Billy Idol should’ve never had the chance to call his 1990 album Charmed Life. Sure, dude crushed it in the ‘80s—binging on drugs and chicks and emerging relatively unscathed—but not to the extent of Motley Crue.
In the first half of the decade, the hard-living L.A. rockers were seemingly impervious to harm, and they ought to have claimed the title years before Billy, when they were making their third album, released 30 years ago today, on June 21, 1985.
Instead, the Crue opted for Theatre of Pain—a highfalutin title that promises way more than the music delivers. Relative to predecessors Too Fast for Love (1981) and Shout at the Devil (1983)—built-to-thrill triangulations of sleazy metal, mangy hard rock, and yes, poppy punk—Theatre of Pain is unmemorable and unimaginative. The LP marked a glossy glam-blues reinvention that presaged much of the dreadful hair metal that gooped up the airwaves in the years that followed.
Theatre of Pain probably should’ve stopped the Crue’s forward momentum, but instead, it became the group’s mainstream breakthrough, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and giving the foursome its first Top 20 hit with “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” a lightweight cover of the 1973 Brownsville Station favorite.
The success isn’t that shocking. Again, back in the ‘80s, things had a way of working out for singer Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx, guitarist Mick Mars, and drummer Tommy Lee. They had their cake, ate it too, and then went on a three-day bender with the baker and the foxy waitress who delivered it. Just look at the circumstances surrounding the recording.
Theatre came together shortly after Vince had been involved in a December 1984 drunk-driving accident that killed his buddy Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, drummer for the group Hanoi Rocks, and left two others seriously injured. The singer, who’d been behind the wheel, famously skated through by writing a fat check and serving 30 days in prison. Around the same time, the band’s drug use was reaching new heights, and Sixx—the chief songwriter and creative force—had developed a heroin addiction that would nearly cost him his life a few years later. And yet none of it seemed to matter.
As the Crue faced those issues—plus exhaustion from touring, plus pressure from their label to surpass the double-platinum sales of Shout at the Devil—the group didn’t falter. They sold truckloads of a record that has its moments, certainly, but doesn’t deliver anything like the brass-knuckle punch to the face and leather boot to the codpiece that makes those skuzzy, sexy, at times cartoonishly satanic first two records such juvenile fun.
Even the band admits it. Vince has referred to Theatre as his least favorite Crue album, and in 2014’s The Big Book of Hair Metal, Sixx calls it “a pile of rubbish, the whole fucking record, with a few moments of maybe brilliance.” Sixx blames the lackluster sound on producer Tom Werman, who he insists “didn’t really know how to control us, or to do what it is we needed to make the follow-up to Shout at the Devil.” Sixx claims in his 2007 memoir The Heroin Diaries that he, not Werman, did much of the work in the studio—something Werman naturally disputes.
“Isn’t it curious how they say they love you while they’re selling millions of records, but a couple of decades later you didn’t capture their sound, you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t pay enough attention, you talked on the phone all the time, you partied too hard, and, in fact, you’re personally responsible for everything in their lives that they’ve failed to achieve?” Werman wrote in a 2008 statement to the website Blabbermouth.net.
Whoever is to blame, Theatre of Pain is a grower at best. If some have a soft spot for the record, it’s likely because the album was a gateway for many fans. In addition to “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” the disc featured “Home Sweet Home,” a seminal power ballad that’s better than most of the treacle it inspired. Though not a Top 40 single until 1991, it was all over MTV in the ‘80s, and like “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,” it’s a tune that non-musically-inclined men of a certain age are likely to fumble through when given access to a piano keyboard.
As the Crue continues to make the rounds on its contractually mandated farewell tour, the band doesn’t dig very deep into Theatre. On any given night, though, fans are likely to hear “Smokin’” and virtually assured “Home Sweet Home”—a perennial encore they’d do well to close with on Dec. 31, when they finish a three-night run at the Staples Center in L.A. with what’s being billed as their final show.
Read on for out track-by-track take on this, a creatively middling mega-seller that kept the Motley train rolling and set the stage for another three decades of crazy adventures—the likes of which not even Billy Idol has experienced.
“City Boy Blues”: The lords of L.A. depravity lament big-city living over a lukewarm bar-rock boogie. Vince (as always singing Sixx’s lyrics) has a sinking suspicion he’s wasting his life, but there’s no escape. Mick’s boilerplate riffing and Tommy’s pounding drums—accented with cowbell—further create that feeling of being trapped.
“Smokin’ In the Boys Room”: The prototype for Poison’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance”—another hair-metal remake of a good-natured anti-authoritarian ‘70s jam that happened to be produced by Tom Werman—the Crue’s first Top 20 pop hit is kind of a no-brainer: a bratty, bluesy middle finger to teachers and their no-good rules. It’s a hard one to dislike, if only because Vince and the gang play it loose and innocent, like a bunch of kicks-seeking schoolboys who’d actually stop at tobacco.
“Louder Than Hell”: In 2:32, the Crue manages to stack up quite a few clichés, piling thudding butt-rock drums atop stock metal guitars and dashed-off lyrics about how they do everything to the max. It’s by-the-books rocking from a group everyone had figured for loose cannons.
“Keep Your Eye On the Money”: Were Theatre of Pain a concept album, this strutting hard-rock number might be the centerpiece. It contains a line that references the title and cover art—“Comedy and tragedy / entertainment or death”—and as Vince parallels the risks of gambling with the dangers of “dancing on the blade” as “the crowd screams on for more,” he hints at serious self-reflection. Really, though, it’s a defensive song about not letting anyone—be they chicks or dealers of any kind—stand between you and the big payoff. That’s about as close to a concept as this record has.
“Home Sweet Home”: Born in atypical fashion, with Vince humming along in the studio to a Tommy Lee piano lick, the Crue’s first power ballad is your classic world-weary band-on-the-road anthem. It’s right up there with Kiss’ “Beth,” and it’s far better than the dozens of songs it inspired. Plus, Mars’ face-melter of a solo provides a nice counterpoint to those saccharine lyrics. (These guys were dreamers, maybe, but hearts of gold?)
“Tonight (We Need a Lover)”: While not terribly original, this lascivious metal mover features some of the energy missing from the rest of the album. The sex metaphors are laughable—“slide down my knees / taste my sword”—and the use of first-person plural suggests it’s orgy time, but hey, it’s a Crue record. The more the merrier.
“Use It Or Lose It”: As Vince sings of seizing the moment—citing James Dean, JFK, and Marilyn Monroe as folks who lived hard and died young—Tommy makes the most of the 2:38 runtime, rampaging through the track with righteous double kick drum.
“Save Our Souls”: A slave to debauchery, Vince asks some higher power to redeem him and his street-urchin friends. “It’s been the hard road, edge of an overdose,” he sings, prophesying Nikki’s infamous brush with death a couple years later. Neil may not really want salvation, but he fakes it better than the rest of the guys. Their rote blues-metal groove would make even the most compassionate god roll his or her eyes.
“Raise Your Hands to Rock”: A kind of bridge between Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” (another Werman production) and Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” this partially acoustic, faux-down-home fist-pumper is about having faith in yourself and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s also about 98 percent attitude and 2 percent songwriting, and the title sounds like something that teacher from “Smokin’ In the Boys Room” would say.
“Fight For Your Rights”: There’s a great scene in This Is Spinal Tap where David and Nigel talk about how their music says “Love your brother”—only, you know, it doesn’t actually say that, and they don’t really mean it, either. “Fight for Your Rights” is like Nikki’s answer to that conversation. It’s a muddled utopian call-to-arms that references Martin Luther King and envisions a world where “we all become one race.” Sixx probably meant well, but when it comes to protest music, the Crue is better off sticking with teachers and their bogus anti-tobacco policies.