Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Artist Spotlight: Def Leppard 1980 - 1992

Union Jack shorts and shirts. MTV. Snotty kids spouting arrogant nonsense. The first impressions of Def Leppard resonated with me, they had great songs, rock n roll attitude and flash to boot. In 1983, who didn't like Def Leppard? They made Metal more mainstream with naggingly catchy songs that mixed guitar crunch with synthesizer cush. They came from Sheffield, England-five guys that rode with the British New Wave of Heavy Metal crowd while varnishing an "American" sound. Joe Elliott (vocals), Steve Clark (guitars), Pete Willis (guitars), Rick Savage (bass) and Rick Allen (drums) embarked on what would be one of the most successful and tragic careers in Rock history. Their debut EP got the ball rolling leading up to their debut album...

On Through The Night (1980)

I should probably cut this album some slack because it's the debut and it does what a lot of 1st albums do: display the core of their talent. The basic elements of the band's sound - airy harmonies, slick guitar riffs and thunderous drums - run through the whole record. But it lacks the needed focus particularly in the songwriting, perfectly normal for a rookie album. Still, I could never get into this record. Songs like Wasted or Hello America were pretty good but I can't remember anything else from this album. It has youthful aggression on its side though.
High N Dry (1981)

The focus was brought in the form of Producer Mutt Lange, the "Sixth Leppard". Lange ushered in a fuller sound alongside sharpened songwriting skills and a touch of muscle that comes from recently producing AC/DC. The first side is an instant classic featuring some of my early favorites like the blitz of Let it Go (Joe Elliott later revealed this song really is about "letting go"), and the drunken fun of High N Dry (Saturday Night). The unforgettable extended Steve Clark driven instrumental Switch 625 follows their ultimate power ballad Bringin On The Heartbreak. It's just too bad the second side falls off so quickly, the songs becoming less memorable by the second. On the old tape, I used to skip to the end for the bonus tracks of remixed Bringin on the Heartbreak with special added sound effects and one of the band's trashiest rockers Me and My Wine. Oh, by the way. One of the worst album covers I've ever seen. And Def Leps first Platinum record.

Pyromania (1983)

The promise of the first two albums comes together in a big way on Pyromania. Def Lep had their first lineup change since the debut record with the firing of Pete Willis. Guitarist Phil Collen was recruited to replace Willis and he quickly served up a series of outstanding shred solos. Armed with classic Metal lyrical themes (Love gone wrong, Rock show frenzy and being a general outlaw) and a more refined twin guitar attack, the Lep pounced on opportunity. Photograph opened the door with a spectacular Marilyn Monroe inspired video. Barb wire and overworked smoke machines collide to make Def Leppard the "it" band of the moment. They get biblical on the hard rock chant of Rock of Ages. And the amazing F-F-F-Foolin'. Even album cuts like Rock Rock Til You Drop and Too Late 4 Love hit hard with Elliot's screaming vocals leading the charge. I played the tape on the way to L.A. that year, a relative pulled over the car when the helicopter sounds of Die Hard the Hunter (this video is shot from the actual concert I attended in 1988) started up because she thought it was the Police (we had a decent car stereo). Lange's continued emphasis on work ethic in the studio shined up their sound to diamond sharpness. One of my all time favorite albums, Pyromania is the perfect model of Pop Metal. It sold about six million copies in its first run eventually climbing to ten million.
Hysteria (1987)

After shooting to the top of the rock heap Def Leppard fumbled around for a follow up. Mutt Lange wasn't available for production leaving the group to attempt to record with Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf). After failing to find paradise by the dashboard light, the band produced themselves. In the midst of this, drummer Rick Allen was in a serious car accident that resulted in the loss of his left arm. To his credit, Allen used modern technology to relearn the drums using his feet more than his arm. Rumor had it that the Lep recorded a whole album only to scrap it for sounding too much like Pyromania (I like to think my favorite B sides to Hysteria came from this period, like my favorite Def Lep song Tear it Down). Finally, Mutt Lange became available to produce and he again took Def Lep to the next level.

Hysteria had the most interesting shelf life of any album I've ever witnessed. When released in the Summer of '87, the lead single Women led me to believe this was another great round of Pyromania. It was one of the first CDs I ever bought (I didn't even have a CD player at the time, I just knew people who had them), after the opening with "Women" the album went into "Rocket". And I left that song confused. It was long with a weird mix section in the middle and had a bouncy beat. It sounded like nothing I had heard them do before. Much of the rest of the album was like that, except for the straightforward stomper Run Riot. A lot of mid tempo songs, odd sound effects, Boston-ish overlapping of endless guitar tracks, less Rock thrills and more melody- it was a strange album. The turning point where the band chose to emphasize their Glam Rock roots. Eventually, I got used to it and played it a lot by the time I returned to College. Gods of War sounded great in the dorm room, all political and what not (nuclear fear!). They scored their first #1 hit with the power ballad Love Bites and made Top 10 with the Title Song. Animal (another guy in the dorms had to explain to me that this song was about women. I just didn't get that) also gained traction with rock fans. After the standard 4 single releases most Platinum albums got in the 80's, a year had passed and it looked like that was it for Hysteria.

In the Summer of '88 a fifth single was issued. A fifth single was usually for albums that were blockbusters, not albums whose push had played out. So it was a shock when Pour Some Sugar On Me became the monster hit of that Summer. One of the first rap rock songs to get on the radio after "Walk This Way", "Sugar" was hooky as hell and had something for everybody. It pushed the Hysteria record back up the charts and put Def Leppard back at the top of the mountain. The renewed push made hits out of Armaggedon It and Rocket. They had to consciously stop issuing singles as Exciteable started to make radio play when the band pulled the marketing plug. By the time it was all over, Hysteria had sold over ten million records. An all time classic album, though I had a friend stop liking them at this point because "this was when everyone and their Moms started liking them."

One last note to the Hysteria story, my wife knows these songs really well. I always like to hear her sing Def Leppard.

Adrenalize (1992)

Four year gaps between albums were becoming the norm for the Lep including all the tragedies in between. Guitarist Steve Clark died in 1991 from a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol after years of slow deterioration due to alcoholism. It was a bit of a shock to me because I was a fan and he was one of the first from my generation of rockers to die. At least one of the first to really matter to me beyond general sadness for passing of another person. Clark's impressive guitarwork, particularly on the High N Dry album, will always remind me of him.

Clark's passing came during the recording of Adrenalize, the remaining group finished the album as a quartet. Produced by Mike Shipley with some involvement from Mutt Lange, Def Leppard peeled back the experimental excesses of Hysteria while retaining that album's focus on melody over guitar roar. My favorite Def Leppard video Let's Get Rocked was the lead single and best remembered track from Adrenalize, even recently being used in TV ads. Make Love Like a Man got flak for being dumb which did not stop me from getting hooked on that tune too (more cowbell please!). The power ballad Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad (look at the length of that song title, guess they did learn something from Steinman) was effective. More gems were found with the B-52's influenced Personal Property or the AOR heaven of, uh, Heaven Is. Though there were some weak moments as well, Tonight sounded like what it was, "Love Bites" jr. And the remake of Tear it Down couldn't compare to the rough n ready B side.

Adrenalize gets a little mercy due to the circumstances it was made in, though it doesn't really need it. It's able to stand on its own merits as a good album with some really worthy tracks. Thanks to their career momentum they were able to initially withstand the onslaught of Grunge and still hit Triple Platinum. A well deserved victory lap for one of the best selling bands of the 80's.

Vivian Campbell (Dio, Whitesnake) joined the band in 1992 for the Adrenalize tour starting the second half of the group's career. To close part one, here's a nice online tribute to Steve Clark from You Tube!

Steve Clark tribute to "Switch 625"


Arsenette said...

Okay.. much to my parent's chagrin.. (did I spell that right? Oh I'm digressing..) I ADORED Def Leppard!! My mom caught me one screaming the lyrics to Pour some sugar on me and wow.. she was shocked LMAO!! She thought I'd be into the poppy sounds that was pervassive.. but I was totally in the hair rock of the time. Again.. she wasn't pleased.. but at least I didn't go nuts and try to get in concerts to throw my underwear on stage.. so I guess she had nothing to worry about.. speaking of.. I totally have that track on my Media Player now :p

Mr. Mike said...

That's fantastic you have that song on your Media Player, crank it up!

It's a good thing you didn't go to concerts to throw your underwear on stage, that sort of thing becomes like buying stocks over time. A person can still brag about throwing them at Def Leppard and other people will know who that band is, but there are plenty of women who threw their undies at White Lion, Trixter and other hair rock also rans. What do they tell their children?

The Rock Brigade Blogger said...

Hey Mike,

I have to temporarily walk away from my own blog for a while, but I still pop by here when I can.

Very nice job on part 1 here, can't wait for part 2. These guys will always remain one of my all time favs. Like you, Hysteria was my first CD, and I also bought it before I had a CD player.

All the best,

Mr. Mike said...

Hi rock brigade blogger! I completely understand about life being too busy to blog. Thanks for dropping by, you're always welcome here.

Def Leppard - great music, great memories. On to part 2!