Death by Power Ballad: Motley Crue, “You’re All I Need”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Bands like Rush and AC/DC wear as a badge of honor the fact that they’ve never written or performed a power ballad. I love them both, but they’re pussies. The power ballad is to rock and roll what Al Pacino in Scarface is to acting. The artist has little use for subtlety or restraint — emotion is laid bare, put forth in the most emotive manner possible. In power ballads, the tempo slows; the guitars come to the fore; the notes the singer sings echo and elongate for miles and miles. When done well, the result is beautiful in its pure, overblown glory, enabling the audience to say “hello” to the band’s leetle friend, usually with lighters held aloft.

Every two weeks or so, I will pay tribute to the finest examples of the genre. Together, we will find this death by power ballad to be an exquisite one, indeed.
RS

Lost in all the Popdose/Tom Werman drama last November was the tremendous feat of skill our favorite innkeeper was able to execute in the 1980s: making three decent rock records with Motley Crue, a band possessing the worst singer in the history of the genre. The worst. Vince Neil’s voice is an adenoidal whine, strained through a larynx that may or may not be capable of falsetto. If the bulk of singers in nü-metal sound like Cookie Monster, Vince Neil sounds like Big Bird. At a slaughterhouse. Begging for his life.

Girls, Girls, Girls certainly put that distressing … um … instrument in its proper element — wedged between Tommy Lee’s stadium-ready drums and the boneyard ’70s-vintage riffage of Mick Mars, spewing Nikki Sixx‘s special ed poetry. The album’s title track gets all the airplay, but it’s the opener, “Wild Side,” that’s the real deal. It contains not just a cool riff and Sixx’s best line (“I carry my crucifix under my death list / Forward my mail to me in hell”), but the production (reverb, placement and volume of instruments, etc.) that makes Vince Neil actually sound menacing. I mean, sure, he wore the leather and rode the big bike and sucker-punched Izzy Stradlin at an MTV shindig, but in 1987, who was really going to be afraid of Vince Neil, other than anyone sharing a road with him when he went on a beer run?

Then there’s “You’re All I Need,” a lovely rock ballad that served as the spiritual descendant of “Home Sweet Home,” the Crue’s true lighter-in-the-air-worthy moment. Musically, it’s right in the pocket: Lee’s keyboard melody gives the song its foundation and structure, while Mars layers on the power chords to give the tune some muscle. Neil himself even sounds spry and happy, as if someone just told him his package from Colombia had arrived and his appointment at Dirty Eddie’s Tattoo Parlor had been confirmed. Shit — piano, power chords, and a familiar rawk voice on a ballad called “You’re All I Need”? Sounds like somebody just recorded a prom anthem, dawg.

‘Til the lyrics hit you. For in this most excellent rock ballad packaging rests a tale of grisly murder. It’s right there in the first line:

The blade of my knife
Faced away from your heart
Those last few nights
It turned and sliced you apart
This love that I tell
Now feels lonely as hell
From this padded prison cell

I vividly remember the first time I heard that verse, unable to really decipher the lyrics, filling in the blanks myself. I thought it was a metaphor — these douchebags were always singing about sharp instruments and doing dangerous things with and to women. I thought Sixx might have even come up with another metaphor for premature ejaculation (“Too Fast for Love,” “Ten Seconds to Love,” etc.).

But, no, the protagonist has indeed offed his beloved. “To set you free,” Neil whines, “I had to take your life.” [Sigh] No prom song here.

Apparently, if the Wikipedia entry on the song is to be believed, Sixx wrote the lyrics after his girlfriend left him … for Jack Wagner (who, of course, was known for his own questionable talents, including a hit called “All I Need”). Being dumped for Jack Wagner would put me in a lousy mood, too, but not lousy enough to imagine this scenario:

Tied up smiling
I thought you were happy
Never opened your eyes
I thought you were napping
I got so much to learn
About love in this world
But we finally made the news

I mean, that’s some heavy shit, there, peoples. Ted Bundy shit. To write something like that and have a guy who looks like Mick Mars in your band (not to mention actually having Mick Mars in your band), it’s a wonder Sixx wasn’t approached by some Vincent Bugliosi-type, digging around his house, looking for ex-girlfriends. Cuz let me tell you, folks, Ted Bundy was a psychopathic killer, but Mick Mars is scary.

It doubtless helped, though, having Vince Neil sing the song. After all, a weeping Big Bird couldn’t possibly have done those awful things to Jack Wagner’s girlfriend.

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