Mötley Crüe: ‘It was anything goes, and we got away with murder’
The rockers were as far from PC and MeToo as it is possible to be - and they say modern bands are missing out
“I like dangerous,” says Tommy Lee. “But everybody’s so fucking safe now, so afraid to be rock stars.”
Lee, the 56-year-old drummer of outrageous Californian rockers Mötley Crüe, has little time for the tepid modern bands that have followed in their wake. They are, he says, pathetically risk-averse, too scared to have fun. But then again, as an eye-popping new film shows, it would take quite a lot to be as rock ’n roll as Lee.
The Dirt is a Netflix adaptation of Mötley Crüe’s sleazy, bestselling 2001 autobiography, subtitled Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. More than a decade in the making, the film charts their rise from Californian wannabes to the tattooed kings of the heavy metal scene, and stars The Riot Club’s Douglas Booth as bassist Nikki Sixx and Iwan Rheon from Game of Thrones as lead guitarist Mick Mars.
Achieving record sales of more than 100 million, Mötley Crüe became the big-haired poster boys for an obnoxious amalgam of glam and punk rock. Dressed in spandex, high heels and make-up, they fetishised a life of pure hedonism. Indeed, so uncompromising are the accounts of partying, sex and drug abuse in the book of The Dirt that many had assumed it to be unfilmable. Until now.
“Netflix have steel balls,” says Sixx, before explaining that a female executive at another film company once vowed that the movie would only be made over her dead body. The Dirt’s unstinting fidelity to the book – it opens with a jaw-dropping scene in which Lee’s girlfriend performs an astonishingly explicit party trick – is already a point of pride for Lee, who is played on screen to great gangly effect by rapper and actor Machine Gun Kelly. “Oh boy,” Lee chuckles, “this might be the first time people actually enjoy the movie more than the book.”
Directed by Jackass veteran Jeff Tremaine, The Dirt arrives on screen at a time when the rock biopic is riding high. The Oscar-winning Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody is edging towards $1bn at the global box office; an Elton John film, Rocketman, is set for release in 2019. Yet, says Lee, there have been “so many lame rock ’n roll movies” over the years. Although he enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, he was “bummed out” that it swept Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality “under the rug” and wishes “they would have got into that some more and really let people into how weird shit got”.
Things certainly got weird in Mötley Crüe. The Dirt depicts both Sixx’s toxic relationship with his parents and the later, rampant heroin abuse that led, in December 1987, to cardiac arrest and him being declared clinically dead. He was only revived after paramedics injected adrenaline directly into his heart. (The band wrote one of their biggest hits, Kickstart My Heart, about the incident. Every cloud ... )
Today, Sixx, who turned 60 in December, is sober. He is more intense in his delivery than Lee and prone to rehab-speak, as one might expect of a man whose addiction was so deep-set that the only thing he chose to rescue from his Los Angeles home during an earthquake was his pipe.
Growing up, he had a volatile, sometimes violent, relationship with his mother and stepfather (he has no memories of his biological father) and now he says he first turned to drugs to try to fill an emotional “hole”. For Sixx, watching parts of The Dirt was uncomfortable but also cathartic. “Because you know what? We survived.”
Despite its often gritty content, tonally the film side-steps the bleakness of music biopics such as Alex Cox’s 1986 Sid Vicious film Sid and Nancy and steers closer to the sprightly feel of a buddy movie: the lights are bright, the fives are high. It doesn’t duck the issues so much as douse them in Technicolor. It shares an upbeat sheen with Bohemian Rhapsody, although it leaps into sleazy rock ’n roll waters where the Queen film merely dipped a toe.
To record four new songs for The Dirt soundtrack, Mötley Crüe returned to the studio for the first time since they disbanded in 2015, joining Bob Rock, producer of their career-high 1989 album, Dr Feelgood. Sixx says it “felt so good” to play together again. With filthy guitars overlaying Lee’s pounding drums, the new music is classic Crüe: polished, forceful and as subtle as a sledgehammer. There is an ironic cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, its chorus sung at menacing half speed by lead vocalist Vince Neil. And, putting paid to any hopes that the band’s lyrical concerns might have matured, the title track The Dirt (Est. 1981) includes a reference to strippers with “nice big tits”.
Ah yes: women. The most charitable thing one could say about Mötley Crüe’s sexual politics was that they were of their time. Another way of putting it would be to point out that the band were misogynistic pigs. The Dirt – both book and film – records countless lewd backstage antics involving groupies and girlfriends; a flagrant display of male rock star privilege as far out of step with the MeToo era as it’s possible to be.
“That was the 80s, man,” Lee protests. “And you know what? There really were no rules. This was before people wore condoms, there weren’t crazy diseases, this is like a free-for-all. I think people will enjoy [the film] for its outlandish, crazy style, because really during that time anything went. Anything. That was before people had cellphones and Instagram and all this stuff, so we got away with murder. Absolute murder.”
Getting away with something doesn’t make it okay. I ask Lee how he would characterise his behaviour towards women at the time. “It’s how it was then,” he says. “There was certainly no disrespect. I think we just enjoyed everybody.”
There is a moral ambiguity to some of the male-female relationships depicted in the film: in one scene, Lee’s raging girlfriend repeatedly insults his mother. So he punches her. It makes for queasy viewing, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions as to who is the victim.
I wonder if Sixx thinks the band treated women with enough respect back then. “No,” he laughs. “Are you kidding? We didn’t treat anybody or anything with respect. It’s just the way it was. We grew up with the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks and Black Sabbath. You’re looking at Ozzy Osbourne and Johnny Rotten, Aerosmith and Keith Richards. Am I supposed to be in the Backstreet Boys now?”
Earlier this week, Sixx responded to questions from Rolling Stone magazine over a chapter in The Dirt in which he admitted to “pretty much” raping a woman at a party. In a statement to the magazine, he claimed the story was “possibly greatly embellished or [I] made it up”.
Do they now have any regrets about their past behaviour? “Hell no!” says Lee. And Sixx? “I mean, my liver. If you want to look at my liver under a microscope ... ” He gets serious. “There’s regret. Of course there’s regret. There’s regret in how we treated each other, too. But we didn’t know any better.” Now, he says, he sees the world differently – and stands “100%” behind the MeToo movement.
However, says Iwan Rheon, it’s important that MeToo doesn’t mean actors and filmmakers “stop telling stories” about subject matter that may seem outdated through today’s lens. “It’s in the book. It’s what they did,” he says.
This is where Lee’s comments about modern bands come into play. People, particularly those in the public eye, have become so straitjacketed by political correctness that they can no longer be carefree, he argues. He hopes that younger bands will see the extreme partying in The Dirt and realise what they’re missing.
“Maybe life would be a little more interesting for some of these rock bands,” adds Sixx, “if they didn’t look like bankers.”
These days he looks to rap music, rather than rock, to see attitude, passion and evidence of a life lived to the max. Sixx was baffled recently when he asked a friend who manages young rock bands whether his charges are out there having the time of their lives and “getting arrested”, as Mötley Crüe did. No, he was told. Young bands today do pre-show yoga, watch YouTube in their downtime and are in bed by 11pm.
Sixx and Lee remain unrepentant: you feel they see The Dirt less as a snapshot of a bygone era than as a call to arms. “Maybe our movie is a necessity right now,” says Sixx.
– © Telegraph Media Group