Let’s talk about commitment, hard rock style.
For a lot of the bands who enjoyed success during the genre’s glory years, pop metal wasn’t much more than a means to an end — a convenient way of completing the journey from shitty rehearsal spaces to the top of the charts. If polka had been popular, C.C. DeVille would have strapped on an accordion. If folk ruled the airwaves, Jani Lane would have been blowin’ in the wind. I think this is part of the reason so many of these bands have sounded so flat-footed in the years since Nirvana wrecked their party; though they’re all known for a specific type of music, what they really wanted was to be popular, so they’ve been eager to experiment with variations on that sound, from the power ballads of the late ’80s to the industrial-tinged clatter of nu metal.
Ratt was never the most popular, or the most talented, rock band, but their commitment to the sound and the lifestyle has never been in doubt. They slithered out of the SoCal petri dish as disciples of Van Halen and Aerosmith, with a dash of shred on top, and so they remain — except where VH was always a pop band with a hard rock shell, and Aerosmith cleaned up and threw in with Top 40 song doctors, Ratt has more or less always sounded like the third band on a weekend bill at a grimy Hollywood rock club. It’s sort of telling that the album that featured collaborations with Desmond Child and Diane Warren, 1990’s Detonator, arrived during the epic peak of the band’s substance abuse issues — where other bands took their sharpest shots at pop radio post-sobriety, it took massive amounts of drugs for Ratt to dial down the sleaze.
Except it didn’t work, because without sleaze, Ratt ceases to exist; where bands like Poison and Warrant consist of musicians looking to get rich, get laid, and be adored, Ratt always sounded more like a pack of ravenous hedonists who just happened to have amplifiers. Ratt — and, not coincidentally, hedonism — peaked in 1984, the last year before everyone knew drugs were bad for you and AIDS peeled back the nightmare underneath the sexual revolution. It isn’t hard to imagine, say, Night Ranger wishing they could go back in time to ’84, but that probably has just as much to do with wanting to recapture the zeitgeist as it does with wanting to get back to the music, man. In contrast, I think Ratt was always happy to earn platinum certifications, but they felt more incidental somehow. Put it this way: Bret Michaels wanted you to talk dirty to him. Ratt’s leather-lunged frontman Stephen Pearcy was happy to do all the talking, dirty or otherwise; you just had to shut up and like it.
That level of commitment doesn’t come without costs, and Ratt absorbed them all. They were one of the first pop metal bands to lose their record deal, expunged from the Atlantic roster in ’92. Founding member Robbin Crosby was exiled to rehab, then contracted AIDS, then finally died of a heroin overdose in 2002. They were one of the bands exhumed by John Kalodner (John Kalodner) for his ill-fated Portrait resuscitation in the late ’90s, but their reunion started badly — original bassist Juan Croucier wasn’t involved, much to his consternation — and ended with two versions of Ratt (one led by Pearcy, and one featuring, bizarrely, Jizzy Pearl and John Corabi, who briefly replaced Vince Neil in Motley Crue) duking it out in the clubs and the courtroom.
Ratt’s been a joke for awhile now, in other words, and if you were going to draw up a list of bands who could successfully come back from ugly legal drama and 20 years of near-total recording silence, they wouldn’t even merit a footnote. And yet here they are with Infestation, their seventh album, which tosses a whole bunch of unlikely events into a garbage can, shakes them around for 45 minutes or so, and comes up with a persuasive argument against every trend in popular music over the last 25 years. Infestation asks you: Why did we ever walk away from brown stacks of thin, crunchy guitars, vocalists who sound like they fell asleep with a lit cigarette in their mouth, frantic bass shoved way the hell down in the mix, and drums that sound like a coke fiend slapping a stripper’s ass?
Did I enjoy Ratt’s music when they were popular? I did not. And yet I don’t have a good answer to any of the questions Infestation poses. To listen to it repeatedly is to risk coming away feeling like 1984 represents the incontrivertible peak of Western civilization.
Of course, if you want to really get technical about it, this isn’t a complete Ratt reunion. Crosby is dead, and Croucier remains on the outs, for whatever reason, so original members Pearcy, guitarist Warren DeMartini, and drummer Bobby Blotzer are joined here by ex-Quiet Riot guitarist Carlos Cavazo and former Vince Neil bassist Robbie Crane. (Crane, it should be pointed out, joined Ratt in 1996, which leaves him with more tenure then Croucier, and bass in general has always been fairly incidental to this style of music; still, time served isn’t always as important as simple nostalgia. Just ask Jason Scheff.) Membership shuffles aside, Infestation certainly sounds like Ratt, and not just because Pearcy and DeMartini’s distinctive styles are present and accounted for. What I’m talking about here is more crucial, and so much harder to capture. It’s vibe.
A number of the other bands I’ve mentioned here have tried going back to their “classic” sound, often with “classic” lineups intact, but it almost always sounds like a calculated effort. It’s an approximation of an outdated style, with an ugly meta layer on top — old guys, acknowledging that their best days are behind them, giving up on creativity and making a nod-and-a-wink deal with the remnants of their once-mighty fanbases in which everyone pretends nothing ever changed. Plenty of things have changed for Ratt; plenty of important things. But what hasn’t changed — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — is their commitment. It’s a commitment to the retarded and the obscene, but that’s rock ‘n’ roll, and no matter how much it might boggle the mind to think that Ratt understands this better than their peers, there’s no getting around the fetid blast of ridiculous, sleazy fun that is Infestation. The only thing that’s missing is a half-naked model on the cover. Maybe, after the next round of breakups and lawsuits, they can revive that tradition, too.