If there’s one rock band, above all others, 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 in Back In Black.
Metallica recovered from the loss 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 on New Year’s Eve, 1984 in which drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm, and the alcohol-related death of guitarist Steve Clark on January 8, 1991.
The fact that Def Leppard are still together in 2016, 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.
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 to most NWOBHM fare. “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 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 albums ever to sell seven million copies back to back. 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 American tours.
Undoubtedly, it’s the phenomenal success of Pyromania and Hysteria that has extended Def Leppard’s career through some lean times when their feel-good rock has fallen out of fashion. But there are many other great records in the band’s catalogue. So here they are: all of Def Leppard’s albums ranked from worst to best…
14. X (Bludgeon Riffola, 2002)
Def Leppard have always embraced pop music. When making Hysteria, one of their key inspirations was Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But with X, they went too far. By working with cheesy pop songwriters, a great rock band lost its balls, albeit temporarily.
Apart from one track, the beefy Four Letter Word, X was all pop and no rock. And while that approach worked on the beautiful ballad Long, Long Way To Go, this was undoubtedly the weakest album of Leppard’s career.
13. Viva! Hysteria (Bludgeon Riffola/Frontiers 2013)
Many rock bands have performed a classic album in its entirety on stage – recent examples including Rush with Moving Pictures, and Metallica with The Black Album.
In March 2013, Leppard played a residency at the Hard Rock Hotel And Casino in Las Vegas in which they performed their biggest selling album under the banner of Viva! Hysteria. It’s an album full of hits – Pour Some Sugar On Me, Love Bites, Animal, Rocket, Hysteria, Armageddon It – but the deep cuts sounded just as great, not least the kick-ass Don’t Shoot Shotgun and the smooth ballad Love And Affection.
Also featured on the two-disc Viva! Hysteria album is the encore of Rock Of Ages and Photograph, two big songs from Pyromania, and the set in which Leppard performed as their own opening act, jokingly billed as ‘Ded Flatbird’, playing a bunch of lesser known tracks from High ‘N’ Dry and a couple of doozies from their debut On Through The Night in Wasted and Rock Brigade.
12. Yeah! (Mercury, 2006)
This covers album suffered a terrible mauling from the press, most notably a one-word review that simply stated, “No.” Not quite “shit sandwich”, but bad enough. In truth, Yeah! deserved better.
The band’s choice of material was inspired – taking in hard rock, glam and pop from artists such as David Bowie, The Kinks, T. Rex, Free, the Faces, Thin Lizzy and, inevitably, Joe Elliott’s favourite band Mott The Hoople.
Best of all were the brilliant versions of David Essex’s Rock On and the Electric Light Orchestra’s 10538 Overture.
11. Mirror Ball – Live & More (Bludgeon Riffola/Frontiers 2011)
In the 70s and 80s, the live album was a career-defining statement for so many rock bands – from Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC to Judas Priest, Motörhead and Iron Maiden. For a few bands, such as Kiss and Cheap Trick, it was a live album that made them.
Strangely, Def Leppard’s first live album came all of 31 years after their first studio record, but it was worth the wait. Recorded between 2008 and 2011, Mirror Ball included two killer tracks from Songs From The Sparkle Lounge – C’mon C’mon and Nine Lives – alongside classics such as Foolin’ and Let’s Get Rocked.
And among three new studio cuts was Undefeated, one of the great modern Def Leppard songs.
10. Slang (Bludgeon Riffola, 1996)
After grunge, hair metal’s superstars had to rethink. Jon Bon Jovi had a haircut and pulled off a smart reinvention. But when Mötley Crüe went ‘alternative’ and Poison’s Bret Michaels grew a beard, they weren’t fooling anyone.
In these trying times, Def Leppard knew they couldn’t make another Adrenalize. As Joe Elliott recalls, “We went heavier and darker. And it nearly killed us!”
True, Slang sold poorly, shifting just half a million copies in the US. But it’s a bold and underrated album, with great songs in Work It Out, Where Does Love Go When It Dies and the monolithic Pearl Of Euphoria. Joe Elliott calls Slang “our most honest record”. But a return to the classic Leppard sound would follow.
9. Euphoria (Bludgeon Riffola, 1999)
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 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, with Joe’s mate Ricky Warwick (The Almighty/Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders) on backing vocals and handclaps. 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,” states Joe Elliott. “He rocks.”
8. Songs From The Sparkle Lounge (Bludgeon Riffola, 2008)
Rejuvenated by a succession of triumphant US enormo-dome tours, and reconnected to their formative influences via the 2006 covers album Yeah!, Leppard delivered an arena-rock master-class with Songs From The Sparkle Lounge.
Nine Lives, a duet with country singer Tim McGraw, is classic Leps – “like AC/DC doing the Stones’ Start Me Up”, according to guitarist Phil Collen. C’mon C’mon recalls the glory days of 70s glam rock. And most adventurously, the richly textured left-field power ballad Love is bassist Rick Savage’s homage to Queen.
As Joe Elliott proudly stated: “We embraced who we are as a band.”
7. Retro Active (Bludgeon Riffola, 1993)
For an odds ‘n’ sods album, Retro Active was both astonishingly good and an impressively strong seller, achieving platinum status in the US.
The first Leppard album to feature guitarist Vivian Campbell, it also includes the last work of Campbell’s predecessor Steve Clark. Clark’s signature riffing drives the album’s weighty epics Desert Song and Fractured Love, both outtakes from the Hysteria sessions, 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. And two simple ballads – Phil Collen’s Miss You In A Heartbeat and Joe Elliott’s acoustic Two Steps Behind, yet another US hit – proved that the band could flourish without Mutt Lange’s studio trickery.
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6. Def Leppard (Bludgeon Riffola/earMUSIC, 2015)
“We called it Def Leppard because this album really sums up who we are,” Joe Elliott told Classic Rock when the band’s eleventh studio record was released. The singer was also realistic about where this album would stand in the band’s catalogue. “I’m not one of those people that’s going to say it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” he said. “That’s something that gets judged over time. But I think it’s a great record – very guitar-driven, with an incredible energy to it.”
Certainly the classic Leppard sound was evident in tracks such as Let’s Go – an anthem in the style of Pour Some Sugar On Me and Rock Of Ages. But on the best tracks they were thinking outside the box. Blind Faith is an epic track with echoes of Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song and The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus, and a deep lyric from Elliott on the subject of religion.
And on a more frivolous note, there is Man Enough, a funk rock song heavily influenced by Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. All told, this is the band’s finest album since Adrenalize.
5. On Through The Night (Mercury, 1980)
“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. Having previously championed the band, Sounds writer Geoff Barton cried “sell out!” Leppard were subsequently bottled at Reading in 1980. But as Elliott says, “The damage was at worst temporary.”
4. Adrenalize (Bludgeon Riffola, 1992)
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 followed suit with Adrenalize.
However, if the album’s success and the party vibe of lead single Let’s Get Rocked suggested it was business as usual for Leppard, in reality the band was still in mourning for Steve Clark, to whom Adrenalize was dedicated.
They recorded as a four-piece, with Phil Collen playing all guitars save for an acoustic on Tonight. 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.
3. High ‘N’ Dry (Vertigo, 1981)
Leppard’s second album is the connoisseur’s choice, a hard rock tour-de-force that fast-tracked 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. But they were still young, and wisely, Mutt didn’t smooth out all of their rough edges. Opening with the knockout one-two punch of Let It Go and Another Hit And Run, High ‘N’ Dry is the rowdiest and most balls-out album the band has 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. Only the semi-ballad Bringin’ On The Heartbreak hinted at the pop crossover to come.
2. Pyromania (Vertigo, 1983)
When Def Leppard recorded the album that made them superstars, they were still on wages of £40 a week. The serious money went into Pyromania’s high-spec production. The result was state-of-the-art arena rock with the riff-power of AC/DC and the melodic sophistication of 80s pop.
Joe Elliott called Pyromania “probably the best produced album of all time”. 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. Phil Lynott even blamed this album for finishing Thin Lizzy’s career, telling Joe: “I can’t compete with that!”
1. Hysteria (Bludgeon Riffola, 1987)
It was conceived as hard rock’s answer to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album where 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 number one, and rap-rock hybrid Pour Some Sugar On Me (written specifically for strippers to disrobe to) hitting number two. With 25 million copies sold worldwide, Hysteria is the biggest album of Leppard’s career, and 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.
And they did it all with a drummer who’d lost an arm. It’s nothing short of miraculous.