BY MIN CHEN
Let’s face it: Mötley Crüe’s Theatre of Pain is hardly the band’s best moment, lacking as it does the devil-defying moxie of its antecedents. You know who else thinks so? Mötley Crüe. Bassist Nikki Sixx, in The Big Book of Hair Metal, deemed it “a pile of rubbish,” just as in The Dirt, Vince Neil just could not stop grousing about a “weak album” that—what’s more!—was “pure shit.” Added he, “I was shocked the record went double platinum, and maybe it just reinforced the idea that we were so great, we could even get away with putting out a terrible album.”
Granted, the record did have a difficult birth, fathered by a group on dissimilar highs and/or lows. Most of the Crüe was still reveling in the massive triumph that was 1983’s Shout at the Devil: “Mick lost himself in high-proof homemade cocktails, Tommy in gallon jugs of vodka and eight-balls of cocaine,” remembered Sixx, “and for me, it was anything I could inject into my system.” Neil, however, was fresh out of rehab and on the hook for vehicular manslaughter after a drunk driving escapade that took the life of Hanoi Rocks’ drummer, Razzle.
The divide between the newly sober frontman and the rest of his variously intoxicated band was evident enough as the Crüe commenced recording their third album. People were edgy, songs had to be scraped together, and no one was happy with how things were sounding. Even the album’s eventual supernova number, “Home Sweet Home,” was laboriously and arduously put together. Still, said Sixx, “it captured our feeling at the time of being stranded and alone and desperate and confused vagabonds yearning for some sense of security, whether it be family, intimacy, or death.” It worked and the track found itself a vast audience upon its release. Though a cloying ballad so unlike anything the Crüe had ever produced, it’s become what Sixx called “a jewel in our career.” And how? Blame it on that video.
In the bassist’s telling, the band’s record company Elektra was averse to putting any promotional weight behind “Home Sweet Home,” leaving it to the group to fund its 1985 release and shoot its video. The clip does have that goofy introduction that all Crüe videos do—in which each member, lounging in some exotic locale (Neil on a beach, Mick Mars in a gothic mansion, Tommy Lee at a model-populated house party), answers the phone and yells into the receiver, “I’m on my way!”—but otherwise, is pretty straightforward stuff. For four minutes, we get to watch the band in performance at The Summit in Houston, Texas, in front of a lighter-wielding audience, amid the Crüe’s requisite trappings of women, hairspray, and fiery pyrotechnics. An extravaganza! What’s not to love?
Nothing, apparently. The video hit hard on MTV, riding high on its daily request charts for a whopping three months. So long and insistent was its reign that the channel had to institute the so-called “Crüe Rule,” which excluded videos from its request line after 30 days. But too late: the video for “Home Sweet Home” had already dug its claws in, earning the group commercial clout and establishing a template for all other pop metal bands to follow. According to Sixx, “After ‘Home Sweet Home,’ every band had the one ballad that came as their second or third single.” You better bet Guns ‘n’ Roses were taking note. (And: the Crüe would go on to release a “remix” of the video in 1991 because twice is the charm.)
All of which is quadruple-platinum sweet for a record that the band still thinks is pure shitty rubbish. The track—“the sole savior of that record,” per Mars—cemented the Crüe’s rule, ironically ensuring they remained pretty far from home, still the same vagabonds on the long and winding road, dreamers with hearts of gold, deep in their cups. Of note: on the morning of the “Home Sweet Home” shoot, Nikki Sixx was coming off a night’s worth of pill-powered, rage-fueled shenanigans and ended up underneath the stage on the set, having “a long talk about family and music and death” with an imaginary man. Neil and Sixx would take years to get clean.
Accordingly, it’s poetically fitting that Theatre of Pain’s cover art depicts the Greek theater masks of Comedy and Tragedy, or that the album was initially titled Entertainment or Death (until the band’s manager Doug Thaler dorkily got the phrase tattooed on his arm). That all came from Sixx’s Artaudian reading material about “the relationship between theater, politics, and culture,” he explained, “from the olden days when entertainers who failed to make a king laugh would be put to death to newer ideas.” Turns out, the distance between entertainment and death, comedy and tragedy, is but a sliver.