As humans we like to find simple explanations, we categorize things and events and people so that we can make sense of a World which is infinitely more complex than we can handle. This is something that is so important to us—a fact that stems from our evolutionary past—that there is actually a collection of structures in the brain which are tasked with doing just that. (It’s called the default mode network.) Basically, we constantly work at ”building” explanatory models that will allow us to, well, build more explanatory models more quickly.
When applied to cultural phenomena this can have some unfortunate effects. Sometimes these explanatory models, when unchallenged, become sort of petrified and then form the basis of other, later models. We get stuck in a model that might be obsolete. Even more problematic is the tendency we have to, with hindsight, re-categorize things based on ”new” information. In evolutionary terms this was generally a boon. Updated information could very well aid in survival and that was a good thing. Culturally speaking, it has a tendency to promote revisionism.
We can also run into problems because of something I’ve written about earlier: stories. We love narratives. A collection of numbers may very well adequately represent a phenomenon but it doesn’t really make it into our explanatory models. For that we need stories. However, stories tend to become legend after a while and when they do there is a strong tendency to re-categorize past events through the ”haze” of that legend. Thus punk killed off disco and grunge proved the death of hair metal even though the supposed opposites in those two pairings didn’t really affect each other that much. (Those who purchased disco albums didn’t suddenly become transformed into mohawk-wearing, denim-clad hooligans searching for 7″ singles of obscure British punk bands.)
Lately I’ve noticed an addition to this which I will call The Appetitie Fallacy. The basic idea is that the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses Appetite For Destruction was a turning point for harder rock at the time. In this view there was a definite before-and-after, the release of that album was the first rumblings of a revolution against the polished glam rock of Bon Jovi, Poison, Def Leppard and, in more recent tellings, KISS. In a way, this view sets Appetite For Destruction up as the precursor to the grunge phenomenon that killed off hair metal.
So why am I writing about this now? Because I recently picked up Greg Prato’s book Take It Off—KISS Truly Unmasked. (This isn’t a review but let’s just say that the book isn’t even a decent account of KISS 1983-95.) In the chapter on Crazy Nights Curt Gooch comments on the tour in support of that album and, as a kind of set-up, mentions a changing musical climate:
Crazy Nights had the unbelievable mistiming of coming out post-Appetite For Destruction, which was an absolute game-changing album for the industry. And once that happened, that Ron Nevinson poppy sound was—virtually overnight—eliminated from the conversation.Curt Gooch in Take It Off—KISS Truly Unmasked (p. 113)
Only one part of that quote is undeniably true: Crazy Nights was released after Appetite For Destruction. The rest? It’s a story that’s been building for a number of years on the back of other stories, the main one being about how a single airing of the Welcome To The Jungle video late at night on MTV saved Appetite from oblivion. Let’s start there.
Guns ‘N’ Roses and MTV
This is a great story. Tom Zutaut has told it a number of times and it’s in Tom King’s book about David Geffen (The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood, p. 430). Basically, Appetite For Destruction had sold about 200,000 copies and Geffen, somewhat less than happy about the return on their investement, decided it was time to cut their losses and move on. (Depending on the version that’s being told it’s either dropping the band altogether or just moving on to a second album in the hopes that it would fare better.) Tom Zutaut went to the very top and pleaded with David Geffen who managed to get the video aired on MTV just once at 4 AM (or 5 AM) on a Sunday. Lo and behold, it became MTV’s most requested video and suddenly the album sold like hotcakes.
(One important piece that’s usually added to this story is that both MTV and radio were ”afraid” to play Welcome To The Jungle. These days that part of the story revolves around the band themselves being drug fiends and having a violence to their live performances but in 1987 it was mainly about the cover art. Even the hard rock radio tip sheets like Hard Report had some wildly differing opinions about the actual imagery, but the general consensus was that the cover was just a bad idea from a promotion standpoint. Seemingly acutely aware of the problem, Geffen were using the ”cross” version in industry ads as early as August 1987, less than a month after the album had been released.)
Depending on how deep down the rabbit hole one wants to go there are several more aspects of that story that may or may not have been relevant (or even true), but the main point is clear: the powers-that-be had to be shown the errors of their ways and once the buying public was presented with Welcome To The Jungle, success was a foregone conclusion. Thus the musical climate changing virtually overnight as Curt Gooch said. Problem is that the rise of Appetite For Destruction was a slow, old-fashioned build. Granted, once the video was put in regular rotation on MTV sales did increase but it wasn’t quite as explosive as has sometimes been suggested. And was that single airing really true? As always, I am more prone to believe contemporary reports than recollections thirty years later. Recollections have a tendency to turn into legdends after all. In late 1987, the story sounded like this:
Touring has definitely been the key strategy in breaking this album. […] When we released the album we had a few curveballs thrown at us: MTV was reluctant to play the video except on its Headbangers Ball, and radio has not been as receptive as we had anticipated.Tom Zutaut quoted in Billboard 87-12-19 (p. 22)
This quote seems to suggest that MTV actually had played the video some time after its release (it was listed as a new video clip in the September 12 issue of Bilboard). After all, in December the album had been on the shelves for five months and the video had been available for three, so if MTV had just been convinced to play Welcome To The Jungle then, the choice of words seems a little odd: ”When we released the album […] MTV was reluctant to play the video except on its Headbangers Ball”. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Zutaut had yet to plead with David Geffen and the ”debut” airing on MTV happened in December.
Even if we assume that this interview was done the same week that the issue of Billboard was published, that leaves a lot of time until the video was actually in regular rotation on MTV. According to Billboard 88-01-23 (p. 59), Welcome To The Jungle was a new add to the rotation as of January 13, 1988, a full month after that quote. Looking at the chart action of Appetite For Destruction there is a decent jump from 49 to 37, the latter for the week ending Janaury 30,1988, which could correspond fairly well with increased visibility due to MTV. But the album had gotten itself up to 49 without that help and, looking past that initial bump, even when the video was in medium rotation the chart success was still inching slowly upward. There was no real explosion in sales. Except that huge jump from 92 to 74 in late September. Right after Welcome To The Jungle was available as a video (and possibly aired on Headbangers Ball?).
The graph above ends on the week ending March 5, 1988, when KISS’s Crazy Nights had almost dropped back down to its entry position and was at number 55 after 22 weeks on the chart. Appetite was at number 21 after 28 weeks, a long and steady climb, and the video was still only on medium rotation on MTV. In fact, it wouldn’t enter into heavy rotation until April 23 and, in that context, I think it is very telling that the second video from the album, Sweet Child of Mine, wasn’t completed until May 1988. (Billboard 88-05-28, p. 67) If that single showing of Welcome To The Jungle in the wee hours of a random Sunday had completely upended the MTV playlist and kick-started sales, why wait to that long make a follow-up video? But, let’s set that aside for now and look at the album chart as such.
The Billboard Album Chart in 1987-88
In the pre-Soundscan era most high-profile albums entered the album charts in the 40-20 range and then built from there. It was fairly uncommon even for the huge pop acts of the day to debut in the top 10. Looking at the harder rock of the day, when Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation debuted in the week ending September 19, 1987, it did so at number 100 because they were essentially building their career again after some fallow years. The following week, more high-profile acts such as Pink Floyd and Rush debuted at 43 and 52 respectively (and Michael Jackson’s blockbuster Bad debuted at number 1). In fact, throughout the fall of 1987 only one hard rock act managed to debut on the album charts in the top 30 and that was—wait for it—Dokken with Back For The Attack which entered at number 23 the week ending December 5. (To put that in perspective, that was quite a lot higher than Sting or George Michael managed at the time.) Looking at those numbers Crazy Nights did very well. It entered at 57 and jumped to 24 the next week.
Basically, what Guns ‘N’ Roses managed with Appetite For Destruction in the fall of 1987 was fairly common for a new or slightly lower profile act. They managed to crack the top 60 without MTV (?) or any significant radio play which, considering that those were the two main ways of promoting acts, was very respectable for a debut album. For most debut acts at this time this really would have been fine; tour a little, build on this and the second album was sure to go gold. But in 1987, Geffen might have had a slightly different set of expectation for a hard rock act than some of the other labels. In the week ending September 12, 1987—when Guns ‘N’ Roses hit the top 100—Geffen had Whitesnake at number 3 and Sammy Hagar at number 18. Unlike the Tawny Kitaen-assisted Coverdale who stayed in the top 5 (!) for the rest of the year, Sammy didn’t manage to hold on to the upper echelons for long. But, when Hagar’s album dropped Aerosmith was on the rise and by October they were top 30. In 1987, hard rock meant huge sales for Geffen and Appetite was ”only” a steady seller.
Right about now I’m sure more than one reader is thinking ”but what about KISS?” Glad you asked. In February 1988 Crazy Nights was certified platinum by the RIAA. (Cashbox 88-03-12, p. 4. Coincidentally, February also saw Appetite For Destruction certified gold.) As most of us are aware, for KISS this was just a little too late. On January 14, 1988, Gene and Paul had been informed that they were essentially bankrupt and they summarily ended their relationship with financial advisors Glickman/Marks on March 3. (KISS Alive Forever—The Complete Touring History, p. 164-65) The tour continued but it’s hard to describe the US leg of the tour as anything but ”glass half full”. With Reason To Live not generating enough additional video and radio play, album sales dropped off significantly by March and by mid-April Crazy Nights dropped out of the top 100. What’s interesting to note about the tour is that in KISS Alive Forever—The Complete Touring History there is no mention that the tour was doing poorly because KISS hadn’t adjusted to the times, something that is explicitly stated about the Revenge tour:
In what has been interpreted as a knee-jerk reaction to ”corporate rock”, KISS, along with virtually every other hard rock/heavy metal band from the 1980s, found themselves disowned by the music-buying public, and replaced by a seemingly never-ending horde of supposedly earnest garage bands.KISS Alive Forever—The Complete Touring History , p. 201
In 2002 Curt and Jeff saw the ”failed” tour in support of Crazy Nights and concluded that the band had set their expectations too high and essentially bit of more than they could chew (i.e. booking venues that were too large). In 2019, Curt saw the failure of Crazy Nights through the prism of a changing musical climate, a climate that hadn’t really begun to change yet.
But let’s ”finish off” the Appetite story. Fast forward a bit and in May 1988 Cashbox mentions Welcome To The Jungle as the ”#1 requested video on MTV”, which is quite late for the legendary Zutaut story to make much sense. (Cashbox 88-05-17, p. 8) On July 30 the album hits the number 1 spot on the Cashbox album charts and a week later, the week ending August 6, spent a single week atop the Billboard album chart. (Cashbox 88-07-30, p. 7; Billboard 88-08-06, p. 78) Huzzah! The changing of the guard is complete! Pop-influenced, glammy hard rock has been replaced by gritty rock ‘n roll!! That Nevison sound that Curt Gooch mentioned is a thing of the past, right? Alas, if we’ve learned anything it is that it is never as simple as the stories we like to tell.
The Death of Hair Metal
Nothing in the music business is ever instantaneous or over night. When Appetite For Destruction spent that week in August 1988 on top of the Billboard album chart, it merely borrowed the top spot from Def Leppard’s Hysteria. In fact, when Billboard bookended the 1980s Guns ‘N’ Roses were indeed in the top 10 artists and albums for both 1988 and 1989, but they were soundly beaten by Hysteria in 1988 and Bon Jovi’s New Jersey in 1989. (Billboard 89-12-23, p. D-22) The polished sound that KISS aimed for on Crazy Nights wasn’t ill-timed, it was right in line with that was charting and selling millions of albums in 1987 and 1988. (And in 1989 when Alice Cooper did his most ”hair metaly” album to date and suddenly had a top 20 album, handily outselling his previous 80s efforts.)
It is entirely too simplistic to say that waiting for Nevison was a mistake or that the sound they sought was out-of-date. That sound was topping the charts at the time and if anything Appetite For Destruction was the outlier in 87-89. Actually, let’s make one last point about this. When Appetite For Destruction had clawed its way into the top 30 the week ending February 13, 1988, it was leap-frogged by a new entry at number 22. Who, you ask? David Lee Roth and his Skyscraper. (Billboard 88-02-13, p. 96) Later, when Appetite had managed to climb into the top 10—and this was in July so it was still a fairly slow climb—it was overtaken by the glammiest of the glam: for the week ending July 2, 1988, Poison’s Open Up And Say Ah! nabbed the number 5 spot in only it’s seventh week on the chart, easily beating Appetite which was then at number 8. (Billboard 88-07-02, p. 80)
Any lack of success on KISS’s part—and I find it hard to see a platinum-selling album as a lack of success—wasn’t due to the rise of Guns ‘N’ Roses and any new sound they heralded. Appetite For Destruction hadn’t even begun to get its legs and get mainstream attention when the popularity of Crazy Nights started to wane and the revisionist tale that Gooch tries to tell is based on the, mostly exaggerated and at least partly false, story of Zutaut, Geffen, and a single airing of Welcome To The Jungle changing the face of popular rock music. Even if that story had been true, the timeline wasn’t such that it would have had any effect what so ever on the success of KISS. For some reason the music KISS was putting out simply wasn’t connecting with ”more” than a million people in 1987-88, but it wasn’t because the best-selling debut album of all time somehow turned music buyers off of a certain sound.