Saturday, March 19, 2016

Steel Panther - Rock-parody In Blue

Four enthusiastic fans of the 1980's Glam Metal scene begin to pretend to be a fictional band from that era. They extend their fantasy into press conferences and interviews by making shit up about their real lives. They release professional-grade albums of songs with ridiculous lyrics about sex, and 1980's views of masculinity. Numerous musicians (singers, drummers, guitarists, keyboard players, bass players, as well as actors and sports figures), both from that era and from today, often join them onstage to sing/play each guest's signature song, or other popular songs from the 1980's.

They are Steel Panther.

1965, May 15: Ralph Saenz ("Michael Starr") is born.

1970, November 24: Russ Parrish ("Satchel") is born.

1988: Saenz earns a PhD in English Literature from Berkeley University, and becomes an Assistant Professor of English Literature and Cultural Studies at Texas A&M.

The 1990's: Parrish is a student, and later an instructor, at The Guitar Institute of Technology, in California.

1994, May: After being several L.A. bands (including Long Gone in 1991), Saenz begins a 12-year stint as David Lee Ralph, vocalist in the Van Halen tribute band "Atomic Punks".

1997: Saenz and Parrish start a band initially called Metal Shop, soon changing it to Metal Skool. Playing their favorite songs from the 1980's, they felt they were "re-educating" concertgoers.

1999: David Lee Roth (formerly of Van Halen) acquires Atomic Punks guitarist Bart Walsh.

2002: David Lee Roth acquires Atomic Punks guitarist Brian Young. Saenz asks Parrish to replace Young in Atomic Punks, and he accepts.

2003, January 31: Michael Anthony (formerly of Van Halen) performs an entire show with the Atomic Punks at the House of Blues in Anaheim.

2003: Saenz and Parrish moonlight in Danger Kitty to appear in both a "Discover Card" TV commercial, and on the related single: "Love Rocket". The bass player in that band, Travis Haley ("Lexxi Foxx", born July 14), soon leaves to join Metal Skool.

2003: Metal Skool drummer Ray Luzier is too busy touring with David Lee Roth, so he is replaced by Darren Leader. ("Stix Zadinia", get it? Born 12/25/69.) The album "Hole Patrol" is released.

2006: Saenz and Parrish leave Atomic Punks to focus on Metal Skool.

2008, December: Metal Skool "gets a record deal", and they change their name to Steel Panther. Three studio albums follow: Feel The Steel (2009), Balls Out (2011), and All You Can Eat (2014). They also release two live albums: British Invasion (2010) and Live From Lexxi's Mom's Garage (2015).

Steel Panther are now successfully doing what only Spinal Tap has done before them. As introduced in the 1984 American film "This Is Spinal Tap", Spinal Tap parodied British Heavy Metal musicians of the late 1970's and early 1980's, going so far as to even invent a backstory of professional activity during the 1960's. Once the movie became popular, Tap chose to continue their parody in interviews and onstage, but seldom more than a few times every decade.

The Spinal Tap "act" contrasted their onstage act as being-in-control-of-the-show with their offstage act of confronting situations that were largely out of their control. It also contrasted their celebrity with their below-average intelligence. Outside of the parody, Tap consisted of brainy, cultured professional actors, ones experienced in the art of Improvisational Theatre. They also happened to be able to play instruments and write songs.

Like Spinal Tap, Steel Panther intended to parody an entire genre of music: the Los-Angeles-based Glam Metal of the 1980's that came after Spinal Tap. Similarly, they invented a decades-old backstory of professional success. In contrast to Tap, however, Panther contained professional musicians adept at playing instruments and writing songs. They also happened to be able to act improv-style, depending not on experience with Improvisational Theatre, but upon their above-average brains/charisma.

Steel Panther embodies numerous stereotypes from the culture of the bands of the 1980's Glam Metal scene, though some of this culture extends to bands from the 1960's up to the present. They express these stereotypes by using their invented backstory, and by using "spoken performances": press conferences, interviews, and onstage banter between songs. Their invented backstory implies that they were in the music business in the 1980's. Therefore, they have physically endured many stage performances and lots of touring, both decades ago and in this decade. That lie leads to various age-related subjects they mention on-and-off stage. A few of those include: facelifts (which Saenz actually has), high cholesterol, hip replacements, heart attacks, needing daily medication, and having dealt with fame in the 1980's as performers and musicians.

To subliminally promote the believability of that lie, a few significant guitar elements from their early albums are nearly direct copies of guitar elements from actual rock/metal hits of the 1980's. Aside from audible clues, they provide visual ones as well: big hair-sprayed hairstyles, wearing makeup, spandex, scarves, and torn clothing with bright colors and patterns. Other parodied aspects: egocentrism, low intelligence, cocaine use, posing awkwardly in rock magazine photo shoots, onstage arguments between members, and coordinated dancing while playing songs. Some higher-concept parodied aspects: suggesting that concerts are lip-synced, suggesting that certain musical equipment is used because it is trendy and not for its quality, suggesting that the income gained from touring merely pays for the tour with little left over for equipment, and suggesting that the band may soon "break up" or that members may soon "be replaced".

Remarkably, very little of their invented backstory enters their lyrics. The only aspect of it that does enter their lyrics absolutely dominates them, and understandably modulates the entire parody: frequent hedonistic heterosexuality. (Outside of the parody, each member of Steel Panther has a stable heterosexual marriage, and some have children. Parrish has two.)

More specifically, they employ these lyrical playgrounds: multiple sex partners, professions that involve sex, public locations of a sexual nature, not discriminating when choosing a sexual partner, discriminating when choosing a sexual partner based on appearance, having very sexual/young parents, and backstage sex with fans.

Ironically, until the time surrounding the formation of what was to become Steel Panther, homosexuality was publicly ridiculed. Yet, by the time it became taboo to portray it negatively, the band chose to accurately incorporate both anti-homosexual attitudes and even homosexual slurs into their parody, and occasionally into their lyrics. As an antidote to this curious tribute to outdated gay-bashing, they have "accidentally" inserted hints of repressed homosexuality (and incest) into the parody during their spoken performances, both off-and-on stage.

As their albums have occurred over the years, the music and lyrics of Steel Panther have become more intense. Their early parodies of the 1980's Glam Metal scene accurately recalled a balance between "having a good time" and "expressing sexuality". These days, that balance has tipped completely over to the sexuality side. Steel Panther currently celebrates a bygone era, but does not lampoon it as blatantly as it used to do. A hybrid of a tribute band and a parody band, the guys now release original songs containing, of the long-gone Glam Metal genre, only its rock-star swagger. They have become the target: several Steel Panther tribute bands already exist, imitating their look and music.

Regarding their offstage spoken performances, the true attitudes of the band members have gradually been eroding the parody, as they have little love for the essence of Improvisational Theatre. It was just a convenient way to let their Halloween fantasy last year-round. For example, as of 2016, primarily Haley continues to act out "wearing makeup, repressed homosexuality, and low intelligence", while the other members ridicule him for it. Their verbal attacks are intended to be covered by the "onstage arguments between members" portion of the parody. Unfortunately, they come off more as genuine rants against disliked aspects of their chosen genre.

The only aspects that remain which Steel Panther continue to consistently satirize: cocaine use and copious amounts of sex, which often is translated as "partying". Interestingly, the band rarely mentions alcohol consumption in their lyrics or in interviews, though it has been considered the core aspect of "partying" for a millennia. This may be due to how the on-and-off stage inebriations of many musicians of the 1970's and 1980's were overplayed in the press, as were their failed marriages and torrid sex lives. Yet in their lyrics and in their interviews, those same musicians rarely brought up sex, or drugs.

So with three big foam fingers - and here is the real shocker - Steel Panther viciously point to the line between musically ambitious choices and self-centered choices. They glorify a peculiar real-life symbiosis: the virtuoso musicianship from the 1980's Glam Metal scene, and the media-downplayed drugs/sex enjoyed by those "rock stars". And they do this pointing with zero tact, even less shame, and the twinkle in their eyes turned up to 11, as befits the best of performance art. The film Impromptu states that "Art does not apologize." And when viewed through the eyes of a Panther, non-apologetic art can be even more fun than having your own Van Halen tribute band.