For most of the 1980s and early 90s, Mötley Crüe were riding high — both literally and figuratively. The band recorded and toured relentlessly, earning them a devoted fan base and a string of multi-platinum albums, hit singles and popular videos.
Off stage, they engaged in enough debauchery that their VH1 Behind the Music episode almost singlehandedly turned that series into a hit while setting the stage for their best-selling tell-all autobiography, The Dirt (adapted into a Netflix movie in 2019). Nothing could stop them. Not lead singer Vince Neil getting into an accident while drunk and killing his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. Not bassist and primary songwriter Nikki Sixx OD-ing on heroin, being pronounced dead, revived with adrenaline, and then OD-ing again. Not Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee alleging raping a woman at a party (Sixx later claimed he may have embellished or made up the story during a low point in his life). Not guitarist Mick Mars suffering from a debilitating form of arthritis for most of his adult life. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold (or more accurately, platinum) and if it didn’t, it was probably because they wanted to snort, drink or screw it. In a word, they were bulletproof.
In 1992, that all came crashing down. The band was coming off the dual successes of 1989’s Dr. Feelgood and 1991’s greatest hits compilation Decade of Decadence and were hard at work on their next album when Neil quit/was fired. The band promptly hired John Corabi, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of L.A. band The Scream and set about working on what would become 1994’s self titled album. With the music industry changing around them, the newly inspired Crüe updated their sound and recorded a bunch of songs that were heavier, both lyrically and musically, than anything they had ever done before. They were confident that Mötley Crüe was their best album ever and would open up a new chapter in the band’s already successful history.
And then they learned a valuable lesson about what happens when you mess with the formula.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that Vince Neil would be that big a loss for Mötley Crüe. Despite having a clean, high-pitched voice that was perfect for the kind of heavy pop that Mötley Crüe were famous for, Neil had a very limited range that often manifested itself during live shows. Creatively, he contributed little to the band, as Nikki Sixx wrote most of the lyrics that Neil sang.
For most of the band’s history, that seemed just fine for Neil. By 1992, however, hair metal was on its way out and Mötley Crüe felt like it had to change up their sound. Neil, however, wasn’t feeling it.
I wanted the band to continue a straight hard-rock direction but they wanted to go in a blues direction. We had been rehearsing for a few months but we didn’t do any recording. It just wasn’t sounding good to me. I’m not a blues singer and Mötley is a rock band–not a blues band. I think it’s a stupid idea that will alienate the fans. I would have tried the blues thing and tried to put my own spin on it but I never got the chance.Vince Neil, Interview with the L.A. Times, May 1, 1993.
Neil’s lack of enthusiasm for the new material and seeming focus on his extracurricular activities (pornstars, racing cars, drinking, etc.) resulted in a parting of ways, the circumstances of which are still debated to this day. Did Neil quit or was he fired? Either way, the band put out a press release saying: “Race car driving has become a priority in Neil’s life. His bandmates felt he didn’t share their determination and passion for music.”
Enter John Corabi, who despite having a bluesier, raspier and lower voice than his predecessor, was a far superior singer. Corabi could credibly sing the Crüe back catalogue — albeit with a growing, more sinister delivery that makes him sound like Lemmy from Motörhead. And unlike Vince, when performing live, Corabi can actually sing in complete sentences, rather than just a couple of words here and there before running out of breath or not being able to hit the right notes.
Additionally, on the creative front, Corabi brought more to the table than Neil, causing the band to change up its songwriting process.
Everyone was on new territory creatively and just having stupid, harmless fun. Mick had never worked with a second guitarist, Nikki had never worked with a second lyricist, and the band had never written songs through jamming. We couldn’t wait for Mötley fans to hear what we’d done. We thought we had really made an intelligent, Mötley Crüe record, with a lot of commentary on the kooky shit going on in the world, from the Rodney King riots in L.A. to the latest fury over music censorship.John Corabi, “The Dirt.”
Unlike the more polished Dr. Feelgood, for the self-titled album, the band went for a grittier, rawer sound in the vein of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or Stone Temple Pilots. The change in sound clearly motivated the band. For instance, instrumentally, they sound better than they ever have. Sixx’s bass playing is notably improved while Mars’ guitar playing really shines, as Corabi’s presence allows the Crüe’s longtime guitarist to experiment with really complex and interesting melodies. Additionally, Lee sounds like an absolute beast on drums. If you read The Dirt, Lee was probably Corabi’s biggest fan and Neil’s biggest detractor in the band, so he must have been feeling inspired by the lead singer switch. Indeed, both Lee and Mars say this is the best Mötley album they’ve ever played on, and Sixx wonders if this record would have done better had they released it under a different band name.
Lyrically, the songs on Mötley Crüe are more mature and deeper than what they were most known for. There are no “Girls, Girls, Girls” or “Too Fast for Love” on this album. While Vince Neil was sticking to what had got him to the dance (such as inviting a thawed out caveman to a party but telling him not to bring Pauly Shore along), his old band was writing about serious stuff. There’s “Uncle Jack,” a song Corabi wrote about his child-molesting uncle. And second single “Misunderstood,” which paints a portrait of several people who are dealing with the fact that life has passed them by. And “Smoke the Sky,” a song championing marijuana legalization (Considering how that issue has taken off, I’m kind of surprised this song hasn’t gotten a second look – from either the band or the public. Then again, even the band treats this album like it doesn’t exist, never playing anything off of it in concert and omitting its singles from its many greatest hits collections.). And “Power to the Music,” an anti-censorship song that also touches on the legal controversy surrounding heavy metal in the 1980s after artists like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were accused of putting subliminal messages in their songs to entice listeners to kill themselves.
Lead single “Hooligan’s Holiday,” the aforementioned song about the L.A. riots, is much heavier than typical Crüe fare and really shows the potential of the Corabi-led lineup. The dual guitar attack from Corabi and Mars really elevates this song, as Mars plays off Corabi’s clean opening riff, coming up with a complex melody throughout the verses before contributing an excellent slide guitar solo. Meanwhile, Lee’s drumming is varied and highly intricate, as he opens with some strong hi-hat work on the riff before playing off the beat in the verses while mixing in his usual machine-gun style on the snare. The lyrics, from Corabi and Sixx, are subtle – a rarity for a Crüe song. But the closing line certainly isn’t: “Modern times and new blood’s pumping/ Only the strong survive.”
Perhaps that was why the band seemed eager to change its sound and release a more mature record. Even the obligatory Crüe song about rockstar excess takes on a more introspective and cynical tone. In “Poison Apples,” after the opening verse reminiscing about “sex, smack, rock, roll, mainline, overdose” and how “we lived it night and day,” the rest of song sounds like a cautionary tale, warning of “tabloid sleaze” and noting “the scars tattooed on our face.” “Blueprints for disaster/ You better not push me because I’ll bring you to your knees, to your knees/ Blueprints for disaster/ You better not love me because I’ll bring you to your knees, mama, to your knees,” the song, which was primarily written by Sixx, warns.
However, that newfound maturity did not extend to “Hammered,” which Sixx swears is not about a certain ex-frontman. Then again, with lyrics like “Who and what do you think you are, a rich motherfucker in a fancy car?” and “You’re more harm than my old vice and I don’t want to know,” it’s hard to imagine they could be about anyone other than the racing-obsessed Neil.
Despite Neil’s supposed lack of work ethic, he actually beat his old band to the punch, releasing Exposed eleven months before Mötley Crüe hit the stores. While Exposed sold poorly, peaking at #13 on the Billboard charts before quickly falling off the charts and failing to match Mötley Crüe‘s gold certification, critics and fans pointed out that it sounded more like Mötley Crüe than Mötley Crüe.
And that was probably the main reason why Mötley Crüe failed. Not only did Corabi sound so radically different from Neil, but the band’s new direction and maturity caught fans completely off guard. After all, it’s more than a little strange to see a band that once considered strip club names to be worthy song lyrics suddenly writing socially conscious songs. While some 80s metal/hard rock bands were able to shift from party mode to serious songwriting, most notably Van Halen under Sammy Hagar, others like Poison and Warrant were much less successful. On the other hand, bands like Aerosmith and Bon Jovi were able to maintain their success by becoming more pop-oriented (Aerosmith’s best-selling single of the 90s was a Diane Warren-written song, while Bon Jovi’s biggest song of the decade sounds like it could have been).
Then again, maybe the music had nothing to do with it and the album was never going to succeed. Seeing them as passé (and, no doubt, fed up with having to deal with their antics over the years) Elektra was no longer interested in promoting them. Meanwhile, the band shot itself in the foot with a disastrous interview on MTV, which included Nikki threatening to knock out the interviewer’s teeth, burning a bridge with one of the band’s biggest and longstanding allies. Without any support from Elektra or MTV, the album didn’t have a chance. The ensuing tour was a disaster, as the band, already forced to play smaller venues than they had become accustomed, had to cancel their remaining shows after the first few dates due to sluggish ticket sales.
It took only one concert — the first stop on our tour — for all those hopes and expectations to crash and burn at my feet. The show was in Tucson, Arizona, and only four thousand tickets had been sold for a fifteen-thousand-seat amphitheater. I went on the radio before the concert and said to the fans, “Listen, it’s the first night of the tour. So I’m doing something special. Meet me outside the radio station after the show, and I’ll put each and every one of you on the guest list.”
If I had said that in 1989, there would have been ten thousand teenagers rioting in the parking lot. That afternoon, two Mexican kids showed up. And that’s when I realized: It was all over.Nikki Sixx, The Dirt.
Maybe they should have released the album under a different band name. Maybe they should have recorded a few more songs for this record that sounded like classic Crüe. Maybe they should have hired someone who sounded a bit more like Vince Neil.
Or maybe they never should have split from Neil in the first place. That was the conclusion the band ultimately came to. Neil’s solo career was hanging by a thread after his 1995 album Carved in Stone flopped, and Mötley’s management and record label were pushing hard for a reunion. Ultimately, the four original members realized they were better off together than apart and bowed to the inevitable. “My record was the first record that they had done that didn’t go platinum, didn’t make some sort of crazy noise, and everybody panicked,” Corabi said in The Dirt.
Of course, getting rid of the new guy didn’t solve the band’s problems. Mötley Crüe’s next album, 1997’s experimental Generation Swine, flopped even harder and two years later, Lee exited to pursue a career in nu metal and go to college (kind of). The four ultimately reunited in 2004 and have been, more or less, a nostalgia act ever since. They’ve done well as a touring band, and even made some good money off a farewell tour featuring a “legally binding cessation of touring” agreement signed by all four members that might as well have been drawn up by Lionel Hutz given how effective it was. They were supposed to embark on a stadium tour with Def Leppard, Poison and Joan Jett this summer before COVID-19 hit.
I’m betting they weren’t planning on playing any songs off this album, though.