NEW YORK (Billboard) - When author Neil Strauss first met Motley Crue, the scene could have been ripped right from “The Dirt,” the 2001 band autobiography he co-wrote with the group that became a New York Times best seller.
“It was at a show in Phoenix, and the very first time I met them, (drummer) Tommy (Lee) was handcuffed backstage,” Strauss recalls with a laugh. “Tommy Lee was literally handcuffed wearing these little leather kind of shorts that he wears and nothing else, and I just thought that was the ultimate way to meet Motley Crue.”
Such craziness is what made Strauss want to chronicle the legendary rock band.
“Motley Crue is not just a rock band,” he says. “Motley Crue is larger than the individual members. What it stands for is bigger than the music and the band itself.”
As one of the most notorious groups in history, the Los Angeles quartet has defied the odds when it comes to professional and personal survival, experiencing — and creating — as much turmoil as it has success.
On June 24, Motley Crue wrote the next chapter in its larger-than-life story with the release of “Saints of Los Angeles.” The Motley Records/Eleven Seven Music release, the first studio album in 11 years from the band’s original lineup, debuted at No. 4 with sales of 99,000 copies. The set offers a classic Crue vibe and echoes the tumultuous history recounted in “Dirt.”
On July 1, the band opened Crue Fest, a 40-plus-city summer tour, sharing the bill with hitmakers Buckcherry, Papa Roach, Trapt and Sixx: AM, the side project of Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx. It’s expected to be one of the summer’s best-selling rock festivals.
For 27 years and with 50 million records sold, according to the band’s management, Tenth Street Entertainment, Motley Crue has always done things its own outrageous way, battling everyone, including itself, to do it.
“It’s really simple,” Sixx says of the group’s life of extremes. “It’s who we are. We’re dysfunctional human beings that ended up in a gang.”
The gang’s impact stretches from when it ruled the ‘80s Sunset Strip and unwittingly helped pioneer the glam metal genre that spawned dozens of wannabe acts, to its subsequent influence on two decades of performers, spanning the spectrum from Marilyn Manson to Buckcherry.
Motley is rock royalty with two generations of subjects: its original fans, and those fans’ children, who have been exposed to the band though their parents, channels like VH1 Classic and Fuse, and such videogames as “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.” (The new album’s title single sold five times as many copies as downloads via “Rock Band” in its first week of release in April as it sold via conventional channels. The single has hit No. 7 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.)
Fan ties nurtured Motley even before the group first appalled critics and parents with its controversial 1982 album, “Shout at the Devil.” The record is just one of many battles Motley has fought, and won, against the establishment.
“We know what we’re doing is real,” Sixx says. “For some reason, everyone wants to bet against us, every single time. And the fans want to vote for us. And there’s the rub, right there.”
Guitarist Mick Mars says that the band’s music has “always been pretty close to street level ... I think it’s the way that we put our songs together and how we present them (that) people can actually relate to what’s going on.”
Motley Crue appeared on the punk- and New Wave-infested Sunset Strip in 1981 sporting a New York Dolls-gone-tough look of leather, raccoon eyeliner and metal-stud jewelry.
Photographer Neil Zlozower, a longtime band friend whose shots of the group covered in theatrical blood are among the Crue’s most iconic pictures, says, “There was something always natural about Motley, especially in the beginning when they were raw and nasty and hungry, before they started making millions and millions of dollars. There’s something about them at photo shoots where I really didn’t have to tell them much to do.”
The Crue’s look was a vehicle to getting its music heard. Its mishmash of influences — among them Kiss, Cheap Trick, blues, punk — resulted in raw, aggressive rock with catchy riffs that singer Vince Neil topped off with pouty vocals and caterwauls. The costumes and sound were the siren calls that launched glam metal, and for the rest of the decade dozens of bands and labels copied the Crue.
Zlozower names Motley and Quiet Riot as the movement’s pioneers. “Motley Crue was always a little cooler, a little tougher,” he says. “They were nastier, they were more hardcore.”
Motley is one of few bands from that era that still have a high mainstream profile.
Motley Crue also has turned arena tours into flamboyant spectacles, featuring everything from flying drum kits to midgets.
“Trying to be the baddest rock band in town is not the hardest thing to do,” Velvet Revolver (and former Guns N’ Roses) guitarist Slash says. “But to really be rock ‘n’ roll and exude that, that’s something that a lot of people out there claim to be but aren’t, and Motley’s one of those bands that really is.”
After it self-released its debut album, “Too Fast for Love,” on its own Leathur Records in 1981 and signed to Elektra that year, the band forged a multiplatinum sales trajectory through the early ‘90s with albums that are classic rock touchstones.
“Shout at the Devil” struck terror in parents’ hearts. The more introspective “Theatre of Pain” contained the monster video hit “Home Sweet Home.” “Girls, Girls, Girls” is a consummate ‘80s rock party record, and “Dr. Feelgood” is widely considered the Crue’s most solid effort, thanks to Bob Rock’s production and the band’s then newly acquired sobriety.
Beyond the music, the band’s aura of chaos has sustained public interest. “Controversy is always good, because it’s free press. Any press is good,” Mars says. “Negative or positive, it doesn’t matter to me.”
When Motley told its story in the “The Dirt,” it left no skeletons in its closet. The shocking soap opera of addiction, conflict, death, sex and success unflinchingly showed the band at its best and worst times, which cycle around the Crue like the seasons.
Amid late-‘90s turmoil, Neil exited the band and was replaced by John Corabi. Lee departed not long after Neil’s return and was replaced first by Randy Castillo, then by Samantha Mahoney.
Motley essentially disbanded from 1999 until the 2005 reunion tour. Tour receipts confirmed that fans were still interested, and with its new album and tour, the band is poised for another career peak.
“We’re a marriage, so it’s like we always come back together,” Mars says. “The band is better, tighter, and we get along much better than we have in a really long time, and that’s a great feeling.”