1955 Reaching for 1980s rock’s roots

Don’t Call It Hair Metal: Art in the Excess of ‘80s Rock
by Sean Kelly

Toronto: ECW Press, 2023
$26.95  /  9781770416437

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Sometimes a book comes along that is simply a dream to read and review. Don’t Call It Hair Metal is one of those reveries: fiercely well-written, nostalgic, energetic, a blend of the historical (although Sean Kelly calls himself a “pretty piss-poor historian” as the book is more a “reflection on the evolution of and artistic intention behind a sound”) and the personal that almost constantly rings the right notes. And for me, deeply relatable. Sean Kelly and I are around the same age and grew up in a kin era with nearly twinned backgrounds: Catholic, into similar bands, bonded to the fusion of feeling like both an outsider to mainstream musical tastes, and, also, connected to the “tribalism of it all” as Todd Kearns calls it. The main difference is, being a young woman at the time, I should have taken greater offense to many of the sexist lyrics I head banged to. But I didn’t, because the road to excess takes much longer than that to lead to the palace of wisdom in Blakean terms, and I was having way too much of a sweet life imbibing, going to shows by the Crue and Def Lep, boinking, and learning how to noodle on my Peavey T-15 as my long-haired guitar teacher at St Patrick’s High, a 17-year-old boy we called Jesus (of course,) instructed me on how to play the opening chords of Crazy Train.

Author Sean Kelly has played with the likes of Victoria’s Nelly Furtado as well as Rough Trade, Helix, and Lee Aaron. He currently teaches music with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Lisa Macintosh photo

Kelly begins his sojourn into the trajectory of hair metal’s foundations and erratic rise/fall with an unlikely tale: of the death, in 2020, of his father. But this introduction not only allows readers to instantly connect with Kelly (most of us by now have aged pater familias) but enables him to connect his choice of musical genre with some of the biggest feelings life allots us: grief and mourning. He had earmarked, he claims, the title track from Mr Big’s 2017 album for just such a moment, one that requires “courage” amid such “inevitable reckonings.” The connection between this deep transition and the power of his most-adored music emphasizes the “value” of what has often been reduced to simply, mockingly, “hair metal,” when so many of these tunes are far from one-dimensional ditties. Kelly has been playing in bands for over 30 years, so he approaches this music as both a fan and a creator, a guitarist who has been able to achieve some of his top goals, even recently joining in on one of his rock god’s, Dee Snider’s, Christmas specials. As someone thoroughly embedded in the scene, he has been able to interview some of the key musicians in this genre, from Rudy Sarzo and Yngwie Malmsteen, to Steve Lynch and Lee Aaron. He clearly defines the aural patterns that take one down the various paths to genres such as hard rock, corporate rock, and heavy metal, mostly putting the compositional distinctions in layperson’s terms as when he describes how heavy metal “drives” through a combination of “eighth notes…theatrical and vibrato laced [vocals]…[and] a more saturated overdrive.”

Kelly then, with verbal flair and random spurts of humour, delves into the foundations of metal, obtaining perspectives from producers such as Vancouver-based Mike Fraser on how such seminal bands as AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith cemented their unique sounds, including an array of recommended listens for those who haven’t yet been exposed to the roots of this diverse genre. A combination of conversations, historical trajectories and intimate bonds with certain albums or artists renders this book a lively read. His recollection of the first time he heard Ozzy takes me right back to when I chose to write the school’s walk-a-thon song to the tune of War Pigs, while his talk about Twisted Sister reminds me that a certain boy stole my copy of the Stay Hungry vinyl after he tried and failed to get into my pants. Every reader of that era is likely to have similar types of memories burble up like a Weird Science shit mix as they delve into Kelly’s recollections. He reminds us again that what we fell in love with when it comes to heavy metal is the pulse of it, “how the words sound, or, more importantly, how they sing,” its intense, “raw, organic” beauty.

Sean Kelly takes the time to acknowledge the British Columbia roots of such Canadian bands as Bon Jovi and Loverboy

Talking to Marc LaFrance, a Vancouver musician who sings on many metal albums, he recollects for us in BC particularly, how much a part the Vancouver recording scene with Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock at Little Mountain Sound was in the development and re-creation of bands like Bon Jovi (and its influential predecessors in Aldo Nova and Loverboy).

Chapters are organized chronologically from 1978 to 1980 to 1991 and beyond. The earlier years pre-1983 are more formative, and the middle and later years Kelly’s true stomping grounds. The text fairly drools with teen boy enthusiasm as he details the contexts and top songs on albums like Quiet Riot’s Condition Critical, Dokken’s Tooth and Nail and Motley Crue’s Theatre of Pain (including a segue into Hanoi Rocks in terms of both talent and tragedy). As someone raised Catholic, I relate to his feelings of transgression, guilt and “transformation” as he hears core tunes for the first time and the “visceral excitement” leads him down the twisted and delicious road to more, more, more. The way Kelly intersperses his histories with interludes of his own development as a rock and metal guitarist can occasionally feel interruptive but, overall, they add to the fan-feel of the book’s wild narrations. At a few points he analyzes metal lyrics, such as GnR’s evocation of a racist character in “One in a Million,” suggesting that mixed-race Slash, for instance, might have experienced a painful conflict performing such a piece. Or maybe, I thought, Slash was able to conceive of the speaker of the song like an Iago, not someone one wants to emulate but without doubt, someone who exists in the actual world. Should such representations never exist? Kelly makes us think. But for the most part, he stirs the reader to rocking out, acknowledging the eventual “formulaic sameness” that metal often devolved into by the 90s, the sprayed mullets deflating in the grungy rain/reign of Nirvana, but also the kick-ass persistence of bands like Skid Row who rose to fame, dwindled to van touring once more where you “get bedbugs and fucking stay in hotels with blood on the floor,” and ascended again to playing arenas.

Sean Kelly at work

I was recently at a Rock the District festival in downtown Edmonton and I brought Don’t Call It Hair Metal to read between bands. As it turned out, it poured incessantly so that didn’t happen. But what did? Middle-aged me utterly fist-punching in the front row to Helix singing Wild in the Streets, Brian Vollmer still high-kicking and squatting in his rock star leathers and grinning crazily with the insane awesomeness (which Sean Kelly so brilliantly celebrates) that what some call hair metal will always be.



Catherine Owen

Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by Jason Schreurs, Adrienne Fitzpatrick, Connie Kuhns, Hilary Peach, John Armstrong and Jason Schneider for The British Columbia Review.

The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

5 comments on “1955 Reaching for 1980s rock’s roots

  1. I’m glad that Sean Kelly acknowledged Loverboy’s origins in Vancouver but it was more like the guitarist Paul Dean. Here in the BC Review my piece, The Sonics at the Grooveyard: My Loud Baptism of Fire, I say“Even Loverboy’s lead guitarist, Paul Dean, got his start playing for Kentish Steele and the Shantelles. So, the music scene in Vancouver in 1968 was definitely built on the back of R & B just as R & B was built on the spine of jazz.” And this wasn’t hearsay as I saw Dean play with Kentish Steele. There are many Vancouver rock connections including Jimi and the Jets. This was Jimi Hendrix’s first band and the first time he spelled his name that way too after leaving the US Army as a paratrooper based in Kentucky. There are many, many more.

    Good review!

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