“I could take them or leave them. At the time we were making Rock Aint Dead I was listening to The Tubes.” - Heavy Pettin’ guitarist Punky Mendoza on Def Leppard
The music industry hype machine was pretty exciting in the 80s. Who doesn’t love being at ground zero for the Next Big Thing? If you could just make it to the cover of Kerrang!, imagine how great your life could be. Your music would continue to thrill and inspire for a thousand years, your silver-stuffed pockets would always jingle-jangle as you walked, and you would never have to beg for sex ever again. But if Flash Metal Suicide has taught us anything, it’s that every dream eventually dies, most of them way ahead of schedule. I know, you most likely have never heard of Heavy Pettin’. But for a very brief window in the early-mid 1980s, almost everybody knew who they were. They were the “new” Def Leppard. And that might be the first clue as to why things fell apart so quickly. Nobody was even tired of the “old” Def Leppard yet.
In the beginning, there was the hilariously-named Glasgow-based hard rock band Weeper. In ‘81 they ditched a couple members and picked up guitarist Punky Mendoza (of Zero Trap, featuring future Almighty guitarist Tantrum) and helium-sucking vocalist Steve Hayman. Copping their name from UFO’s No Heavy Petting album, they hit the local gig circuit and immediately stood out from the gnarly NWOBHM pack because of their youth (most of ‘em were just exiting their teen years) and their penchant for big, gooey glam-rock hooks.
Within just months of forming, Heavy Pettin’ found themselves in the cross-hairs of a good ol’ fashioned major label bidding war. While the band always contended that the only similarities between themselves and Def Lep were the fact that they were “Young and British”, it should be noted that Def Lep’s then-manager Peter Mensch was the man behind their showcase gigs and I don’t think there an article was ever written, including this one, that didn’t compare their Sweet-inspired pop-metal to Elliot and the boys. That can’t be coincidence, man.
Anyway, they signed to Polydor and Brian May to produce their first album, 1983’s Lettin’ Loose. Incidentally, it was self-titled in the US. Not sure why, but that’s what happened. It’s a fun record, anchored by the minor hit In And Out Of Love, but it’s alarmingly lightweight, even for a Lep rip-off. For an audience that was eating up the psuedo-Satanic barbed-wire pop metal of Crue’s Shout at the Devil, Pettin’s breezy melodic rock didn’t quite deliver the goods. But they had a great logo and the glam metal party was getting bigger and bigger every day, so what the hell, Heavy Pettin’, why not?
The band landed some opening spots and tour dates with bands like Kiss, Ozzy, Whitesnake, really all the prime movers of 80’s hard rock. They were splashed all over the glossy metal press. They were gonna be big in America, man. Real big. And sure, the first album didn’t really land with the authoritative heft it was supposed to, but the next one, the next one would really set the world ablaze.
In 1985, Heavy Pettin’ released their second full-length album, Rock Ain’t Dead. And they were right, it wasn’t. In fact, the world was balls-deep in hard rock and heavy metal with no end in sight, so this record should’ve been Pettin’s killing blow, the one that established the Lep heir apparent as global arena rockers. But it wasn’t actually a rock record. At least not in the way the first one was. I mean, the first one wasn’t even overwhelmingly rock, but on RAD (ha!), Pettin’ were so desperate for radio airplay that they smoothed over every last remaining edge and ended up so far into AOR territory that they sounded positively Canadian. And while there’s nothing really nothing criminal about Canadian wimp-rock, if you wanted Glass Tiger, you’d listen to Glass Tiger. I’d throw you right the fuck out of here, but still. The point is that you can’t really name your album Rock Ain’t Dead and go on tour with Motley Crue in the US when the music you’re making sounds like the kinda stuff they’d play during a party scene in a really lame 80’s teen comedy. Even in ‘83 there were glimmers that Pettin’ were born to be mild, and this just really cinched it. Rock definitely wasn’t dead. Heavy Pettin’, well, that’s a different story.
After Rock Ain’t Dead fizzled, the band continued to tinker with their formula. They changed management, shuffled the line-up, and went to work on their third-and-last album, The Big Bang. Hassles and hang-ups ruled the day and the album didn’t even get released until 1989, an absurd year for a band so grounded in the pop metal wave of ‘83. And then they broke up. Nobody noticed. And that’s really the weirdest part of the whole story. Here was a band who had the tiger by the tail, after all. A juicy major label contract, friends in high places (perpetual arbiter of bad taste Gene Simmons loved ‘em), can’t-miss tour spots with mega-stars like Kiss, Crue, and Ozzy, youth, hair, charming Scottish accents. How the fuck do you blow things so badly and then get so thoroughly erased from the book of rock’n’roll? Maybe it’s because they had a guy named Punky in the band. That certainly didn’t do Angel or Witch any favors. If anything, take this as a cautionary tale. If anybody compares your band to Def Leppard, break up. Nobody’s gonna top Rock of Ages, man.
Next week: Does Jesus dig glam?