Group portrait of the band Motley Crue. Left to right: Nikki Sixx, Mick Mars,… (Paul Brown / handout photo )
Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe says his favorite four-letter word — OK, his second-favorite four-letter word — is "risk."
"We've always prided ourselves on being the first band to do things," the drummer adds, citing as an example his nightly solo on the hair-metal group's 2011 tour, which involved him playing while strapped into a miniature roller coaster made specifically for the stage. "That's how we do things, and we definitely take some chances. Sometimes you're biting your nails — like, 'I hope this is the right move.'"
The band's latest gamble? Two weeks of shows at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, an engagement being billed as the first hard-rock residency in a town more associated with the likes of Elton John and Celine Dion. "Mötley Crüe in Sin City" opens Friday and runs through Feb. 19.
"It could go either way," says Mick Mars, Mötley Crüe's guitarist. (Other members of the band, which formed in Los Angeles in 1981, include singer Vince Neil and bassist Nikki Sixx.) "I'm old-school — like, really old-school — so I think of Barry Manilow and Tom Jones and guys trying to come back out. But times have changed. I don't think it's gonna be a career killer for us."
Rather than indicating the end of the road for these Sunset Strip survivors, the Las Vegas booking actually typifies the flair for reinvention that's helped Mötley Crüe outlive many of its former contemporaries.
"Nikki Sixx was interested in branding before 'branding' was a popular term," says Chuck Klosterman, author of the hair-metal memoir "Fargo Rock City." He describes Mötley Crüe's evolution over the last three decades as a continual rollout of fresh images — from a "glitter band" to "bikers and strip-club people" to "serious musicians" working in the tradition of grunge groups such as Soundgarden.
"To some degree [the Hard Rock concerts] show a high level of self-awareness," Klosterman continues. "What they say is, 'Like Las Vegas, this is fundamentally unreal.' You can go to Vegas and have a great time — three days that are unlike the rest of reality. And that, in theory, is what watching Mötley Crüe should be like."
In contrast with the '80s, when it released a studio album every two years, Mötley Crüe depends less today on new music than on various multimedia projects. The group's most recent album, "Saints of Los Angeles," came out in 2008.
"The whole concept with Mötley since the mid-'90s has been brand extension and co-branding," says the band's manager, Allen Kovac. He points to a long line of ventures — including the tell-all book "The Dirt"; Lee's Planet Green series, "Battleground Earth"; and Sixx's syndicated radio show, "Sixx Sense" — as evidence that his clients understand the need to replenish their audience with younger fans accustomed to accessing content on a number of platforms.
"They've learned how to do this stuff over time," Kovac adds. "Some of the best artists at it are the Rolling Stones and U2."
As the invocation of those names suggest, it's not just a share of the youth market Mötley Crüe appears to be after but a kind of rock-world respectability as well. Neil admits that critical approbation may never come. "We've been eligible for the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame for six years now," the singer says with a laugh. Yet Lee insists that the group's Las Vegas run emphasizes Mötley Crüe's staying power — and the unlikely endurance of a band that made it to only Page 4 of its tell-all book "The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band," before mentioning its early predilection for "blow, smack, Percodan, quaaludes and whatever else we could get for free."
"You've gotta have history in order to have enough people to fill the place every night," Lee says. "It's not for everybody."
According to Paul Davis, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's vice president of entertainment, Mötley Crüe's "bad-boy imagery" is no impediment to its sense of corporate cooperation. (It's due to appear in a Kia Motors commercial this weekend during the Super Bowl.) "This has never been a band that's unreliable," Davis says. "And that's what's kept them strong versus a lot of their peers, who've fallen off and are playing 300-seat rooms at this point. They're dead-on serious, and they have a vision for what they wanna do."
Beyond the concerts in Las Vegas, that vision may amount to what Sixx calls an "exit strategy." He says the rest of the year will be filled with European festival dates and possibly a summer tour in the United States; 2013 should bring more touring and a long-developing movie version of "The Dirt."
"That's gonna be the moment where we sit down and go, 'Is this it?'" says the bassist, whom the rest of Mötley Crüe refers to as the group's unofficial mastermind. ("Nikki is to Mötley Crüe what Bono is to U2," Kovac claims.) "I'm kind of excited about the idea of a farewell," Sixx continues. "Not that I don't wanna stay onstage with my band. But it's important to me to one day walk down the street and have somebody go, 'Hey, Nikki, you were in one of the greatest bands ever.'"