Groupies, Tattoos, and Glam-Rock: How Helsinki is the Sunset Strip of Europe
"When you’re a teenager and you see these videos of dudes rocking and drinking Jack Daniels and getting shitloads of chicks... you’re like ‘I want to do THAT kind of music!’”
It’s hard to describe how unnerving it is when you've pissed off a bona fide rock star – even if it’s one as cheery and well-mannered as Michael Monroe. Your internal organs tumble out of you, each making a faint squish on impact, and you’re left to scramble amongst the detritus.
This is my second time sitting down to chat with Finland’s most famous rocker, and this time we’re on his turf: a café in downtown Helsinki. Dressed in red crocodile boots, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a towering blonde hairdo, Monroe is easy to spot; he’s already had to stop our conversation several times to greet the little saucer-eyed girls that are hovering in our vicinity, hoping for a photo or one of the pre-autographed cards he carries around with him to whip out and prevent gathering mobs – a necessity for him in the capital. Monroe is a national treasure here - mostly because of the success of his former band Hanoi Rocks.
I’m here to investigate the Los Angeles influenced rock scene in Helsinki, where Monroe is treated as a revered forefather. The people I’ve spoken to have called him the “Rolling Stones of Finland” and explained how the Finnish “treat him like he’s Michael Jackson. Even your granddad knows Hanoi Rocks”.
In case you’re (A) not Finnish or (B) not old enough to remember anything that happened before the internet was invented, Hanoi Rocks are a band who nearly broke in the States in the early 80s, and had a big influence on the Sunset Strip scene. Their career was cut short when their drummer Razzle was killed during a beer run with Vince Neil of Motley Crue. The band subsequently fell apart – but not before inspiring a legion of American teens started backcombing and dilating their pupils. The likes of Poison, Faster Pussycat, Ratt, and many others have fostered an unbreakable association with Hanoi Rocks – an association that has stalked Monroe for generations. Aside from the odd band that Michael actually likes – Guns and Roses, for example – his general reaction toward Hanoi Rock’s "legacy" is “What the hell?! Don’t blame me for that shit!”
Which brings me to mentioning where I’d been the morning before meeting Michael. I’d been speaking to some of the current glam bands on the Finnish scene and I tell Michael I’ve been talking to Olli…
“Olli Herman? Of Reckless Love?” Michael asks. I nod. His face darkens and his tone sours. “Uh huuuuuh...”
Um, yeah, and also I spoke to this other band Santa Cruz…
“Yes, I’ve heard the name,” he interjects, putting down his coffee cup forcefully. “But first of all. What did you tell Olli? Why?”
“Was it about the influence of Hanoi?”
Well, uh, no, he said that he knows you but takes more influence from other bands.
Immediately the storm clouds part from his face and the grin returns. “Yes! I agree. They are from those other bands, the Van Halen wannabe bands,” says Michael. “The Poisons and the massive hair – the hair metal bands! They were really fans of the bands that were fans of Hanoi.”
I get the feeling that I’m not the first person to be glared at by Michael Monroe for mentioning Reckless Love in a conversation about Hanoi Rocks. And judging by my conversation with Olli, I’m not the first journalist to write about it either.
“He’s the nicest guy. He’s a super frontman, he’s the original,” Olli gushes. “People tend to think that [Michael] is one of my idols, but he’s never been an idol for me in that kind of sense.
“I truly admire his ability to do the stuff he does in his 50s. He’s still doing the splits! He’s still climbing the rafters! He’s all over the place!
“I’m grateful that Michael Monroe is who he is, because without him, there wouldn’t be bands for me to admire. He’s like a forefather of the music I like.”
Reckless Love, and Olli in particular, enjoy a high level of fame in Finland playing hair metal pop nuggets that Katy Perry could crack a chart with. Their latest album Spirit was number three on the Finnish charts and Olli has been building his CV as a TV personality. Unlike Monroe, Olli has no qualms with making commercial music and attracting the nostalgia crowd. He even has a band on the side with various other rockers in Finland called The Local Band that exclusively plays 80s hair metal covers. The youngest member of this band is Archie Kuosmanen, singer and guitarist for the similarly 80s-flavoured Santa Cruz.
The members of Santa Cruz have already mastered every musical convention of the hair and glam metal era. They can wail – in the most Wayne’s World sense of the word – and can shred on any type of licks that were melting faces onto the Sunset pavement back in the day.
“Of course our band is moving toward modern influences now,” he explains, “but back [when we started] we just wanted to look and sound like Skid Row. When you’re a teenager and you see these videos of dudes rocking and drinking Jack Daniels and getting shitloads of chicks... you’re like ‘I want to do THAT kind of music!’”
For those of us that weren’t old enough to understand the subtle nuances of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie”, let alone lurked in LA at the time, we grew up with a glamorised idea of the Sunset Strip: the one mythologised in the piles of biographies that have been pumped out on the regular since the turn of the millennium. Motley Crue’s The Dirt, the Crue’s respective tomes, Duff McKagan and Slash’s’ memoirs: they all paint a fairly consistent picture of shameless decadence and machismo debauchery in the late 80s music scene. Beautiful women! Fast cars! Non-stop parties! Unapologetically indulgent guitar wanking! Heady shit; particularly for the young and pimpled male masses.
Glam rock is no longer a big draw in Britain and America; kids these days prefer nude woman swinging on architectural appliances rather than hard-as-nails men drenched in hair spray. But in Helsinki there’s more than a triple of glam metal’s new wave. Which is why I’m standing on a ship docked in the Helsinki harbour – two nights before my encounter with Michael Monroe – along with Santa Cruz and a gaggle of long-haired Fins looking as if they’ve been ripped out of the Whiskey A-Go-Go circa’ 88.
“JUMP!” they bellow. “Go ahead and ju-uump!”
The guests of this evening’s shindig have piled out from below deck in full support of a few young metalheads and their decision to, as they call it, “do a Titanic”. So far this has involved crawling out on to the reaches of the bowspirit (the pole that juts out the front) and swinging about on the ropes. This doesn’t seem like a great idea to me; but I’m not a 21-year-old rocker that’s been swilling cheap beer and whisky for the past few hours.
Fresh out of the water
Voices – of both reason and chanting – come from Santa Cruz’s management team. They’re telling Archie to get his ass back on deck. But it’s too late; he is dangling upside-down from the wooden shaft with his Suicidal Tendencies t-shirt hanging around his shoulders and his bleached hair stretching towards the rank water several metres below. Soon enough there’s a splash. Then a cheer. All shortly followed by another splash as another frontman from yet another 80s inclined band follows suit.
This is the pre-party – and the rest of the members of Santa Cruz are necking beers, watching hockey, and getting hygienically dubious tattoos before we’re carted off to the two top bars in the city. Here, there is endless booze, pretty girls everywhere, and the best fucking pasta salad I’ve ever had in my life. Throughout the course of the evening all the members of the increasingly intoxicated band get their wrists inked with ‘Best gig ever!’ – their version of an office motivational poster, apparently - as well as various symbols on their knuckles. This is topped off with Santa Cruz drummer Tapani ‘Taz’ Fagerström making the totally-not-regrettable decision to have his own stage name branded on himself. The drinking, the inking and the parade of big-haired rocker types are all appropriately soundtracked by Skid Row, Motley Crue, GNR and the like. If you want a reimagining of the debauchery stained 80s, but set in Europe, then this is it.
Archie is adamant that Helsinki is as close as can be to the Sunset Strip – or at least what he’s read about it. Santa Cruz are on the course to break out of Scandinavia and their longer-slogging hair metal compadres – the Poison to their Skid Row – Reckless Love are becoming one of the most famous rock bands in the country.
“The thing that is biggest right now is Finnish rap, which fucking sucks, [rapper Cheek] sold out the Olympic stadium two nights in a row. What the fuck!?” says Santa Cruz guitarist Johnny Parkkonen. “But there is a young generation coming up now that is much more rock’n’roll.”
The hangouts and main venues where this latest wave play and converge are all within a few blocks of each other, the three big hitters being the long-standing legendary Tavastia Club (where Hanoi Rocks had their start), Bar Loose and Bar Bakkari – Bar Backstage in English. The latter of these recently reopened after being shut for a period undergoing refurbishment.
“That place was always packed with fucking groupies,” says Archie of Bar Bakkari. “It was like [Sunset Strip bar] Cathouse back in the 80s.
“Reckless Love would hang out there, girls that looked like Pamela Anderson, and all that. It felt like L.A. because everybody had huge hair and there was that Sunset Strip vibe,” he says.
Monroe is happy to admit that he is “the freak” in this respect – he’s sober, clean-living, and wouldn’t spend a week-night getting drunk and tattooing his knuckles. But Hanoi Rock certainly don’t have an innocent past. They were even once deported from Israel after Razzle and Nasty Suicide decided their hotel room furniture would look better hurled into the Tel Aviv traffic several stories below their window.
Hanoi’s guitarist Andy McCoy is still known as a Keith Richards-level eccentric.
“We actually once had a show at Bar Bakkari a few years ago and Andy came along with his wife,” remembers Archie. “After the show Andy came backstage with his big ass shades on, went up to the set list, wrote on it ‘The band was great’ and then put his autograph there. Then he went to the corner, fucking lit up a joint, took a piss on the floor, smoked the rest of the joint and left. It was fuckin’ hilarious!”
My quick tour of the Helsinki’s bar scene – commencing shortly after Archie is dragged out of the harbour grinning with achievement – paints a similarly debauched picture. Our first stop is Bar Loose, “the best little venue in Helsinki,” says Johnny, and a rock bar with a preoccupation with Iggy Pop – posters, murals, framed portraits etc. Then it’s on to Bar Bakkari, where the evening ends with the band – having just popped an E – gurning their way through a loose-limbed impromptu performance while Archie scales the tables and fans guzzle shots of whisky. The wives and girlfriends huddle together nearby at all times, looking resplendent in push-up bras and hip-grazing, thick tresses. Most demurely flit around the peripheries, but a few aggressively mug for the camera - particularly Archie’s latest who at one point in the evening proceeds to stuff her whole fist inside her mouth for our photographer’s benefit.
Yes - sex, drugs and rock’n’roll all exist in Helsinki. But there are holes in the city's Sunset ideal. Nothing will quite be able to recreate the shambolic and ridiculous atmosphere of that original scene, when there was still a pervading ignorance (or wilful denial) about drugs and sexually transmitted diseases. Guns N’ Roses members had such wonderful adventures - they all caught crabs from the same stripper; and one time a coke-addled butt-naked Slash went screaming down a residential street to escape from the tiny dreadlocked gremlins he believed had assaulted him in the shower.
However - Helsinki’s version of the Sunset Strip scene is a sustainable one, aiming to keep the ‘living fast’ cranked to eleven, while also keeping the ‘dying young’ to a minimum. “The books are good because the mistakes have already been made for us,” says bass player Middy Toivonen. They won’t be injecting heroin anytime soon; they’ll stick to hurling themselves off boats.
You may call that fucking lame and totally not rock’n’roll. But “the whole rock’n’roll death thing, there is nothing glamorous about it,” says Olli. And that’s a sentiment that even Michael Monroe, the country’s most genuine rock’n’roller, can agree on.