The 80s! A decade of big hair, loud clothing, home computers making an entry, television going big, recognition of AIDS as an epidemic and acknowledgement of global warming phenomena. All wasn’t that bad. The Berlin Wall was razed, the US – USSR cold war was in its last stage and of course the rockers kept rocking. Their music just got heavier and rock music got new sub genres.
Hard rock and heavy metal continued their reign through the decade. The superstar bands from the 70s faced competition from the upcoming boys who were, to put it mildly, overdosing on adrenaline. A few bands though formed in the 70s gained prominence in this decade. Def Leppard, Whitesnake and Iron Maiden to name just three.
The 80s, being the 80s, sprung up some bands who called themselves Oingo Biongo, Banda i Wanda, Danger Danger, Faster Pussycat for reasons best known to them. Along with them, the 80s witnessed the birth of bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Motley Crew, Poison, Skid Row, Bon Jovi, Guns’n’Roses, Twisted Sister.
The Big Four
If the 70s had the ‘unholy trinity of heavy metal’ with Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the 80s boasted of the ‘Big Four’ in Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. They gave the world a sub-genre dubbed ‘thrash metal’, an aggressive, fast tempo version of heavy metal. The vocalists would shout out the lyrics, quite literally at times and be melodic, rarely.
The big man from Metallica, James Hetfield, was an imposing figure on stage. With his physical demeanour, long hair, goatee, dressed in all black, Hethfeld became an icon almost immediately. Metallica’s debut album, Kill’em All, was hailed as the fastest and heaviest rock album recorded at the time. Hetfield was all guns blazing. His vocals range from a melodic wail to shouting in a trade mark style. Fans could recognise his voice the moment the first words were sung or uttered, depending on the song. Hetfield went more melodic in the 90s but in the 80s he was pure thrash!
The original Metallica line up featured a guy named Dave Mustaine. He was kicked out for drug and alcohol-related issues. Metallica acted like a wuss in doing so, come on the man is into heavy metal, what do you expect him to do, suck on candy?
Mustaine might have been without a band but in no way was he out. He formed a band and christened it Megadeth. Hailed as one of the best heavy metal guitarists of all time, crooning was never Mustains’s strong point. He does possess a unique sound which along with his riffs are the hallmark of Megadeth. It would feel like he gets on the mic with an intent to scare people with his vocals and he sure does a great job at that. Just listen to ‘Sweating Bullets’ to know why he is ranked so highly.
While Mustaine was all about conviction, Slayer’s Tom Araya was born for thrash/heavy/death metal vocals. For over 30 years, until their recent retirement, Slayer commanded a legion of fans. While critics dubbed Araya’s vocals as ‘loud screeching and yelling’, it suited the writings and compositions of the band. Slayer was one of the fastest metal bands on the planet. Araya would introduce his vocals in a talkative style before going all guns blazing. He is regarded as the master of heavy metal screaming, extreme vocals, and death growling techniques. After all these years, Araya still had some fuel in his tank which was evident in the band’s farewell tour.
Finishing up the ‘Big Four’ is Anthrax. The band have had numerous vocalists including Neil Turbin, Joey Belladonna, Dan Nelson and John Bush. Each had a personal style but never was Anthrax’s sound compromised.
Midway through the decade, a band from Los Angeles made an appearance on the rock music horizon and meteorically went on to rule the sky. They were named Guns N’ Roses. The band was a more dominant version of the Rolling Stones and were even dubbed as “the most dangerous band in the world”. The frontman, dressed in ripped jeans with leather jackets, long blonde locks and an attitude reminiscent of Jim Morrison and amazing vocal range, named himself Axl Rose. He rose to be arguably the most recognizable and talked-about rock star on the planet by the end of the 80s. Axl is one of the few musicians to be acknowledged for his persona, on-stage theatrics and vocal mastery. His vocal range measured 5 octaves, 2-1/2 notes.
As the lights would go out, Eddie would appear on the screen and the fans would hysterically scream ‘Six Sixty Six…The Number Of The Beast’. Running on to the stage would the spearhead of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson. Not having any formal training has not dithered the vocalists from becoming an iconic figure in heavy metal history. ‘The Air Raid Siren’ is hailed as the pioneer of hoarse and unpolished vocal style, imitated by numerous vocalists later on. Not only vocals, but Bruce’s on-stage energy was also relentless and mirrored the sound of the band. The professional pilot is often hailed amongst the top-heavy metal/rock vocalists of all time.
Another band which rose to world recognition were the ‘Bad Boy Band’, Bon Jovi. The band’s founder and vocalist Jon Bon Jovi became a rage among the women of all ages. Why did they label themselves as a ‘Bad Boy Band’ is a matter that needs extreme level of investigation.
The emergence of Glam Metal
Co-existing with heavy metal/rock was a one more new sub-genre, Glam Metal a subset of Glam Rock. The genre merged pop music inspired hook lines and riffs while borrowing the fashion and image styling of Glam Rock.
Poison’s Bret Michaels was the most recognisable and charismatic vocalist of the genre.
Though rarely championed as the finest singer or even the most charismatic frontman of the late-’80s glam metal heyday, Poison’s Bret Michaels has consistently remained one of the most recognizable lead singers of the era. Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott quality as a singer helped the band build an image of glam rock-influenced trying to be a heavy metal band.
Dee Snider, the Twisted Sister frontman infused madness into their music while Sebastian Bach of Skid Row was a proven technical singer who could do Glam Metal and Broadway at ease. Sadly Motley Crew’s Vince Neil’s vocal prowess were overshadowed by his problematic lifestyle which led to multiple arrests and convictions, including one for vehicular manslaughter.
By the end of the decade, the Alternative Rock genre had raised its head. The dominance enjoyed by heavy metal/rock over the past couple of decades was dwindling. The newer set of audience had different problems and sought alternate routes to vent themselves. The emergence of house music and rave culture also dented the potential fan base.
Despite this these iconic rock vocalists have commanded a loyal following to date. The list might not feature all vocalists or one of your favourites but that is a topic for another day.