The Signal House meets writer and publisher Justin Quirk, whose latest book is a cultural history of glam metal.
Henry Martin: You regularly DJ and your musical taste is eclectic. What are you listening to right now, and if it’s possible to answer: why?
Justin Quirk: I’m actually having a bit of a palate cleanser after being immersed in glam metal for six months while I wrote the book. I love that stuff, but it’s a bit like eating candy floss after a while. I’m a huge dub fan, so I tend to listen to a lot of that when I’m working as it’s got a nice hypnotic quality—King Tubby, Keith Hudson, Scientist, Prince Jammy, that kind of thing. And during lockdown I’ve listened through pretty much all of Fela Kuti’s output—again, long, repetitive, hypnotic stuff is good for concentrating when you work.
Henry: Introduce us to Nothin’ But a Good Time and explain the impetus for the book, but before you do that: what three exemplary glam metal songs should our readers listen to as they continue reading?
Justin: If you stick on Motley Crue, Kickstart My Heart; WASP, I Wanna Be Somebody and Def Leppard’s Armageddon It you’re not going to go far wrong.
The book was partly rooted in my own adolescent tastes—I loved this music when I was a teenager. And it was so commercially huge. But I couldn’t work out why nobody was seriously reassessing this stuff. We have a really great tradition in this country [UK] of writing and thinking very seriously about quite trashy pop culture and working out how it was a reflection of its environment. Mark Kermode on horror films and video nasties, Simon Reynolds on the really bargain basement end of glam rock, Stewart Home on skinhead and oi! music, Jeremy Deller on the provincial, grass-roots end of rave culture etc. All these things were sneered at or dismissed at the time, but they all tell you something profound about the time and place that produced them and the best writing draws that out. And the more I thought about glam metal, it felt like you could do the same thing there—it was this huge commercial force which shaped the industry and embodied the American spirit from 1983–1991, it built MTV, broke open new markets in Eastern Europe and Japan, created genuine pop hits, revolutionised music production etc., but if it was ever discussed—which was pretty rare—it got boiled down to ‘spandex and pyrotechnics, LOL’. And, obviously, that stuff is is entertaining, but I couldn’t help feel that there was a better way of telling this story.
Henry: In researching and writing any book there are a lot of unforeseen challenges and rewards. I’m interested in finding out what these might have been for you, and in the case of the former, how you overcame them?
Justin: My main one was the logistics of getting the project going—I worked with Unbound, who are a crowdfunding platform. It’s an interesting model and they’ve done some great books on fairly niche bits of popular culture (Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone who wrote all those million selling Choose Your Own Adventure books in the 80s did their book through it). We got 70% of the money in really quickly which lured me into a false sense of security, but I underestimated how tricky getting the rest of the money would be. I think part of the issue is that crowdfunding is easier when you have a really narrow focus to a book—just one band, or one label or one club etc. I think the end result is better from it being an overview, but if I was going to crowdfund anything again, I’d definitely tighten the focus.
Henry: Music is a product of its time and place, but it can also transcend both and adopt new meanings for contemporary audiences. Do you think glam metal has a contemporary resonance? Too often I see metal and rock as signifiers of a time period (in their use on movie or TV soundtracks, for instance) rather than as 'living', 'breathing' genres. In short, is the genre just dated and dead?
Justin: That’s a really good question, and a very difficult one to answer. There’s odd places that it crops up—it was used in the second series of Stranger Things as a real shorthand for those years. It’s on the soundtrack to the new Trolls film, and friends’ children seem to respond to it. But what dates the music isn’t so much the age, but a very important cultural shift which occurred with grunge—from that point, music developed a very strong sense of irony, and everything started coming with quotation marks around it. Everything functions on a few different levels, everything means ‘something else’. Glam metal doesn’t have that quality at all—it’s very surface, everything’s quite one dimensional. It clearly had a ridiculous edge to it, but the bands were very serious about what they did. But if you saw a band dressed like WASP nowadays, you’d assume it was a joke, right? I think it’s why older bands still make sense today if they had that sense of irony—I think a Talking Heads or the B-52s, or Blondie wouldn’t look out of place today, even though they’re older than glam metal. Whereas glam is so on-the-nose it looks as anachronistic as skiffle or something.
Henry: Sometimes I feel that popular culture is becoming more conservative. Harry Styles putting on nail varnish counts as risqué and performers are 'brands' rather than 'personalities'; that, and so much of popular music seems glib and joyless. Where did it all go wrong?
Justin: I don’t know if it did. Music generally seems somewhat less important nowadays—there’s so many other things competing for people’s attention. Computer games and those sort of virtual worlds seem to consume people’s attention and identities in the way that music did for my generation. And I can’t honestly say that’s any better or worse. Where I think you do have a close analogue for glam metal is in that really crass end of EDM, the kind of music which plays at things like Tomorrowland—there’s something about the supersize quality of that, the way it’s so self-consciously obnoxious, the way it turns these rather dull provincial people into these cartoonish megastars and the way that tasteful people hate it, that it really makes me feel like there’s parallel there.
Henry: If I could wave a magic wand and transport you to any live performance of your choosing, where would be and who would you see? Time travel is not permitted.
Justin: There’s not that many glam bands I’d still want to see today—I find that whole idea of nostalgia in music slightly depressing when bands are still trudging around with one remaining member and not quite what they were. One of the bands who are still sounding as good as they were are Def Leppard. If lockdown could lift tomorrow and I could go somewhere really crass—Vegas, LA, Miami, anywhere like—and see them play Hysteria in its entirety, I’d be very happy.
Henry: What was the most surprising thing you learned about glam metal, whether that’s an anecdote from your research, or something you came to through your own musings?
Justin: Just how big the music was. It cultivated this air of outsider status, but as soon as I started digging and actually going through old charts and looking at tour schedules you realise how vast it was. There was one week I found in 1987 when U2’s The Joshua Tree was number one, and something like seven of the other albums in the billboard top ten were all glam metal releases. And when MTV was really taking off in 1983, the only track getting played more than Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was Def Leppard’s Photograph. That’s the level they were operating at.
Henry: You also write about visual art and artists. I’m interested in finding out how—or if—these strands in your writing practice intersect? Does knowing and writing about one, help or hinder your thoughts on the other? Or do you feel they require independent sensibilities?
Justin: I don’t think you can really separate it off. The more I write about culture, the more I find that my primary interest is in why and how something happened, and less in ‘what it was’. And a lot of that is joining up the dots between things that were happening separately but were being shaped by the same forces. And that’s the real fun in writing a book like this—using the music as your main peg, but then joining those dots up between that, MTV, WWF, Andy Warhol, video nasties, the crack epidemic, the end of communism, Siegfried and Roy, Desert Storm etc. I wanted the book to appeal to someone who probably doesn’t even like the music, but wanted to read something more about the culture and the feeling of the time in America—and I just don’t think you can tell that story without looking at glam metal. That was the perfect vehicle for the narrative.
JUSTIN QUIRK is a writer and editor based in London. Since starting his career at the Guardian, he has written for titles including i-D, Dazed and Confused, Kerrang!, Q, Word, the Independent, The Sunday Times, Arena, Mr Porter, Artspace, BBC Culture and Esquire. He has also worked as a curator, DJ and creative director and regularly appears on the BBC World Service discussing culture and current affairs. He lives in London. Website. Twitter. Nothin' But A Good Time.
(Image credits: Nothin' But A Good Time courtesy of the author; Guitarist portrait, unknown)