In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, which went to No. 1 on Nov. 26, 1983, where it stayed for one week.
When is it acceptable to die of a cocaine overdose?
Consider the following scenario: Two men die of cocaine overdoses at around the same age—they are in their 50s, which is young enough for the deaths to be considered “untimely,” but not so young as to be described as “shocking.” Neither man is a hardcore drug addict; their drug use appears to have been recreational. Both men have similar jobs, and they died in the same city less than five years apart. One man died at home; the other man died in a hotel room. The first man was discovered several days after his death, around Thanksgiving; the other man was discovered the next morning by a stripper he spent the night with. Based solely on the following information, which death is sadder?
The only reasonable answer is “both deaths are equally sad.” A slightly colder and more analytical person could argue that the second man’s death is sadder, because dying at home seems more comfortable and less deliberate, and the stripper part seems like something out of a bad erotic thriller. But what if the first man is Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow, and the second man is Who bassist John Entwistle?
Entwistle died at age 57 in 2002 on the eve of a reunion tour with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. He spent the night drinking and doing lines at the Hard Rock Hotel And Casino, and then retired in the wee hours of the morning with a longtime groupie and exotic dancer at his side, at some point passing away in his sleep. In 2007, DuBrow was found dead in his Las Vegas home; an autopsy later revealed that he was killed by an accidental overdose less than a month after his 52nd birthday, which friends said he spent in New Orleans and celebrated in good spirits.
There’s a good chance that, without even realizing it, you already consider DuBrow to be the sadder scenario. If you’re sort of dumb (or have read too many rock books), you might even think that Entwistle’s death is a little bit cool. It certainly conforms to the particulars of a “cool” rock star death: sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (hotel). His friends and family likely wouldn’t see it this way, but some deluded fans toasted Entwistle for going out in a blaze of glory. At the very least, his death certainly didn’t diminish Entwistle’s life in any way.
DuBrow, unlike Entwistle, did not die a rock legend. He is remembered, if it all, as the loudmouth figurehead of a band whose popularity dissipated almost immediately after it peaked in the early ’80s. Among followers of the era’s L.A. metal scene, DuBrow’s outspoken criticism of other bands, the music industry, and the rock press was often blamed for Quiet Riot’s rapid fall from the heights of 1983’s Metal Health, which sold 6 million copies and spawned the band’s only Top 10 hit, a cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize.”
While DuBrow and Entwistle died under similar circumstances, media reports of their respective deaths were markedly different. The initial stories about DuBrow tried to gently address any presumed concerns that he took his own life, quoting friends and associates about his state of mind in the weeks before his death. With Entwistle, however, there were no such concerns, even though Townshend later admitted that The Who reunited in order to help their bass player get out of debt.
As a member one of the greatest rock bands ever, Entwistle was presumed to have everything to live for. As for DuBrow, well, he must have been a tragic figure, right? After alienating his hair-metal peers and turning Quiet Riot into a much-maligned joke by the end of the ’80s, DuBrow was fired from his own band and had to wage a legal battle over the rights to the Quiet Riot name. DuBrow reunited and broke up with Quiet Riot a few more times in the ’90s and ’00s, but the band never came close to recovering the glory of its incomparable year in ’83.
If you assume that Quiet Riot would have to become the biggest metal band of the ’80s had it not been for DuBrow—he once told an interviewer that other L.A. bands “can’t fucking play,” adding that “if hair was gold, they’d be millionaires”—he seems like a failure. But I’d argue that’s the wrong way to look at it. As the first metal album to ever top the Billboard chart and the opening salvo in hair-metal’s takeover of mainstream rock, Metal Health is an album of legitimate historic importance. Even if it now sounds more like Loverboy (whom Quiet Riot toured with in 1983) than a real metal record, Metal Health has a permanent place in the history books. For a band as artistically challenged as Quiet Riot, that’s a tremendous achievement.
Quiet Riot wasn’t a great band. I won’t say the group’s success was purely a fluke, but there’s nothing to suggest that subsequent albums like Condition Critical and QR III are wrongfully ignored masterpieces that would’ve sold 5 million copies had DuBrow been more magnanimous. With Metal Health, Quiet Riot became far more popular than the band had any right to expect. In terms of how we judge DuBrow, that makes him the opposite of a failure in my book, even if that popularity was short-lived.
It seems that DuBrow, for all his bluster, was self-aware enough to understand what his success signified as it was happening. On the title track to Metal Health, the album’s best song by a mile (though I also like the power-poppy “Breathless” and, of course, “Noize”), DuBrow sings, “I really want to be overrated.” This seems like an odd sentiment for a guy who believed his penis was God’s gift to vaginas everywhere. People who think they are incontrovertibly great tend to not subscribe to the rather mortal idea of “overrated.” It makes me think that DuBrow knew any kind of stardom he might achieve would be a lark. (It’s also possible that the opposite is true, and that DuBrow thought “overrated” meant “highly rated to an overly awesome degree.”)
Before Metal Health, Quiet Riot was best known as the band that the late, great guitarist Randy Rhoads played in before joining up with Ozzy Osbourne and backing him on his first two solo records, Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman. In his Quiet Riot days, Rhoads was a rival to Eddie Van Halen, the other big gun in the late-’70s L.A. rock scene. But while Van Halen got signed to Warner Bros. and quickly became a mega-selling, M&Ms-obsessed arena band, Quiet Riot couldn’t get an American record deal, instead getting a deal with Sony to release albums in Japan. But even the Japanese couldn’t get behind 1977’s QRI or ’78’s QRII, and the following year, Rhoads and bassist Rudy Sarzo joined up with Osbourne.
Quiet Riot languished for a few years until DuBrow formed a new lineup with guitarist Carlos Cavazo and drummer Frank Banali. Sarzo also rejoined after Rhodes was killed in a plane crash in 1982, effectively ending Osbourne’s famed original backing band. The new version of Quiet Riot had a more metallic sheen compared with the Bowie and Mott The Hoople-inspired late-’70s incarnation, which fit with what was going on in Los Angeles at the time, and the band finally landed a U.S. deal with Pasha Records.
Teaming up with producer Spencer Proffer, Quiet Riot spent a month recording Metal Health at the cost of $35,000. Searching for a hit, Proffer suggested covering “Cum On Feel The Noize,” a No. 1 song in the U.K. from 1973 that was still relatively unknown in the U.S. According to legend, the band hated the song so much that it intentionally played “Noize” poorly so Proffer wouldn’t use it. But that’s either a lie or Quiet Riot was so inept that it couldn’t get fucking up a take on purpose right. Either way, “Cum On Feel The Noize” clearly screamed “hit single!” amid the workmanlike originals on Metal Health.
“Cum On Feel The Noize” was released as a single several months after Metal Health arrived in stores that March, with the video first showing up on MTV in August. Another highlight of the summer occurred in late May, when Quiet Riot was invited to perform at the US Festival, a four-day concert that took place over Memorial Day weekend. Quiet Riot played on “Heavy Metal Day,” which proved to be the most popular day of the US Festival, drawing more than 300,000 people.
The combination of Quiet Riot’s appearance at the US Festival and the video for “Cum On Feel The Noize” is credited with breaking the band by the fall of 1983, when “Noize” peaked at No. 5 on the singles chart and Metal Health spent one week at No. 1 on the albums chart. For a brief moment, Quiet Riot could be credibly called the biggest rock band in the world.
What happened next is open to debate: DuBrow may not have endeared himself to the metal community with his outspoken interviews, but it’s Metal Health’s thoroughly weak follow-up, Condition Critical, that arguably deserves the blame for Quiet Riot’s downfall. Recorded quickly in order to capitalize on Metal Health’s popularity, Condition Critical was released just over a year after its predecessor and sold 1.5 million copies, though it was among the least-loved platinum records of its time. A bad retread of Metal Health in every respect, Condition Critical even had a Slade cover, “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” that was nowhere near as popular as “Noize.”
Sarzo left Quiet Riot after the support tour ended, joining the ascendant Whitesnake. In 1986, just three years after Metal Health went to No. 1, Quiet Riot weathered the even more troubled album-tour cycle for QR III. The band played the final show of the tour in Hawaii, appropriately enough, on the 45th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. After the show, the other band members changed flights so they could fly home without DuBrow, who was fired soon after.
It probably wasn’t what DuBrow envisioned when he founded Quiet Riot in the mid-’70s. Nobody plans to become massively successful and then fuck it up just a few years later. But even if most bands wouldn’t want to emulate the arc of Quiet Riot’s career, they should only be so lucky. I don’t fault DuBrow for not having a career like Walter Payton; I’d rather praise him for being like Rudy. That he was able to achieve dreams way bigger than his talent is worthy of some measure of admiration; if he were alive, I’d suggest hoisting him on our shoulders.
Coming up: Bob Dylan's Modern Times