The term “hair metal” is one that I find misleading and wildly inaccurate. All too often it’s used as a broad generalization for any commercial hard rock or pop-metal that achieved popularity during the 1980s. Using a band’s image or outward appearance to categorize their sub-genre seems completely unnecessary. One band that often gets lumped in with this association is Skid Row. Emerging from New Jersey, Skid Row wasn’t offering up catchy anthems of excess that many of their contemporaries were. Songs such as “Youth Gone Wild” with its steadfast anti-authoritarian stance and “18 and Life” which recounted the consequences of life on the edge were packed with aggression and angst.
As the 1990s began, it became more than apparent that massive changes were in store for popular music. With excess taking a back seat to the recognition of real-world problems, many groups opted to change their sound and lyrical content. Skid Row would be no exception to this. Their sophomore release, Slave to the Grind (1991), saw the group breaking away from expectations and tired formulas that had been all but run into the ground. Even the album’s cover was a welcomed break from what was seen at the time. A mural inspired from Caravaggio’s The Burial of St. Lucy depicted a procession of authority figures overseeing the burial of someone bearing a resemblance to lead singer Sebastian Bach. As this imagery suggests—Slave to the Grind is an album that explores various themes of control and the ongoing struggle waged against authoritarian rule.
By taking an honest look at the world around them, Skid Row depicts the shortcomings and hardships of modern society. The album’s opening track, “Monkey Business” and “Livin’ on a Chain Gang” depict the division of social classes and the turmoil of the underprivileged. “Kangaroo lady with her bourbon in a pouch. Can’t afford the rental on a bamboo couch” articulates the crushing weight of substance abuse that is often associated with poverty. The term ‘monkey business’ is derived from the phrase “monkey on your back”, which describes carrying around a problem that is impossible to get rid of. As we’ve seen many times before, breaking the cycle of poverty is next to impossible at times.
“Livin’ on a Chain Gang” tackles the hypocrisy and controlling elements of both government and religion. The lower classes suffer continuously in the environment created by both. Each verse accentuates a different problem, with the first describing a child being jailed for theft, and the second describing a politician as a ‘wolf at the door.’ Exploring the hypocrisies of religion as a ‘con man’s intuition’, the third verse contains the lyric “What can he know, has he been through hell and back? He takes the cash and drives it home in a brand-new Cadillac…” describes not only the disconnect between the religious hierarchy and their followers but the ongoing controversy regarding the money pried from the hands of those who toil effortlessly in an attempt to survive.
An expected part of life in a consumerist society is the necessity to become a contributor in some form or another. Oftentimes, this expectation manifests itself as the so-called ‘American dream.’ The white picket fence, the 9 to 5 workday, it’s all so vapid and tedious. Breaking the glass ceiling seems impossible at times. The album’s title track serves as a harsh indictment upon this phase of life, which all too often feels obligatory and forced. “The noose gets tighter around my throat, but I ain’t at the end of my rope” establishes the oppressive hold of societal expectations. “You can’t be king of the world if you’re a slave to the grind” is a passage that has no shades of grey or pretense in regards to its message. Kill or be killed, be the one who is tortured or the one who holds the whip, the choice of staying shackled to a system that binds is up to the individual.
The one-two punch of this subject is contained on the following track, “The Threat.” Taking the perspective of the individual to new heights—Bach’s lyrics reflect the ongoing struggle against authority. While “Youth Gone Wild” from the band’s previous album had established anti-authoritarian themes—”The Threat” is a well-crafted manifesto. “I wasn’t put there to be treated like some disease you hoped would go away if left alone. You can sweep me under the carpet, but I’ll still infect your need to use me as a steppin’ stone…” While the lyric is certainly reminiscent of “(I’m not your) stepping stone”, a song covered by both The Sex Pistols and Minor Threat, Bach’s lyrics are an indictment against the authoritarian world that can be all too confining.
While some might argue that the struggle against authority and being assigned a role in the pecking order might begin at home, it’s during the 12-year ordeal of public education where this is first applied. “Riot Act” mirrors the discontent and burden of societal expectations placed upon so many. “I never wanted to be president, because it’s nothing but an ego trip. I didn’t want your education, because it’s nothing but a pile of shit” carries over the angst one has a teenager to the ordeal of adulthood. “You say it’s raining, but you’re pissing down my back” echoes sentiments of being mislead and subjugated.
While much of Slave to the Grind is frothing at the mouth with hostility and anger, the album concludes on a somber note. “Wasted Time” is not the typical ballad one might have expected from the commercial side of heavy metal. The song speaks very candidly about the self-destruction that comes with addiction and substance abuse. Aside from being a powerful composition and tackling a serious subject matter, Bach’s lyrical delivery shows a great deal of maturity as a songwriter since the bands’ previous release.
The lyrics of “Wasted Time” are phrased in the form of a conversation, with the narrator lamenting over the toll that addiction has taken. “The horse stampedes and rages in the name of desperation” is poignant in describing the never-ending cycle of self-inflicted abuse. What strikes the listener is that it’s unclear whether the narrator is talking to another person, or merely carrying on an internal monologue. “Creation’s colors seem to fade to grey. And you’ll see the silky hands of time, Will write your final rhyme and end our memory.” The lament is a sobering dose of reality and bookends an era of music that glorified excess and debauchery to its absolute limits. The final lyric of “I never thought you’d let it get this far, boy” sums up the hold that addiction possesses and how it ravages the naïve.
While the grunge explosion of the early 1990s is often credited as being an honest voice amid the music of the previous decade, Slave to the Grind contains no falsehoods. Despite the negative criticisms sometimes cast on the lyrical content from the time period, Skid Row proved that the genre was capable of tackling mature subject matter and lifting the veil to show that there’s more to life than looking for nothing but a good time. In the three decades that have passed since its release, Slave to the Grind stands tall as a prophetic work of art that details the perpetual decline of humanity and the anger at those who hold us down.