Revisiting Mötley Crüe's "Theatre of Pain"
Mötley Crüe—"Theatre of Pain"
(Elektra Records, 1985)
I thought Mötley Crüe was the greatest band in the world in 1983...
To put that in perspective, I was only thirteen years old, so I probably only knew about a dozen bands, tops. Be that as it may, I was completely obsessed with the Crüe from the time I first saw the video for "Looks That Kill" on MTV. I bought their then-current album Shout at the Devil at my local K-Mart, played it on a near-constant loop for months on end, and snapped up every issue of Circus, Creem, or Hit Parader that put the Crüe on their front cover.
Like a dumb kid, I bought into the Crüe's blood soaked, black leather Satanic shtick hook, line, and sinker. I was honestly convinced that they were the most evil band ever to walk the earth. ("Duuuude! There's a huge pentagram on their album cover, and the liner notes say, 'this album may contain backwards messages!' That's AWESOME!")
Of course, my barely-teen self didn't realize at the time that that the Crüe's more-evil-than-thou persona was a carefully crafted image, calculated to drum up controversy and therefore sell records.
"Smokin' in the Boys' Room"
Entering the Theatre of Pain
After an agonzing two-year wait, the Crüe released their follow up to Shout at the Devil. When my fifteen-year-old self heard Theatre of Pain in mid '85, I was shocked by it - and not in a good way. Mötley Crüe's look had changed -- they'd dropped their bad-ass, leather & spikes gear in favor of flashier, more "glammy" duds -- and their sound had undergone a similarly radical makeover. Thanks to the album's slicker, "pop metal" sheen and singles like "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" (a cover of the 1973 hit by Brownsville Station) and the piano ballad "Home Sweet Home," Theatre of Pain shot to #6 on the Billboard charts and sold nearly four million copies.
...guess what? I hated it. I was so P.O.'d that my favorite band had "sold out" that I returned my Theatre of Pain LP to the store and swore that the Crüe would never get another nickel out of me.
Of course, thirty-plus years later, I realize how silly that all sounds. It never occurred to me back then that the band members were not the only ones who'd changed -- in those two years between 1983 and '85, I had changed as well.
Mötley Crüe had been through a lot in the two years prior to Theatre. In December 1984, vocalist Vince Neil was arrested on charges of vehicular manslaughter after a drunk-driving accident that killed his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas "Razzle" Dingley, and seriously injured two others. Vince served less than 30 days in jail and went straight back to Crüe business as usual. Meanwhile, the rest of the band was sinking deeper into drug and alcohol addiction.
As for me, I'd discovered the "underground" metal scene in between Shout and Theatre. I first heard Metallica's debut album, Kill'Em All, in late 1983 or early '84, which led to more under-the-radar, fast-n-loud acts like Anthrax, Slayer, Raven, Metal Church, and Mercyful Fate. After a steady diet of that stuff, a lot of the so-called "metal" bands I'd been listening to previously weren't cutting it anymore, so when Mötley dropped Theatre of Pain, it sounded... positively wimpy.
I stubbornly stuck to my personal boycott of all post-Shout Crüe until fairly recently, when I purchased a stack of '80s hard rock CDs at my local thrift shop and ended up re-acquiring Theatre of Pain. Aside from "Smokin'" and the god-awful "Home Sweet Home," which have been rock-radio staples since Theatre was first released, I hadn't heard the rest of the album in a very long time. I wondered if I'd have a different opinion of the album today, or if I'd find myself in agreement with Vince Neil, who summed up Theatre this way in the Crüe's 2000 tell-all book The Dirt (and in the 2019 Netflix movie based on it):
Two decent songs. The rest is pure s**t. Believe me, I know. I'm gonna be the only one sober up there every night trying to sell it.— Vince Neil (as played by Daniel Webber) in "The Dirt" movie
"Home Sweet Home"
Hitting "play" on Theatre of Pain again after thirty-plus years was a weird experience. I tried to keep an open mind and pretend that it was a "new" album that I'd never heard before, which worked to some degree. Don't get me wrong, Theatre of Pain is still not a great record -- I probably own at least three dozen other glam metal albums from the same era that are just as good, if not better. However, I think my teenage self may have been a bit harsh when I first heard it so long ago.
"City Boy Blues" wouldn't have been my choice to open the album; its mid-paced, slinky strip-club vibe would've been better served if it were placed elsewhere in the running order. The cover of "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" is a cheesy, high energy romp through a mostly-forgotten classic-rock chestnut. My favorite track is probably "Louder Than Hell," which sounds like an out-take from Shout at the Devil. "Keep Your Eye On the Money" is a throwaway pop-metal track; it's not terrible, it's not great, it's just there.
I still friggin' hate "Home Sweet Home" with every fiber of my being, but it leads into one of the album's better tracks, the thumping "Tonight (We Need A Lover)," which sees the Crüe cranking on all cylinders. The speedy "Use It Or Lose It" is more middling filler, and the moody "Save Our Souls" is a pretty decent slab of bluesy sleaze-rock with a great hook. "Raise Your Hands to Rock" starts off with some surprising acoustic strumming (!) but stops dead once it gets to the chorus, which closely resembles the refrain to Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock," which was released the year before Theatre. I'm not sayin' the Crüe intentionally ripped off Dee Snider and the boys, but the similarity is definitely there. The album comes to a close with "Fight For Your Rights," another generic, but listenable, party-hearty anthem.
After a few spins, I'd say I genuinely liked four of the album's ten tracks ("City Boy Blues," "Louder Than Hell," "Tonight," and "Save Our Souls"), which means I liked it better than Vince Neil does, for whatever that's worth.
"Louder Than Hell"
Summing It Up
Revisiting Theatre of Pain after all these years proved to be an interesting listening experience. I don't think I hated the album nearly as much as I did when I was fifteen, but I didn't fall in love with it, either. I doubt I'll be investigating any post-Theatre Mötley unless it turns up on the thrift store CD shelf. When I'm in the mood for a Crüe fix, I'll continue to stick with my dog-eared copies of Too Fast For Love and Shout at the Devil.
© 2019 Keith Abt