As one of pop metal's most successful acts of the '80s, Motley Crue thrived during the MTV generation as a photogenic glam metal/hair metal quartet that was unique in its snarl and dark edge. But the band demonstrated an impressive consistency and genuine independence in musical direction throughout the decade through a number of solid compositions (mostly penned by bassist Nikki Sixx) executed with flair and nerve. Here's my list of the band's finest '80s tunes.
1. "Live Wire"
One of the most promising cuts on Motley Crue's debut album, Too Fast for Love (widely released in 1982), this track gives an accurate impression of the raw, energetic early style of this L.A. band, which in many ways was as much indebted to other thrashy, punkish sounds of the period as to the glam rock and arena rock that clearly colored its image. It also reveals that lead singer Vince Neil was from the start a bit of a liability, as his weak, sometimes tentative vocals don't come close to matching the intensity of his bandmates' musicianship. Neil would certainly get better from here but in my opinion always remained the weak link in this group, whose finest moment probably came on this rollicking, appropriately menacing performance.
Already working within the attention-grabbing rock & roll fantasy world of the occult through its dark image and mild horror-show makeup, Motley Crue jumped into the big time of this crucial hard rock niche with this tune and its 1983 hit album of the same name. In those days, after all, the mere mention of "the Devil" in a lyric or on an album cover sent parents hurtling for the confessional booth, wayward youth in one hand and Bible in the other. No doubt members of the Crue knew this damn well and squeezed every possible drop of blood from that particular stone. As for the song itself, it's basic, chant-worthy, riff-laden hard rock that at base is actually quite innocuous. But you wouldn't have wanted to try and tell that to Tipper Gore.
In my opinion, the classic riff that fuels this song stands as the centerpiece of Motley Crue's sound at its most efficient and effective. This also marks the last time Motley Crue would command any true sense of menace before turning almost completely to sleazy Hollwyood T&A subject matter for most of its songs and videos. Pretty soon the familiar pentagram and sinister image would make way for a rather one-dimensional parade of lust for the band, but this track certainly makes a good argument for Motley Crue as one of the singular heavy metal acts of the early '80s. Yes, up until now the band had been strictly a heavy metal band, as the notions of pop metal and, especially, hair metal were still years away from common usage.
Before the band stormed the dangerous territory of the power ballad, Motley Crue slowed things down a bit to fine effect on this underrated track, also from Shout at the Devil. Although much of the attention over the years has gone to either frontman Vince Neil or drummer and tabloid favorite Tommy Lee, the creative nucleus of this quartet actually resided within bassist Nikki Sixx, who was always the band's principal, foundational songwriter. In fact, all four of the songs on this list so far were credited wholly to Sixx, and his guiding hand was integral in shaping the sound and early success of the band he formed. This is far from songwriting brilliance, but it's solid hard rock that many followers would have trouble matching.
With this probably too-familiar track from 1985's Theatre of Pain, Motley Crue helped usher in and solidify the growing pop metal craze in America. Previously, the band's tough and sometimes threatening image had not maximized the group's potential for female fans, but once this song gradually became a signature fan favorite, the doors were opened wide to a pop assimilation the band had never quite resisted but certainly had not pursued in an obvious way. The prominent use of keyboards would eventually become a staple of the genre's ballads, and the use of cigarette lighters held aloft by fans in the performance video helped popularize that arena rock custom to a new level entirely for the latest generation of hard rock fans.
6. "Wild Side"
By 1987, Motley Crue had so completely embraced the decadent rock and roll lifestyle that Sixx and Co. were practically incapable of writing about anything but sleaze, as evidenced by that year's Girls Girls Girls release and its surprisingly flaccid title track. Granted, the band occasionally tried to comment about hard living, but it was hard for bandmembers to see too clearly while still addicts. Nonetheless, this track contains a classic Mick Mars riff that propels an otherwise mediocre slice of hard rock into another plane. If nothing else, the Crue always maintained a singular sound even as the band grew more popular within hair metal circles. In that sense, the group never sacrificed its originality to be part of the Next Big Thing.
Having emerged clean and sober for Motley Crue's '80s swan song, Dr. Feelgood, the now sometimes observational, substance-weary quartet probably reached a pinnacle in popularity and, perhaps, critical respect. That's not to say anyone declared the 1989 release a masterwork, but Motley Crue did receive substantial airplay for five of its singles when all was said and done in 1990. I still firmly believe the band's best moments came before Theatre of Pain, but I must admit this tune holds up pretty well as a hard rock anthem appropriate for sporting events and other adrenaline-infused occasions, especially in light of Sixx's previous return from the other side after an overdose. It's also the last edgy tune the band would produce.