Mötley Crüe: Health Kick

Originally published in Guitar World, July 2009

Twenty years ago, Mötley Crüe cleaned up their act and then cleaned up on the charts with their biggest hit, Dr. Feelgood. As the band prepares for the album's reissue and first-ever tour performance, Guitar World checks in with Mick Mars for the story behind the 1989 smash hit.

Backstage at Madison Square Garden, the hallways are bustling. It’s an hour before show time at the New York City date of Mötley Crüe’s 2009 Saints of Los Angeles tour, and scores of crew and industry people are fanned throughout the corridors, frantically making certain everything is set for the night’s performance. It’s an anxious, if common, pre-show scene, but if a person were in search of respite from this habitual chaos, he would do well to head toward Mick Mars’ dressing room.

Inside, with the lights down low, the Mötley Crüe guitarist is relaxing on a couch, surrounded by various guitars and amp heads that lay scattered about the room. He’s in a low-key mood. “I like to just take it easy before shows,” Mars says. “Maybe do a little meditation, whatever. It’s weird, because I was looking forward to this being a long tour, but I didn’t realize how much of a beating it would be on me, with this crap that I have [Mars suffers from the degenerative bone disease ankylosing spondylitis].” He points to his left side. “I mean, this leg is pretty much on fire most of the time. But”—and now he smiles—“I just get a quick shot [of anti-inflammatory medicine], I’m up onstage, and it’s all good.”

What Mars deems as a “long tour” is only getting longer. Mötley Crüe have been on the road supporting their 2008 comeback album, Saints of Los Angeles, since last summer, and there’s hardly an end in sight. To the contrary, earlier on this day, the band—Mars, singer Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee—took part in a press conference to announce yet another leg of the SOLA tour, this summer’s Crüe Fest 2. But while Mötley Crüe are looking forward, they’re also looking back. For the upcoming jaunt, the band will for the first time perform one of its albums in its entirety, 1989’s blockbuster Dr. Feelgood. In addition, this spring will see a 20th anniversary rerelease of the disc.

That Mötley Crüe are choosing to celebrate Dr. Feelgood is hardly surprising. Released on September 1, 1989, the album, their fifth, not only capped off Mötley’s triumphant run in the Eighties in massive style but also in many ways encapsulated the sound of metal for its time. Packed with party-rock anthems that ooze sex (“She Goes Down”), drugs (“Dr. Feelgood”) and big, meaty riffs (all of them), the album debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts and spawned five hit singles—“Kickstart My Heart,” “Without You,” “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)” and the title track. It has since gone on to sell more than six million copies in the U.S.

While much credit must be given to the strong songwriting of the band’s two primary composers, Sixx and Mars, other factors played a significant role in the album’s success. Prior to recording Dr. Feelgood, the notoriously hard-partying Crüe got sober for the first time in their career. (“Kickstart My Heart” was Sixx’s ode to a particularly low point in his personal struggle with substance abuse: a 1987 heroin overdose, and the subsequent adrenaline shot that brought him back to life.) And there was producer Bob Rock, who infused the larger-than-life songs with overwhelming, arena-shaking muscle. The result was a career-, if not genre-defining, album. Says Mars, “Feelgood was the standard that everyone else had to beat.”

Prior to taking the stage at Madison Square Garden (where the band opens their set with the trademark guitar dive bombs that announce “Kickstart My Heart”), Mars sat with Guitar World to reflect on the making of Mötley Crüe’s 1989 smash effort. As the guitarist himself announces in the album’s title track: Ladies and gentlemen, come play with Dr. Feelgood.

GUITAR WORLDDr. Feelgood was your first album with Bob Rock. Previously, Mötley had a long and very successful relationship with Tom Werman [Cheap Trick, Twisted Sister], who produced all your albums from Shout at the Devil through Girls, Girls, Girls. Why did the group make a change at that point?

MICK MARS Tom was too much the older school—the Ted Nugents and stuff like that. In the early and mid Eighties that kind of approach still worked, but by the time of Feelgood we wanted to move to the next level and get a younger guy with a fresher mind and fresher ideas on production. I think Nikki found Bob through Ian Astbury from the Cult [Rock produced the Cult’s 1989 album, Sonic Temple]. We sent him a demo of “Dr. Feelgood,” and he liked it a lot, and then we went up to Little Mountain [Rock’s studio in Vancouver] to talk with him. He seemed like a really cool guy and was pretty young—something like 35 years old. And he had a lot of fresh ideas and different approaches to doing things. With Tom, I was used to just going in there, throwing a couple of mics on a Marshall and playing. But Bob taught me a lot about tones, amps, using different cabinets, different heads... I learned a lot from him.

GW I’ve heard that prior to hiring Bob, there was talk of getting Quincy Jones to produce Dr. Feelgood.

MARS Yes! I think that Nikki put in the request. But you know, it’s Quincy Jones. [laughs] He was probably like, “Who the hell is this band? Who do they think they are?”

GW Bob was known in those days as something of a perfectionist. You’ve talked in the past about spending as much as two weeks tracking the guitars for just one song on the album.

MARS That’s the truth. He really nitpicked. If I had to double a rhythm, I would get maybe a quarter of the way through the song before he’d stop me. And that really interrupted my thought process—I mean, I could have played through and then gone back and fixed any problems, you know? But Bob would stop the tape and be like, “What’re you doing? You missed that little click,” talking about the way my pick hit the string or something. That’s how picky he was. I might have done something by accident, and when doubling the part he’d stop me and say, “You didn’t get that. And I’d go, “I didn’t get what?” And he’d say, “That.” And I’d go, “But I don’t hear anything!”

GW It’s rumored that, when it came to Vince’s vocals, at the end of a day of singing he would often have only one word down on tape that Bob would deem usable.

MARS That’s completely true. I don’t really know how Vince felt about that, to be honest. I should ask him! But truthfully I wasn’t really too surprised, due to the condition Vince was in then. We were all coming out of this haze that we’d been in for a long time. Gradually, we all slipped back into it again.

GW Did you appreciate Bob’s attention to detail?

MARS It kinda got on my nerves after a while. I mean, some of the things that Bob was picky about, they were so minute you couldn’t even hear them. I listen to my favorite older albums and hear mistakes all over them, and that’s what makes them sound human, you know? But I get what he was trying to do with us, and in the end it worked.

GW Your guitar sound on the album is huge. Part of that stems from the fact that you tune down a whole step to D, but it also sounds as if your rhythms are heavily layered and multitracked.

MARS There’s a lot of guitar on Feelgood. I think I was doing about five rhythm tracks per song and then had different little parts going on and stuff. When we were done and I looked at all the tape we had used, there were about 120 two-inch reels. That’s a lot. Of course, when we did our next album with Bob [1994’s Mötley Crüe] I had 80 tracks of guitars!

GW What guitars were you using on Dr. Feelgood?

MARS A bunch of stuff. My black Les Paul from the early days [Mars’ ’72 Les Paul Special], a couple of Kramers, a couple of Strats, a Telecaster. Then I also had some lap steels and Dobros.

GW You played a lot of slide on that album, on songs like “Slice of Your Pie” and “Without You.”

MARS Nikki and Tommy at that time loved it. So they were always going, “Play slide!” And I was like, “I don’t wanna play slide.” And they would respond, “Play slide!” So I did.

GW What was your amp setup?

MARS I was using my Marshalls that were modded by a guy named Jose Arredondo [Arredondo was an in-demand amp technician, known for having worked on Eddie Van Halen’s rig in the Eighties.] I had maybe five or six of them, all old—everything from a ’67 to a ’72—and they all sounded really different. I think I had about seven stacks in the studio all together, with different heads on them. And then I had a few 50-watt Hiwatt half stacks, a Vox AC-30 combo, and also this amp called a Garnet. I used that strictly for its bottom end, to thicken up my tone. It was just this old head that I stuck on a Marshall cab. All it did was go pffftttt. It sounded like crap! But it worked. So the whole setup was just really loud and powerful. We’d have fans and all these kids standing outside the studio, behind the building, because they could hear me through the walls. It was leaking through everything. Aerosmith were in the next room recording Pump, and it leaked all over their album, too!

GW So you can hear Mick Mars’ guitar playing on Pump?

MARS If you listen hard enough you probably can. Unless they gated it off tight enough. Steven [Tyler] actually came over one day and said, “Hey dude! You gotta turn those amps down!”

GW At that time both your band and the guys in Aerosmith had recently gotten sober and were committed to living a healthy lifestyle. I remember hearing that the two bands would go jogging together during the daytime.

MARS The others would. Not me! But yeah, that was an interesting time for all of us. I remember one time the receptionist at the studio brought in a cake for some reason or another. It was a rum cake, but I didn’t know it. And I took a bite of it and almost spit it out, like, “That’s got rum in it!” And Steven Tyler was just sitting there freaking out, because he really wanted a piece of cake but knew he couldn’t have any. That’s how serious it was at that time.

GW How was the vibe within Mötley given that everyone was sober for the first time?

MARS It was all right, I guess. Tommy and I would joke around about it, just to yank Bob’s chain. We would get frustrated because Bob was so on top of every little thing we did. With Tommy it was always, “Play it harder,” or “Play more like this.” And then with me it was, “That part ain’t right!” Every time he’d say something like that, Tommy and I would go boom! and act like we were slamming back a big shot of Jack. We tried to have some fun, because there were definitely some frayed nerves. But we got along okay.

GW How did you deal with sobriety?

MARS I didn’t have any withdrawals or real cravings, but I missed the way it made me relax, especially during the recording process. The flipside, of course, was that drinking made me a much sloppier player. So it was better that I wasn’t doing it.

GW Around that time the band was also engaged in group therapy sessions.

MARS That was never for me. The way I felt about therapy and rehab and all that is that I’d seen it all fail, so many times. And the people there are very uncaring in my opinion, and they don’t follow through. They keep you in there for 30 days, give you a little bit of stuff, put you in this group thing, and everybody lets their guard down and embarrasses each other. It’s just a bunch of crap. My feeling is, if you want to quit, you set the shit down and go “I’m done. That’s it.” A couple of the guys in the band had a hard time with that. I didn’t.

GW Were you all sober during the writing process for Dr. Feelgood?

MARS I’m not sure. It was around that time, after the Girls tour, that we all started getting straight. Although I remember one time Nikki came to my house to do some writing, and he rode his bike over and was a bit high. That pissed me off. That was the day I played him a rough demo of “Dr. Feelgood.”

GW That was a song you had completely mapped out on your own?

MARS Pretty much. I was just goofing around and came up with the lick and put it down on a little eight-track. I don’t know where it came from…it came from my brain! I had to take that song into the band maybe four or five times before I could get the rest of the guys to pay attention to it. It was the same with “Slice of Your Pie.” It took me a while to convince them to really hear it. The problem was that when Nikki had a song, like “Kickstart My Heart,” it would be much more complete, with lyrics and everything. But while I write a lot of music, I’m not so good with lyrics, so as a result my songs came together later. For instance, one time we went up to Vancouver to meet with Bob, and in the car on the way back to Los Angeles I wrote the song “Sticky Sweet” in my head. When I got home, I picked up the guitar and I could just play it.

GW The main riff always reminded me of “The Wanton Song,” by Led Zeppelin.

MARS Yes! Although that wasn’t intentional. But when I listened back to the song after it was done, I definitely heard that. It’s like George Harrison with “My Sweet Lord”—I’m positive the guy didn’t realize he was doing [The Chiffons’] “He’s So Fine,” but it happens, you know?

GW Speaking of Harrison, the outro to “Slice of Your Pie” quotes directly from the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

MARS That was obviously intentional. I don’t think we had a real ending for the song, so we started goofing around with ideas. It was fun doing that, figuring out the chords that would be reminiscent of the song, but with a twist. We did a lot of that kind of stuff on the album, little nods to the classics. Near the end of my solo on “Time for Change,” for instance, I lift a little of the melody from [Mott the Hoople’s] “All the Young Dudes.”

GW I noticed that. I also caught the “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” reference in “Rattlesnake Shake.”

MARS That’s right! [laughs] And I took the chorus from [The James Gang’s] “Funk #49”!

GW Your rhythm guitar parts were obviously well thought out. How about the solos?

MARS Some were, some weren’t. “Dr. Feelgood” was one that was completely improvised. But there were some solos that I really had to work on, like “Sticky Sweet,” and “Rattlesnake Shake.” A couple of them I thought needed a more melodic thing, rather than just the wheedle-wee stuff.

GW How did the talk box solo at the end of “Kickstart My Heart” come about?

MARS I wanted something a little different. I was thinking about how Jimi Hendrix would “talk” in colors, and this was a different color, rather than me just plugging into a stack of Marshalls and ripping a lead. Sort of like how in “Crosstown Traffic” Hendrix used a comb with wax paper to double the lead-guitar line. That became my way to add a different color.

GW Another big hit from the album was “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away),” which was a bit of a stylistic departure for the band in the way you mixed acoustic and electric guitars and didn’t bring in the chorus until the last part of the song.

MARS Nikki came up with the parts, but he didn’t know how to put it all together. There’s the verse, and then the chorus, and then the third part, which is the real chorus. But it was like, How do we get back to the beginning? So we decided to do all the verse and chorus stuff first, and then end with the third part and let it go from there. We put the hook at the end of the song, which was a little different for us.

GWDr. Feelgood was Mötley Crüe’s only Number One album and remains your biggest-selling effort. At the time, did it feel to you like you were creating your definitive record?

MARS To be honest, it seemed like just another record. I didn’t think it was a milestone for us. But having my first Number One record was a big deal. I remember my manager calling me up and telling me that we did it. I was like “That’s all good!”

GW It was validating for you?

MARS Definitely. That album was like the standard that everyone else had to beat. And all the other bands that were around at that time…can I mention them?

GW Go ahead

MARS Your Firehouses, your Poisons, your Warrants, Great Whites, Dokkens… all those guys just went woosh! Gone. I mean, they still played, but they didn’t take that next step, in my opinion. They just kinda stayed in 1985. So I may not have anticipated it at the time, but Feelgood set a certain standard for the day and, actually, for what was to come as well.

GW In what sense?

MARS Well, I remember shortly after the album was released, the Metallica guys went to see Bob Rock about working together [for 1991’s “Black Album”]. And when you first meet with Bob, he always goes, “So, what do you want?” And they threw down Feelgood and said, “We want that.” I think their album wound up doing okay too.

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