Part Two of the Def Leppard Review Series
Original review: High ‘n’ Dry (1981)
Leppard’s pride in their debut album only extended so far. They knew that the sound they heard in their heads was not captured on tape. So they waited, and waited, and waited, until AC/DC producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange was available. When he had completed the recording of Foreigner’s 4 (six million copies sold), they got to work on Leppard’s second record. And work they did, with the band members unsure after many takes if they could even play it any better. They could, and they did. With Lange on hand to help refine the songs they had written, Leppard had never sounded better.
Today, High ‘n’ Dry is often cited by diehards as the band’s best record. It bares the teeth of AC/DC, but the attention to melody and harmony was typical of more commercial bands. It was a winning combination; High ‘n’ Dry has no filler songs.
The sharp opener “Let It Go” makes the changes apparent. A better recording, a more confident (and screamy) Joe Elliott, and an incessant bass groove propels it. The guitars cleverly lay back until necessary for the big rock chorus. All dynamics missing from On Through the Night. This time, they could afford a real cow bell — no more tea kettle! With “Let It Go” opening on such a solid, fast note, where do we go from here? No letting up! “Another Hit and Run” is even better, with quiet parts contrasting with the increasingly heady! Joe has found his voice, and uses it to rip and shred. Don’t try to follow the lyrics — it’s all about how the frontman screams them at you.
Finally, Rick Allen is permitted to slow down for the sleek, slower groove of “High ‘N’ Dry (Saturday Night)”. This tenacious track takes its time to blow you away. It was also one of three they recorded in a single session for music video purposes.
Another video from that session was the hit ballad “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak”, although MTV aside, it didn’t really have the intended impact until later. Originally titled “A Certain Heartache”, with Mutt’s help they steered it away from its Zeppelin-y origins and honed it closer to a hit. Sad verses are coupled with a chuggy riff at the chorus, which is beefed up by the backing vocals of Mutt and the band, gradually finding that sound step by step. The lyrics are nothing to write home about with, “You got the best of me,” predictably rhyming with “Oh can’t you see.” But then the track ends not with a total fade, but with the urgent pulse of a new bass track. It’s the brilliant instrumental “Switch 625”, paired with the ballad as if to say “don’t worry folks, we haven’t lightened up.” Leppard were, after all, a part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. “Switch 625” is something that would have generated melting heat on that scene. Written solely by Steve Clark, this is one instrumental that is not filler in any way. It’s a song.
So ended side one, but side two commenced with the crash of “You Got Me Runnin'”, a single-worthy number that scorches the skin with its burning tower of riffs. Joe bemoans a girl that he don’t trust, while Steve Clark and Pete Willis do their best Angus and Malcolm. Rick Allen, all of 17 years old now, keeps the beat minimal while Rick Savage maintains the pulse on bass. When Pete breaks in with his guitar solo, it’s one of the best of his time with Leppard. But it’s the crucial chorus that keeps you coming back, a singalong brute with gang vocals that could have been lifted from an era past.
Then things get eerie with “Lady Strange”, hurling multiple riffs at the speakers, and boasting a chorus to back it all up. Tough guy Joe claims to have never needed love before meeting his “Lady Strange”. This is the only track with a Rick Allen co-writing credit, and features a scorcher of a Clark guitar solo. Elliott’s screams have never sounded more tormented. Brilliant stuff.
Without a break, we plow “On Through the Night”, and one of the fastest tracks on the album. There’s a surprising, quiet Zeppelin-y middle breakdown that’s welcome, but otherwise this track is built for speed. “Rock n’ roll is no safety net!” screams Joe. If there were any single track to delete from High ‘n’ Dry, you could make an argument for “On Through the Night”. However, fact is you need it to set up “Mirror, Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)”.
Displaying their penchant for parentheses, “Mirror, Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)” takes Def Leppard back to dark territory. A single spare Clark riff carries the song while Allen and Savage lay back. It’s the kind of brilliant construction that Clark was becoming the master of. Tension building riffs, stinging solos, topped with another perfect Joe Elliott vocal melody.
Finally it’s the all-out chaos of “No No No”, a memorable way to close out a hell of an album. Breakneck pacing, top lung screaming, and a blitz of a Willis riff. Melody? Unimportant! If the guitars weren’t so obviously well arranged, this could have been punk rock.
Different versions of “No No No” run different lengths. This one is 3:12 with a slight fade and then abrupt stop. One can never go wrong with an original vinyl LP, featuring an infinite groove at the end, with Joe Elliott shouting “No!” over and over again, until you either stop the record yourself, or wait until the ultimate end of the universe — your choice. Another variation of interest is the the 1984 reissue of High ‘n’ Dry, with two remixed bonus tracks. We will discuss those later as they are included on Disc Four of this set.
Praise today for High ‘n’ Dry is fairly universal. Martin Popoff rated it higher than Pyromania. It truly is a remarkable photograph (pun intended) of a brief period in Def Leppard when they were still solidly riff-focused, but with the moderate temperance of Mutt Lange. A period that has never and can never be repeated.
Next: The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980