Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Best of Rock of Ages (or My Favorite Hair Metal Songs)

On Friday, my wife, Megan, surprised me at the Marvel offices with my parents, who came down from Massachusetts to celebrate my birthday (it’s Tuesday, so don’t worry, you didn’t miss it). They took me out to dinner and we stayed overnight in New York City, but probably the highlight (besides seeing my folks) was getting to see Rock of Ages on Broadway, a show I’ve been wanting to check out since Bret Michaels’ ill-fated Tonys appearance a couple years back.

Rock of Ages is basically a loosely-scripted story of some folks trying to thrive in the 1980’s Los Angeles rock scene with requisite love story, kids who want to make it big, shady characters, etc.; really it’s just an excuse to put on a musical where the soundtrack is all hair metal and monster ballads from Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi and so on, which as anybody knows is music to my ears in more ways than one.

My mother asked me after the show where exactly my love for this kind of music came from—I was after all born in 1982, so I was pretty young during the heyday of hair metal—and best I could manage is that I probably had a camp counselor who liked it and turned me onto it. I can say that from about middle school on I devoured every bit of Guns N Roses and Motley Crue I could get my hands on plus any chintzy collection like Monster of Rock or Monster Ballads advertised on late night TV and there is no music I like more.

When I listen to music, my prime goal is to get pumped up or at least feel some sort of powerful emotion. I like to be able to picture myself doing something epic, to lose myself in the riffs and chorus so I’m squinting my eyes and looking like a fool to anybody around me. Lyrics and poetry are really secondary to me when they come up against rocking guitar or drum solos that make me want to go run a marathon I’ll get winded thirty seconds into; I want to hear guys (and girls) scream rather than sing.

Hair metal can totally be beautiful (the first dance at my wedding, after some persuasion, was a super slow version of “When I See You Smile” by Bad English), but all I’m really looking for is something that makes my arms tingle and makes me want to get up and jump. I don’t get that from today’s music, be it top 40 or indy, though much love and respect to people who do.

I had more fun at Rock of Ages than I’ve probably ever had at a show. The critic in me knows it wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen (and I’m skeptical on how well it will translate to film this year since it was pretty light on plot and the rowdy, drunken crowd was a huge player in making it awesome), but I didn’t care because I was on my feet smiling, clapping along and scoring high fives from cast members as they ran up the aisle (so glad I took the aisle seat).

Here are my ten favorite numbers from the show, which incidentally are some of my favorite songs from the 80’s period (maybe I’ll get to a second post sooner than later on the songs I wish had made the show but probably got left out due to rights issues; 80’s rockers aren’t always known for their generous spirit with this type of thing).

“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger
Night Ranger’s one (real) hit is a perfect marriage of jam and ballad, with the flowing verses into a kick ass chorus. It’s also right off the bat an example of Rock of Ages’ ability to do what I was concerned they wouldn’t as far as shoehorning the actual lyrics of these songs into a story with very few alterations. The female lead is named Sherrie Christian, so her flight from small town Kansas to L.A. fits the song with her last name as the hook, the early parts following her parents’ disapproval, and the rev up into the “motoring” chorus transitioning her story into a love story with wannabe rocker Drew Boley (they get even more bang for their buck off her name by using Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” for Drew’s second act pursuit of his girl).

“We Built This City” by Starship
Every time I’ve ever heard this song played anywhere, those opening staccatos never fail to get a big cheer, and the crowd I saw this show with went nuts for them. You get little tastes throughout, as the song initially gets subverted by the bad guys looking to demolish the Sunset Strip, but it keeps popping up later on as the voice of protest from those looking to maintain the rock. Great anthem for the cool used to perfection here.

“More than Words”/“Heaven”/“To Be With You” by Extreme/Warrant/Mr. Big
A truly epic mash-up that puts that crap on Glee to shame (and by the way, the reason “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the big show closing number, doesn’t make this list is because Glee ruined it for me, so screw those guys). On one side, you’ve got Sherrie realizing she’s got feelings for Drew with the combination of Extreme and then Mr. Big, two of the best ballads of the era. On the flip side, Drew keeps coming up with terrible lyrics to the tune of “Heaven,” then breaks through with the real deal by using Sherrie for inspiration and scores a gig off his righteous jam.

“Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake
Lonny, the narrator and general comic relief, breaks the fourth wall and sets this first act ending number up by explaining this is where “everybody’s shit is fucked up” and we get a killer montage of Drew selling out to get a record deal, Sherrie turning to exotic dancing, Regina protesting the development and Dennis lamenting the loss of his club; a bunch of different voices (plus the ensemble) meshing in glorious symphony as they march toward the second act.

“The Final Countdown” by Europe
Europe’s industrial rock epic serves as the backdrop to start the second act, with construction crews coming in to demolish the Sunset Strip as our heroes attempt to fight back against the establishment in exaggerated (and hilarious) slow motion. There’s a creepy quality to the booming industrial sound of “The Final Countdown” that makes it ominous, but it’s also overblown enough that it’s ripe to accompany physical comedy.

“High Enough” by Damn Yankees
One of the very best monster ballads of the 80’s plays for Drew and Sherrie’s near-reconciliation, and I’ll let bassist/vocalist Jack Blades (also of Night Ranger) explain why it was perfect: “‘High Enough' was about how you love someone so much and you just don't want to scare them away. And it's like, do I take the next step? And then she freaks out when you go, 'I love you.' And it's like, 'What!?!? I'm outta here!' And you're, 'Wait a minute! Come back!' But then the girl comes back, because in the bridge it's, (singing) 'The next thing I remember I was running back for more.' You know how you get scared at first when you fall in love, and everybody freaks out, and that can't be right. And then you go, Wait a minute, this is great, let's forget about the past. Can you fly me over yesterday? Can you take me high enough to fly me over yesterday?”

“I Hate Myself for Loving You”/“Heat of the Moment” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts/Asia
A great spotlight mash-up for Sherrie as well as Stacee Jaxx, the rocker diva who she slept with after Drew said he just wanted to be friends and who got her fired from the club (he was one of the best characters in the show—played by the understudy no less!—and I’m super pissed I had to use the bathroom during his intro, which happened to be to one of my favorite songs ever, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”) as she asserts her new independence via Joan Jett and he fails at a last ditch grasp at dignity with Asia before getting punched out.

“Hit Me with Your Best Shot” Pat Benatar
One of the running subplots of the show is Franz, the effeminate son of the German developer who wants to level the Strip, falling in love with rebellious city planner Regina (“I’m not gay, I’m just German!”) and trying to find the guts to stand up to his dad. After a great slow burn, he finally does it here, tearing away his suit to reveal a spandex singlet and belting out Pat Benatar’s signature song as he makes his goofy and excellent stand. It looks like the Franz character got cut from the movie (from the trailer at least), which is a bummer, because he was one of my favorites (and portrayed by another understudy!).

“Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon
Probably the two biggest crowd pleasing characters in the entire show are Dennis and Lonny, the aging rocker/owner of the Bourbon Room (where most of the action takes place) and his loyal, surprisingly nimble (dude busts out crazy pirouettes and whatnot) protégé. In the movie, they’ll be played by Alex Baldwin and Russell Brand, so that should be interesting. Here, they confess their “deeper feelings” for one another by singing and pantomiming along to REO Speedwagon’s song the same way my buddies and I used to when we did talent shows at camp (the pantomiming, not the confessing feeling part), i.e. actually acting like they’re opening a door every time they say that line. No number got more laughs and cheers than this one, and deservedly so.

“The Search is Over” by Survivor
A lot of people only know Survivor for “Eye of the Tiger” (if they know who sang that song at all), but as a proud owner of their greatest hits album, I can tell you they are a seriously rocking band who, like the Rocky movies, can pull off poetic as well as they do pump-up. This ballad about realizing the person you loved was right in front of you all along appropriately scores Drew and Sherrie’s romantic reconciliation scene and bridges to the end of the show.

All in all, an awesome experience that I would gladly repeat if any of my pals reading this feel like taking a trip to Broadway and floating me a couple hundred bucks (tickets aren’t that much, but I’d figured I’d go for it).

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