It seems incredible that Def Leppard’s Hysteria album is twenty-five years old.
I might have yoghurt in my fridge that is older than that.
I bought it on the day of release. It was the first album (lead singer Joe Elliott told us at the time) that was made for CD rather than vinyl, clocking in at over an hour. Although I bought the thin-sounding vinyl version (an hour of music is too much for a record to sound great) I soon bought the CD too. I took it home, carefully placed my stereo speakers a couple of yards apart, turned off the lights and sat in the dark, just listening intently to all the sonic tapestries being woven around me in order to get the full Hysteria experience. I was sad like that.
To decide whether Hysteria has stood the test of time you have to put it into context. Compared with, say, Bros or Bananarama it’s like aural Shakespeare. But match side 2 opener Gods of War against Hüsker Dû’s 1987 song Turn On The News – two songs with a similar point to make – then Leppard seem a little less vital. Less Shakespeare, more like Fifty Shades of Gray…
Before Bon Jovi and Def Leppard unlocked the Radio 1 playlist in 1986/7, Britain was engulfed in a torrent of Stock Aitken and Waterman produced Hi-NRG plastic pop. If you ever ask why on Earth Hair Metal appealed you only have to look at the alternative. We couldn’t all be cool Smiths, R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü loving indie kids. Radio didn’t play that stuff either.
Time has been less kind to Def Leppard than the aforementioned bands. Yet Hysteria was forged painstakingly four years after predecessor Pyromaina spent a year on the US charts (peaking at #2 behind Thriller) against all odds. (NB. all albums by Sheffield bands must be described as being “forged”. It’s the law). Difficult to see many bands remaining loyal to their drummer after he loses an arm. He (Rick Allen) was lucky he wasn’t in the Sugababes. They’d have sacked him for breaking a fingernail.
It wasn’t just one-armed drummer issues either. Producer Mutt Lange quit early on, to be replaced by Bat Out of Hell producer Jim Steinman, only for the band to scrap those sessions and revert to Lange again.
Hysteria’s greatest strength in 1987 – its amazing production – is perhaps now its greatest weakness, dating the record. Every note was considered, every arrangement thought through. I loved every tiny detail of it. But listening back to it now is an odd, yet enjoyable experience. Take opening track Women. It’s lyrics are so stuck in the eighties it defies belief.
Singer Joe Elliott reminds us of the story of The Creation. God made the Land, Water, then Creatures and Man (in that order – he sticks to the traditional script).
“Man was born with a passion” Joe continues from the pulpit. “Love and Hate” he adds helpfully (so both Passions, then).
Man needs a mate, so “he came up with the answer” (actual lyrics) “here’s what it cost”: and here he veers from the King James version of events by describing the constituent parts of a Woman as being “love”, “wild”, “lady” and “child”. (No mention of Adam’s Rib, which might have upset the bible belt).
That sound you can hear is Emily Pankhurst spinning in her grave.
But to knock the lyrics, whilst fun, is sort of missing the point. It was in the eighties, to paraphrase David Brent. Before sexism was wrong.
And by the end of the first massive chorus I find myself carried along with the sheer force of the thing. Before I have time to recover, the jungle drums of hit single Rocket kick in, followed by top ten singles Animal (the breakthrough one), Love Bites (the huge bridge and chorus ballad one), Pour Some Sugar On Me (the stripper anthem one, apparently) and then Armageddon It (the bad pun one). That’s just side 1.
I would argue that Hysteria is not just Def Leppard’s second huge hit album (earlier records High and Dry and debut On Through The Night were modest successes by comparison) but producer Mutt Lange‘s umpteenth hit album. A trio of AC/DC albums (including Back In Black), Foreigner’s 4 and Leppard’s Pyromania were all huge and Lange’s winning streak culminated in a hit album with Shania Twain and Bryan Adams’ Waking Up The Neighbours (with Robin Hood hit single Everything I Do). There is a common thread through all these records in the well constructed guitar riffs, the precise production shining like a jewel and arguably the eventual stifling of the raw excitement of the artist, evidenced by the poor third AC/DC record (For Those About To Rock) and the law of diminishing returns (quality-wise) as Lange moved from artist to artist. Some of Adams’ songs might have appeared on Hysteria, and vice versa and no-one would have noticed.
So whilst Hysteria remains one of the planet’s biggest selling albums ever it still doesn’t belong in the same pantheon as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (referenced in Rocket, and a favourite of Elliott’s) or AC/DC’s Back In Black. If anything Leppard’s Pyromania perhaps is the better record – knocking off enough rough edges to allow the songs to shine through without the production taking over.
Either way, Hysteria was a landmark album in British Rock and was a Godsend when Stock Aitken and Waterman threatened to take over the airwaves. For that, we can all be grateful.
Record #83 – Def Leppard – Pour Some Sugar On Me