For an amazing, brief period of time in the late 80’s, Southern California was the music capitol of the world. The musical fault line ran through the FM Station in North Hollywood to the Marquee in Westminster to the Troubadour in West Hollywood, with the epicenter at the Sunset Strip. The Whisky anchored the east and Gazzarri’s the west, with the Roxy and the Rainbow holding down the middle. Car radios everywhere were tuned to the legendary 105.5 KNAC, which played a huge part in spreading the word. Screamer Magazine was there, along with other publications such as BAM, Music Connection, Rock City News and L.A. Rock Review. We all had our ears to the ground, with writers in the clubs almost nightly.
“You can’t go back.” Everyone’s heard that expression, and while that’s true, it is possible to look back. Eonian Records, an indie label specializing in vintage hard rock and metal has released Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebels & The Sunset Strip Vol. 1, a fantastic four-disc box set featuring 36 unsigned bands that were in the thick of the scene back then (see the review of the collection in this issue). For those who were there and want to relive fond memories, or for those who were either too young or not in Southern California at the time, we are going to take you back with the help of the musicians who were there. Close your eyes and drift back…if you imagine, you can almost smell the hairspray. From roughly 1988 to 1991 there was an almost constant stream of bands that went from playing the clubs one month to being played on MTV the next, but this isn’t their story. This is the story of the bands that might have, could have, should have made it.
“My band Paradise were playin’ live by ’87 and it really amped up. As a lead singer I can definitely say I thoroughly enjoyed the plethora of lovely ladies at my fingertips while also seein’ & playing with great bands on the rise. But I guess the first time we headlined and sold out the Country Club (which was roughly triple the size of Gazzarri’s) was a major highlight. When we got so big we had to do two back to back shows in one night at the Roxy just to get all our fans in to see us was awesome. Signing autographs in the Rainbow parking lot next to Jani Lane & Brett Michaels as if I’d already made it was unforgettable. Getting offered the side of the Whisky for a giant mural of Paradise after XYZ was a HUGE deal. All the record deals we turned down but were proud to be offered. Shit–I could go on for days & days. There will never be another scene like it & I am grateful I got to enjoy & participate.” Adam Gifford, Paradise
“The easy answer is all the partying, girls & such. But beyond that just the sense that we were part of something big, a lifestyle that thumbed its nose at the establishment & the dream of making it big.” Kent Kleven aka “KK”, Taz
This was our time, these were our people.
“People were coming from all over the world. Just incredible times. And parties throughout the night and all that stuff. Some of those parties lasted days. No kidding, man. It really was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But it was a lot of really good music and a lot of good people, too. I’m still close friends with tons of them.” Johnny X, The Wild
“My fondest memory is how it all seemed like one big version of the movie Saturday Night Fever but just with heavy metal/rock n’ roll instead of disco. The music, the way we dressed, all the ‘buzz code’ parties where you would see other bands at. I think the most intense part for a lot of us who came from different states was seeing things/people you saw in magazines come to life. Whether it was meeting Stevie Rachelle from Tuff who I used to read about in Rock Scene Magazine on my breaks at the supermarket in N.J. just months earlier or seeing Nikki Sixx watch Riki Rachtman’s band Virgin at the Country Club it was all mind-blowing. I remember watching Nikki Sixx drive away after that show with Eric Stacy and it just blew my mind to see him drive. He seemed so much larger than life. I thought he would have a hovercraft or a Star Trek teleporter.” Brett Pennella, Blackboard Jungle
Unlike the anger of late 70’s punk that preceded it and the sullenness of early 90’s grunge that would follow, the late 80’s “hair metal” scene was all about just having a damn good time. The subject of the songs were parties and girls. The men looked like the women and the women loved the men who looked like women. Big hair, tight pants and makeup ruled the night. And despite the detractors who said it was all about image, the musicianship was tight. The competition for the spotlight was so tough that you couldn’t be slouch musician and survive for very long.
“The Eighties on the Sunset Strip were so much FUN! There has not been a time since when everybody on the outside looking in were like ‘Why are all the boys wearing makeup and looking like girls?’ But when you looked closer the pretty girls were the ones putting the make up on the boys! It was like a red light district on the Strip. A perfect playground for Les Pauls, Marshall Stacks and lots of partying on and off the stage. Debauchery at the highest level. I guess we just turn up the term SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL to eleven! It will never happen again like that. If you were there, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you will never really know how much fun it really was.” Jimmy Quill aka “Jimmy Thrill”, Rattlesnake Shake
“There was so much fantastic music and talent was available to go out and see live. It made Los Angeles the most incredible place on earth!” Sam Mann, Sam Mann and thee Apes
There were no smartphones back then—hell, there were no cellphones! No internet, no Facebook, no texting. Music was listened to on cassette tapes and vinyl records. The only way to promote bands was through word-of-mouth, and so each weekend, the Sunset Strip turned into a huge open-air party. The sidewalk was so crammed with hundreds of people making the trek back and forth between the clubs that it was hard to even move. At every step, flyers promoting bands were thrust into your hands, and after the crowds finally thinned out in the early morning hours the streets were awash in multi-colored paper.
“Being part of something that was so much bigger than any of us individually. Sex, drugs, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL and so much more! It was no cliché. We were all reaching for the stars, no matter the costs. Most all of us in the band were from places that made Los Angeles seem like a completely different planet, but we didn’t care! We were young, fearless and hellbent to succeed! It was a great time to be alive, especially in Hollywood!” Adam Murray, Cold Shot
“Playing those historic clubs and getting close to a record deal was the best and I will never forget those days!” Kevin Agosta, Lypswitch
“My most fond memories of the era were my band members and my friends. And the Rainbow, the Whisky, The Central & the Troubadour.” Tomirae Brown, Hardly Dangerous
There was so much excitement in the air. Almost every day, there was a new rumor. “Did you hear? Warrant got signed!” A&R people were constantly on the prowl, creating a feeding frenzy by competing to sign the next hot band. Bands were transitioning from headlining the Sunset Strip to heavy rotation on KNAC and MTV seemingly within a few months.
At the close of the decade, most were too busy partying to see the gathering storm clouds, but for those who cared to look the sky was definitely getting darker.
“We got a record contract that looked like the Bible and our attorneys told us to just sign right here after they took us to bar and let us drink endless amounts of alcohol that they paid for. The contract was for a penny a record. Fuck that …you do the math! We were fucked before we ever started. Kids with loud toys; we didn’t make smart decisions! That’s why the music business today is no more. These record companies were bad business and eventually combusted.” Jimmy Quill
“I witnessed some of the innocent people with stars in their eyes getting the life sucked out of them by criminals disguised as some sort of industry executive. It’s great to want, but never be desperate!” Sam Mann
Record labels, seeking to cash in on the trend, were putting out “inferior product,” as the industry term goes. Cookie-cutter hair metal bands were everywhere. Pay-to-play became a huge issue, with unscrupulous club owners preying on bands desperate to play the world-famous Sunset Strip clubs. Instead of being paid to play a gig, now bands were required to buy an allotment of tickets, which in turn they had to try and unload on friends and family. The City of West Hollywood, weary of a sea of multi-colored paper in the streets every weekend, cracked down on flyering.
“The one thing I really would have done is realize we didn’t need a major record company and just kept on mailing out our CD and tape orders. There were so many people who knew about us and were into us but for some reason it seemed like a tour bus and a major record deal were what you needed for validation, which was so untrue.“ Britt Pennella
But by far the largest bolt of lightning were four simple chords: F–B♭–A♭–D♭; the opening riff to Smells Like Teen Sprit. Most people can recall the first time they heard the song, and most knew immediately that it signaled the beginning of the end of the Hollywood metal scene. By 1992, it was all but gone.
Looking back through the clarity that both time and age affords, there were mistakes made and casualties along the way. “Sex and drugs and rock & roll” is a great slogan, but excess partying and the boldness of youth can sometimes lead to questionable decisions. Not every memory of the era is a great one.
“When the meeting for the Whisky wall happened my guitar player brought my bass player instead of me. Although the meeting went well & we were a go (which means the Whisky would pay to have us on their outside club wall instead of us paying them like bands were doing at Gazzarri’s (which meant they believed in us and were essentially sponsoring us) my bassist made a crude joke after the meeting that insulted Mario so much we not only didn’t get the wall but we were 86’d from playing there for almost a year. The same year we were selling out and meeting with all the majors. Really terrible move. Also turning down our first contract offer in ’87 with a legendary manager, stupid move. Turning down the first record deal we got offered with a subsidiary in ’88, although I protested. Those decisions were very much influenced by my guitar player/writing partner and co–founder of the band so not much I could do in retrospect, but all bad memories anyway. There’s plenty more too, but those are some biggies. Also, when I was getting offers to leave Paradise in 1989 by signed acts on Warner Bros. & Atlantic – I wish that I had instead said yes but on the condition that I still get to do Paradise at the same time. That was almost unheard of then, as loyalty to one band was the rule, but by 1993 it was commonplace to be in several bands and is to this day.” Adam Gifford
“When I first got to LA it seemed like there was no way we would rate. I remember being outside Gazzarri’s looking at a poster of Brunette and they looked like rock gods and I felt like there was no way I would be able to compete with that. It all seemed so far away as far as getting our first show and band together. It felt like everybody had a secret handshake that we didn’t know yet. Kim Fowley was the person who truly made us believe we could.” Britt Pennella
“Being broke and hungry is a memory that isn’t so great. Also, being naïve to the big city.” Adam Murray
Far more tragic were the people who were lost in the whirlwind of alcohol and drugs. The liner notes to the CD collection are sprinkled with tributes to friends and band members who aren’t with us today.
“The drugs. We lost a lot of good people during that time including my own sister. I always run into people back then and ask how did we make it and they didn’t. I guess luck had a lot to do with it. It was like rolling the dice every day.” Jimmy Quill
“The memories that weren’t so great were the drugs. And losing good friends, like Wes Arkeen & Todd Crew. Many others. I always keep them in my heart.” Tomirae Brown
Human nature being what it is, some of the most painful memories eventually soften with time while the good ones remain. One of the most interesting things is that while the scene will never be repeated, it lives on in different ways. The foundation that we created two-and-a-half decades ago remains vibrant! 80’s metal bands continue to play in concert, with this summer’s Cathouse Live at Irvine Meadows (www.cathouselive.com) featuring a virtual who’s who of the genre. There are websites and radio programs (including our own RadioScreamer) devoted to the music. Young musicians are discovering vintage metal and adding their own twist to it. Kids are once again sporting long hair, makeup and tight pants.Today, nearly 25 years after it all collapsed, the legacy of Sunset Strip metal remains surprisingly strong.
Where they are today:
Jimmy Quill: “I have a recording studio called www.redhorseatx.com and I’m making rock & roll records. I always say before the start of every recording.’ Hey man, let’s have some FUN!’”
Adam Murray: “I front the Adam Murray & the Mudd Mill Murderers, a country, blues rock and punk band.”
Britt Pennella: “I live and breathe music. I was in a band called MK4 that had a cool song called ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ that documents that time. My new band is called El Granada. I also make my living as a DJ and teaching kids music.”
Kevin Agosta: “I still beat the hell out of the drums, but nothing serious anymore.”
Adam Gifford: “I was still singin’ until a couple years ago with my other band Lovechild until my indie label folded in 2010. BUT because of this ‘Rock N’ Roll Rebels & the Sunset Strip’ box set and my involvement with the writing of the liner notes, I just did a Paradise reboot gig at the Viper Room a few months back and it was packed! So, it looks like I’ll be doing more Paradise shows this year. Going to re-release our European ’92 debut CD ‘Do or Die’ online around the world and see what happens. I’m also currently writing original songs for a brand new modern metal band tentatively called Deacon Strange and singin’ for a Thin Lizzy cover band for some extra income called Los Lizzy. So check out the Paradise – Do or Die page on Facebook or look at vintage (and some modern) videos of Paradise live @youtube.com/ParadiseSunsetStrip”
Kent Kleven: “Music is in me, always will be, but no …[not in a band] at this time.”
Tomirae Brown: “I am still involved in music. It’s my therapy. I even still play with the members of Hardly Dangerous & The James Brown Band from time to time. As well as my own bands, Highway 50 & Pearl.”
Sam Mann: (asked if he’s still involved in music) “’Til the day I die!”