Against My Better Judgment: Seeing Mötley Crüe’s Farewell Tour
Before I say goodbye to Mötley Crüe I want to bring up Zimmer’s Hole, the jokey not-that-great Strapping Young Lad side project who titled their third album While You Were Shouting at the Devil . . . I was In League WIth Satan. For those not in the know, the album title is a dual reference to “In League With Satan,” a song on Venom’s 1981 debut album Welcome to Hell, and to Mötley Crüe’s blockbuster 1983 sophomore LP, Shout at the Devil.
Dumb record titles like that exemplify a kind of snobbish (un)holier-than-thou attitude that has followed the Crüe throughout the ups and downs of their career. In the early '80s both Venom and Mötley Crüe were hungry acts selling themselves with shock value and aesthetics to cover up a lack of playing ability. Despite the common ground, Venom stalled out even though their music inspired a celebrated sub-genre (it should be said pretty much by accident) while Crüe crossed over into the mainstream where they were hated on by rock critics who called them juvenile delinquents and rip off artists while their fellow glam rockers spurned them for having no musical talent.
The underground still keeps a healthy distance away from them—trying to take evil music and making it something with mass appeal is worthy only of ridicule, of jokey titles on shitty records.
As of July 24, after the Tacoma, WA stop on Mötley Crüe's final tour, I have seen both Mötley Crüe and Venom, and not only was Crüe much better, but they struck me as more legitimately dangerous. For that I celebrated them against my better judgment.
“Against my better judgment” makes up the core of the Crüe’s appeal. Like cigarette salesmen, the product they push is openly life-threatening with little or no reward past the immediate future. In 2015, when radical feminism is going pop, Mötley Crüe still opens their two-hour concert with “Girls Girls Girls,” complete with two sexy backup dancers and singers making sure that Vince Neil doesn’t miss one line item on the laundry list of strip clubs he visited. The sales pitch: guys, spending money on watching strangers undress in front of you is good, women, being objectified for money is good. Why? Because it’s fucking fun. There is no better reason.
Surface appeal is the evil power the Crüe wield. The devil that they shout at is not the accuser of the Old Testament, the withered ill-willed voice of the New, or even the mustachioed and pointy-tailed cartoon that is so often the unseen villain in horror films—he’s Mephisto in Faust, his goal is to sell you nothing for something, for everything.
That Satan wants his minions to be massive successes, not to toil in (let’s be honest) obscurity. If that massive success can come without re-inventing the wheel, without spending one ounce of unnecessary effort, even better.
Mötley Crüe made it apparent during their farewell that much of the harping on their musical ability was (or at least is now) unjustified: they play below their skill level in exchange for making every note count. Nikki Sixx was energetic and mobile without misfiring. After having seen Judas Priest earlier this year on the same stage, I think Vince Neil’s voice has held up better than Rob Halford’s—then again, Halford hits more notes in one song than exist in Neil’s entire range. Still, consistency has value.
Tommy Lee deserves his own paragraph. Perpetually lit from behind, like the villain in a Godzilla movie when it first wades into the city, he’s imposing beyond reason, still cut like an athlete at age 52. He pretty much plays one drum beat, a deeper, funkier, slightly sped-up take on Dave Holland’s beat for “Metal Gods,” which, combined with his deep Accept-ish backing vocals make him seem like the most metal member of the band. It would be a shame to lose his drumming after Mötley Crüe stops performing, but his solo work is not good—I hear AC/DC could use a great skinsman, and it would be great to hear what Rudd’s beats would sound like with a few beer-can-crushing drum fills.
Guitarist Mick Mars came away as the the center of my interest and sympathy. He was imposing in his own way, wearing a black top hat low over his face, perpetually hunched over, playing his guitar tight against his chest.
Mars suffers from ankylosing spondylitis. Young people receive full disability benefits for this literally bone-crushing disease; Mars continues to play guitar in Mötley Crüe. He suffers from another inflammatory condition: the disdain of rock critics and other musicians. In a recent interview for Ultimate Classic Rock, Mars spoke briefly about wanting to prove that he can, in fact play guitar, which seems odd coming from the mouth of a highly successful musician, but indicates that at least one member of the band is aware of the double standard that Zimmer's Hole played on.
Mars played like a man with something to prove and impressed me. His solo break was a brief moment of focus and restraint, especially in contrast to Tommy Lee’s drum solo, which was all mechanical acrobatics and playing along to mostly bland pop hits (I’m in full support of more people playing with “Uptown Funk,” however).
The big-money sheen that Crüe love to display honestly does them kind-of a disservice—it downplays the inherent danger in their music. Rotating drums and cherry pickers distract from the sense of danger at the heart of the music. I’m more comfortable with their massive burning pentagram and Sixx’s Mad Max-ish flamethrower bass. The group had to play the following show without most of their stage show, and I wish that I could compare that show with what I saw.
Still, some of the irreverence for human life that has colored the band’s music and personal lives shone through; I’ve never seen a show with so much pyro, and they played inside a wooden building.
The choicest cuts all came from the earlier parts of their career. I’m a fan of Dr. Feelgood, but its songs are all revving engines, amazing intros and first verses with pretty-good tunes following them, but the young, hungry material from Too Fast For Love and Shout at the Devil maintains its virility even with distracting spectacle and extended solo breaks.
Crüe’s career is mostly misses with a few great hits, and almost all those hits made it onto radio. The only deep cut I wanted was “Bastard,” the only single left off the set list that I missed was “Too Fast For Love,” and either could have replaced their cover of “Anarchy in the UK.”
They're a greatest hits band, and their greatest hit remains “Live Wire.” Its finale, wherein Tommy Lee tries to digest and streamline the James Brown band’s breaks and hits into a pop-punk-metal context, is probably their most unique moment nearly a quarter century later. Every other band in Satan’s retinue is still figuring out how to get that kind of mileage out of a cowbell and hi-hat.
Mötley Crüe have no true peers—they’re still too rough around the edges to start a true movement (even though bands are still forming to try and replicate their mix of misogyny, androgyny, gothiness, snot-nosed punkery and bar band ease), and still too poppy for their true critical re-appraisal. The musicians aren’t the kind of people I enjoy giving my money to, either, but the tradeoff of making a deal with the devil is the ability to say definitively that the Crüe deserve more than to be anyone’s punchline. I’m sorry to see them go.
Mötley Crüe playing the same venue in 1987.