Mike would always just call it,”Sleaze-Rock” and be done. And I knew what he meant instantly. That’s my old music-friend, Mike. We would often talk about music in this familar way; a kind of short-hand that was developed without the need for definitions or explanation. We both understood the sound; the greasy-rock n’ roll sound of the Flamin’ Groovies or maybe the junkie-swagger of the Heartbreakers. Sleaze-Rock was our label for a certain rock aesthetic that we loved. A reference point for music that crossed the boundaries of punk, metal, glam and garage. A subgenera where ZZ Top, Motorhead and the Faces could find common-ground. Superficially, Sleaze-Rock has an earthy, dime-store fashion-sense coupled with a playful nihilist attitude. A youthful rock n’ roll rebellion against parents or school or whatever authority may be in front of you. But perhaps a few music comparisons would be useful. SleazeRock is the hard southern groove of Lynyrd Skynyrd AND the country-metal of the Four Horseman. Sleaze is definitely NOT the laid-back, California-country vibe of the Eagles. (Now you got it) Mid-period Rolling Stones provides us with the clearest touchstones; the playful guitar-crunch exchanges between Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards; the lazy flux-sounthern draw of Mick Jagger; the wild-life lyrics taken straight from Time Square; “The police in New York City / They chased a boy right through the park / And in a case of mistaken identity / The put a bullet through his heart / Heart breakers with your forty four / I want to tear your world apart”

And despite the hopeful title of this article, Sleaze-Rock has proven difficult to define with the usual formula. There are just too many exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a “sound” I recognize when I hear it. In his 1964 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Justice Potter Stewart delivered the famous line; “But I know it when I see it” about his inability to define pornography; “I shall not attempt further to define the…description (for porn) and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it“. Perhaps Jusitce Stewart would have better luck with our topic of Sleaze-Rock? What little has been written on our sub-genre usually places the birth of the sound/style with early period Aerosmith (73-74). And certainly Aerosmith plays some role in the development of the sound. But the Sleaze-Rock astatic was born well before Mr. Tyler and Company strutted their skinny asses on the stage. So let us get a few historic details straight before we name the focal-point of our sleazy music.

Firstly, as best I can research, the Sleaze-Rock ascetic draws inspiration from two specific sources: 1) the early rock n’ roll bangers of the 1950s and 2) the suburban garage scene of the 60s. Two sources that would eventually joining forces with the birth of the 70s glam scene. (With perhaps a vague, tip-of-the-hat to the Zoot Suite style of jazz singer Cab Calloway in the 40s. A fashion later adopted the British Teds subculture in the 50s. But let us stay focused on our topic) The principal inspiration was the early, raw rock n’ roll of Gene Vicent, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. They collectively defined the bedrock sound. The three effectively functioning as the unholy-axis of the Sleaze-Rock sound.

In 1956 rockability took a turn towards the sleazy side of town with Gene Vincent. With his greasy-hair and leather-jackets, Vincent was the kid who loved music, muscle cars and attractive women. His style incorporated the swagger and passion of the outsider. Equally important, was the come-on hooks and commercial appeal of rocker Eddie Cochrain; with songs like “C’mon Everybody” and “Somethin’ Else“, it was Cochrain that defined the good-time lustfulness of the teenage years. The songs briming over with specific masculine glow.  In addition, it was Cochran’s guitar-technic of “bending” notes up a whole tone that became an essential trick in the sleaze-rock sound. Finally, it is Cochran’s Gretsch guitar that became the torch of the Sleaze Rock style; Dogs D’amour, The Rolling Stones, Guns & Roses, New York Doll and Faster Pussycat all using the ornate Gretsch as their retro-symbol. Saving the best for last, Little Richard’s flamboyance, shouted vocals and smashing piano riffs have left the deepest impression on the music. With songs like Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, Lucille and Good Golly, Miss Molly that explore the celebration of rebellion and youth. A cornerstone? Absolutely but not the full story, as we will see.

In 1972 rock music writer/critic Lenny Kaye created the two-album compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. Consisting of psychedelic and garage singles from the mid to late 60s that defined an overlooked proto-punk sound of rock music. This was an era that had previously been dominated by the long-hair hippie culture. The Nuggets compilation was revolutionary because it exposed and defining a unique history within the rock music breed. An important development since the hippie-rock narrative is the antitheses of our SleazeRock sound. In fact, it is the raw aggressive music that emerged from the garages across suburbia that took the next (important) step toward Sleaze-Rock. Band’s that added the fuzzbox-distortion and aggressive lyrical attack to the established rock sound. There are many examples of this output, but let’s focus on two of the most distinctive; 1) the sneering crisis-filled vocals of The SeedsSky Saxon on ”Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and 2) the primal lead guitar riffs of Detroit’s Amboy DukesJourney to the Center of the Mind“. These two styles would fuel the future Sleaze-Rock. With bands like Finland’s Hanoi Rocks proving this exciting sound had traveled across the globe. In fact, it was Hanoi Rock vocalist Michael Monroe that rejected the influence of straight “heavy-metal” in his band’s sound. Instead he sighted, “punk, garage and glam as well as the original rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Little Richard” as key influences.

Sleaze-Rock is that overlooked zombie hybrid of sounds and styles. Fusing the glam fashion, the punk aggression and the raw sass of early rock’n’roll with the lyrical topics on the tribulations of love and lust. Michael Monroe touches on an important point; Sleaze-Rock is not Glam-Metal or Hair-Metal from the 80s. A common mistake. Certainly there can be some overlap in style and fashion on occasion. Perhaps most notibly with the Sleaze-Metal hybrid bands; Faster Pussycat, Guns n’ Rose and Motorhead. But there is an important distinction. The Sleaze-Metal bands reject the studio perfume of Hair-Metal. Sleaze-Rock embraces the punk ethos of keeping their songs simple and raw. But unlike pure punk or hardcore, Sleaze glamed-up the sound with tasty riffs and a defiant strut . Unfortunately, it’s a distinction often lost on most music fans and music writers. SleazeRock is the overlooked music sub-genre that deserves recognition as an important and unique art-form. The music living at the lonely cross-road between glam, metal, garage and punk and early rock n’ roll.

As stated, many observers will look to Aerosmith as ground zero for the Sleaze-Rock sound. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Given all that is happening in our world, these music related topics are a distraction at best. Meaningless in a world of prospering brutality. However, since we’ve come this far, let’s get it right. Which band best defines the first sounds and style of Sleaze-Rock? I’ll go back to my old-friend for a final answer. Mike always put the Faces as the center of any rock music universe. And it’s the 1971 Faces’ single, Stay With Me that grabs the first-place Sleaze-Rock award. The song leaving behind any memory of the band’s sixties pop roots. Indeed, there is nothing small about the sound of Stay with Me. The look, the music and the lyric finally bringing together the needed influences of the past into a beautiful toxic mess. The amazing crunchy riffs and raved-up rhythms are finally, perfectly in place. Coupled with a funny/nasty lyric focused on the regret of a one-night stand. It’s a sound and style that the Rolling Stone‘s would often cultivate but never fully embrace until 1973’s brilliant Doo Doo Doo Doo (Hearrtbreaker) and Star Star. Now all we need is a record label and copy-right authority to document our findings on a glorious multi-album Sleaze-Rock compilation: Sleazy Nuggets?

Until that happens, below is our Ulitimate Sleaze-Rock Playlist curated by the experts; the Vinyl Dreamscape and Triple 6 Records. Enjoy. One Caveat: the first and last tracks may not fit our definition of Sleaze-Rock but they sure fit our list. (The full playlist is available on Spotify: The Secret History of Sleaze-Rock

The Ultimate Top 50 Sleaze-Rock Songs

  • 1) What’s New Pussycat? – Tom Jones
  • 2) Race with the Devil – Gene Vincent
  • 3) Good Golly Miss Molly – Little Richard
  • 4) Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) – Rolling Stones
  • 5) Stay with Me – The Faces
  • 6) Rose and Rings – The Quireboys
  • 7) Born to Lose – Johnny Thunder & The Heartbreakers
  • 8) Dead Jail or Rock n’ Roll – Michael Monroe
  • 9) Ain’t it Fun? – Dead Boys
  • 10)Something Else – Eddie Cochran
  • 11) Sister Anne – Alice Cooper
  • 12) Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preacher
  • 13) Baby Let’s Twist – The Dictators
  • 14) American Nights – The Runaways
  • 15) Roadworn and Weary – Supersuckers
  • 16) Rockin’ Is Ma Business – The Four Horsemen
  • 17) Cheap Sunglasses – ZZ Top
  • 18) Gimme Back My Bullets – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • 19) How Come It Never Rains – Dogs D’Amour
  • 20) Girls Got Rhythm – AC/DC
  • 21) Marseilles – Angel City or The Angels
  • 22) She’s Got the Drugs – Nashville Pussy
  • 23) Repo Man – Iggy Pop
  • 24) Partytime – 45 Grave
  • 25) Have Love Will Travel – The Sonics
  • 26) Sweethead – David Bowie
  • 27) Dirty Water – The Standells
  • 28) I want you Around – The Ramones
  • 29) Blackout in the Red Room – Love / Hate
  • 30) Can’t Seem to Make You Mine – The Seeds
  • 31) Bellbottoms – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  • 32) Slow Death – Flamin’ Groovies
  • 33) Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
  • 34) Putty in Your Hands – The Yardbird
  • 35) I Was a Teenage Werewolf – The Cramps
  • 36) Killed by Death – Motorhead
  • 37) New Rose – The Damned
  • 38) Stray Cat Blues – The Rolling Stones
  • 39) Too Fast For Love – Motley Crue
  • 40) Peaches – The Stranglers
  • 41) Don’t You Ever Leave – Hanoi Rocks
  • 42) Mama Kin – Aerosmith
  • 43) Take a Look at the Guy – Izzy Stradlin
  • 44) Ain’t No Way Around It – Faster Pussycat
  • 45) Parasite – Kiss
  • 46) Down on the Street – The Stooges
  • 47) Cure Me or Kill Me – Gilby Clarke
  • 48) Won’t Get Out Alive – Waysted
  • 49) Star Star – Rolling Stones
  • 50) Burn the Flames – Roky Erickson