Why Grunge Blew Up? It’s Because All Hair Metal Bands Sounded the Same, Says Legendary Producer

Legendary producer Tom Werman, who’s well-known for working with the big rock bands of the 1980s, discussed the emergence of grunge, explaining why such a cultural phenomenon happened in the first place. Speaking to “Classic Album Review” in a recent interview, Werman argued that the bands from the ’80s, which we often refer to as “hair metal” or “glam metal,” all started sounding the same. And yes — Werman produced a lot of them and was at the helm for over 20 commercially successful records.  

Asked whether he felt that something like grunge just “had to happen” with a subgenre like hair metal becoming so massive, the producer said that he felt that was the case and further explained (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“Even I started to be a little concerned about this certain sameness of the procedure that I would take to make records, which resulted in a lot of records having the sound that was pretty much the same among the hair bands in LA — the whole Warrant, Ratt, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe.”

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An honest take from Werman who, at the time, was one of the go-to guys if you wanted to make a commercially successful metal or hard rock album.

“It was time for a change,” he also admitted. “And as I say in the book [his autobiography ‘Turn It Up! My Time Making Hit Records in the Glory Days of Rock Music’], I strove for perfection. I wanted everything to be neat, in time, in tune because that was how I figured you could make a powerful song [and] have a powerful production.”

Even though making everything sound as perfect as possible did make sense, and still does make sense, in many ways, it can make the music feel too sterile. Or, in the case of the 1980s metal music, maybe even repetitive. Ultimately, it’s only a matter of time until people get tired of it and look for some imperfections in their music.

“And eventually, not more than ten years later, bands avoided perfection like the plague,” Werman added. “So I guess mistakes and clams and imperfection were kind of critical to the success of any street band, any grunge band.”

Tom Werman (music producer)

Speaking of imperfections, the first association is usually punk music, which made its initial success in the late 1970s. Although still different, the late 1980s and the early 1990s grunge had a very punk attitude, both musically and lyrically. So when the interviewer mentioned this, Werman agreed but also had to clarify some of the differences between these two distinct movements:

“I can’t really define the difference between punk and grunge. I guess grunge is more Seattle. Punk is kind of rebelling against corporate rock. The Seattle sound was a little more musical, a little more professional, and a little more concerned with correct music, with things like pitch and tempo and things like that.”

“I think what distinguished grunge from punk was the lyrics — they were thoughtful,” Werman concluded on the matter.

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The story of how grunge almost entirely annihilated the glam metal scene is one of the most important lessons in modern music. Get too complacent and keep doing what is proven to bring success, and you’re potentially racing to the bottom. Of course, not all metal or glam metal artists suffered, but the genre took a lot of time to recover, and it’s only now that we’re seeing some significant resurgence.

But even artists like Twisted Sister — who were produced by Tom Werman back in the day — went under. In an interview from a few years ago, the band’s frontman Dee Snider even recalled having to do all sorts of jobs to get by when the scene shifted.

“But that was it — over,” the singer recalled. “I was married, I had three kids, and I was broke. Yeah, I’d made millions, and I spent it like a rock star. And that was without drugs and alcohol.”

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After their album “Love Is for Suckers” in 1987, the band fell apart and only fully reunited in 2003. But in the meantime, Dee snider had to find ways to get by.

“I saw an article in a business magazine on personal branding,” he remembered, “and they cited me as a person who branded himself. I was laughing reading the article ’cause I did nothing of the sort. It was pure desperation.”

“I said ‘yes’ to any and every opportunity I could. And that even meant everything from answering phones at a desk job for somebody to managing a recording studio for a little while.”

“Then I started working for a toy company, working on toy concepts. And then I got into voiceover, and then I started my radio career, then TV, movies, everything started kicking in.”

“But it was no plan. It was just saying ‘yes’ to anything that would give me a buck to put food on the table for my kids. It was desperate.”

Photo: Billydvette1234 (Pairadice photo)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.