GETTING MORE TALE #656: The One They Call Dr. Feelgood
Hard rock peaked in the summer of 1989 with Dr. Feelgood. The charts were already filled with hard rock acts. Warrant were picking up steam. White Lion and Winger were getting airplay. Bon Jovi and Def Leppard were still raking it in with their last albums, New Jersey and Hysteria. Aerosmith were back. All we needed was the return of Motley Crue.
The Crue were not exactly laying low, but they did have problems to resolve. Nikki Sixx “died” of a heroin overdose on December 23 1987, but was revived with a shot of adrenaline right to the heart. Then he had to deal with a lawsuit from an imposter named Matthew Trippe, who claimed he took over the role of “Nikki Sixx” in 1983 and was owed royalties. Both these incidents inspired new songs. “Kickstart My Heart” was about by the overdose and subsequent recovery. “Say Yeah” took a shot at Matthew Trippe and that whole strange situation.
Fearing the band would end up dead if he did nothing, manager Doc McGhee sent the band into rehab (except for Mick Mars who quit drinking on his own accord). Then, a clean Motley Crue headed up to Little Mountain Sound in Vancouver to work with Bob Rock for the first time.
Bob Rock was on a roll. He finished up the soon-to-be-mega-successful Sonic Temple for The Cult and was recognized for the sound he was able to capture, particularly on the drums. He was also excellent at playing babysitter with musicians who were notoriously hard to work with. To minimize infighting, Rock split Motley up and had them all record separately. And because Aerosmith were in town recording Pump, Steven Tyler dropped by. He offered support for the newly clean band, and vocals on a new track called “Slice of Your Pie”.
The Crue’s first gig clean and sober was the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August of 1989. Although they had finished a new album, they played no new songs, saving them for proper release and promotion. Instead they played oldies from Girls, Girls, Girls, Theater of Pain, Shout at the Devil and Too Fast For Love. It was anything but peaceful. The gig, organized by McGhee, had been pitched to the bands involved as an equal opportunity. Bon Jovi, who McGhee also managed, were arguably the best known in Russia, as they were the only one with an official release there. They were booked to play last, but McGhee stressed there was no “headliner”. There was already friction between bands, because Ozzy Osbourne felt he should have been the headliner. Black Sabbath were massively popular with Russian rock fans, although they had to scour bootleg markets to find any.
Vince Neil live at the Moscow Music Peace Festival 08/12/1989 – Robert D. Tonsing/AP
Things came to a head when Bon Jovi featured pyro in their set, which none of the other bands had. Motley Crue interpreted this as favouritism towards Bon Jovi. Tommy Lee responded by ripping the shirt off Doc McGhee’s back. Motley Crue fired him and headed home on their own.
This drama did nothing to defuse Motley Crue’s momentum. Their new album Dr. Feelgood was released on September 1 1989, eventually going #1 and spawning five hit singles.
Meanwhile back in Canada, I was following all the Motley news with great anticipation. A Hit Parader magazine interview implied that Dr. Feelgood was so ambitious, it might even turn into a concept album. In fact the band had so many new songs that a second album, called Motley Crue: The Ballads was considered for 1990 release. The concept at that point was to do a new Motley Crue studio album that was all-heavy, no ballads. The softer songs would be saved for the second LP. Ultimately they got cold feet and realised putting out an album with no ballads in 1989 was commercially stupid, and so Dr. Feelgood was released with a mixture of tracks – the best 10 songs and one intro.
“Dr. Feelgood” was the first single, and it dominated airwaves just as summer holidays were ending. It, and “Love in an Elevator” by Aerosmith were absolutely everywhere. “Feelgood” had the edge with me, due to its massive drum sound and serious vibe. Bob Rock captured what might have been the biggest drum sound since Zeppelin, or Creatures of the Night by Kiss. Either way, Motley and Aerosmith really put Little Mountain Sound on the map as the studio to beat.
I tried to catch “Feelgood” on the radio and record it, but failed. Instead I bought the cassette single at the local Zellers store. Considering how many tracks the band worked up for Feelgood, I hoped they would be releasing non-album B-sides. They did not. Instead, “Feelgood” was backed by “Sticky Sweet”, probably the weakest album track.
I wondered what happened to all those unreleased songs that Hit Parader mentioned. “Say Yeah” was not on the album or singles. Neither were “Get It For Free” or “Rodeo”. (We’d have to wait another 10 years for them to be issued on the “Crucial Crue” remastered series.) A CD could hold almost 80 minutes of music, but Dr. Feelgood was the standard 45 minutes long. Since CDs were so expensive at the time, some fans argued “You have room, so put all the tracks on there and give us the value for our money.” Of course, this attitude changed later on, when listeners realised that albums with lots of extra filler were not as much fun to listen to. And, sadly, the unreleased Motley songs were pretty much filler. The stuff that went on Dr. Feelgood was as good as they had.
Dr. Feelgood was one of the first CDs I ever got, on Christmas Day 1989, along with my first CD player. The sonics of the album were everything they were hyped to be, but what really impressed me were the silences of compact disc. I was used to tape hiss. As “Time For Change” slowly faded out to nothing, I cranked the volume to 10. It was amazing to hear the fadeout clearly, without the tape hiss that had become part and parcel of music listening.
The album earned some great reviews for its sound, songs and even some of the lyrics. “Time For Change” revealed a new more mature direction. “Kickstart My Heart” took a serious subject and made it inspiring without wimping out. “When I get high, I get high on speed, top fuel funnycar’s a drug for me.” Some called it Motley’s best album, and still hold it as such.
As the album rocketed up the charts, Motley embarked on an 11 month tour. Most of the new album received live attention, with five songs being part of the regular set. One person who was paying attention to this was Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Lars fell hard for the Motley drum sound, and sought out Bob Rock to produce their next album too. The rest is history. Like Motley before them, Bob Rock helped push Metallica into the upper echelons.
On Monday June 18 1990, Motley Crue headlined at the SkyDome in Toronto. The following day, June 19, the highschool halls were flooded with Motley Crue T-shirts. Where were all these “fans” last year when I seemed to be about one of two people in school who liked Motley Crue? It was always so bizarre to see concert shirts on people who never expressed interest in the band. All those girls who always seemed to say, “I hate Montley Crue”!
What goes up, must come down. Motley relapsed after partying too hard with the Skid Row guys. Infighting ramped up. As the band were set and poised to top Dr. Feelgood with something truly special, they fired Vince Neil. It was as if they were handed the keys to the kingdom, to promptly throw them off the mountain. Although their 1994 album with John Corabi is a monster (and possibly their all-time best), as a commercial entity, Dr. Feelgood was never surpassed. It eventually sold over six million copies.
We’ll have to see how Motley portray it in their movie The Dirt, but the truth is that Dr. Feelgood was a one-off mega-success story they’d never repeat.