After a decade of multiplatinum albums and monster hit singles, Def Leppard was in danger of extinction as the Alternative rock 90's took hold. The question hung in the air: could Def Leppard give up hairspray and torn jeans and stay relevant? With new guy Vivian Campbell in place of the late Steve Clark there was new blood to help keep things fresh. But to get to the point where they could make new music, Def Lep felt they needed to close the first chapter of their career with a greatest hits set (Vault 1995) and an odds n' sods collection...
Retro Active (1993)
Before it was a given that Greatest Hits sets would come with a second CD of rarities, bands would issue a separate release to cover those "in between" spots. To finalize the end of an era, Def Leppard released Retro Active covering outtakes, B sides and soundtrack songs. The time was ripe as the Lep had scored their first (and only) significant movie soundtrack hit Two Steps Behind (a song I once heard referred to as "a theme song for stalkers"). Best of the bunch are the B side rockers from the Hysteria era like Ride into the Sun, Ring of Fire and I Wanna Be Your Hero. For me, the highlight was the electric version of the ballad Miss You in a Heartbeat. Between this and Vault, the circle was now complete. And it was time to record their first post - Clark album (Clark had a hand in writing parts of Adrenalize).
New times, new direction. Slang marked Def Leppard's bid for artistic respect as they pull back on their multitracked glory to feature a leaner sound. Elements of International music and drum loops gets filtered in to their most studied and experimental album. The songwriting and arrangements are taut, deliberate and stripped of excess. Winners like the mid tempo All I Want is Everything or the electronic beats ballad Breathe a Sigh come across strong. The zippy title track has shades of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" on speed while the lone full tilt rocker Gift of Flesh picks up a good head of steam. The rest of the album focused on slower paced material to allow the group to stretch out. Despite these creative advances, Slang gained the group about zero new fans while alienating their fan base. Too bad as the attention they could muster for the burgeoning Work it Out and "All I Want is Everything" did nothing for their career. As I had trouble getting into 90's rock, Def Leppard was easy to identify with as a band now existing out of time with their peers. Underrated and virtually ignored, Slang tanked. For me, Slang was a "late night" album with its meditative feel. Probably because of how the album went over, Def Lep has not gone near this type of direction since.
The public had spoken, they wanted their Def Leppard back the way they remembered them. So the Lep reverted back to their classic sound and then some. They practically rewrite their old hits to woo fans back. You get everything part 2 like "Photograph" (Promises), "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad" (Goodbye), "Switch 625" (Disintegrate), "Animal" (Guilty) and naturally a lot of mid tempo anthems a la "Sugar" (Back in your Face , All Night). Although the songs bore strong resemblances to their biggest hits, the band performs them with enough energy to retain a fresh sound. Plus, my favorite latter day Lep song 21st Century Sha La La La Girl appears here. They even roped in Mutt Lange to do a little work with the new disc but most of the production duties were handled by Pete Woodroffe. Euphoria did work in drawing back what was left of their followers (a Gold record!) and provided me with a good backdrop to drive around to or bowl with. The good time band was back! Creatively the opposite of Slang as Def Lep firmly dug into their Pyromania / Hysteria sound. One of my favorite discs of 1999.
Veering between extremes of musical experimentation and rehashing a known sound seemed to take its toll on Def Leppard for the X album. Trying to mature with your audience isn't easy, particularly when you equate maturity with sort of the opposite - slick teen pop. Lackluster songwriting and a de-rocked Leppard try to make a case for an albums worth of Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion) with less catchy material. The lead single Now is OK and You're So Beautiful has a little bit of a pulse left. And that's about it, X just kind of lays there like a cat basking in the sun all relaxed lying on its back with its paws stretched out. I think one of the ballads, Long Long Way to Go, was later covered by a boy band. In my opinion, X is easily Def Leppard's musical low point. Compromised, desperate and dull with the cheapest album art in their history, hold on...I'm gonna say it...X does not mark the spot (insert drum rim shot here).
I wasn't that enthusiastic about the premise when I first heard it, an all covers album seemed like a bad move after X. Following a weak disc putting out an album of covers pretty much says "We're out of ideas on what to do now." After hearing Yeah!, I felt a bit differently. Def Leppard uses the disc to find their footing sonically. They recover a lot of their classic sound again but in a slightly rawer fashion, less padding and more crunch. Songs by ELO, Sweet, Thin Lizzy, Badfinger and more get the once over with Lep coming back to life by delving into their Glam Rock roots again. My personal favorite is the T.Rex cover Twentieth Century Boy, a great song that's well played. Rock On, a song I really could never stand, is made listenable in the hands of the Lep. But the real fun is at the end, as guitarist Phil Collen takes center stage on a rambunctious rendition of Rod Stewart's Stay with Me. The disc overstays its welcome and could have used some trimming but not by much. Career wise, combined with the two disc Best of release Rock of Ages the Lepsters had a small renaissance. I got to see the group live on this tour and had a blast. Yeah!
Songs from the Sparkle Lounge (2008)
Successfully modernizing their sound, Def Leppard returned with a disc of original material on Songs from the Sparkle Lounge. Spotty song quality mars it a little bit but not to the point its unlistenable. Instead, Lounge has a likeable scatter shot feel as it acts as a sampler for the past few albums. Naturally, I gravitate towards the classic sounding stuff like the awesome Hallucinate or the AC/DC -ish Bad Actress. The opener Go stuck with me a while too as did the Tim McGraw -on-an-Armageddon-It-beat Nine Lives. The middle of the album tries to incorporate 21st century melodies with mixed results (sort of like X). What sums up my thinking on Lounge is in the song Love. "Love" sounds great, a quiet acoustic intro leads to a Beatle style choral vocal and then goes to a Queen like marching groove to allow for spectacular guitar soloing. It would be phenomenal, yet the hook of the song ("Love...Love...something something something") doesn't really grab me. For about half the songs, that's the case. By the way, Joe Elliott doesn't sing "something something something" I just can't understand what he's singing most of the time. Songs from the Sparkle Lounge is a pretty good album that left me wishing it was better but able to accept what it is. An added bonus, Lounge was the group's first Top 10 album in years.
And that brings us to the present day. While the second half of their career wasn't quite as strong as the first Def Leppard has managed to come up with good songs throughout that conjure upbeat attitude and pumped up adrenalin. As they once said, Rock Rock til you drop! / Rock Rock never stop!
To wrap things up I went looking for a Def Leppard tribute video and instead found a Def Leppard tribute band from Japan called Olenomania. What could say more about a band's influence than inspiring a tribute band in Japan?