Extreme: The thinking person’s hair metal band

Extreme is best known for their No. 1 hit, “More Than Words,” and the album it was released off of, “Extreme II: Pornograffitti.” Connor Shelton described it as one of the few bands from the era to bring a level of depth and sophistication to a genre. Photo by Connor Shelton

I recently wrote an article about 7 acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who probably shouldn’t be in there. I’m fairly proud of what I put to paper, but I did get a little bit of flack from some readers about my choices. Specifically, I recall one person insinuating that I had a bias against hair metal. I’m not going to deny it. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the genre. I generally find it to be homogeneous and overproduced, with the culture surrounding it rather crass. Yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy some bands and songs that are associated with the genre. So, that’s what I am here to talk about today: a hair metal band whose music I happen to like, Extreme

Extreme is best known for their No. 1 hit, “More Than Words,” and the album it was released off of, “Extreme II: Pornograffitti.” Given that the album is 30 years old and only went double platinum — a fairly respectable sales figure for 1990, but nothing special — it’d be easy to write Extreme off as just another band in an overcrowded genre that would quickly fall out of favor with the public, but Extreme isn’t just any other hair metal band. They’re one of the few bands from the era to actually bring a level of depth and sophistication to a genre that has often been dismissed as overproduced, hedonistic garbage. One might even argue that they’re the thinking person’s hair metal band.

I know that “thinking” and “hair metal” aren’t words one would often throw together, but let me explain. Stylistically, their sound is hair metal. Though the band’s two biggest hits are plaintive, acoustic ballads, the bulk of their material falls under the hair metal umbrella. Just listen to the likes of “Play With Me,” “Kid Ego” and “Get the Funk Out.” Musically speaking, these songs are big, glossy and feature bubblegum hooks, tight vocal harmonies and flashy guitar solos. When it comes to the lyrical content of Extreme’s material, however, things are a bit different. If you have any passing familiarity with hair metal, you’ll often find that the lyrics revolve around the same three things; sex, drugs and rock and roll. You might have a song like “Livin’ On a Prayer” or “18 and Life” that deal with more topical issues like unemployment or teen imprisonment, but these songs are few and far between.

When it comes to Extreme, the band focuses on a wide array of ideas and issues. Very rarely do they glorify the pleasures of mindless hedonism. This brings us back to the aforementioned “Pornograffitti.” On the surface, it might appear to be just as crass as the rest of the c*ck rock that dominated airwaves back in the late 1980s. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find that the album critiques sex, money and excess within American culture. You heard that right, a hair metal band critiquing the very elements that were pervasive to the hair metal genre. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at this record.

The album opens with “Decadence Dance,” a song that details, well, America’s decadent culture. Lines such as “trying so hard to keep up with the Joneses” and “it’s hard to stop once the music gets started/‘til the soles of your feet harden up like your heart did” not only detail the superficiality of keeping up appearances, but also highlight how disgusting America’s embrace of extravagant decadence truly is. The constant refrain of “dancing to the decadence dance” hammers home just how ingrained overt lavishness has become.

The next track, “Li’l Jack Horny,” might sound dumb and offensive given its lyrical content, but if you pay attention, it’s evident that the band is satirizing the overly sexual attitudes of bands such as Motley Crue and Def Leppard. It’s not so much the lyrical content that reveals this piss-take as it is Gary Cherone’s tongue-in-cheek delivery. Additionally, the reference to Mother Goose at the beginning of the song as well as the title itself — a play on the English nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner” — would seem to imply that sexual behavior and activities are imprinted on people at a very young age. I wonder what Extreme would say about the rise of internet pornography?

When I’m President” continues the theme of decadence in society by pointing out how trivialized politics have become:

“First things first, we’re gonna change the rules

Better listen up, all you boys and girls

Your prez says there’ll be no after school

So vote for me, now wouldn’t that be cool?”

The lyrics aren’t all that clever, but that’s kind of the point. Politics have become a game and the people playing the game are getting dumber and dumber. They say what sounds appealing to the masses, yet whenever an actual problem arises, they don’t know how to solve it. Gary Cherone’s OTT vocal performance only further drives this idea home. I won’t go so far as to say that he predicted the rise of former president Donald Trump, but it is pretty eerie how well this song’s tone reflects the rhetoric of the ex-toddler in chief.

“Get the Funk Out” is the fourth track on the album and by far the most fun. Much like “Li’l Jack Horny,” the song’s pop metal sound masks the depth of the lyrics. In this case, “Get the Funk Out” seems to be an anthem of exclusion, a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the moral majority and right-wing pundits. They’re the ones that usually complain about the decadence of the United States, but when others raise critiques about different aspects of our society, the right is happy to tell them to leave the country if they don’t like what they’re seeing. While Extreme might align with some of the views of the right considering the way they’ve thus far critiqued the hedonistic nature of U.S. society, this song proves that they also have problems with the way that conservative media and politicians conduct themselves. Considering the way the right behaves, it would seem they too are part of the problem when it comes to America’s overly decadent culture. 

Moving away from the political connotations of the previous paragraph and the overall lyrical content of the song, I feel the need to mention that “Get the Funk Out” might be the best showcase of Nuno Bettencourt’s skills as a guitarist. Besides laying down numerous variations of the funky riff that permeates the song, Nuno also delivers a career-defining solo towards the end of the piece that serves as a marvelous testament of skill and technique. Need proof? Guitar legend Brian May of Queen went so far as to call it “the epitome of what a solo should be on a record.” If you’re having any doubts about the band, then I encourage you to listen to this song.

The most important song on the record might be the hit single, “More Than Words.” The fact that it differs in style from the rest of the album is a deliberate choice on the band’s part. The soft, acoustic sound present on the track serves as a stark contrast to the loud, overbearing glam metal that is society, highlighting the honesty and intimacy behind the song. While many people write off “More Than Words” as a song about sex, guitarist and songwriter Nuno Bettencourt described it as a piece about actions backing up words due to the decreased meaning of the phrase “I love you.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and one that I happen to agree with. 

Following this ballad is the slick pop metal track “Money (in God We Trust).” “Money” serves as a lyrical callback to the excess found on “Decadence Dance.” In this case, “Money” takes a shot at individual greed rather than overt lavishness. The sickly sweet chorus only serves to highlight this greed as Gary Cherone calls the “almighty dollar” his “personal savior.” 

It (‘s a Monster)” might have the most annoying title on the album — just look at it — but it’s actually a pretty good song. It’s another hair metal number that is clearly the band’s bread and butter, and you can’t go wrong with it. Lyrically, it seems to be about the creeping threat of addiction inside all of us:

“It’s on my mind

Most of the time

That’s when you find

We all go blind

Then it will start

To get in our hearts

It’s gone too far

That’s who we are”

Considering just what addiction can do to people, it seems appropriate to equate it to a monster.

With “Pornograffitti” we see a continuation of the themes of sex in society. Specifically, this song is a commentary about the overbearing presence of sex in society and the way it connects with the decadence that corrupts our hearts.

“Sex in excess

Filling all our senses

Keep saying there’s nothing to fear

Can’t you read the writing on the wall?

Can’t you see the rising and the fall?

Whoa, can’t you see it?”

This is the point of the review where I should probably mention that while I agree with many of the sentiments Extreme are articulating across the album, there are some that feel a bit too antiquated. This might be one of them. I agree to a point that there seems to be an excess of sex in our media — especially because of porn sites — but I also think the notion that this is the reason our society has become so depraved is a simplistic one that fails to acknowledge how the prevalence of sex in discourse allows for better sex education and normalizes the topic for many people.

Stepping away from all this talk about sex for just a moment, we have “When I First Kissed You.” Much like “More Than Words,” the song deviates from the band’s typical hair metal sound though instead of a sparse acoustic ballad, we’re treated to a nostalgic lounge-pop sound. This lounge bar style helps emphasize the lyrical idea of true love in a time before society’s corruption. With all that said, the song doesn’t quite gel, due to the bland arrangement and milquetoast lyrics.

Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?)” returns us to the glam metal sound that has dominated the album at large. Much like “Li’l Jack Horny,” the song delves into overtly sexual territory though instead of using fairy tale imagery, we instead get allusions to candies and sweets. Out of all the songs on the album, this might be the one with the most irksome lyrics. On the surface, it’s easy to see the song as a form of slut-shaming, which is unfortunate. A closer reading of the lyrics however might indicate that this song is merely an observation of promiscuity in a morally bankrupt society. There’s no attack on the titular Suzi, just a simple account of Suzi’s desires. Either way, kind of uncomfortable.

He-Man Woman Hater” is the culmination of all the corruption that is present in society. Just as “Pornograffitti” pointed out the overabundance of sex in society, “He-Man Woman Hater” shows us just what it — along with all the other forms of decadence — can do to people. 

“Sooner or later

You’ll be a he-man woman hater

It’s inevitable

And to become one

You’ve gotta really hate to love them

He-man woman hater

(He) He-man (man) woman hater

You know I love to hate, ’cause I hate to love them”

Extreme’s trademark playful delivery only further highlights just how serious of a problem this type of corruption can be. Their delivery serves to emphasize how uncaring society is about these issues. This corruption is even present in the extended guitar intro “Flight of the Wounded Bumblebee.” The title is obviously an homage to “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the music itself is a variation of the technical showcase that “Flight of the Bumblebee” has become. It’s an incredibly memorable performance from Nuno Bettencourt but for all intents and purposes, happens to be a corruption of the original piece and in turn, reinforces the idea of society’s corruption on the individual.

Song for Love” is the third song on the album to talk about love in a genuine fashion and the penultimate track on the record. The song can be described as a power ballad, something the band had avoided with “More Than Words” and “When I First Kissed You.” While power ballads can be difficult to pull off, “Song For Love” works because of sheer will. Lyrically, it serves as a response to the decadence that the band addresses and criticizes throughout the rest of the album. 

“These walls of hate

That separate

One from the other

Time to rebuild

Bridges of love

One to another”

If “More Than Words” is a song about true romance, then “Song for Love” is about the idea of love. Much like The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” the band sings of love as a universal concept.

“All for one and one for all together

Singing a song for love

You and I are none without the other

Singing a song for love”

Given the focus on society’s decay, this call for love feels appropriate, now more than ever. 

This brings us to “Hole Hearted.” The final track off the album, it’s often written off as an acoustic love ballad in the same vein as “More Than Words.” While this reading wouldn’t be wrong, there’s a strong possibility that the song is about spiritual yearning in a decadent society. 

“Life’s ambition occupy my time

Priorities confuse the mind

Happiness one step behind

This inner peace I’ve yet to find

Rivers flow into the sea

Yet even the sea is not so full of me

If I’m not blind why can’t I see

That a circle can’t fit where a square should be

There’s a hole in my heart

That can only be filled by you

And this hole in my heart

Can’t be filled with the things I do

Hole hearted

Hole hearted”

No one sings about “inner peace I’ve yet to find” in relation to a lover. Regardless of whether you believe it’s about worldly, romantic love or something spiritual, this is a beautiful song filled with striking visual imagery. More importantly, the lyrics harken back to the larger themes of the album. The song even ends with the same thunderstorm sounds that open up “Decadence Dance.”

And that’s the album. It’s not a work of genius like the band probably thinks it to be, yet it’s certainly a step up from the run-of-the-mill hair metal albums that littered the market back in the late 80s and early 90s. Generally speaking, the band often trades off lyrical depth for musicality and showmanship, but the fact that they address the ways in which topics of sex and corruption are viewed and exploited within our culture shows that they have a level of awareness that isn’t normally present within the hair metal genre. This awareness along with Extreme’s overall musicianship makes “Pornograffitti” an underrated gem in the hair metal genre.