Why Ratt Reached a Crossroads With ‘Dancing Undercover’
During the first few years of Ratt's career, the California band had proven to be one of the most reliable hit-makers within the high-flying hair metal movement, joining peers like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Dokken in invading America's airwaves, MTV and Top 40 charts, with no apparent end in sight.
But as Ratt prepared to unveil their third album in as many years, Dancing Undercover, in August 1986, band members Stephen Pearcy (vocals), Robbin Crosby (guitar), Warren DeMartini (guitar), Juan Croucier (bass) and Bobby Blotzer (drums) would face the first signs that perhaps this pop-metal utopia they helped establish would not, in fact, last forever.
When it came to the recording of Dancing Undercover, it was very much business as usual for Ratt – beginning with the return to Los Angeles' Village Recorders studios and producer Beau Hill, who had already shepherded 1984's Out of the Cellar and 1985's Invasion of Your Privacy to platinum sales. But as drummer Blotzer later admitted in a 2010 interview with the House of Hair's Ray Van Horn: “We weren’t prepared for that record, and it’s common knowledge. Our manager put a $50,000 deposit on a studio and it wasn’t refundable, which is what he told us. We weren’t ready. We were in a very costly recording studio writing songs and working them out."
In other words, Ratt were under much pressure and time constraints to deliver the goods, and that helps explain why their third album lacked that home-run hit (and, tellingly, a power ballad) to guarantee the sales and airplay they'd grown accustomed to. Instead, singles "Dance," "Slip of the Lip" and the surprisingly heavy "Body Talk" failed to rise any higher than No. 59 on the chart and received only moderate MTV spins. Other album cuts like "One Good Lover," Drive Me Crazy" and "Looking for Love" never got much exposure, even though they included all of the pop-metal hallmarks that worked on earlier records: strong riffs, sizzling solos and simple but catchy choruses.
If anything, fan and critical reactions appeared to indicate that Ratt's songwriting was becoming stagnant over time, though DeMartini disputed this in a 2010 interview with Rock 'n Roll Cocktail's Jason Miller: "I think that 'Body Talk' was a pretty heavy song compared to what we had done before. When you compare it to 'Lay It Down,' that was heavy but mid-tempo. I don’t think we had done anything as heavy as 'Body Talk' since the Ratt EP."
Many of the new songs were certainly grittier than what had become before, but, as the guitarist also conceded, "That was about as far as we were pushing the envelope."
This failure to experiment, even under duress from time constraints in the studio, left Ratt vulnerable to being surpassed by the next generation of L.A. rockers like Cinderella and Poison. The latter band was actually invited to open shows on Dancing Undercover's tour and proceeded to routinely challenge the headliners with more colorful outfits and energetic set – perhaps more in line with what Ratt's audience was expecting than what they got from the now increasingly black-clad older band.
In any case, Ratt's gradual career decline was evident to anyone who was paying attention – or who could do the math: Out of the Cellar had gone triple platinum, Invasion of your Privacy had gone double platinum and Dancing Undercover ground to a trickle just beyond the single platinum mark. While this would have been a lofty, coveted sales figure to most any other band, you didn't have to be a statistician to predict which way Ratt's career was trending.
Sure enough, 1988’s Reach for the Sky remained true to this negative sales trend, as did 1990’s Detonator, leaving Ratt even more helpless than other hair metal bands once Nirvana and their grunge buddies came along and wiped popular music’s slate clean. Ratt would eventually break up, make up, tour as two separate entities and record the occasional new studio album despite the loss of Crosby to a heroin overdose in 2001 (following years struggling with HIV). But Dancing Undercover came to epitomize the beginning of the end.
Perhaps Blotzer summarized it best in the interview with Van Horn: "While there’s some songs I really like on that record, there’s stuff I can’t even listen to. I just think there’s stuff on there that’s really sub-par, but then again, that record sold $1.8 million, so I can’t snub my nose at it. I just think we could’ve done better, obviously.”