Ah, LA. Centre of Western culture. Home of the B-grade movie, the toy poodle and the failed TV pilot. Whether you see it as a blight on the cultural landscape or a bastion of the creative elite, there is no denying the power of its output. The Sunset Strip has given birth to much music over the decades. Such luminaries as The Doors, The Byrds and Frank Zappa honed their craft in the many clubs that dominate this fabled avenue. However, all of that rich historical tapestry may be safely ignored, for this land of show and sell was the birthplace of the greatest form of music known to humankind – glam metal.
Those in the UK might contest this claim, citing Whitesnake, Def Leppard or even Black Sabbath as the seeds from which glam grew, and they might even be right. But it was in LA that heavy metal was nurtured into the vivid flower that today still thrusts its gaudy finery up through the concrete of the Strip. The flower bloomed in the ’70s and was washed away in the great grunge flood of 1992, but it did not die a total death. The flower of glam metal rose again in the form of Steel Panther.
Steel Panther began as Metal Shop, playing regular gigs at The Viper Room on Sunset Boulevarde, a club boasting Johnny Depp as a founder and Tom Waits as a founding consultant. “We were playing The Viper Room every Monday night and we put out our own record,” says Steel Panther lead vocalist Ralph Saenz, AKA Michael Starr. The band’s self-produced debut album Hole Patrol was released in 2003 under the Metal Shop name. Later the band was known as Metal Skool, and it was only in 2008 that Steel Panther was born. In 2005, Hole Patrol was reissued with a new track added, a cover of Ian Hunter’s song ‘Cleveland Rocks’ (you may know it as The Drew Carey Show theme song). “That was our very first independent release,” says Starr. “That album had ‘Fat Girl’ on it and ‘Stripper Girl’, so when we got the record deal we recorded everything again, like, in a real studio.”
Booked to play only once a week in one of the most famous clubs in LA, times were tough. “We were always trying to get a deal but we needed to make money. So if we couldn’t afford a stripper we’d do a gig and make some money.” Every struggling artist can empathise. This typical working-class background is clearly defined by the lyrics to ‘Stripper Girl’: “Stripper girl / Heaven sent, pay my phone bill, pay my rent / Stripper girl / I love you, all my friends really love you too / I really love your boobies”.
In 2012 the band played the Soundwave Festival alongside big names like Slipknot and Limp Bizkit. “I went surfing at Bondi, went to the zoo, then went to pretty much every strip club that we could get to,” says Starr. “That was one of the best experiences of my life; I’m not just saying that. Coming to Australia for the first time and getting the response we got, it was fuckin’ great, man. Travelling with a bunch of bands like that, going town to town, setting up, it was like being in a carnival.”
Soundwave 2012 also exposed the band to the performer Starr calls the most evil man in metal, Marilyn Manson. “He actually beats his guitar player when he doesn’t play good.” But isn’t Steel Panther an evil metal band too? “No, I would say we’re on the side of…” He pauses. “I’ve never been asked that question. I would say we’re on the cusp; we’re on both ends. We do some evil stuff, but we do it with love. I think our message is very positive. Yeah, we are righteously evil, bro.”
But evil wafts off this band like steam rising from fresh custard, if the custard were cooked with hairspray and cocaine. With such lowbrow lyrics as “I’ve got an extra dong for double penetration / Just squeeze my balls and activate vibration,” do Steel Panther cop a lot of flak from moral commentators? “No, not one, not even Kanye West,” says Starr. “But I know why Kanye West never tries to get offside with us – ’cause he’s a fucking pussy.” Just wait for the attention-seeking Deadmau5 to set his Twitter sights on you. “I wish he would; I wish he had the keyboard courage, he doesn’t even have that.
“Look, as far as we’re concerned, we’re a politically incorrect band that you can’t play in your work space or your office space. Anywhere else in the world except Japan you can play our shit anywhere. It’s on the radio, it’s on MTV, it’s everywhere. In the States they’re still freaked out by it. There’s a lot of people [there] that are real uptight. It’s like, ‘Just fuckin’ relax, have a fuckin’ beer and fuckin’ party.’”
Steel Panther play music from a time of excess and exuberance, deftly capturing the vital elements of glam metal and concentrating them into a potent elixir like spandex-clad alchemists. “Have a fuckin’ beer and fuckin’ party” may seem a simple philosophy but it’s one that goes unheeded by many. ‘Death To All But Metal’, one of their original and best songs, calls for the end of Beyoncé and Blink-182. But how best to destroy those skater punks? “That’s pretty easy; they pretty much did it themselves with their last release,” says Starr. “The only way they could save themselves is if the singer started singing like he grew up.”
All jokes aside, Steel Panther have captured something from history and made it their own. In this age of musical reflection on the past the question of authenticity is irrelevant. What matters is the show. With this in mind the band is taking it further with a new video show. “Right now we’ve started a thing called Steel Panther TV. We have our own segments that we’ve come up with. It’s our brand of humour and how we approach our life. It’s really fun and you can check it out online for free.”
This is the success of Steel Panther. They provide a reminder of what music used to be and could one day be again. It’s not just an act. I ask if Starr ever breaks character. “What did you ask? How much cocaine do we do?” Uh, no.
“Oh yeah yeah. Look, when I walk into a supermarket, I still look like this. I’m the same guy onstage as I am offstage. The only difference is I don’t walk around in my spandex. We’ve always been guys that like to have fun onstage. Our music is a reflection of that. Once we started interjecting how we really are into our music, that’s when Steel Panther became what it is today. And we just never stopped, we just kept embellishing it because we really enjoy it. Offstage we joke around all the fucking time – that’s just the way we are.
“We love anything that incorporates the lifestyle of partying, having a good time and rocking, so that can be any kind of metal.”
BY JESSE HAYWARD
*Image: Ken Leanfore.