Part One of the Def Leppard Review Series
No matter how I do this, I’m doing something out of order. So here goes. Hi! Welcome to the DEF LEPPARD REVIEW SERIES where we will attempt to cover in some way everything Def Leppard here at LeBrain HQ. Some of these articles will be re-reviews. Some will be beefed up, some will be streamlined.
What about order? Deciding to start with The Early Years box set, we could go in two ways. We could run through Discs One through Five, starting with On Through the Night. Or, we could go chronologically and begin on Disc Four, Too Many Jitterbugs, which has the first EP and early demos pre-dating the album. Obviously, we’ve decided to to go in disc order, and worry about chronology later. So let’s get, let’s get, let’s get, let’s get rocked.
Original review: On Through the Night (1980)
The obscenely young quintet from Sheffield were starstruck. Drummer Rick Allen was just 16 years of age. There Def Leppard were in Tittenhurst Park, Ringo Starr’s home formerly owned by John Lennon, with Judas Priest producer Tom Allom, laying down tracks for their debut LP. Signed to Vertigo, the band was filled with awe to be on the same label as their heroes Thin Lizzy. Recording nine songs from their live set and two newly written tracks, the band took just three weeks to get the job done. Unfortunately, so much time was spent on Steve Clark and Pete Willis’ guitar overdubs, that Joe Elliott only had two days left to record all his vocals. This can be heard on the final product. At least Joe got to sleep in Lennon’s bedroom for the duration of the recording!
On Through the Night is a beefy 11 tracks, written mostly by Clark and Elliott with seven Rick Savage co-writes and seven by Pete Willis. It showcases ambition, promise, and raw talent. In a word: potential. One of its major strengths is the dual guitar team of Clark and Willis. Clark tends to be thoughtful and compositional in his solos, while Willis effectively jumps on the wah-wah.
“Rock Brigade” wastes no time getting cranked, 16 year old drummer Rick Allen going wild on the big tom rolls. An adrenalized band gets to work on a serious riff, while Clark and Willis dart in and out with curt fills. The handclaps sound lifted from a Judas Priest anthem, but this song burns it up. Joe’s vocals are set back in the mix a bit more than we’re used to, but there are hints of the kind of backing vocals that Def Leppard would endevour for in the future. In short, “Rock Brigade” kicks ass.
A strange layered vocal mix fails to hit the mark that Leppard would do with regularity later on, but it does serve to introduce “Hello America” uniquely. This naive rocker even has a little bit of synth to accent the sugary chorus, but otherwise sticks to the driving riff. Clark comes in with a wicked solo, showing off some of the creative technique he’d be famous for. A strange video clip for “Hello America” was filmed, with the drum kit featured at the front of the stage and everybody else behind. Rick Savage got stuck at the very back.
The acoustic guitars are out for “Sorrow is a Woman”, too heavy to be called a power ballad. The choruses rock heavy as anything else, though the verses remain quiet. This is one of the tunes that Joe could have used some more time refining. For fans of the early solo work of Clark and Willis, get ready for some pretty epic guitar constructions. They tell their own stories within the song.
One of the two songs written in the studio was “It Could Be You”: Fast choppy metal, with a Priest-like riff and unusually high Elliott vocals. Cool riff but more refinement time needed. Its energy is remarkable and as with all the tracks on On Through the Night, Rick Allen burns it up on the drums as a supernovic ball of nuclear combustion.
Taking it back to a metallic city groove, “Satellite” is the first use of one of Joe’s favourite astronomical objects in a Def Leppard song. This is a great car tune. Cool and classy staccato guitar picking on the second verse. Takes an unexpected acoustic detour midway, showing the ambition and ability that these five kids had in their blood. Then it breaks into another unique guitar section after the Willis guitar solo. Clearly, not the commercial techniques later employed by the band, but more an effort to emulate some of their heroes like Page and Lynott, as best they could.
Talking of ambition, “When the Walls Came Tumbling Down” closes side one with nothing but. A pretentious Joe Elliott monologue introduces the track cheesily enough.
In the first day of the first month, in some distant year,
The whole sky froze gold.
Some said it was the aftermath of the Radium bomb,
And others told of a final retribution.
A terrible revenge, from the gods.
The post-apocalyptic settings is a metal niche unto itself, launched by Black Sabbath and maintained by Aerosmith, Queensryche and Judas Priest. This is not one of Def Leppard’s more successful attempts at getting serious, but you have to marvel at their cohones for trying.
The “Wasted” riff, a Steve Clark creation, is one of Leppard’s most legendary. This simple steamer is pure power set to music. That riff, what a riff! Just a few chugs and then a unified resolution. But what a riff! No wonder the band had to resurrect it in recent years. The fans wouldn’t let it stay buried. “Wasted” is a centerpiece gem, and itself contains a certerpiece of a guitar solo by Clark, skillfully constructed by the young protege.
“Rocks Off” contains the annoying crowd noise overdubs, clearly artificial, but you can’t stop this little one from launching. Once again it’s all about the riff, and the Clark era of Def Leppard do not get enough recognition for their riffs. The song is disrupted by a solo section that harshly pans the guitars from right to left in distracting fashion.
The other song that was written in the studio is the surprisingly strong “It Don’t Matter”. Some very rich guitars, properly spaced in the mix, make for some cool riffs and licks. There’s a laid back chorus and good backing vocals. The cowbell is also effective except it’s not a cowbell. The band didn’t have one so they used the house tea kettle for which they were properly scolded by the housekeeper Ruth. Thing is — it sounds OK!
Moving on to the penultimate track, “Answer To the Master” has a verse that is stronger than its chorus, which is really more about the riff. Rick Allen gets the spotlight for a brief moment before the band break into an AeroZeppelin-like funk. “Whole Lotta Walk”? Then there’s a startling guitar solo section more influenced by the likes of Lizzy.
Finally Leppard decided to go with a big epic as their album closer, “Overture”, which also closed their debut EP (which is on Disc Four of The Early Years). It’s another post-apocalyptic soundtrack, a multi-parted manufacture. Some truly great guitar parts are buried within, but this track is an example of overreach. The kind of truly epic recording they were striving for could not be achieved in the time they had, but you can hear frequent shots of brilliance. Each riff and lick has its own unique hook.
On Through the Night went to #15 in the UK but failed to crack the top 50 in the US, charting at #51. It did not go Platinum until 1989, well after Hysteria made Def Leppard into demigods. If anything it planted the seed and made the band more focused on what they wanted to achieve when they had a second chance. And it wouldn’t be long before fate hooked them up with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, which would alter their course forever. On Through the Night stands today as a Polaroid of an innocent past, when Def Leppard caked on riff after riff in an effort to reach the heights of the bands they adored. It lacks focus, both within the songs and on Leppard’s collective strengths. Focus that they would soon gain in spades, and later in excess!
An innocent but earnest beginning.
Next: The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry