Rock of Ages: Def Leppard Goes Streaming
Heroes of MTV in the 1980s, Def Leppard may have been pop stars to millions of fans around the world, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a quintessential hard rock band in that decade.
Infusing ‘70s glam and heavy metal with punk and new wave, the band boasted heavy riffs and melodies galore — and captured the essence of crossover success; they went from rock radio stars to MTV regulars to arena killers over the course of their tumultuous career. Long holdouts from streaming, the band’s music is now available on Tidal, and it’s chock full of examples of top-notch performances and production, as well as killer — and adventurous — songwriting chops.
“I remember clearly listening to the racket [punk musicians] were making and thinking: ‘This is fucking great. This is so inspiring. These kids can’t even play and they’re making fucking art,’” Def Leppard’s front man Joe Elliott says of the band’s early, if seemingly unlikely, chosen genre.
“It was totally inspiring for us, because we weren’t really the greatest musicians or singers; we just wanted to do what they were doing,” he adds. “In many respects we wanted to be Queen, but we’re actually a bit more like the Clash or the Sex Pistols, because the gang element of punk was so inspiring, even though our sound came from more traditional stuff — in our own updated way — like Thin Lizzy, UFO, AC/DC. But then even in the very, very early days, punks loved AC/DC, because they were almost punk for the first two or three albums.”
Inspired by Bowie, as well as T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Free, the aforementioned Queen and Led Zeppelin, Elliott, still a teenager in Sheffield, England, joined bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Pete Willis in 1977 to form Def Leppard, playing clubs and soon adding guitarist Steve Clark to the lineup. By 1978, still in their teens, they’d self-released an EP, The Def Leppard E.P., and added drummer Rick Allen. BBC airplay and coverage in the then-all important British music weeklies soon followed.
Soon picked up by AC/DC’s manager Peter Mensch, the band signed a major label deal. On Through the Night, the band’s debut, as well as relentless touring — often supporting acts like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest — put them on the map, and its follow up, 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry, featuring the smash “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” became the first of many Def Leppard Platinum albums.
“Those bands that inspired us as kids, that stuff was all long gone, dead and buried,” says Elliott of his past idols. “It was sad, really, but as a kid growing up in Sheffield all those bands were history, and it made us each wonder who we wanted to be and what kind of music we wanted to make. We were just learning to be individuals.”
In the midst of sessions for the follow up to High ‘n’ Dry, Pyromania, with superstar producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Phil Collen replaced original guitarist Pete Willis, who’d been struggling with alcohol addiction. Collen brought a fresh perspective — and a host of new influences — to the band.
“We had the same record collections and we knew each other,” Collen says matter-of-factly of the call that changed his life. “I was lucky to be brought up around so much inspiration: the Who, the Stones, you know, everyone that was big when we were kids. They’re all there. But I also grew up with reggae and stuff that was right across the board, you know, jazz, Aretha Franklin. My very first concert was Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on me. I don’t think anybody’s ever got close to what he did. He defined the electric guitar.”
He continues: “Girl, the band I was in, was like this kind of a glam rock band, and I played some hard rock. Joe said to me during that time, ‘It’s not going great. It’s not really working out. Think you could come out with us?’ Immediately I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
“I had a blast making the album, then it blew up,” Collen adds. “We didn’t expect that, and I didn’t really know that I was in the band. But all of a sudden MTV blew it up and then we were on tour for a year and I figured, ‘I guess I’m in the band now.’”
The upheaval didn’t slow the band’s skyward trajectory, and Pyromania, Def Leppard’s 1983 blockbuster, went on to sell more than ten million copies worldwide. That record featured the nascent, pop-infused metal that would become a staple of the decade, and supported by skillful videos for the songs “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages,” it received constant airplay from the now era-defining MTV.
“We actually were so lucky finding a way to fit into the MTV format, because a lot of rock bands didn’t,” Collen says. “[MTV] changed everything from that point on. Ultimately we fell into that market with Duran Duran and those other bands, but I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take that.’ MTV was responsible for bringing a lot of new music into households everywhere. They kicked that off and we went with it, very naturally. So it just fell into our laps, but then we had to keep it going.”
“MTV was pivotal, there’s no doubt,” Elliott agrees, recalling the band’s explosive rise fondly. “When MTV started out they probably had 12 videos, of which two of them were ours. And our videos weren’t shot on video, like American music videos or soap operas. They were shot on film, so they looked like D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust movie. They looked grainy and rock & roll and cool. Plus, we had a sense of humor. We were taking a piss on that rock star shit, you know, because we were just doing it for a laugh, to see if anybody noticed: ‘Oh, that’s him doing Rod Stewart.’ Or Steve doing Jimmy Page. We were just making fun because we had all these things in our lockers upstairs that we grew up with. I mean, we’d all had tennis rackets and pretended to be [guitar] stars. That’s where we learned to do it. But there was also a real sense of unity amongst us that came from that experience.”
With Mutt Lange unavailable, but a new album due after the massive success of the tour supporting Pyromania, the band convened with Jim Steinman, the ace producer who’d helmed Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.
“We didn’t want to make High and Dry 2 or Pyromania 2, so, you know, at the beginning of the project our goal was to try to make the record that nobody else had made,” Elliott explains. “So Jim said, ‘It ain’t going to be easy, but we’ll make it a fun ride.’ So we had to make sure that the songs were killer and, you know, we were moving in a direction where our songs were less hard rock and more hard pop, if you like. We wanted the Queen element — that variety — and the power of AC/DC, and we wanted the songs to have choruses like Slade, but the quality of a Bowie. We had huge ambitions, but it just didn’t work out with Jim.”
Fortunately, as some time had passed, Lange became available.
“He really is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever worked with,” Collen says. “It’s hard work working with Mutt — you can’t just magically do things that are way above your capability — but he’s a inspiration. So it was amazing to have him back, and I liked the pressure, anyway. We all wanted to try to push the boat out. We didn’t see the band as just a rock band. We were listening to the Police, who are my all-time favorite band, by the way, and stuff like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and we wanted to do a bit of that. We really did. So we took on that for inspiration. We were just really ambitious and wouldn’t be told ‘no.’”
“We were growing as songwriters,” Elliott adds. “The previous albums had sold really well, but we knew we had to take things a stage further. We knew we had to keep going and going, and Mutt really pushed us.”
With the future looking bright, a tragic New Year’s Eve car accident, in which Rick Allen lost his arm, left the band shell-shocked and unsure what 1985 would bring.
But Allen, true to his Northern English roots, was unbowed. Within a few months, he was back behind the drums playing a custom electronic kit made for him by Simmons. With Mutt Lange soon back on board, the band resumed recording, and their fourth album, titled Hysteria, finally hit the shelves in 1987.
The single “Animal” soon became Def Leppard’s first Top 10 hit in the U.K., and launched a string of six straight Top 20 hits in the U.S. over the next two years, including “Hysteria,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Love Bites,” “Armageddon It” and “Rocket.” With clever videos for the songs in heavy rotation on MTV, the band’s presence was unavoidable and their style oft-copied, even after harder rocking bands like Guns N’ Roses captured the attention of high school music fans around America.
During the recording of the band’s follow-up to Hysteria, guitarist Steve Clark died from an overdose of alcohol and drugs. Def Leppard were determined to finish their album, and the band, now a quartet, released Adrenalize in 1992. The album debuted at #1 and contained a clutch of Top 20 hits (“Let’s Get Rocked” and “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad”), but the record was a commercial disappointment in the wake of the massive success of Pyromania and Hysteria. “There was a changing landscape, that’s for sure,” Collen says.
“We just kept out heads down and kept working,” Elliot adds.
In 1993, the rarities collection Retro Active yielded the Top 20 hit “Two Steps Behind,” an acoustic ballad, and in 1995 the greatest hits collection Vault reminded the band’s legions of fans what they’d loved so much about Def Leppard back in the heady days of the MTV-dominated 1980s.
“We were lucky to have such a strong catalogue of material to draw from,” Collen says. “All those hours with Mutt Lange in the studio really did pay off!”
Slang followed in the spring of 1996, and while it couldn’t recapture the massive success of the band’s heyday, Def Leppard soldiered on, returning to their patented pop-metal sound for Euphoria, released in June 1999. “Promises” made the charts, and the band returned to its tried and true pop metal ballad formula for 2002′s X.
Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection followed in 2005, and in 2006 Yeah! arrived. A collection of covers that pulled liberally from the band’s many and varied influences, the record marked the beginning of a new era for the band.
“Yeah, that album was something I’d been wanting to do for about 20 years,” Elliott explains. “I would always say, to anyone who would listen, ‘We need to do our own version of [David Bowie’s] Pin Ups.’ Eventually, we just said to each other, ‘Everybody just wants to sing and dance these days, so let’s just make a fucking record and they’ll go, ‘Oh, wow! Blondie! Badfinger! David Essex! The Faces! ELO!’ But we also knew they’d be going, ‘What the fuck?’ Because they were all expecting us to do ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Paranoid’ or whatever.”
“But that’s not what was going to happen, because from where we come from rock music came from T. Rex and Bowie,” he continues. “So that album for me was a very important record. And it was the biggest tour we’d done in ages, because U.K. fans knew all the songs because they’d grown up with them, and it made them nostalgic, and in America most of the songs weren’t very well-known, so it kind of came across like a new record. But mainly I think it’s one of the best records we’ve ever done, because we didn’t know we were making it. We went in to do three songs we came out with 12! So we did it totally for ourselves and for the fun of making records again. It was almost like we had our naivety back. It was a wonderful time and it was a really, really a cool record to make.”
In 2008, Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, Def Leppard’s ninth album, was released, and a massive, and hugely successful, tour followed. Recordings from the tour became 2011′s Mirror Ball: Live & More, a live album that also contained three new studio recordings. That was followed two years later by another live album, Viva! Hysteria, on which Def Leppard played its 1987 blockbuster in its entirety, followed by a winning collection of early, rarely played material.
2015’s self-titled Def Leppard followed, and in February of 2017 the group released And There Will Be a Next Time, another live album. Later that year, a Super Deluxe Edition of Hysteria, featuring a remarkable mix of bonus and live tracks, was released to celebrate the record’s 30th anniversary.
“I’m so proud,” Collen says of the album’s staying power. “I mean, again, I’ve got to give credit to Mutt. He worked us really hard. He really pushed us. I remember someone asking, ‘Why are we doing this again? Why are you pushing us so hard?’ And he said, ‘In 20 years’ time, when you go on talking about it, you’ll thank me.’”
He continues: “Seriously! I mean, we weren’t thinking about 20 years in the future, that’s for sure. And here we are, 30 years later! He wanted us to make something that would be worth listening to for a long time, even though we wouldn’t have done that on our own, as ambitious as we were, I’m sure.”
“Bands wouldn’t go to the places, stylistically, that we were going,” Elliott adds. “We were never afraid to do that. In fact, that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to put a few noses out a joint with hard rock fans by going in the directions we went. So be it! We wanted to follow our own path.”
Although by the 1990s, mainstream hard rock had shifted away from Def Leppard’s signature pop-metal and toward bands with a harder sound and a tougher image, the band soldiered on, and, as a result of the strong catalogue they crafted more than 30 years ago, they remain one of only a handful of ’80s metal groups still going strong today.
“You know, everything changes — who would have thought that there would be no bookstores?” Collen says when I ask him about the band’s decision to finally join the streaming world. “I remember when I saw them closing around the world, and I thought it was so bizarre, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. As tragic as it was, there’s always something else to come along. There’s always another outlet. The people listened to Elvis and rhe Beatles, those formats are gone, and those guys are gone. But these guys are still around with the sound they created. We’re still here, so we hope people we hear our music and will then come and see us live, because we’re still out there doing it!”
Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He contributed the essay “Sgt. Pepper In America” to the recent 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles’ 1967 album, has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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