If there’s one rock band that can truly be described as heroes, it’s Def Leppard. AC/DC overcame the death of singer Bon Scott to make the biggest-selling rock album of all time: Back In Black. Metallica recovered from the death of bassist Cliff Burton to become the most successful and influential metal band of the modern era.
But Def Leppard have suffered two tragedies: the car crash in 1984 in which drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm, and the alcohol-related death of guitarist Steve Clark in 1991. The fact that Def Leppard are still together in 2008, still making great music and playing to audiences of 20,000 on their latest US tour, is testimony to the extraordinary courage and resolve of this great British rock band.
Having formed in Sheffield in 1977, Def Leppard were thinking big from the very start. Their name was inspired by Led Zeppelin, and the blueprint for their music was, as singer Joe Elliott has stated: “AC/DC meets Queen”.
In 1979 Leppard rose to prominence alongside Iron Maiden in the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, although Leppard’s glam-inspired hard rock was radically different from what most NWOBHM bands were about.
“We wanted to be a pop-rock band,” Elliott says. “We wanted to do what Bowie and Bolan did. We had more in common with Duran Duran than with Iron Maiden!”
Leppard knew instinctively where their biggest audience was; they even wrote a song called Hello America. And when they teamed up with AC/DC producer Mutt Lange in the early 80s they hit the jackpot.
With Lange’s creative input earning him unofficial status as the band’s sixth member, Leppard conquered America with 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria, the first back-to-back albums ever to each sell seven million copies. Hysteria even made Def Leppard a household name back in Britain – a proud achievement for a band that famously sported Union Jack T-shirts during their US tours.
Undoubtedly it’s the phenomenal success of Pyromania and Hysteria that has extended Def Leppard’s career over 20 years, through some lean times when their feel-good rock has fallen out of fashion. But this is one band that never thought about quitting, not even in the darkest times. For Def Leppard a rock is never out of the question.
When Def Leppard recorded this, the album that made them superstars, they were still each on wages of £40 a week. The serious money went into Pyromania’s production.
The result was state-of-the-art arena rock with the riff-power of AC/DC and the melodic sophistication of 80s pop.
Photograph was the key hit single, Die Hard The Hunter the epic set-piece (its riff nicked from Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman!), Rock Of Ages the stomping, We Will Rock You-style anthem, complete with joke faux-German intro from Mutt Lange.
“With Pyromania everything changed for us,” Elliott says.
It was conceived as hard rock’s answer to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album on which every track is a potential hit single.
And so it proved. Six of Hysteria’s 12 tracks were Top 20 US hits, with power ballad Love Bites reaching No.1 and rap-rock hybrid Pour Some Sugar On Me hitting No.2.
With 18 million copies sold worldwide, Hysteria is the biggest album of Leppard’s career, and also their most experimental. “We wanted to push the envelope of what rock music was,” Elliott says. Rocket, with its extended, Burundi-inspired drum breakdown, typified their anything-goes approach.
Leppard’s second album is the connoisseur’s choice, a hard rock tour de force that swept them out of the NWOBHM ghetto.
Working with Mutt Lange for the first time, Leppard made a huge leap forward from their debut, On Through The Night. Wisely, Mutt didn’t smooth off all of their rough edges.
Opening with the knockout one-two punch of Let It Go and Another Hit And Run, it’s the rowdiest and most balls-out, ass-kicking album the band have ever recorded. The pissed-up title track is Leppard’s Highway To Hell; the duelling guitars of Switch 625 had echoes of classic Thin Lizzy.
“We’ve never been heavy metal,” claims Joe Elliott. But for all his protestations, Leppard’s debut is a heavy metal album, plain and simple. In their youthful naivety, Leppard attacked their debut album with all the gusto of their NWOBHM peers.
No shame in that. The brutal Wasted has the streetwise appeal of early Iron Maiden, Rock Brigade and Rocks Off are the very definition of gonzoid, and the seven-minute Overture references 70s-vintage Rush and Kansas.
The true measure of Leppard’s ambitions was Hello America, with its polished vocal harmonies.
Grunge didn’t kill hair-metal with a single blow. In March 1992, two months after Nirvana’s Nevermind topped the US chart, Def Leppard hit the top spot in America with Adrenalize.
The album party vibe of lead single Let’s Get Rocked might have suggested it was business as usual for Leppard, but in reality the band were still in mourning for Steve Clark, to whom Adrenalize was dedicated.
Adrenalize featured six tracks co-written with Clark, but it was a new song, White Lightning, that served as the most fitting epitaph: a meditation on Clark’s death, it has a Zeppelin-inspired grandeur he would have loved.
For the most part, Def Leppard is the sound of a band who have rediscovered their sense of purposes after a wobbly 25 years. Hip? Nope. Cheesy? Occasionally. Fun, memorable, life-affirming? Yes, yes and yes. And that counts as a win, credibility be damned.
Def Leppard is wall-to-wall songs of the kind that no one – not even Def Leppard – makes any more. Dangerous is a prime slice of Hysteria-era arena rock that crackles like a drunk tramp pissing on the third rail, Sea Of Love mugs a passing gospel choir and forces them to wail over the top of a crunching, low-slung riff, while All Time High is quite possibly the most euphoric song you’ll hear all year.
2008 was a banner year for classic rock, with AC/DC, Metallica and even Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses all back in business. And you can add to that the best Def Leppard album since Hysteria.
Rejuvenated by a succession of triumphant US enormo-dome tours, Leppard delivered an arena-rock master-class with Songs From The Sparkle Lounge.
Nine Lives is classic Leppard, C’mon C’mon recalls the glory of 70s glam rock. Most adventurously, the richly textured, left-field power ballad Love is bassist Rick Savage’s homage to Queen.
For an odds ‘n’ sods album, Retro Active was both astonishingly good and an impressively strong seller, achieving platinum status in the US. Leppard’s first album with guitarist Vivian Campbell, it also includes the last work of his predecessor Steve Clark.
Clark’s signature riffing drives the album’s weighty epics Desert Song and Fractured Love, the former styled on Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Elsewhere Leppard acknowledged other key influences with covers of The Sweet’s Action and Mick Ronson’s Only After Dark. The ballads Miss You In A Heartbeat and Two Steps Behind proved that the band could flourish without Mutt Lange’s studio trickery.
After grunge, hair-metal’s superstars had to rethink. Jon Bon Jovi had a bob and pulled off a smart reinvention. But when Mötley Crüe went ‘alternative’ and Bret Michaels grew a beard, they weren’t fooling anyone.
In these trying times Leppard knew they couldn’t make another Adrenalize. As Joe Elliott recalls: “We went heavier and darker. And it nearly killed us!”
Slang sold a disappointing half-a-million copies in the US. But it’s a bold album, with great songs in Work It Out and the monolithic Pearl Of Euphoria.
Joe Elliott calls Slang “our most honest record”. But a return to the classic Leppard sound wasn’t far away.
The title spoke volumes: a nod to Pyromania and Hysteria, a signal that the old Def Leppard was back after Slang. Even Mutt Lange was back lending a hand on Euphoria, not as producer but as co-writer of two songs, including lead single Promises, a super-slick, harmony-laden track reminiscent of 1987’s Animal.
Leppard ticked all the right boxes with Euphoria. Back In Your Face is the guiltiest of pleasures, a throwback to Gary Glitter’s pomp. Goodbye is a deluxe power ballad. And there’s something of Steve Clark’s swagger in Paper Sun, a song that Brian May says blew him away.
“We like Brian,” says Joe Elliott. “He rocks.”