Pop Goes the Strip: ‘80s Hard Rock on the Top 100

Ratt’s 1984 snarler “Round and Round” was one of that year’s biggest rock songs—it peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it landed at No. 87 on the magazine’s year-end singles chart. Among bands who crawled out of the Sunset Strip’s gutters and onto the charts, though, they were something of an anomaly, hitting it big on radio with nasty guitars and Stephen Pearcy’s acid-tipped vocals, instead of lighter-worthy choruses and proclamations of love. But as this playlist of Hot 100-charting songs shows, hard rock made it to the all-genre chart with a considerable skew, thanks to Billboard leaving video airplay out of their equations. Ballads and covers were big; straight-ahead rockers, with a few exceptions, were not.

“Round and Round” remains one of the best rock songs of its era, a tight package of twisted romance and spiteful lyrics with a killer modulation that ratchets up its tension. Its ubiquity was massively assisted by MTV, which seemingly reveled in playing the song’s Milton Berle-starring video. (Berle’s nephew Marshall, Ratt’s then-manager, called in a familial favor.) MTV was playing a lot of music that fell under the “heavy metal” rubric at the time; this 1984 playlist, in addition to featuring “Round and Round,” has videos by Jersey boys Bon Jovi and L.A. stalwarts Quiet Riot in heavy rotation (maximum four plays a day), while clips by Ronnie James Dio and Sammy Hagar are alongside Ratt’s similarly caustic “Back For More” in medium rotation (three plays max). “We’re a part of MTV,” guitarist Robbin Crosby told Billboard in 1985. “They were behind us from the start, and took pride in us.”

One of the biggest oddities of the post-MTV age was that despite the fact that the video-music channel was incredibly influential in popular culture, its data held zero sway over the Hot 100, which used only sales and radio airplay in its calculations. The pop-metal landscape presented by MTV, both in its daily programming and its Saturday-night metal-mania celebration Headbangers Ball, was harder and more acerbic than its full-chart counterpart; consider this 1990 playlist, which features Ratt’s bluesy Detonator single “Lovin’ You’s A Dirty Job” in active (not quite heavy) rotation alongside Love Hate’s manic sleeper hit “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” and Queensrÿche’s anti-globalist screed “Empire.” Meanwhile, Mötley Crüe’s bi-curious rave-up “Same Ol’ Situation,” Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” rewrite of “Blaze of Glory,” and Slaughter’s weepy “Fly to the Angels” are in heavy rotation, while Warrant’s excessively horny “Cherry Pie” and Winger’s longingly goopy “Miles Away” are among the clips being touted as MTV exclusives, which meant prime (and frequent) airplay time.

Most of the metal-tagged songs on that week’s corresponding Hot 100 chart fall on the more romantic side of things—the twin duo Nelson, who had the blonde tresses of any act worth their Aqua Net but whose sweeping rock songs were much more in the big-ticket vein of Boston, were at No. 1 with the harmony-rich “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” while Bon Jovi’s return to the Wild West was at No. 4. Ballads and rockers are surprisingly balanced on the rest of the chart: Faces revivalists The London Quireboys’ “I Don’t Love You Anymore” dips down from No. 92 to No. 95; Styx-Nugent supergroup Damn Yankees’ string-laden “High Enough” is at No. 74 and eventually makes its way to No. 3; “Fly to the Angels,” which would peak at No. 19, is at No. 28. Winger, Warrant, and Poison all have cheekier tracks—”Can’t Get Enuff,” “Cherry Pie,” and “Unskinny Bop,” respectively—bobbing around the 15-to-50 range, although those successes were more sales-based than radio-based. All three benefited from being the lead singles of not-yet-released albums by huge bands.

Ratt’s last single to make the Hot 100, peaking at No. 75, was “Way Cool Jr.,” a swaggering Reach for the Sky track about a slickster-cool drug dealer. Like “Round and Round”—and the four other Ratt songs that made pop’s biggest chart—it was a bit of a Hot 100 anomaly, trafficking in razor-wire guitars and led by Pearcy’s withering vocal (and it wasn’t a cover, à la Bulletboys’ rework of the O’Jays’ world-weary “For the Love of Money” or Great White’s version of Ian Hunter’s pervy “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”). But like so many other metal-edged singles of its era, it loomed larger on the rock landscape than the charts suggested, thanks to a consistent presence throughout late 1988 and early 1989 on MTV.