This is the story of a great band caught between hair metal and alternative rock until they hit big with a Beatlesque ballad
Glam metal hadn’t died by 1990, but its vital signs were plummeting.
Mötley Crüe crested the wave the previous year with their chart-topping, sextuple-platinum Dr. Feelgood, while Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten wouldn’t turn grunge into a nationwide phenomenon until the following year. In the interim, soppy, cliched debuts from Slaughter, Firehouse and Steelheart helped drive the final nail into the coffin of one of rock’s most maligned subgenres.
Still, some flashes of brilliance emerged from this wilderness period, chief among them Extreme’s sophomore album, Extreme II: Pornograffitti (also known simply as Pornograffiti, inconsistent spelling be damned), which turns 30 this week. Subtitled “A Funked-Up Fairy Tale,” Pornograffiti saw the hard-rocking Boston quartet improve upon their glam-by-numbers debut with a riveting concept album about the perils of worshipping sex, money and power. Deftly combining funk, metal and tender balladry, Pornograffiti earned Extreme their greatest commercial success, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and going double platinum, even as its best-known tracks overshadowed some of the most dynamic and virtuosic songwriting of the era.
Pornograffiti roars to life with breakneck opener “Decadence Dance,” which bears all the hallmarks of the album’s best songs: slick grooves from drummer Paul Geary and bassist Pat Badger, frontman Gary Cherone’s full-throated howl and dizzying fretwork from ascendant guitar hero Nuno Bettencourt. Atop Bettencourt’s sinewy riffs and harmonic squeals, Cherone rhapsodizes about the seductive pull of the so-called American Dream, and how the rat race leaves everybody broke, burnt out and miserable in the end.
Extreme tackle plenty of similarly heady topics throughout Pornograffiti, from sex addiction (the title track) to misguided political idealism (“When I’m President”) to systemic sexism as a symptom of man’s insatiable lust (“He-Man Woman Hater”). You could read the album as a high-brow critique of ‘80s consumer culture or the vapid, sex-obsessed glam metal scene from which Extreme emerged. But that’s not really the point. Much like the characters throughout Pornograffiti, listeners are encouraged to turn off their minds and lose themselves in the cocktail of muscular riffs, pyrotechnic guitar solos and stadium-sized choruses. The members of Extreme may have had the brains and the chops to rise above their spandex-clad peers, but they were still products of their environment, and Pornograffiti rocks on a surface level while also rewarding closer listens.
Fans who did listen carefully would quickly realize that Extreme worked hard to divorce themselves from the dime-a-dozen “hair bands” clogging up the Sunset Strip at the dawn of the new decade. Swaggering, horn-drenched rockers like “Li’l Jack Horny” bore a greater resemblance to nascent funk-rock stars like Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers than White Lion, while Bettencourt’s lightning-fast string-skipping on “It(‘s a Monster)” would make C.C. DeVille run home with his grotesque skull guitar tucked between his legs. Any skepticism about Bettencourt’s place in the pantheon of all-time great rock guitarists should have evaporated when Queen’s Brian May practically wept with joy while listening to the “Get the Funk Out” solo, the centerpiece of Pornograffiti and one of the greatest displays of tapping since Van Halen released “Hot for Teacher” six years earlier.
VIDEO: Extreme “Get The Funk Out”
Onstage, Bettencourt played the effortlessly cool heartthrob, providing the perfect foil for Cherone’s hyperactive persona. Cherone was a meat-and-potatoes rocker, lacking the alley-cat ferocity of Axl Rose or the sex-god grandeur of David Lee Roth (which helps explain why his stint as Van Halen’s third lead singer, behind Roth and Sammy Hagar, only lasted from 1996 to 1999). He made up for it with a workhorse stage presence, a robust set of pipes and an unwavering conviction of every word that came out of his mouth. Cherone either didn’t know or didn’t care how ridiculous he sounded interpolating a popular children’s tongue-twister on “Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?)”; it’s to his immense credit that he sells the song anyway.
Ironically—and perhaps predictably—Pornograffiti’s lean, mean rockers didn’t make the album a hit; lead singles “Decadence Dance” and “Get the Funk Out” barely made a dent on the rock charts. It wasn’t until Extreme released the acoustic ballad “More than Words” as the album’s third single in March of 1991 that Pornograffiti started building momentum. Supported by a plaintive, black and white performance video, “More than Words” vaulted to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; its jangly, acoustic follow-up single, “Hole Hearted,” peaked at No. 4. Suddenly, Extreme graduated from dingy clubs to arenas, and their stratospheric upward trajectory culminated in a slot on the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, where they performed in front of 72,000 people.
VIDEO: Extreme “More Than Words”
The smash success of “More than Words” was a classic blessing-and-curse story: Extreme had become rock royalty off the strength of a song that misrepresented their sound. Yet even at their most stripped-down and sentimental, they still outperformed their peers. Bettencourt’s supple finger-picking and vocal harmonies complement Cherone’s angelic falsetto, and the tender melody masks a cautionary tale about the words “I love you” being stripped of their meaning through overuse. With all due respect to Poison and Warrant, “More than Words” operates on a higher plane than ham-fisted, three-chords-and-the-truth bonanzas like “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Heaven.” The members of Extreme rightfully took the success of “More than Words” as a net positive (“We never wrote it, we never released it, I’m working at Burger King selling two burgers for a buck,” Bettencourt told Classic Rock in 2018) and continue to play it at every show.
Extreme would continue to push their compositional and thematic boundaries on Pornograffiti’s follow-up, 1992’s III Sides to Every Story, which couched an EP’s worth of brilliant rockers inside a bloated, three-headed hydra of a concept album. But by that point, grunge had taken the world by storm, rendering Extreme’s brand of knotty, progressive hard rock obsolete. The group disbanded after 1995’s lukewarmly received Waiting for the Punchline and didn’t join forces again until 2008, when they released their comeback album Saudades de Rock. In 2015, Extreme even commemorated Pornograffiti’s 25th anniversary with a successful U.S. tour and accompanying live album/DVD, and they continue to stuff their setlists with highlights from the album.
Now, 30 years after its release, Pornograffiti remains the crown jewel in Extreme’s discography—and a high-water mark of the glam metal era.