Hard Rock’s Ten Most Perfect Songs 1986-1990 [OPINION]
In case you haven't read my first in this series of articles, I'll just recap: this series is related to the specific genre of hard rock. As MTV's presence in the music industry was powerful in this 1986-1990 era, a steep incline of pressure by record companies to require a focus on the looks of the recording artists was almost as evident as the audio demands. Music videos were more and more vital to the success of recording artists as the eighties moved along.
With the break-up of Van Halen and singer David Lee Roth in 1985 and as aging 70s bands conceded defeat in the age of music videos, younger rock acts that had been blips on the Billboard charts and serving as opening acts on tours were then offered the chance to be thrust into the stardom they had been chasing.
Enter bands like Winger, Dokken, Ratt, Warrant, Hanoi Rocks, L.A. Guns, Damn Yankees, White Lion, Great White, Stryper, Steelheart, Firehouse, Faster Pussycat, Poison (blah), and others meeting the criteria of that time. This is not to say some of these bands weren't very talented – because they were, and very much so in most cases.
From 1980-1985, the guitar progressed more in the five years than it had in the last 15. Rock was quickly evolving. My theory is that the pace of change made the course more erratic. The music biz is like the NFL; If there is a success, you will see others copying the model.
By 1989, the "hair" and "glam" metal's reigning days were wearing out and the standards were changing with hardly a hint of the sudden death that was soon to come. There would be no new "superband" act to save it.
I have pieced together what I think are some of the genre's best songs captured in recordings at that time.
10. "Rising Force," Yngwie Malmsteen (1988)
If you ask those around him, Yngwie is a monster of rock for a few reasons. First and foremost, he was one of the most important shredding guitar players in the world. He was also infamous for being very difficult to work with (along the same lines as the Soup Nazi).
To listen to his music, you could understandably conclude that Beethoven and Black Sabbath had a baby. Malmsteen credits Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore as a big influence on his guitar style. He was and remains very particular and demanding of his bandmates and all around him, down to his guitar tech. To tour with him is, in a word, traumatizing.
Malmsteen's ability on the guitar in an era of great guitarists stood out. His Swedish origins brought him from the "old world" of classical to progressive heavy metal which thrived in Stockholm, giving his angle of attack a different style. "Rising Force" is a great blend of composition, demonstration of great musicianship, singing (Joe Lynn Turner), and power metal from Scandanavia.
9. "Surfing with the Alien," Joe Satriani (1987)
This song is so badass it doesn't need any singer. Released in October of 1987, the same-titled Surfing with the Alien instrumental album turned a lot of heads. Back then, Joe Satriani was a well-known master craftsman and guitar teacher to the better guitar players of the world, but not a rock star. In his impressive list of students, you will find Stevie Vai, Larry LaLonde, Rick Hunolt, Charlie Hunter and Alex Skolnick, to name a few.
Satriani is an incredible technician and I am in tune with his writing. Great stuff. Not many instrumental rock songs got radio play but this was one of the few exceptions – even with a cheesy drum machine.
8. "Shake Me," Cinderella (1986)
Hard to not see this as a great hair metal masterpiece. Discovered by Jon Bon Jovi, they were introduced by him to Mercury Records. At first, they wanted the band to go into song-writing camp for a year with some of Mercury's best songwriters to strengthen the band's sound and song list. When the deeply disappointed singer/guitarist Tom Keifer walked out on Mercury, they immediately scrapped the plans to shelve them and signed them to a record deal. Night Songs was released in 1986 with "Shake Me" and several other hits as well.
7. "Modern Day Cowboy," Tesla (1986)
The featured song off their debut album Mechanical Resonance, "Modern Day Cowboy" grabbed your attention and didn't disappoint. They were a very typical late '80s band but played very respectable rock. This was probably their biggest hit and without question for me, has to be included on my list. Terrific two lead guitar tandem, great rhythm section, and a fine vocalist. They were a very solid rock act.
6. "Eyes of A Stranger," Queensryche (1988)
This band was given instant credibility by knowledgable rock fans. They weren't ones to buy into glam metal but almost introduced their own genre. The unique and talented five-piece band finally tapped into more commercial music with their third record, Operation Mindcrime. Queensryche had a similar following to that of Rush in that they were not the most popular band but had a dedicated and protective following. Bring up Queensryche in front of one of their bigger fans and you will need to be able to defend any criticism right away.
Singer Geoff Tate continues to perform under the album's title and Queensryche also continues to perform with original members Michael Wilton on guitar and bassist Eddie Jackson – and no, I'm not getting into the argument over who you ought to see first.
5. "Yankee Rose," David Lee Roth (1986)
One of the great heartbreaks in my life was the break up of the original roster of Van Halen. Singer David Lee Roth and the other members had a growing rift that finally blew up after the 1984 tour which further elevated the top rock act in the world but elevated Roth even more so. MTV was particularly good for Roth. He had the great looks, the rock star personality and almost every other rock singer wanted to emulate something of his.
He had been listed by a prestigious panel of rock critics as the fourth-greatest concert frontman behind only Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury. Roth first came out with Crazy From the Heat, an EP of mostly odd cover choices. The Beach Boys' California Girls was understandable but his eclectic musical taste came out with Just A Gigolo, Easy Street, and Coconut Grove.
The other Van Halen band members were shocked that he recorded without them and without a mention. Roth's response was, "Hey nobody bothered to ask me if I would be okay with Eddie recording 'Beat It' for Michael Jackson."
Post-breakup, Van Halen continued on with Sammy Hagar and had far greater success. However, DLR had to have scared the s--- out of them with the 1986 release "Yankee Rose" off of his debut full-length album Eat 'em And Smile. In this single, it seemed Roth had taken the best qualities of Van Halen with him when he left.
To add insult to injury, his shredding guitarist Stevie Vai won the 1986 Guitar World magazine's Guitarist of the Year award, taking it away from Eddie Van Halen for the first time in any year that Van Halen released a record (5150 also came out in 1986). The entire rock world waited for Roth's answer to the "Van Hagar" debut and he hit it out of the park, showing he was a talented writer and would not go away easily.
4. "Kickstart My Heart," Mötley Crüe (1989)
Can't ignore the importance of this band in the second half of the 1980s. Their best record, Shout at The Devil, came out in 1983 but their biggest footprint in rock history came in the second half of the '80s. I'm not a big Vince Neil guy when it comes to live singers, but he was very good in the studio. This 1989 song off of the Dr. Feelgood record captures the energy, chemistry, popularity, and quality of the Crüe in both song and video.
3. "Welcome to the Jungle," Guns & Roses (1987)
A meteoric rise to greatness. Within a year anyone who listened to this debut record Appetite For Destruction knew these guys were Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in-waiting inductees. Several things set them apart from the other hair metal bands. Most of the hair bands like Warrant or Poison (blah!), you kind of had the impression that you could kick any of their asses.
Guns & Roses was more of a question than a sure answer to that hypothetical. They brought the street to the stage with them. While the rocker girls of the late '80s flocked to the makeup, pink-and-green spandex and scarf-donning Brett Michaels (blah), dudes liked the G&R vibe.
They were a hard rock act with a blues streak in lead guitarist Saul "Slash" Hudson. Lead vocalist Axl Rose looked like one of the Game of Thrones "Free Folk" from north of the Wall, but his unique voice, impressive range and approach to the music of G&R helped to compliment the rawness that his band's chemistry offered. "Welcome to the Jungle" was a chart-busting song and has been on the soundtracks of many movies, TV commercials and video games over the last 35 years.
2. "Still of the Night," Whitesnake (1987)
An underrated yet deeply respected rock band, Whitesnake made the tricky transition from '70s to '80s rock by the time they released their seventh and greatest album Whitesnake in 1987. "Still of the Night" was just remarkable writing, composition and great individual performances by each player. Singer David Coverdale became a fantastic rock star as soon as he realized that he was never going to be Robert Plant, try as he may. This song and the ballad "Here I Go Again" propelled Whitesnake into a very long overdue and prestigious position on the concert circuit.
1. "Livin' on a Prayer," Bon Jovi (1986)
Like Howard Stern pointed out when he introduced Bon Jovi into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as 2018 inductees, Bon Jovi's song formula was "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." The song that defined hair metal itself, "Livin' on a Prayer," was almost cut from the record Slippery When Wet if Jon Bon Jovi had his way.
Co-written (like most Bon Jovi hits) with Desmond Child, Bon Jovi rose from second-tier rockers with the release of their second song which was very well received on MTV and on the radio. Bon Jovi took over as the kings of hair metal and today in 2020, "Livin' on a Prayer" is the anthem of hair and glam metal for tens of millions of fans.
Between the looks of featured members Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, the high "woahs" in the epic chorus, the sound and uniqueness of "Livin' on a Prayer" was too much for the female persuasion. Throw in a well-financed and produced rock music video, add water and you have rock stardom for the next 33 years.
Ken Pittman is the host of The Ken Pittman Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact him at ken.pittman@