The last years of 80s Hair Metal, Part I – Extreme: More Than “More Than Words”

Hair metal peaked with Appetite for Destruction. Here’s what came after…

“Extreme? Are you kidding? I thought you were going with bands I wouldn’t know!”

Yeah, I’m starting this series with a band most of you remember only for the single that shot their sophomore album, Pornograffitti (1990), to double platinum sales: “More Than Words”, the admittedly beautiful acoustic ballad highlighted by Gary Cherone’s vocals and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt’s harmonies (the video for the song memorably showed bassist Pat Badger and drummer Paul Geary sitting this one out). For reference, their follow up album, III Sides to Every Story (1992), only sold 700,000 copies (which would be followed by Waiting For the Punchline (1995) – I think I may be the only one who bought that one).

Extreme is a bit different from the other bands I’m going to end up featuring here as “More Than Words” actually made them a (somewhat) household name for a couple years, and the band survived well into the 90s (and even released a fifth album in 2008, Saudades de Rock, which, yes, I bought). But Pornograffitti was set up by their self-titled first album (1989), and it’s that album I’m going to be addressing here as it made Extreme my favorite band for the remainder of my teenage years.

Yeah, this first album cover didn’t really help differentiate them from other hair acts at the time. Their logo, though, would be drawn on my spiral notebook covers my entire senior year.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) actually introduced me to Extreme – a portion of their single “Play With Me” played during a scene where several figures from history run amok at the local mall. Now, if this were Poison, a song entitled “Play With Me” would’ve gone an entirely different direction. And, sure, the title is loaded with connotation, but the lyrics demonstrate a cleverness that would manifest itself throughout this album – check out “Flesh N Blood” (a very much tongue-in-cheek song about cannibalism) and “Smoke Signals” (like “Play With Me”, the lyrics were more a compilation of phrases, this time about warnings).

Sure, Extreme had its share of crotch-rock songs: “Wind Me Up“, “Teacher’s Pet” and “Little Girls” were all fairly boilerplate women-appreciation numbers. Know your audience. But all of them were catchy tunes (I admit I still know ALL the lyrics – this tape rarely left my player that summer), and the lyrics at times seemed to be sung with a knowing wink. Admittedly listening to “Little Girls” is a bit cringey now, but maybe that was the point. KISS practically made a living on songs about underage girls, and in ’88 Winger’s “Seventeen” had been a huge hit. With “Little Girls”, Extreme cranks that sentiment up to eleven.

Now, the only musical instrument I ever learned how to play was the cornet during my middle school years, so I can’t speak intelligently on the musical arrangements of the songs or anything like that. But I can say Nuno Bettencourt was/is a guitar GOD. “Play With Me” is an obvious example of his guitar-slinging, and I put him on par with EVH at the time, skill-wise (clearly Nuno was influenced by Eddie, as most guitarists of the time were). More than that, Bettencourt was just a consummate musician; reading the liner notes I was amazed at everything Bettencourt did for that album: instruments beyond the guitar, the orchestration, he had a hand in everything. Showcasing his guitar-chops, there were two solo tracks on this first album, one introducing another of the album’s singles, “Mutha (Don’t Want to Go to School Today)” and one closing out “Rock a Bye Bye“, a song commenting on abortion.

It’s “Rock a Bye Bye” and another, “Watching, Waiting” that, for me, separated Extreme from most other hair bands I was listening to. Cherone and Bettencourt took some risks with their song-writing – I’m fairly confident in saying no other metal bands at the time were addressing abortion in their songs. And then there’s “Watching, Waiting” – a song about Christ’s crucifixion told from the point of view of one of the criminals on a cross and a Roman soldier. Don’t get me wrong, these songs weren’t “preachy” – Extreme wasn’t Stryper. But they suggested what I alluded to in this series’ introduction: bands unable to offer up something new at this point were pretty much doomed. A secular-focused band in every other aspect, these two songs made an impression on 16 year old me, and even if I wasn’t aware at the time of Martin Luther’s comment about it being better to think of the church while in the tavern, rather than thinking about the tavern while in church, these songs suggest Cherone was.

Finally, there’s the first album’s anthem, and my personal anthem that summer, “Kid Ego“. I imagine this is the song that got the band signed, as it’s just a rocker with a huge fist-pounding riff. This was Extreme’s “Down Boys” (Warrant) or “Youth Gone Wild” (Skid Row), though it didn’t have the popularity of either of those songs. Cherone apparently says the song makes him cringe now, but what does he know, anyway?

I never was able to see Extreme in concert – the closest I came was watching the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert back in 1992 (I think MTV televised it?). Their medley of Queen songs blew every other act away, and reaffirmed to me that they were a special talent in a era glutted with look-alikes. If you haven’t seen it, maybe it will convince you too.

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