LIVE: Steel Panther @ O2 Kentish Town Forum, London

By Katherine Allvey

There’s one question that pounces to mind before seeing controversial eighties larpers Steel Panther live: while their lyrics are comic, are they now a bit of a joke? They’ve won Loudwire’s ‘Live Act Of The Year’ award twice, but recent reviews have suggested that their whole ‘excessively crude’ schtick is played out.  While they did disappoint in concert, it was not because of their tendency to discuss genitalia. 

Technically, they are absolutely stunning. All four members are incredibly talented, polished and tight as performers, and frontman Michael Starr has the kind of voice that could melt statues. His vocals are neon lava lamp fluid, morphing between spitting fire, howling like a madman and a surprising tenderness. He’s the love child of Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger, all posing and glory, sharing vogue shapes with guitarist Satchel, who slices and shreds like a bedazzled blender. Drummer Spyder is absolutely rock solid, bringing that Guns n Roses big banging tempo to everything he touches. 

Their ‘milder’ songs are fantastic: ‘Eyes of a Panther’ is a stadium-busting opener, with silhouettes against a huge UV backdrop transforming into the vivd rockstars of MTV history, and the reception this newer single receives is as big as their hair: they’ve got that classic hair metal sound nailed and now they’re barraging us around the head with the full power of the era. ‘The Burden Of Being Wonderful’ is the perfect opportunity for the playful lyrics to shine, and for Starr to get his hip-thrusting, gut-busting groove on. Numbers like this show that Steel Panther are very talented songwriters and can twist those tropes about gigantic egos into humour. Similarly, the pathos of a tune about surviving is subverted in ‘Ain’t Dead Yet’, and they are capable of tenderness amid the throbbing baselines and imported wind machines. The absolutely razor sharp cut of Satchel’s guitar in that song is a thing of beauty that would inspire a hundred air guitars forty years ago. 

However, it’s impossible to separate Steel Panther’s music from their overall performance as the tunes are only one facet of the whole experience. They come across less a satire of eighties hairspray and excess, and more as someone’s uncle who used to be in a band back in the day and now keeps bringing up wildly inappropriate anecdotes about cocaine during Christmas dinner. The banter in between songs (and there is a lot – they pause for five minutes after every two songs) is shudderingly embarrassing; between the expected encouraging of audience members to perform oral sex on each other and mockery of the disabled is a sense of scorn for their fans, a willingness to use them as props rather than engage with them. What makes other metal parodies such as ‘Wayne’s World’ or ‘Spinal Tap’ effective is that the characters are sympathetic and relatable to those watching amid the ridiculousness, and Steel Panther seem to have missed the mark. With a tweak to their dialogue or the creation of a narrative as simplistic as those on professional wrestling they’d have created the kind of manufactured metal masterpiece that’d be iconic, but that has been forsaken in favour of more dick jokes. 

Take their semi-scripted ‘Impromptu Song For a Girl’, for instance. It’s a classic routine: the band invite a beautiful lady onstage to have some interaction, be it a song dedicated to her or a classic Springsteen waltz moment. With Steel Panther, obviously, the expectation that it will be lewd is pretty obvious, and the audience member was more than ready to play the game. It could have been a really funny memorable moment for us, them and the chosen woman. But after four separate songs, one from each band member, with chatting among themselves in between, it began to drag. It was clear that the young lady could have been a blow-up doll for all they cared, because they were ‘doing a bit’ and that was what mattered. Putting her on the spot to ask her about her intimate grooming habits was the stuff of interview nightmares, and from looking around it was clear that a lot of spines among the audience were curling in shame. That said, of course, the songs they ‘improvised’ were absolutely spot on, fantastic and sarcastic renditions of that soppy ballad style that they slipped in and out of effortlessly and each one could easily have been a single in its own right. It’s frustrating because they are so incredibly musically sharp and capable of anything, but they chose to wander aimlessly in the paths of awkward misogyny instead of putting their talents to making something magical.  

So have Steel Panther still got their claws? Yes, but they seem to be turned in the wrong direction. For every moment of unity, every big party number like ‘Gloryhole’ where all the stops are pulled out, cages are rattled and the key changes make everything seem like a Reagan-era utopia, there’s a moment of silence where a point of connection could have been created. The guitar solos are long and technical enough to bring joy to even the biggest prog fans, there’s enough bass to rearrange your heart rhythm and a controlled, primal drumbeat like the eponymous big cat on a leash. But there’s also a sense of disregard, so many opportunities missed for genuine humour and a strange reliance on off colour jokes for pacing.

For their many devotees, this was an amazing show and doubtless delivered everything they wanted. For the rest of us, it was just a bit embarrassing.