Some background: I was huge into Pyromania, Def Leppard's third album and the one that brought them enduring international fame.
I was already into metal, particularly the movement from which Def Leppard originated, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. They branched out into more of a pop-metal sound with Pyromania, although it was a natural progression from what they were doing on their 2nd album, High and Dry.
A sidenote that will be expanded upon in due course: High and Dry was produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, one of the 20th century's most successful producers.
It was undoubtedly his involvement with the band that brought them to the heights of Pyromania (6 million copies sold in '83) and Hysteria (double that between '87 and '89). When he dismantled the songs the band had written and re-arranged them from the ground up on High and Dry, the band learned their lesson - don't bother finishing the song, just bring intriguing pieces to the studio, because you're going to be there for a year (or years) re-recording them to Mutt's satisfaction. Painstaking with a capital P, but with self-evident results.
There was considerable disagreement among my friends and me at the time whether Def Leppard was truly "metal" after Pyromania. Were they metal crossover pioneers? Or sellouts? This divide deepened upon Hysteria's release; increasingly, I heard that they'd sold their souls to Mutt and his uncanny commercial instincts.
Me, Pyromania was definitely a favorite of mine, "proper" metal or not. In the 90s, I'd have these same kind of arguments about what constituted hardcore vs. skacore vs. grindcore vs. your-mother-core. "Pop Metal" is how I'd personally describe the classic Def Leppard sound for what it's worth, and Pyromania and Hysteria are two of the genre's best.
I could easily get bogged down talking about Pyromania. Man. Pyromania. Suffice it to say: it rocks. Essentially and scientifically so. If you're at a party that doesn't have Pyromania - and Purple Rain, just throwing that in there - in the stacks, find a better party.
Its massive success meant Def Leppard went into tax exile and in 1984 hunkered down in Ireland and France to record their follow-up, which they hoped would take less time than the year they spent holed up in the studio for Pyromania. It would take 3.
First, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in an automobile accident. Traumatizing enough but to make it worse, the doctors successfully re-attached it only to remove it again a week later when the wound became infected.
While rehabilitating he taught himself to play a modified drum kit where foot pedals substituted for what he'd otherwise have played with his left arm. Badass! I won't go through each and every setback the band endured before Hysteria was released in '87 - it's kind of hard to start with Rick losing his damn arm and transition to anything else - but there were many other obstacles.
When the first single from Hysteria, "Women" appeared, audiences, at least on this side of the Atlantic, shrugged. The video got played on MTV a fair bit, but the song peaked at 80 in the US Billboard Top 100. My friends were among the unimpressed. Me? I loved the freaking thing. How could I not? The video featured my 3 favorite things: comic books, skateboards and Def Leppard.
"Women" didn't remind me any of the songs on Pyromania. Or High and Dry or On Through the Night, for that matter. Its Black Sabbath-tempo, layered harmonies, wicked-multi-tracked guitars, and melodies that left and returned to harmonize with all the soaring guitars and vocals - this was heady stuff. For me at 13, certainly, but for anyone with an appreciation of 20th century studio sound.
I mentioned the video. It's split between the band performing in that staple of music videos, the abandoned warehouse on the edge of town, and scenes from a comic book about a hero named "Def Leppard."
|Why, you bet we can take a closer look at the comic book.|
Let me break in here to note that the lyrics to "Women" don't exactly describe the saga of a cosmic skateboarder who stumbles across an illegal Sex-Droid trade on the planet Doom. (They do, however, contain a call-and-response chorus where Phil, Steve, Rick, and Sav sing "Men! Men!" which always cracks me up) Neither would anyone confuse the guys in Def Leppard as feminist pioneers in pop metal sensibility. But hey: poetic license.
"What's that spell?
(Spell? what's that spell?)
(What's that spell?)
What's that spell?
(What's that spell?)
Oh! oh! oh!
Oh! oh! oh!"
(Spell? what's that spell?)
(What's that spell?)
What's that spell?
(What's that spell?)
Oh! oh! oh!
Oh! oh! oh!"
|Man, do I love this panel. And this one, too:|
The song ends with the kind of harmonic dynamics (check out around the 4:20 mark) that make Hysteria such a feast for the ears. Grade: A
Hysteria was finally released 3 days before my 13th birthday, conveniently enough for me, and I spent the remaining weeks of my summer vacation listening to it over and over again. I had a nice vinyl copy, too. Let's have a song-by-song look at the rest of it.
|Keeping in mind, this is all just one guy's opinion, liberally sprinkled with biographical asides of dubious import.|
In the 80s this was the only song off the album that I didn't love. Not sure when that changed, but now I feel the same constant need to listen to it that I do for every other song on the damn thing.
I was listening to this while cooking a few months back, and my wife walked into the kitchen and sang part of the chorus - "I'll be your satellite of love..." This seriously cracked me up, because my buddy Kevin - with whom I share any and all insights, anecdotes, funny-thoughts, or questions about anything music-related but most-particularly anything from the Dial-MTV era - have always sang that part as "SAY-A-LANE-A-LOH-OH-OH!"
(The line is "Rocket! Ye-ah! Satellite of Love!" We just like to exaggerate it to the point of incomprehension.)
She further surprised me by saying "Oh all the stoners in high school used to listen to this." It had never occurred to me (Kevin neither, if I may speak for him) that this would be the case. And she was right - this is a fantastic song to listen to when you're smoking the wacky tabacky. Unless you live in a state where such things are still illegal, in which case, hey! That's llegal.
This was the last single released off Hysteria, in January 1989, a full 18 months after the album was released. Another top 15 hit for the band.
The music video features clips of the classic rock names (Sgt. Pepper, Ziggy, Lou Reed, whose song "Satellite of Love" inspired the line-swipe above) from the lyrics are flashed during the video, along with footage of the various artists performing live or from Top of the Pops.
It also features some clips from the 1971 FA Cup Final, won by Arsenal, most notably a shot of Charlie George (club legend) hoisting the trophy above his head.
Arsenal's my Premiership team, so that suits me fine, but as the wiki notes, "this is a little odd, as 4 out of 5 members of the band at the time were from Sheffield and had made their support for Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday known to the public."
Dog Star Omnibus' calls to the band went unanswered. Grade: A
The second US single fared better than "Women," cracking the top 20. The music video went with a circus theme, for some reason.
I mean, the lyrics do mention that "the circus comes to town," but I'm not sure that's the right organizing principle for things. But again - unimportant. What is important is how damn sweet-on-the-ears this song is, particularly that wonderful bridge of "I gotta' feel it in my blood, whoah-oh". I'm less sold on the middle-8 part with the modulated voice saying "Unh! Unh! AN-I-MAL!" which brings to mind the Muppets character. But it bounces back with the solo, and all is forgiven.
I am physically incapable of not clapping along with the handclaps at least once. It's like singing along with the chorus to Toto's "Africa." I defy you not to do it; if you can, that ain't discipline, it's something you should get checked out and properly diagnosed. Grade: A
4. "Love Bites"
The fifth single from the album, released a full year after it appeared, was Def Leppard's first US #1.
As 80s power ballads go, it's not my absolute favorite (I think that'd be "November Rain" though my buddy Mike and I occasionally threaten to get to the bottom of things re: power ballads one of these days in this here blog) but it's pretty much perfect. I don't think anyone can credibly claim otherwise - it hits all the right notes and then some.
Pretty great guitar, too, during the chorus. If you're unimpressed with how the guitars propel this album along just as much as the vocals or are unmoved by their abundant contribution to the expansive sound of Hysteria, chances are we don't belong on a road trip together. Grade: A-
Okay, so remember when I said it took people / my friends awhile to warm up to Hysteria? This was always the song that broke them down. I'd earmarked it as my favorite as early as August 1987, and I put it on most of the mix tapes I made my friends. I got the same reaction each time - "Oh wow, that song rocks." I felt some pride in this at the time. Absurdly. My pride turned to irritation by the late spring of '88, when it was released as the 3rd single and was blaring from every house party, car stereo, radio, and MTV within earshot 24-7.
It didn't help that the chicks in school who were into Madonna or what not suddenly started saying Def Leppard was their favorite band. Snort! Where ya been for the past 5 years? Can you sing the chorus to "Coming Under Fire" or "Hello America?" Do you even know who Pete Willis is?
Yeah, you read that right - it was when the popular chicks embraced Hysteria that my enthusiasm began to wane for it. Probably did that wrong.
Grade: A+. I mean, it's a perfect piece of pop metal, made for arenas and parties on yachts and dancing chicks and shirtless dudes. The lyrics make no damn sense, and gloriously so. (I'm still confused by the gender-direction of the whole thing, as well. If Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Culture Club had been singing this one, or Nicki Minaj, methinks there'd be a different spin on the pouring of any sugar.)
6. "Armageddon it"
The title is a play on the Sheffield accent. The chorus for this one is "Are you getting it?" Not sure what we're getting or not getting - it's probably sex - but apparently the phonetic approximation of the affirmative answer is "Armageddon It."
That "Give me all of your loving" bridge is just so damn awesome. Like "Love Bites," it dips a little in the middle, but not by much and it quickly bounces back. Great guitars in this one, and great end to Side One. (Yes, damn it, Side One.) Grade: A.
7. "Gods of War"
Here's the only kinda-sorta out-of-place song on the whole album. Or perhaps it's the odd garnish that brings out the flavor of the stew, take your pick. It reminds me a bit of "Die Hard the Hunter" off Pyromania, conceptually not musically. The "On a countdown to zero / take a ride on this nightmare machine" bit is catchy and nicely done, and the ending sound collage of Reagan, bombs, and electronically-simulated gunfire is well-done. Grade: A-.
There was no music video for this one, so here's a picture of Joe Elliot in some crazy get-up with his then wife Karla.
8. "Don't Shoot Shotgun"
Hysteria was designed on the Thriller - their old nemesis - principle, where every song could serve as a single in a pinch. It's interesting that every track on Side One was released a single but only one from Side Two (the title track - although until I sat down to revisit this album I'd assumed "Love and Affection" was as well. I was wrong). Here's one that had they released it as a single, it'd have landed big with me personally but probably not everyone else.
The lyrics on the whole album fascinate me. They're so artfully vague. Which allows them to be universally accessible, I suppose. The lyrics to this one, though, just flat-out make no sense. It opens with the band admonishing us to "Run for cover / don't shoot... / SHOOT!" whereupon a computer-voice tells us "She's so dangerous." A description that returns memorably for the bridge.
Does its lack of easy comprehension matter at all? Not in the slightest. In fact, it's probably even better for it. Home runs all around. Joe's "Shoot it! Don't shoot it!"s at the end are so fist-pumpingly awesome. Grade: A+.
9. "Run Riot"
We have reached my current favorite song from Hysteria. A sentence which amuses me all by itself. Who has two thumbs and keeps re-ranking his favorite songs from the album he got for his 13th birthday? You can't see me, but I'm doing the two-thumbs-pointed-at-self-and-nodding gesture. As Joe says after the first chorus, "Gotta' riot, babe."
That bit ("Gotta' riot, babe!") is so goddamn 80s. I can't express how awesomely awesome I find that line, nor how perfectly-80s it is delivered. I doubt that was the intent, but that's how it strikes me in 2015.
Let's see how it fits with other notable personalities of the era -
Well, you get the idea. This song certainly doesn't need my gimmickry to sell it. It's a straight-up rocker in the vein of "Stagefright" from Pyromania but with a sound all its own. That riff that comes in after the first guitar (around the 8 second mark, and recalled just before the solo) is so cinematic to me. It's easy to picture an overhead shot of a school, doors bursting open, a flood of kids running out, or a montage of just about any kind of partying. Then Joe comes in, that pop-metal vocal range still so effortless. Grade: A+.
The fourth single released. Not much to say about this one - it's just such a sweet little tune. The opening guitar (recalled at just the right moment near the end), the layered harmonies, the sing-along-ability of the chorus, you name it. Just a perfect little blend of pop metal sensibility and beautifully executed. Grade: A+.
Oh man! This is in my head constantly lately. Sure I'm listening to the album everyday, so it never really gets a chance to go away, but this one in particular. "Stand up! SAY YES! Stand up! COME ON! GET IN THE GROOOOOOVE!" That and the "Whoah-oh! Whoah-oh-oh!"s throughout get me fist-pumping like I'm auditioning for Jersey Shore or its 2015 equivalent. Also: a complex routine of arm-dances and pantomimes. Appropriate since (as revealed in Animal Instinct by David Fricke) "Excitable" was an attempt on the band's part to write a "Prince sort of number."
|No music video for this one, either, so here's a picture of Phil and his wife Helen.|
Why this was never a single I have no idea. Grade: A+.
12. "Love and Affection"
The album comes to a close with this little number. As with the title track, there's really not too much to say except that it's just such a damn sweet little tune. Not cotton-candy-for-your-ears sort of sweet, either - the kind of multi-layered everything-in-harmony/ music-of-the-spheres typically associated with Brian Wilson or Lindsey Buckingham. Bit of irony, too, with the lyrics describing an emotional state the music doesn't. The build-up and payoff is one of my favorite things ever. Grade: A+.
Rolling Stone ranked Hysteria at 464 of their 500 Greatest Albums Ever Made. Par for the course at RS, but emblematic of a wider critical failure to properly appreciate and evaluate pop metal. And Def Leppard in particular. Pyromania alone earns the band all the respect in the world. Put it together with Hysteria and I don't know, man. That people can go about their daily routine and not stop at least once or twice a day to reflect on how much cooler their lives are for having them around strikes me as damn ungrateful.
All kidding aside, though, objectively, subjectively, and quantifiabily, Hysteria is for my money pop metal's reigning champ, and I couldn't be happier to have it stuck in my head for two months running. Again. Hopefully this won't last as long as it did the first time...
One last thing: I picked up Viva! Hysteria, the double-CD-with-DVD put out in 2013 that features Def Leppard running through the album start-to-finish.
|Featuring Steve Clark's replacement, Vivian Campbell.|
Joe Elliot can't (understandably) hit the same notes he was hitting in the 80s, and he does this odd kind of impersonation-of-his-old-voice to approximate them. I'm not sure it's wholly successful - it torpedoes parts of certain songs, particularly "Excitable" - but for what it's worth the versions of "Gods of War" and "Don't Shoot Shotgun" on there are good. The playing all around is pretty solid, actually, though it's of course no substitute for the original album experience.
The other disc is Def Leppard's "opening act," Ded Flatbird and is great. Billing themselves as "the world's greatest Def Leppard cover band," the band (in costume and alter ego) runs through a set of old classics and b-sides and deep tracks like "Rock Brigade" ("Keep your eyes on the Rock Brigade! (Rock Brigade!)") "Undefeated," "Another Hit and Run" and more. Great stuff, and worth a listen.
~All songs written and composed by Steve Clark, Phil Collen, Joe Elliott, Mutt Lange and Rick Savage. All links active as of August 18, 2015. Hopefully on whatever date you click them, as well.