Today is the 25th anniversary of Def Leppard’s fourth and biggest selling album, Hysteria (Bludgeon Riffola/Mercury). We now know that they made this album in the hopes it would become hard rock’s Thriller. They managed to release seven singles from it, I think the goal was nine since the picture sleeves for each 45 would have made a puzzle of the entire album cover. This album was massive, and in a time when hard rock and heavy metal’s influence was all over the place, the music also leaked into the pop world because of the band’s accessibility, and made them huge superstars. Has the album held up 25 years later? A little bit of yes, and a little bit of no. Allow me to explain.
Hysteria was the long awaited follow up to the band’s third album, Pyromania. The album and band were pushed with a major help from MTV, who had loved the group when videos from their second album, High’N'Dry, were in heavy rotation. There wasn’t a time in the early 80′s when you could not see “Let It Go”, “High’N'Dry”, and “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak”, three rockers that one can always hear on classic rock radio today, and one song more than the others would help take them to the next level of popularity. Both “Let It Go” and “High’N'Dry” were solid rockers, but “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” was a ballad. While you had hard rock and heavy metal groups who slowed it down a bit on their albums, it seemed different from Black Sabbath’s “Changes”, but maybe not. It could have been a slow hard rock song, but “ballad” status was given because the song was viewed as a romantic one, which it is. When MTV started on August 1, 1981, High’N'Dry had already been a few weeks old. There was no music video outlets in the United States, but the heavy rotation on MTV gave the album a major promotional push. Their debut album, On Through The Night had decent radio success but didn’t cause major damage on the charts. If anyone remembers a song from that debut, it’s most likely “Hello America”, but America didn’t say hello back. At least not before High’N'Dry.
The success of Def Leppard would push Mercury Records to give their next album a major push. For Pyromania, the band would release singles for “Photograph”, “Rock Of Ages”, and “Foolin’”, complete with videos that would develop into a number of the band’s trademarks: Joe Elliott’s hair, Rick Allen’s shirtless ways while playing drums, and the use of the Union Jack in their clothing. In England, they released “Too Late For Love” as a single. At the height of Pyromania-mania, they reissued High’N'Dry with a remix of “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak”, which came with a new video. What was the difference? For one, original guitarist Pete Willis was no longer in the band, being replaced by Phil Collen. It is Collen’s guitar work you hear in the remix version. Also, there’s additional keyboards that seem to be an attempt to cash in with what someone felt was the hip sound of popular hard rock and heavy metal. Blame it on Saga, blame it on Bon Jovi, blame it on Dio, blame it on Rio, I don’t know. It worked, for the remix became a big hit. (Once the song went down the charts and out of MTV rotation, radio stations would bring back the original High’N'Dry mix, although some seem to play the song with it fading right into the next song, “Switch 625″, perhaps due to the fact that most radio stations are rarely locally programmed, so instead of using the single edit or creating one, most stations will allow “Switch 625″ to play until the end.)
When one turned to MTV, it seemed it was packed with nothing but hard rock and heavy metal, and fans were anxiously awaiting for Def Leppard to follow up Pyromania with a new album. On New Year’s Eve 1984, drummer Allen got into a car accident, leading to his left arm being amputated. Most people thought that this was truly the end of the band, or at least they could not carry on with Allen as their drummer. Allen was determined, and the story from this point on should be familiar to most. With a need to prove themselves even more than ever, and having a chance to take the metaphorical crown as hard rock’s monarchs, the band wrote material and eventually recorded the tracks with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who worked with them for Pyromania. If the third time was truly the charm, why get rid of the genius that helped the band get to the top of the charts? It is now known that Lange had a more-than-heavy hand in the production of Pyromania, although in 1983, no one knew that most of the drum tracks were sequenced and recorded electronically. However, anyone with a keen ear could tell that something was up in “Too Late For Love” when the funk of the drums seemed a bit too tight. The synthy rhythm track that follows “Billy’s Got A Gun” was perhaps a footprint to say “this album was made differently from most hard rock albums”, but those synthy ways would be the driving force behind the sound of Hysteria.
While the album format is still strong as a format in 2012, it seems artists and fans aren’t take it to well, to the point where some are saying that the album will cease to be before 2020. Artists can become massive successes with one or two songs. For many, the effort is in creating a solid album from start to finish, and this one was finely tuned. Look at Side One:
4. Love Bites
5. Pour Some Sugar on Me
6. Armageddon It
Every single song on Side 1 was released as a single, each one a hit. For those who love the album, I’m sure those six songs may be a chunk of your childhood soundtrack. While the UK and Europe went for the pop-friendly “Animal” as the first single, the U.S. chose to cater to the hard rock desires of radio listeners with the slightly-more-abrasive “Women”, which sounded like “Rock Of Ages” with slight adjustments.
It worked fairly well, but “Animal” worked more for pop fans, and if you listen to it now, it could have easily been performed as a cover by Shania Twain.
This is mentioned because producer Lange would eventually marry Twain and end up producing a string of songs that would be her greatest success. Without the production techniques and issues of Hysteria, Twain’s career in the 90′s would not have been as massive as it was.
Side 2 was just as solid as the flip, but some of the tracks definitely had an edge similar to that of songs on Pyromania:
1. Gods of War
2. Don’t Shoot Shotgun
3. Run Riot
6. Love and Affection
Out of these six tracks, only “Hysteria” was released as a single, although any of these songs could have become the 8th and 9th pieces in the picture sleeve puzzle. Musically, the intro guitar riff reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky”.
Because of the strength of each of these songs, you could pretty much hear the entire album on the radio at any given time. If it wanted to become hard rock’s Thriller, it definitely became their Rumours (Fleetwood Mac), for this was the album that pretty much secured their history as one of the more successful bands in hard rock and heavy metal.
With success came a sacrifice. Some who loved and embraced the band’s first three albums felt that Hysteria was too nice, too clean, too “pop”. It didn’t hit as hard, some would say, but they always had an accessible side on those early albums. It was almost the equivalent of fans who loved early Spandau Ballet, but the moment they put on suits in their video and released “True” and “Gold”, they were deemed soft. With success came cries of sell-out, and while part of their formula changed, it really wasn’t that drastic of a change. What did change was the pop success, for they were no longer the darlings of hard rock, they had a bigger audience they did not have with Pyromania. Nonetheless, the 12 songs on the album (alone with the string of great non-LP sides you could find on their singles) showed a band at their best, and they would reach their peak, never to be duplicated again or attempted by any other hard rock or heavy metal bands. Guns N’ Roses would become the darlings of heavy metal at the same time Hysteria was climbing the charts, but some felt they were both in different leagues. GN’R were the sleazy kids, Def Leppard were now metaphorically sporting Spandau Ballet’s suits.
While the band would continue to have successful albums and singles for the next few years, the 90′s would be rough for them as music fans became fascinated with what they felt grunge and alternative rock represented. Their follow up to Hysteria had taken them a year longer than the four year gap between Pyromania and Hysteria, but when you had Hysteria-type success, you could afford to relax. The time away didn’t change their musicianship or songwriting, but for me, hearing “Make Love Like A Man” was a bit too corny for my ears, while “Let’s Get Rocked” and “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” were okay, but not as strong as “Love and Affection” or “Rockit”. To me, it came off like an effort to try to recapture the success of Hysteria, but rarely does a pop artist take risks. Why do that when you can simply tinker with a trusted formula and hope for pay dirt twice? It worked, but for me it was the last time I paid attention to what the band were doing. Plus, music fans were worshiping the grunge movement and the power of alternative rock, Def Leppard now seemed way too safe for most ears. Hard rock and heavy metal still had the diehard fans, but Def Leppard were now considered “higher than” the pack, thus it was pop or nothing.
25 years later, I still enjoy Hysteria but because of the classic rock radio format, some of these songs have been played to the death. It’s overkill, and while one does not have to rely on radio to hear the album, you can bet that somewhere in this world at this minute, there’s a radio station playing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” or “Armageddon It”.
As for “Armageddon It”, outside of the reference to “jangle your jewels”, my favorite part of the song is when Elliott says “c’mon Steve, hit it”, and guitarist Steve Clark plays a riff that is a nod to The Who’s “Rael“, the riff of which would be used to greater effect in “Underture” from their 1969 album, Tommy
I think Side 2 holds up better because they are songs that ended up becoming what they are: “album tracks”. They are not drilled in the mind too deeply, but then again, that’s my experience with the album. As a whole, Hysteria is the type of album that may not happen again at the level it had taken for two years. For a style of music that was the front of hate and ridicule by the Parents Music Resource Center, Def Leppard proved that you can create music that rocked, sounded sexy, but could satisfy audiences of all ages. No dragons, no castles, no running up hills to unknown villages. It was Def Leppard at their musical and creative best, and nothing can change the impact they made on a generation who would fall in love with them because of it.
For more about this album, check out Ultimate Classic Rock‘s article about the 25th anniversary.