Ernest Hilbert

Heavy Metal Case Study #4: Pretty Boy Floyd

How many times can we reasonably be urged to “set the night on fire”? Or to “break the chains,” for that matter? It seems we’re just going through the motions now. And what’s with all the Z’s in the album title, “Leather Boyz with Electric Toyz?”

Oh, right, the 1980s are beginning to peter out. All hands have been played. The first rays of dawn creep through drawn blinds. The party is ending. What was once the hottest ground zero for new rock music, Los Angeles, has been torched down to dying embers kicked back and forth by out-of-work axe-men, cooling to ash in the Pacific breeze.

You can feel the chill in the air as distraction and fear begin to leak into the humid air of once-crowded clubs, as the race for success on the Sunset Strip takes on a truly fraught quality, as chances grow scarcer. It’s scary.

Pretty Boy Floyd, “Rock n’ Roll (is Gonna Set the Night on Fire)” (Leather Boyz with Electric Toyz, 1989)

Artistic resources, thin on the ground at the beginning of the decade — a few chops, moves, and outfits handed down from the 1970s — are nearly depleted. If you look closely, in just the right light, you can see the wild look in the eye, almost taste the flecks of coke-caked spit building up and boiling in the throat, suffer the gut-sick panic that slithers up from long-abused bowels.

Something is wrong, but no one can figure out what it is. No one will slow down to take a sounding, and the whole creaking ship of fools, laden with a thousand frenzied, sequined, vodka-sick captains, is about to run aground on a harsh, unforgiving spit of land called the 1990s. The hangover alone will kill the weaker among them.

Penelope Spheeris, “Decline of Western Civilization Pt II: Metal Years” (1989).

You cannot bargain with the specter that has begun to loom over the Sunset Strip, scythe lowered in a dreadful slow-motion arc. A new and darker dimension of hopelessness has set in, but the curtain has not dropped entirely yet. There is still time, it seems. There is still a chance, dreadfully slender though it may be, that the roulette ball will skitter onto your number and deposit the last of the era’s fortune and plunder into your lap.

Even Motley Crüe is on the verge of utter collapse from spiritual exhaustion and artistic degeneracy. Poison has met their high water mark, their Gettysburg, and now the soul-dragging retreat down into obsolescence has begun. Flags are furled in the dust. Guns ‘n Roses has swept the board, taken the pot, shedding the glam and returning to an earlier style of rock stardom, but even they will not last to the middle of the coming decade. The situation is dire, and everyone, from David Geffen to acne-spotted farm kids in North Dakota, knows it. Except Pretty Boy Floyd.

In Pretty Boy Floyd we behold the perfect paint-by-numbers hair band: squeaky leather, suitably androgynous singer (Steve “Sex” Summers), vaguely provocative stage names (see last), choreographed antics, flaming guitars (summarily smashed), flash pots, layers of makeup, tremendous corollas of teased hair, a sound stage far roomier than any they would have reason to mount in real life, batteries of hot UFO lights, cliché-ridden and wholly unremarkable lyrics, customary jigsaw-puzzle riffs, and . . . we’re pretty much there.

But where is there? As Gertrude Stein once remarked about Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” This band is not only not greater than the sum of its parts, it bizarrely seems to amount to far less in toto than its interchangeable members could offer individually.

Already hampered by an unwieldy title (ten words, counting “n’”), their first single, “Rock n’ Roll (is Gonna Set the Night on Fire),” is weighed down by its lack of imagination. Every standard rock cliché is tossed into the pot, but no gumbo.

In the dregs of the decade, 1989, when Pretty Boy Floyd’s first album debuted, competition was incredibly concentrated, and bands had long since become indistinguishable in their efforts to mimic those who had gone before. Thousands of bands descended on Los Angeles looking for a record deal just as the rest of the nation’s adolescent zeal for Hollywood style hard rock was waning.

So much depends on timing, and Pretty Boy Floyd was just too late and never more than competent. They are impressive in their way, of course, quite professional, with turn-on-a-dime execution (no easy feat), but when all is said and done they are pure textbook.

Pretty Boy Floyd, “I Wanna be With You” (1989)

They followed up their first single with a ballad (standard hair-metal scheduling) called “I Wanna Be With You,” which features the lines.

“What’s your name? Where are you from?
Our conversation’s just begun
Maybe we can talk more after school.”

School? Graduate school? These guys look like they are at least in the mid-twenties. Just as in the first video, every move feels staged. Every note blandly premeditated. Each pout faked.

Not much else to say about them, sadly, except to report that they continue to exist in some strange shape today. One shudders to think of how many opportunities they’ve missed over the last quarter century.

How much regret can one band sustain before dissolving into thin air?

– Ernest Hilbert

Next time: What does it take to catch the jaded eyes of late 1980s youth? Do we have to light a guy on fire during the video? OK, then. Let’s do it.

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Ernest Hilbert is the author of four collections of poetry, "Sixty Sonnets," "All of You on the Good Earth," "Caligulan," and "Last One Out," as well as a spoken word album recorded with rock band and orchestra, "Elegies & Laments." He hosts the popular blog E-Verse ( and the E-Verse Equinox Reading Series at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review as well as in a number of anthologies, among them "The Incredible Sestinas Anthology," "The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets," and two Penguin anthologies, "Poetry: A Pocket Anthology" and "Literature: A Pocket Anthology." More Ernest here.