Mötley Crüe performing in 1989.
Mötley Crüe performing in 1989.
Malluk/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

30 Years On, Mötley Crüe Talk 'Insane!' Journey To 1989's Landmark LP 'Dr. Feelgood'

On the 30th anniversary of the glam-metal band’s biggest album, members Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee and Mick Mars look back.

In December 1987, Mötley Crüe hit rock bottom. Three years to the month after singer Vince Neil was in a devastating drunk driving accident, bassist Nikki Sixx overdosed on heroin and was pronounced clinically dead for two minutes. He was revived -- with an adrenaline shot to his heart -- but the band and its management decided enough was enough with the quartet’s reckless behavior. It needed to get sober.

In early 1988, Sixx, Neil and fellow bandmates Mick Mars and Tommy Lee jointly entered rehab and group therapy to fight their demons. But it was the band’s fifth album, Dr. Feelgood, released the following year on Sept. 1, 1989, on Elektra Records, that gave the group its true deliverance moment.

With over 6 million copies sold in the United States, according to the RIAA, the landmark album peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- Mötley Crüe’s first and only release to do so -- and spent 109 weeks on the chart. It spawned five hits: the title track, which reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100; “Kickstart My Heart”; “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)”; “Without You”; and “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away).” While the band lost out on a Grammy -- despite two nominations for best hard rock performance -- it took home an American Music Award for best heavy metal/hard rock album in 1991. Following its release, Mötley Crüe -- in peak live form -- launched a world tour that spanned 150-plus shows across 11 months.

“It almost realigned us back to the way we were when we were a club band fighting for a little bit of notoriety on the Sunset Strip,” says Sixx of the band’s sober rebirth. “We were a gang again; we weren’t just a rock band. We talked on the phone every day, or we were in rehearsals. I have really fond memories.”

The remembrances continue as Mötley Crüe marks the 30th anniversary of Dr. Feelgood with the Nov. 29 release of a special box set and commemorative edition, which includes a Coke-bottle-green colored vinyl LP, three 7-inch picture discs and such themed merchandise as a doctor’s bag, prescription notepad and adhesive bandages.

At the start of recording Feelgood, Mötley Crüe opted to swap out longtime producer Tom Werman (Twisted Sister, Poison) for Canadian Bob Rock, whose work with Kingdom Come, The Cult and others the group had recently discovered. (Quincy Jones also was considered.) They relocated to Vancouver for nearly a year to work with Rock at his Little Mountain Sound Studios. There, the producer shaped the band’s most eclectic sonic offering to date, introducing instruments like lap steel and dobro guitars, honky-tonk piano and horns, as well as a bevy of his famous musician friends -- such as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Bryan Adams and members of Cheap Trick, Skid Row and Night Ranger -- to sing backup.

While many of the lyrics still reflected Mötley Crüe’s hard-partying past, some veered into more introspective territory -- from Sixx’s revival (“Kickstart My Heart”) to a sunnier outlook on the future (“Time for Change”), and even a tale of a drug dealer (“Dr. Feelgood”), which was inspired by Sixx’s suppliers in Los Angeles.

In the three decades since, the group has continued to reinvent itself both together and through various solo endeavors. (In the wake of Dr. Feelgood’s success, Neil parted ways with the band before returning to the fold in 1997.) In total, the band has sold over 25 million albums in the United States, according to the RIAA, and netted eight platinum- or multiplatinum-certified albums, 27 top 40 Mainstream Rock hits and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It remained a trendsetter in the genre after inking the first-ever hard-rock residency in Las Vegas -- Mötley Crüe in Sin City -- which sold out its stint at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in 2012 before returning for its second edition the following year, inspiring peers like Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses to follow suit.

“Sober, they were a terrific band. Live, they nailed it,” says Allen Kovac, the band’s longtime manager and CEO of its label, Eleven Seven Music Group. “Everything changed when the band got sober.”

The decadent excess and substance abuse rampant in its early rise was further chronicled in the band’s acclaimed 2001 autobiography, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, a New York Times best-seller co-penned alongside Neil Strauss. Although the foursome wrapped up its last official trek, The Final Tour, in 2015 (it even signed a “cessation of touring agreement” forbidding itself, and any of its members, from performing as Mötley Crüe), it has been active: It celebrated the release of The Dirt’s film adaptation on Netflix in March. The soundtrack earned the group its first top 10 in over a decade and featured four new tracks helmed with producer Rock -- “The Dirt (Est. 1981)” featuring Machine Gun Kelly, “Ride With the Devil,” “Crash and Burn” and a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

To celebrate the anniversary of Dr. Feelgood, Sixx, Lee and Mars look back at the making of the now-classic album and discuss what’s next.

Dr. Feelgood turns 30 this September. What does this mean to you?

Nikki Sixx: As an artist, you’re just continually creating stuff and you’re proud of something, but you’re in a forward momentum. Then all of a sudden, it takes a landmark moment like that to stop and make you kind of reflect. Like where you lived, what you were going through in your life, what inspired some of the songs. Sometimes you can’t even remember.

Your classic-rock influences emerged more strongly on Dr. Feelgood. An homage to The Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” surfaced on “Slice of Your Pie.”

Sixx: Sure. That was deliberate. We always loved that part on “She’s So Heavy.” I don’t know which guy [suggested it]. It fit.

Mick Mars: It might have been Bob [Rock]. They’re different chords, but it is that kind of a vibe, definitely. That’s at the end of the song.

Even though the period of making the album was really long, a lot of the songs came together very quickly.

Mars: Yeah. When we played them, there was a little bit of [a problem with] structure. We were having so much trouble with the ending of “Don’t Go Away Mad,” and then Bob came in and heard this section and goes, “Just put it at the end.” We went, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

Was it easier to relate to Rock because he plays guitar himself?

Mars: Both Tom Werman and Bob were pretty easy to work with. [I might] explain, “I want something like this to go on this.” They knew exactly what I was talking about. They would say stuff to me, and I would go, “OK, I can do that.” It was great working with both of those guys.

Bob did push a little harder than Tom. He helped pull stuff back out because I have a lot of junk in my brain that I forget about. [Laughs.] He would just go, “Try this. Think about what Jimmy Page would do.” He still does that kind of stuff, [like] on the last few songs we did for The Dirt album. He can still pull it out.

What was the songwriting process like in L.A.?

Sixx: I was talking to Mick Mars the other day [about that time]. I was sitting at home and I was trying to kind of rip off “Maggie Mae,” and I came up with this interesting chord that I don't even know what it was. It's the second chord from “Don't Go Away Mad,” some weird D-chorded version, and it sounded really magical. I started writing these poetic lyrics, and I had seen this Clint Eastwood movie. I forgot what it was called, but he said, “don't go away mad, kid, just go away.” I remember writing it down on a piece of paper in the movie theater. So all I had was this weird chord, these kind of poetic lyrics, and this idea. I called Mick, and it was super foggy in Los Angeles. Mick lived on top of this mountain. He said, come over. I'm driving through the night, going like 10 miles an hour over Topanga Canyon, and it's so fogged in. I get up to Mick's house, and it's just me and him alone. Mick came up with the bass line that is so melodic in that part, but he played it as a guitar line. And I go, what would that sound like on bass? [Sings it.] That came from Mick, and then I came up with the chorus chords, which were almost like “Start Me Up” type chords. It was moving and progressing, and Mick came up with this amazing cool bridge area. Within a short amount of time, we were so connected and the song “Don't Go Away Mad” was written.

All the songs were just falling together like that, either individually or collectively. We would go in the studio, we would go to rehearsal like in the old days, and we would rehearse up these songs. Then we would go in this studio called Cornerstone in the Valley somewhere. Me and Tommy would play the role as the producer and we had an engineer there. We just produced all the songs as demos, and we used to love to do demos because the idea behind the demo was anything flies. We're not 100% sure of this song but we're going to record it anyway. Or we absolutely love this song, we think it's going to be a number one hit and we record it anyway. Later, you find out the song you didn't like is the song that actually was the strongest song of that set of a recording session, and the one you thought was so great fell apart in the recording studio.

How did sobriety affect the mood in the studio?

Sixx: It was a collaborative, collective, constant sober gang mentality.

Mars: Yeah, I think everybody pretty much adjusted. I certainly started playing a lot better. A lot cleaner.

Tommy Lee: You know what? It was a really, really cool time for us. Everybody just fucked off from L.A. Everyone was for the first time sober, and we were so fucking focused. We’re here, we’re away from our home and all the distractions, rules, bullshit. We came here to do what we do. That’s what we did. It was really fucking cool. That was just a really focused time.

Is it true that you recorded a lot of your parts separately?

Sixx: When Bob started working with us, he really started pushing us for little parts: “Nikki, I’ll need you to fall out here, and Mick, bring in this swell of a guitar right here.” In preproduction in Los Angeles, in a rehearsal room, he was dissecting it. When we got up to Vancouver, we recorded as a band in the studio, and then he tore the layers apart. He would push Tommy to his wit’s end, and then it would be my turn.

We had to take every single note and dissect it to the kick drum, to the drum fill, to what Mick was doing, to where Vince would come in. It was like science, but he never lost the fact that it was the band. Bob said, “Get it as big as you want it. I need it to be perfect. As perfect as a rock’n’roll band can be.”

Once the songs were together, then he would be doing wild takes -- “Tommy, just go at the end of the song, and just do whatever you want.” We would capture these magic moments. It was hard work, and it was inspiring. At times, it was frustrating, and then we would hear it back and be like, “Wow, this is what we wanted.”

What was it about Bob that reined you guys in?

Lee: He was like a fifth member of the band. It’s the first time that we have worked with a producer who actually strapped on a guitar, came out into the room and worked on the arrangements. He turned into one of us. He just helped us maneuver our creativity and got it focused into something that became really cool. We were away from distractions, and all we did was wake up every morning. It was shitty and rainy. No “Let’s go to the beach, let’s go ride our motorcycles.” No, [it was], “Let’s go to the studio and work.”

Sixx: Bob is like an oak tree whose roots have grown so deep and spread so far that he’s so solid that you can depend upon him. If he tells you that you’re doing a great job, you know that that doesn’t come easy from Bob. And you know that if he says you can do better, he’s doing it out of love, not out of ego or trying to tear you down.

The “Dr. Feelgood” lyrics are a great example. We got the song up and Vince started doing some run-throughs, and Bob goes, “I think we need to go on to another song.” Then he just handed me the lyrics and [sent me to] a tiny room up off the studio -- basically the punishment room, a torture chamber. So I sat there, and he comes back in and goes, “You know, you’re halfway there. Think Springsteen.”

I finally came up with this character, Jigsaw Jimmy. He’s running a gang and got a cozy little job selling the Mexican mob packages of candy cane [cocaine]. We were working on another song, and he goes, “OK, up next is ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ ” and that’s how the standard would get set. Mick is such a great guitar player, but I watched him get Mick to be the best guitar player he has ever been. He did it with Vince. He did it with Tommy. He did it with me on bass and lyrics. I’m so grateful. I learned so much, and on top of that, I have a lifelong friend.

What was the most challenging aspect of your Final Tour trek in 2015?

Sixx: I didn’t have any physical challenges. I think I was just detached in a lot of ways. I wasn’t detached onstage, but it just didn’t feel like a camaraderie backstage. We would do our meet-and-greets and we all would be cordial, but it just didn’t feel the same. Since the movie, it has felt like it used to in the old days.

When my daughter Ruby was born [in July], the first presents -- crazy, amazing presents -- were from the members of Mötley Crüe. They were the first things that showed up. We were a little bit late, and Mick was texting me like, “When’s that girl coming?” This is from guys who didn’t talk to each other.

You made some new music for The Dirt soundtrack. Have the friendships been rekindled?

Lee: I think our friendship has gotten even closer because you step away and look and realize, “We fucking killed shit.” You rekindle a whole lot of emotions about things that you have done and accomplished and how many millions of people you have made happy. There’s something really fucking strong there.

Do you think there will be at least more new Crüe tunes?

Lee: It’s possible.

Sixx: I don’t know what the future holds musically, but it’s the best feeling to at least know that we’re brothers and friends through all this. Rock’n’roll tears your fucking heart out sometimes. It’s hard.

Mars: I’m unsure at this point. If one of the guys asked me to play a guitar solo and put it on one of their records, I would do that. I’m sure Nikki would write lyrics for me or help me write lyrics. And the same with Tommy, I’m pretty sure. But as a group, I really can’t say.

Nikki and Tommy, you have been posting about your anti-President Trump and pro-gun-control stances on social media. There are fans who support you, and then some find a disconnect with the image of the badass rockers they worshipped in the ’80s. Have you noticed their comments?

Lee: I really don’t spend a lot of time reading comments because at the end of the day, I really don’t give a fuck what people have to say. Every once in a while I’ll look, and then I realize why I don’t bother looking. I’ll realize, “Holy fuck, a lot of our fans are Trump followers. And I fucking hate that guy.” MAGA 2020! Like, “No, dude, we need to get rid of him.”

Sixx: I never believed [for] the majority of my life that my voice would make a difference. I was just a fucking guy who was born to lose that got lucky in a rock’n’roll band. I think now it’s a bit of a responsibility. You don’t have to be aggressive about it. I think that you might as well use your platform to talk about things.

I’m very passionate about trying to make a difference in the opioid epidemic. I’m not trying to get into legislation or politics, but just to have an opinion. Simply by posting that on social media, a large amount of people are like, “Fuck you, stick to your day job playing bass.” What if I said that to you: “Why don’t you stick to your day job and don’t tell me your opinion?” America’s based on democracy. It’s interesting being a rock star -- you’re supposed to just do what rock stars do and not grow up.

Mick, you and Vince aren’t going that route and just have kept your posts to music and nonpolitical topics. Why?

Mars: I watched Crosby, Stills & Nash at Monterey Pop [in 1967], and David Crosby got up and started being just a little bit too political. I thought right at that moment, “No, this isn’t where I want to go.” We all have our own opinions, but I’ll keep it to myself on things like that. I don’t know. I’m weird, I guess. I feel like some things are right and some things are wrong, but I really keep the focus on my music and say, “This part’s right,” or “This part’s wrong.”

While The Dirt explores the consequences of things that you all did, do you ever worry that some of your fans don’t necessarily get that aspect?

Lee: I just hope everyone stays along for the ride and enjoys the music and the statements that we’re making. When the movie came out, I thought, “This is going to be really fun for our regular fans. And this is going to be really fun for the millennials or the new fans because they’re going to be like, ‘What the fuck was that? We missed out on that! Is that how it was?’ ” Yes, that’s exactly how it was. It was insane, and y’all missed it.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Billboard.


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