A stairway led from the Starwood Club's dressing room down to the stage, which was about 20 feet wide and maybe 12 feet deep. Down those stairs came Mötley Crüe, a new local band that mixed New York Dolls glam-punk with Van Halen pop-metal. It was a Friday night in West Hollywood, April 24, 1981, and they were about to play their first-ever gig.
“I remember walking down the stairs onto the stage and hardly knowing Tommy and Vince and Mick,” Mötley Crüe bassist and principal songwriter Nikki Sixx says now. “But at the same time feeling like I’d known them my whole life. Breaking into that first song, I remember just feeling at home.”
Sixx is speaking by phone from backstage at an arena in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Mötley Crüe is nearing the end of “The Final Tour,” a farewell trek bound by a “cessation of touring agreement,” and culminating in a three-show hometown stand at the Staples Center leading up to the band's Dec. 31 finale. Tonight though, they take one last victory lap in OC at the Honda Center.
The same four dudes that will be in Mötley Crüe when the band plays tonight are the same four that played the group’s 1981 Starwood debut: Sixx, frontman Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars and drummer Tommy Lee. Of course a lot has happened to those four people in the 34 years since. Stardom, propelled by catchy yet heavy hits like “Looks That Kill,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Dr. Feelgood.” Infamy, propelled by epic heroin, coke, booze and groupie consumption, as chronicled in the group’s 2001 page-turner memoir, The Dirt.
In The Dirt, Neil recalls the first song Mötley played at their Starwood debut as being “Take Me to the Top,” the dark, shifting rocker that in November 1981 would appear on their debut LP, Too Fast For Love, released on the group's own Leathür Records imprint. Other songs Mötley played that night included pre-Too Fast single “Stick to Your Guns" and a pair of tunes never issued on a proper album, “Why You’re Killing Yourself?” and “Nobody Knows What it's Like to Be Lonely.” There were also covers of The Raspberries’ “Tonight” and The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” They were an opening act, so their whole set would have only lasted about 30 to 45 minutes.
“The thing about Mötley Crüe I felt very early, like in the early rehearsals,” Sixx says, ”was each member of the band brought a unique characteristic to the music. Nobody’s ever sounded like Vince. Mick Mars has a way of playing guitar where it’s not subtle. It’s brutal. Tommy’s this great rhythm machine and I had this very punk-rock, ratty bass style. You mix all this together, and that’s why we enjoyed doing covers early on … we found no matter what we played, it sounds like Mötley Crüe. So we would take things like ‘Tonight’ by The Raspberries — I was a huge Raspberries fan growing up — and it would come out all kind of messed up.”
During their Starwood debut, Sixx brandished a white Gibson Thunderbird bass on stage right. Front and center, the peroxide-maned Neil shook his hips inside leather pants. At stage left, Mars conjured jagged riffs from a black Les Paul and a stack of Marshall amps. Lee pummeled a double-bass drum kit.
The band wasn’t exactly sure what songs they'd play that night, until Sixx taped a scribbled set list on the stage right before they began. They hadn’t run through their entire set in rehearsals yet, a practice the band continues to this day.
“The band operates like a very loose machine," says Sixx. "We wing it a lot of times and a lot of stuff is really meticulous, but there’s the element of danger of not completely running through it that keeps it exciting for the band. And then it becomes what it’s supposed to be, live before the audience.” (One would assume “Final Tour” production elements like Sixx’s flame-throwing bass and Lee’s gravity-defying "Cruecifly" drum solo fall into the “meticulous” category.)
The Crüe debuted at the Starwood because Sixx worked a day job there cleaning up. He also spent many nights at the club, chugging free rum-and-Cokes and doing whatever drugs he could get his hands on.
“My band London played there all the time and we drew really well,” Sixx says, referring to the Hollywood combo whose rotating lineup would later include future Guns N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin. “So when I was getting ready to quit London, I sat down with David Forrest who ran the club and I told David that I wanted to do a new version of London but I wanted it to be a lot harder."
Based on a band photo and some demo tracks, Forrest booked the new group as a two-night opener for Y&T. "It was a favor," says Sixx. "And that really started the fire in Los Angeles. Because Y&T was a very well-established band, but no one had ever seen anything quite like Mötley Crüe — remember, there was no social media. Nobody could text anybody. Nobody could pick up their cellphone and videotape this thing going down. It was word of mouth and it spread really fast.”
Y&T singer/guitarist Dave Meniketti remembers that first Mötley gig — sort of. At the time, the Oakland-bred hard rockers were between record deals, so they were focused on what label people might be coming to see them that night, and what songs from their first two albums, recorded as Yesterday & Today, they’d cull for their set.
“So I didn’t spend a lot of time watching Mötley Crüe,” Meniketti admits now. “Phil [Kennemore, Y&T bassist] and I went out on the balcony and we watched probably a tune and a half, maybe two songs. There was a lot of talk about the band, so that’s why we went out there. We wanted to see what it was all about."
Although the venue was already packed — Meniketti estimates there were maybe 600 people there — he was unimpressed. "I remember the two of us looking at each other and going, ‘Hmmm. I don’t know.’ They were a little bit green at that time, but obviously years later [it was] a completely different story." Later, the two bands would become good friends, so much so that Mars once gave Y&T guitarist Joey Alves one of his black Kramer guitars.
Bands ranging from The Runaways to The Germs to Rush played the Starwood, which was located on the northwest corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. When Y&T had played their once previously, their opener was another then-unsigned local band called Van Halen. Unfortunately, just a few months after Mötley Crüe debuted there, the venue went out of business.
Vicky Hamilton worked with Mötley as a consultant under the band’s first manager, Allan Coffman, before going on to manage Guns N’ Roses and work in A&R at Geffen Records. Both she and Meniketti recall the Starwood as being the premier rock club of the time. “I wish that the Starwood still existed because it was kind of a combination of the Troubadour meets the Whisky when it was really good,” Hamilton says.
She met Mötley Crüe just prior to the Leathür release of Too Fast for Love. “I kept on seeing Nikki and Tommy and Vince [around the Sunset Strip] because I worked at Licorice Pizza Records when they lived on Clark Street,” says Hamilton, whose is publishing a memoir, Appetite for Dysfunction, about her days in L.A.'s '80s rock scene. She says that even in 1981, they already had the glam-rock-meets-biker-gang look they later became famous for. “I was like, either they’re brilliant or they’re crazy, because that was not what was going on in Hollywood at the time. It was more about punk, Black Flag and Circle Jerks, as well as The Go-Go’s, [who] were doing really well.
"I knew that they were gonna be huge even though some people thought I was crazy," Hamilton adds. "I found a flyer yesterday from where I ordered 300 copies of the Too Fast for Love record and I almost got fired from my job at Licorice Pizza because my boss was like, ‘You better sell every one of these records or else your ass is going to be paying for them.'"
Hamilton also factors into another key moment in early Mötley lore. At the Sunset Strip location of Licorice Pizza, a now-defunct record and video store chain, she created a Too Fast For Love window display — complete with Sixx's devil tarot card, panties from one of Neil’s “dates” and Lee's broken drumsticks — that caught the eye of legendary A&R man Tom Zutaut, who eventually signed the band to Elektra Records.
Of the songs Mötley performed at their Starwood debut, says Sixx, only “Too Fast For Love” still finds its way into “Final Tour” set lists. But when the the last notes of Mötley Crüe's New Year's Eve encore echo around Staples Center, it will still feel, in at least one one way, like that very first time he stepped onstage with Vince, Mick and Tommy.
“I was right at home for 34 years, for sure," says Sixx. "That never changed.”