Def Leppard, 'Hysteria' At 25
On August 3, 1987, Def Leppard put out an album that took three years, three producers and an estimated $5 million to complete. Oh, and their drummer lost his arm. Behold, the miraculous story of "Hysteria."
by Gary Graff
Hard as it is to believe from the perspective of 25 years and 20 million sales worldwide, but Def Leppard's "Hysteria" was not an instant success -- at least not in the United States.
The quintet had come out of Sheffield, England, in 1977 and up through the ranks of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with a debut EP and a pair of well-received albums, "On Through the Night" and "High 'n' Dry." But 1983's "Pyromania" fired things up in a big way, a diamond-certified smash that launched four Top 10 Rock hits, including the chart-topping "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages," and established some pretty high stakes for what came next. "Did we feel pressure? Nah. Piece of cake," frontman Joe Elliott notes with deadpan humor.
But at first Def Leppard wasn't sure "Hysteria," which came out an interminable four years later, lived up to those expectations. The first singles, "Women" and "Animal," got things off to a slow start, and it would take "Hysteria" a long 49 weeks to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200. "We were a bit disappointed when it didn't do well out of the box," drummer Rick Allen recalls, "but we knew after four years of being away, it would be tough to get back to where we were during '83, the beginning of '84. We needed people to give us a second chance, if you will."
That came on the backs of a barrage of considerably more successful singles, starting with "Hysteria's" title track and continuing through "Armageddon It," the ballad "Love Bites" and "Rocket," all Top 10 Rock hits and three of which made the Top 10 of the Hot 100 -- with "Love Bites" giving Def Leppard its only No. 1 hit on that survey. "Hysteria" would ultimately go 12-times platinum in the U.S. -- all's well that ends well, in other words. "We put out a record we thought was great," Elliott said. "Our confidence never wavered. After all the work we put into it, we couldn't feel any other way."
The making of "Hysteria," in fact, was as epic as any of the grandiose, aural "Ben Hurs" that populate the album. The group didn't waste any time getting to work, jumping into songwriting shortly after touring for "Pyromania" wrapped in February of 1984. But many things happened to make the going rough: the Leppards had to establish tax exile in Ireland; "Pyromania" producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, pleading exhaustion, bowed out; sessions with Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" producer Jim Steinman didn't pan out ("He wrote 'Bat Out of Hell.' Todd Rundgren produced it, and we quickly learned there was a difference," Elliott recalled); and the group started producing the album on its own, with Lange's hand-picked engineer Nigel Green.
Then tragedy struck on New Year's Eve of 1984 when Allen lost his left arm in an auto accident. The rest of the group was back in the studio three days later -- "But mentally, we were a million miles away," Elliott says -- while Allen cut a predicted six-month hospital day to three weeks and designed a hybrid acoustic-electric drum kit that he could play with one arm and both feet. Then Lange returned to the fold, using "Thriller" as a template for the bold sonic statement he wanted to make with "Hysteria." The team decamped for Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, Holland, where it would watch Mick Jagger, who took the Leps clubbing, record two solo albums and Elton John make one before "Hysteria" would wrap up in January of 1987.
In all it took three years, three producers and an estimated $5 million -- but it turned out one of the most successful and iconic albums of all time. "After that, the word 'can't' isn't in Def Leppard's vocabulary anymore," Elliott said at the time. "I mean, we've got a one-armed drummer, took a ludicrous amount of time and money on (the album) -- and we're still here. So we have this attitude that nothing's impossible -- except, maybe, making a six-week album."
Here's a look at "Hysteria," track-by-track, with the welcome perspective of 25 years and plenty of hysteria...
In hindsight it's not hard to figure out why the album's first single didn't really take hold. Though the production is rich, the harmonies spot-on and the melody ironed to crisp perfection, it still sounds a bit messy and rhythmically turgid -- something less than the sum of all its parts. The guitar solos hold up, but "Women" started the album at a trot when a sprint was really required.
This is more like it, a six-and-a-half minute opus that begins with, what else, a rocket launch and moves into a skipping beat underneath a slinky guitar figure. The glam rock homage even employs a bit of backward masking and some audio from the Apollo 11 moon landing. All that and a big, drum-heavy breakdown in the middle that blasts "Rocket" into a whole other galaxy -- a little ahead of its time, but admirably ambitious.
The album's second single deserved better than its medicore chart fate (though it was a Top 10 Rock hit), and it's certainly solidified a spot near the top of the Leppard canon as one of the group's most durable melodies. And it should; it took the group nearly all three years of "Hysteria's" gestation to figure out what to do with the song, and the finished version wasn't realized until the very end of the project.
Def Leppard was no stranger to power ballads, with "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" from "High 'n' Dry" snagging some substantial radio play. The title was first assigned to another song, which later became "I Wanna Be Your Hero," and the group fashioned a new tune about the angst of a man who wonders if his former girlfriend, who's found somebody new, still thinks about him. But its one-week stay at No. 1 on the Hot 100 -- bumping off Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" -- and gold sales status insured that fans would be thinking about it for years (and decades) to come.
"Pour Some Sugar on Me"
Elliott has cited a couple of interesting sources for this libidinous No. 2 hit, a gold-selling single that was the third release from "Hysteria" and was most responsible for propelling it out of its commercial doldrums and up to the top of the charts. The Archies "Sugar, Sugar" was the first record a young Elliott bought, while the rap cadence of his vocals was inspired by the Aerosmith/Run-DMC collaboration on "Walk This Way" (which is referenced in the song's introduction). "Sugar" was the last song written for "Hysteria," put together in two weeks during a break from "Armageddon It." Elliott and Lange came up with lyrical ideas separately, then fused them together. The song has gone on to become Tom Cruise's greatest hit, but nothing replaces the original.
The third of "Hysteria's" Top 10 singles (it peaked at No. 3) blends elements of glam and rockabilly with gang vocals with a pumping, dynamic energy and a sinewy, strip club-worthy groove. The title, of course, is a play on the pre-chorus line "I'm a-gettin' it," while Elliot has changed his "C'mon Steve!" line before the solo to "C'mon boys!" in the wake of Clark's death. The B-side of the U.S. single featured a cover of Englebert Humperdink's release me with vocals by Stumpus Maximus, aka then-guitar tech Malvin Mortimer.
| "Gods of War"
Politics isn't Def Leppard's usual turf, but the group tapped into the mid-80s zeitgeist for a protest song that declares "We're fightin' for the gods of war/But I'm a rebel and I ain't gonna fight no more." Another epic track -- at 6.37 it's tied with "Women" as "Hysteria's" longest song -- is one of the lost treasures in the group's catalog, packing plenty of hard rock bite and guitar heroics and eventually winding its way into sound bites from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declaring their own wars on terror.
| "Don't Shoot Shotgun"
A slight but engaging track to come down from the heavyweight sonics and subject matter of "Gods of War." It's the very definition of a deep album track, with highly produced vocals (the opening sounds like it was shoplifted from a Duran Duran session), a grinding groove and soft-core sexual metaphors. This is one of the songs to cite if you want people to know you're a true Lephead.
| "Run Riot"
This one is a bit messy at the start but quickly kicks into gear as a full, loud, propulsive rocker with Elliott in scream mode. It's the most unhinged moment on an album put together with the meticulous care of splitting an album.
The title track is the single that may have saved the album in America. Straddling the line between power ballad and mid-tempo rocker, "Hysteria" made its way to No. 10 on the Hot 100 and re-engaged the pop fans fired up by "Pyromania" but initially immune to its follow-up. Its rich sound is the result of 11 guitar parts layered and woven together into a deceptively clean wall of sound.
"Are you excitable?" a voice asks at the start of this late-album rocker, and it's easy enough to get enthused for the sharp guitar riff that opens the song and glam-flavored groove that carries throughout. Another one for the deep cuts pile, but hardly a throwaway or filler.
| "Love and Affection"
"Love and Affection" -- It's an interesting way to end such a powerful album, with an airy, midtempo, melodic song not unlike "Hysteria" two tracks earlier. It's hardly Leppard's deepest lyric -- it sounds like a compendium of come-ons to groupies -- but it features some solid and comparatively understated guitar work by Phil Collen and Steve Clark, and while Elliott is singing "Don't give me love" you know he was hoping for the opposite from fans once the album finally came out.