Ratt’s Out of the Cellar Turns 30
Listening to hair metal records reminds me of looking at dinosaur skeletons. Look at this thing, the product of intense and competitive evolution, at first too big to fail but later too big to live. I like to think of Ratt's Out of the Cellar as the hairspray Tyrannosaurus Rex, the prime example of the last stage of that musical genre's evolution before it went into decline.
Many of Ratt's predecessors had to grow into the sound that this group mastered on this first album. Van Halen, despite all Eddie's pyrotechnics, were still couched in pop and the blues, their heaviness was a means to an end (shoving their chops as close to a listener’s face as possible). Def Leppard began as a NWOBHM band, and Whitesnake began their career as a Led Zeppelin substitute — Bad Company with John Lord on keyboards. As for Mötley Crüe, that band derived livewire energy from their profound identity crisis, lost in the nexus of cock rock, glam, funk, goth and punk. Unlike those bands, Ratt seemed born fully-formed, like Athena, from the heads of horny coke-mongers.
The basic battle-strategy of Ratt was as follows: if you cannot have a single guitarist as iconic as Eddie Van Halen, get two who are almost as good. Robbin Crosby and Warren DeMartini weave their guitar lines together with a schoolboy's competitiveness. Sometimes they remind me of other great guitar duos: Glenn Tipton and KK Downing seem like an obvious comparison. Crosby and DeMartini dialed in clear lead tones as well as a great rhythm chug. Every song the duo wrote together is a standout, including “You're in Trouble,” “The Morning After,” and, of course, “Round and Round.” DeMartini would later spend time playing guitar with Dweezil Zappa — in fact, Frank Zappa spoke highly of DeMartini in interviews, and asked him to play in the Zappa's Universe tribute events. Stephen Pearcy, on the other hand, would never be as good of a singer as Rob Halford or David Lee Roth, but he sneered better than Vince Neil at the time, and lent the music some necessary grit.
Better hair albums would come later (Cinderella's Night Songs), and less glamorous pop metal records have aged better (Dokken's Tooth and Nail, which also celebrates an anniversary this year), but Out of the Cellar still feels like the apotheosis of the genre, from the ubiquitous single (“Round and Round”) to the Tawney Kitaen cover photograph.
The best thing I can say about the record is it's still legitimately fun to listen to, even though there's pretty much nothing in the album I can relate to. I've never been to The Sunset Strip, dated a stripper, or supported a cocaine addiction. I can't even imagine myself as some sort of rock 'n' roll outlaw, if such a thing is even possible any more (or if such a thing was real in the first place). When Pearcy sings about this bacchanalia, however, he does so with a kind of earnestness that I respect. The strength of pop metal like this is it can communicate across that cognitive divide. And honestly, the glam-and-damage song set has aged better than the awkward attempts at social commentary like “Lack of Communication” have.
There will never be another Ratt. The fantastical part of their music, the rock star lifestyle I cannot relate with, lives on in bands like Nickelback, but it's shed the metal parts of its identity. Glam metal only sort of exists now, in a neutered form, hybridized with the warm piss of post-grunge and, increasingly, arena country. The tones do not growl like race cars. There are no twin guitar leads. Gone too is the camp of the era. There's fun to be had in the barely-repressed homoeroticism of the glam metal aesthetic, which seems so clear in retrospect — kiss that goodbye as well.
There's clearly still a market for this sort of thing — Def Leppard and Motley Crue have both announced summer tours, expected to pull in beaucoup bucks. on the underground side of things, the new High Spirits album is receiving a lot of early hype. That band's success largely rests on the earnestness of its delivery, something that Ratt also possessed.