the hard rock of the ’80s has permeated American culture. “Any of that stuff that portrays a bit of the lifestyle and the story, whether it’s exaggerated or not, it’s become a part of the American landscape,” he says. “It is a musical style that’s recognized all over the world as being pretty much pure Americana, very similar to a barbecued chicken wing or rib.”
Hair metal datebook
Sin City Sinners Thursdays, 10 p.m., free, Hard Rock Cafe; Saturdays, 10 p.m., free, Boulder Station.
Steel Panther Saturdays, 11:30 p.m., $20, locals free, House of Blues.
Great White & Slaughter July 6, 8 p.m., free (tickets via KOMP 92.3-FM), Sunset Station.
Keel July 7, 9 p.m., $10, Count’s Vamp’d.
Pretty Boy Floyd July 13, 9 p.m., free, Count’s Vamp’d.
Jizzy Pearl Band July 20, 9:30 p.m., free, Count’s Vamp’d.
Warrant & Skid Row July 21, 9 p.m., free, Fremont Street Experience.
Bret Michaels August 4, 9 p.m., free, Fremont Street Experience.
Kiss & Mötley Crüe August 11, 8 p.m., $72-$147, Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Crashdïet August 16, free, Count’s Vamp’d.
Y&T August 18, 8:30 p.m., $17-$22, Count’s Vamp’d.
Dee Snider September 1, 9 p.m., free, Fremont Street Experience.
Dokken & Quiet Riot September 8, 8 p.m., free (tickets via KOMP 92.3-FM), Sunset Station.
Slaughter November 16, Boulder Station.