Don’t look now, but that s-c-r-e-e-c-h record retailers around the country are hearing is the sound of heavy metal rockers burning rubber on their way up the charts.

For the third straight week, half the nation’s 10 best-selling albums are by bands associated with the grinding guitars and macho posturing of heavy metal: Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Poison and Ozzy Osbourne.

By contrast, there was only one heavy metal LP in Billboard magazine’s Top 10 a year ago (Van Halen’s “5150”)--a ratio that has been fairly steady in recent years.

Indeed, there have been numerous predictions that heavy metal--a Top 10 staple in the 1970s thanks to acts like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC--was on the way out as a major commercial force.


So, why the turnabout?

“I don’t think the metal audience has ever gone away,” explained Capitol Records executive Tom Whalley. “You get a good 500,000 to 750,000 kids who’ll buy those records. We sold 350,000 W.A.S.P. albums . . . 900,000 Iron Maiden records, all with (virtually) no radio airplay.”

But Bon Jovi and the other current Top 10 bands are selling way beyond those numbers. Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” is past the 7-million mark in this country alone, while the Whitesnake and Poison LPs are both above one million.

The reason? The bands, to varying degrees, have modified their approaches. Without fully severing ties with heavy metal’s hard-core male following, these “soft core” groups--supported strongly by MTV--now reach out to the larger mainstream audience, one that includes, crucially, females.

Purists argue that it’s inaccurate to apply the term heavy metal to albums as melodic as Bon Jovi’s “Slippery,” as carefully crafted as Whitesnake’s “Whitesnake” or as light-spirited Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Only Osbourne’s “Tribute” clearly fits the traditional heavy metal definition.

“Even secretaries buy Bon Jovi,” said Stan Goman, an executive with the Tower Records chain. “Heavy metal is today’s counterculture . . . but you can’t sell millions of records and stay on the outside. Either you cross over . . . or everybody steals what you’re doing.”

There are still lots of bands around that employ the hard-core heavy metal images of gory, blood ‘n’ monster graphics, relentlessly “born to be wild” attitude and exotic, cultish obsessions to excite teens and alarm parents.


But the secret to the mushrooming success of the current Top 10 bands--including Bon Jovi on the conservative side and Motley Crue on the wilder side--is that they use the energy of heavy metal as a base, but reach out to a much wider spectrum of fans.

A key weapon in this campaign, most experts agree, has been video.

Capitol’s Whalley underscores this winning strategy when he points out, “Poison looks like a metal band, but doesn’t sound like one.”

MTV announced two years ago that it was deemphasizing metal music--apparently fearful that many mainstream teens were being turned off by the hard-core metal videos. But now the 24-hour rock music cable video channel now seems perfectly comfortable with the new wave of modified metal outfits.

And exposure on MTV has done wonders for sales.

Poison was largely an unknown band around the country before it “broke” on MTV, Whalley said. “They went from selling 25,000 records a week to 100,000.”

Trudy Green, co-manager of Whitesnake, also credits MTV with playing a key role in her band’s recent commercial breakthrough. “The image is such an important factor,” she said. “I think more women watch MTV.”

It’s also no accident that Motley Crue’s new album LP is titled “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

Whalley also emphasized the importance of attracting female fans.

“When Poison went out on the road with Ratt, all these females were attracted to the band and you could see that the hard-core guys in the Metallica T-shirts didn’t like them at all,” he said. “But as the girls got more into it, you’d see the guys moving toward the front. Now there’s a good mix.”

Yet video and females aren’t the only elements that have worked in these bands’ favor.

Tom Marshall, program director for hard-rock KNAC-FM, mentions the seasonal factor: “There’s something about cruising with the top down to some hard rock ‘n’ roll that makes the summer more enjoyable.”


He also suggests that some metal albums have become more melodic and their production more sophisticated, a sentiment seconded by Whitesnake’s Green. “It’s a power production, a sound that just jumps out at you,” she said. “You can hear that in the U2 record too, a real rock ambiance. I think kids are starved for that.”

Once any band reaches a mass audience, radio programmers become less resistant. Whitesnake sold more than a million copies of its new album before releasing its first single from the LP,” Green said. “And the response (to the single) from radio has been great,” she added. “A year ago, I don’t think (Top 40 radio) would have been so open to it.”

These bands, however, don’t only rely on radio to spread the word. Touring and word-of-mouth support are still essential elements in their gameplans.

Whitesnake and Motley Crue, for example, are veteran ensembles who’ve been touring for years, and building audiences from one record to the next. “Say one thing about heavy metal fans--they’re very loyal,” said Ozzy Osbourne, who should know. “I’ve been doing this for 19 years, longer than some of my fans have been in the world.”

This “soft-core” heavy metal should also sit well with the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which has been especially critical of heavy metal groups in its campaign to warn parents about so-called objectionable lyrics. But there’s no evidence to suggest that PMRC statements have any bearing on sales.

In fact, Whalley suggests that PMRC publicity may boost the very bands the group attacks. “I don’t think the kids take that (PMRC criticism) too seriously,” said the Capitol executive, who suggests that stickering records with warnings about racy lyrics could work in a band’s favor. “It may keep those records out of certain stores and chains. But any time you say ‘You can’t have this’ to kids, they’re going to want it. And if they want it, they’ll find it.”