Jun 23, 1999 at 4:00 am

History lesson, part 1:

Heavy metal, which has been melted down and recast over the years, was originally a manifestation of British rock's blues influences. Bands like Cream and, perhaps most definitively, Led Zeppelin, cracked open the egg of pop music — the song — and fried it. Melodies were stretched like the truth under the reign of Nixon. Stand-up microphones were lifted, spun and jerked around, becoming a new prop to challenge the guitar's monopoly on phallic symbolism. The idea in heavy metal was to pile on the noise until it became a wailing mantra.

A different animal altogether, though, is metal minus the heavy. Whereas the former was a guitar-released stream of (altered) consciousness, the latter simply aimed for the mainstream. Metal was the pretty-boy bastard child of the '60s noise orgy. The music was more about sex than drugs, throwing off the balance of the proverbial hedonistic chant. Bands like Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Tesla and Poison homed in on an audience that didn't relate to the synth-pop that was faking rock orgasms. It was time for the real thing — sex-crazed metal boys out to kick (and get) some ass. It was a groupie-ready approach that, with its leopard-skin dress code, was as much about a look as a sound. Combos sprouted leonine hair and mummified their manhood in regulation spandex.

If any music genre perennially struts the fine line, it's metal. When it's bad, it's excruciating — the perfect example of painting by rock & roll numbers (and leaving the brains of listeners numb and dumber). But when the songwriting is good; the energy tight, not sludgy; and the singing — maybe even a harmony or two — rises above the piercing norm, it's about as much fun as you can have in rock & roll.

The American metal style was both anthemic and anemic, and for a while these bands had MTV in the back pocket of their leather pants. Take Ratt, for instance. Although technically they weren't metal (definitely not heavy metal), they fit right in with the mid-'80s hair-today-gone-tomorrow brigade. Unlike nearly that entire movement, though — and true to their name — Ratt have survived. And if they have it their way, they'll again be climbing the charts, one step ahead of the exterminator that is public fickleness.

Why are they still rockin'? Perhaps their metal-hook songs had a quality that transcended spandex — or stretched it a different way. Of course, they weren't averse to using some of metal's bottom-line trappings. An appealingly dirty Ratt, the band could sniff out a great concept. The cover of 1984's Out of the Cellar, for instance, featured vampy actress Tawny Kitaen, ex-wife of Whitesnake's David Coverdale (and star of such great skinema as The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak).

But along came grunge. Its upstart anger and angst-drenched apathy were a flashback to heavy metal's very own difficult childhood. Stephen Pearcy of Ratt puts it all in perspective. "Saying Nirvana opened the door is true," he concedes in a just-woke-up voice, "but there were so many other bands from that field that were great — like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. A lot of those bands, to me, were hard-rock bands."

Ah, hard rock (as opposed to heavy metal and metal — you getting all this?) — pop's great chameleon. It's infinitely shapeable, able to hitch a ride on any bandwagon. Simply put, hard rock was the simmering-down of heavy metal, reducing the month-long solos and residual feedback to a bare-bones assault. And hard rock came out of nowhere as much as it came from heavy metal. Progenitors like Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC and Nazareth seemed to be without ancestry, just as the hard rock of the future won't likely resemble Soundgarden.

So, is heavy metal — the real fuzz — an extinct animal? "I consider Metallica heavy metal," Pearcy opines. "There's bands that are still trying to do their thing. Iron Maiden's got (Bruce) Dickinson back; (Judas) Priest is trying to carry on without (Rob) Halford. There are still bands out there."

Ratt's own sound is more about pop hooks than nose rings. "We've been called pop-meets-metal," Pearcy says, "but I don't consider us metal. I would say we're a hard-rock band. We have the melodies and this and that — but it's aggressive. I've always been into (Black) Sabbath, Priest, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper — that kind of stuff. Everybody is so concerned with tags and labels — like, if you have hair, you're a "hair band' from the '80s." In fact, Pearcy coined his own term for the group's sound: "Ratt & Roll."

But before the sounding was the founding. Pearcy started Ratt (originally known as Mickey Ratt) in 1980. "The band as we know it today has been together since '81 or '82," he says. He relates that it was a weird time to be metal. "As the other bands were playing, like, "My Sharona' and all these other goofy songs," Pearcy recalls, "we were doing "Back in the Saddle' by Aerosmith and these obscure songs that nobody would play. Then I started writing new songs." Despite the band's sing-along choruses and unexpected harmonies, Ratt couldn't avoid being lumped in with metal during that heyday. But it gave them an audience — one that has followed them (perhaps literally) to this day. When the metal wave died down, Ratt crawled into a hole of hiatus. "Everybody decided it would be a good idea (to take a break)," says Pearcy of the downtime, "which is a blessing in disguise, because it bypassed all that latest hip grunge that went down."

You don't usually think of poison and a rat as things that go together, but, now, that's sort of the case. "This first leg," explains Pearcy, "the co-headlining thing with Poison, only lasts like 35 shows. Then we take a break — and then we start our own tour. We continue on, doing, like Japan, Australia, South America, Canada and Europe." Yes, Ratt are big in Japan. "We've had eight consecutive gold records there," Pearcy says, audibly beaming.

With punk, swing and disco having made their respective comebacks, is metal due for another solo flight? As usual, Pearcy riffs on an optimistic note: "There are many flavors, you know, and if you keep something out of the eye and ear, it becomes the alternative to the alternative. That's probably what's happening now, because the crowds we're playing for are from anywhere between 9,000-14,000 people every night. That's where Ratt feels comfortable. That's what we've worked up to." And it's worked without a change in the original lineup. This is a plus, according to Pearcy. As a fan of his metallic brethren, he admits that some aren't up to par without their main men. "I don't think Mötley (Crüe)'s the same without Tommy," he says. "I don't think Priest is the same without Halford." But the head Ratt senses that hard rock's playing power can equal staying power. "There is a resurgence," he agrees when queried about a hard-rock comeback. "And I gotta tell you: Even a band like Great White, who's been around since we started, is still around and doing their thing." As are the shades of gray, like Ratt.

Their new self-titled album is hard-rock-pop at its hold-up-your-lighter best. Ratt sounds kind of like a cheaper Cheap Trick (a band Pearcy adores), and that's somehow meant as a compliment. The choruses instantly demand (and deserve) attention, and the nasally lead vocals are free of the shrieking lousiness that can kill a great tune. "I think it's real good," says Pearcy of the album. But does he consider Ratt the best of their nine releases? "It's the intensity of Cellar and the experience of Detonator," he says with both spirited ambiguity and cryptic articulation. Maybe a Ratt has nine lives, too.

Ratt performs at Riverport Amphitheatre on Thursday, June 24. Also on the bill are Poison, Great White and L.A. Guns. RattCOGENT RODENT