REVIEW: Mötley Crüe – ‘Theatre of Pain’ (1985)

Leading up to the March 22 release of “The Dirt” on Netflix, Live Metal is taking a look back at each of Mötley Crüe’s studio albums.
Review by Greg Maki
When Mötley Crüe came home in 1984, it was on top of the world. “Shout at the Devil” had gone platinum, and it had toured the globe with legendary acts like Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden. But then frontman Vince Neil was behind the wheel—and very drunk—when he crashed and killed Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. Nikki Sixx went deeper into drugs, discovering heroin.

The distractions clearly were a factor in the recording of the band’s third album, 1985’s “Theatre of Pain,” considered by many to be the weakest of the band’s career. As a songwriter, Sixx was unfocused and uninspired. An album earlier, the Crüe was shouting at Satan and singing about the children of the best; now the band has the “City Boy Blues” and is covering Brownsville Station songs. It had adopted an androgynous glam look that became the standard “hair band” image Poison and countless other bands copied. I cannot imagine how disappointing this must have been for fans eagerly awaiting the follow-up to “Shout at the Devil.”

There is not an out-and-out bad song on the record, but at least half of it feels like unimaginative filler. Sixx confirms that in “The Dirt,” writing, “I had only written five songs, and we recorded every one. Then we had to plunder past demos just to scrape together a full album.”

Despite working again with producer Tom Werman, the sound has none of the immediate, dirty edge of “Shout at the Devil.” Instead, the recording has a glossy, over-produced feel—which probably was necessary to get anything listenable at this point. The band was aware of the problems. Sixx (from “The Dirt”): “In the studio, nobody liked the sounds they were getting out of their microphones, bass, or guitars. But we were too loaded to do anything about it.”

On a positive note, the album introduces some new sounds for the Crüe, including slide guitar on “City Boy Blues,” harmonica on “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and, of course, piano on “Home Sweet Home.” One of the all-time Mötley classics, “Home Sweet Home” was a smash hit, its MTV success virtually guaranteeing every hard rock band would include one or two power ballads per album. Mars, in the liner notes of the album’s 1999 rerelease, called the song “the sole savior of that record.”

“Home Sweet Home” was Sixx’s one moment of true songwriting greatness on “Theatre of Pain,” but the band still struggled to commit it to tape. Sixx explains: “… It captured our feeling at the time of being stranded and alone and desperate and confused vagabonds yearning for some sense of security, whether it be family, intimacy, or death. But we recorded it so poorly: We’d come into the studio and go through two takes, hate them both, and then get bored and fed up and go home.”

Though “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” (the aforementioned Brownsville Station cover) also enjoyed success as a single, the album’s other gem is “Louder Than Hell,” one of the only songs on the record with the energy the band showed on its first two albums. “Keep Your Eye on the Money” also is noteworthy, as its lyrics contain the cue for the album artwork (“Comedy and tragedy/Entertainment or death”) and because a demo included on the re-release has a raw sound with a lot more bite to it than anything on the final product.

“Theatre of Pain” is a completely listenable effort and was a commercial success that allowed the band to headline arenas. But by the standards Mötley Crüe had set even at this early stage of its career, it is a supreme disappointment. And there’s no one to blame but the band members themselves. Mars: “… It’s my opinion that we could have done better—songwriting wise and arranging wise.”

Rating: 6/10

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