REVIEW: Def Leppard – Retro-Active (1993)

Part Fifteen of the Def Leppard Review Series

DEF LEPPARD – Retro-Active (CD Collection Volume 2 Disc 2) (Originally 1993, 2019 remaster)

Like Hysteria before it, Adrenalize produced a wealth of riches in B-sides.  Between the two albums, they had enough B-side studio material to turn into an album compilation.  Tellingly, the final album called Retro-Active featured very different cover art, and a toned-down logo.  It was intended to be the ending of an era, and the start of a new one.  Guitarist Steve Clark was gone, replaced by veteran Vivian Campbell.  The grunge era was two years deep, and Leppard were about to change sonically.  In their minds they needed to “clear the decks” of old material so they could focus on the new.

What’s interesting about Retro-Active is that it is not simply a compilation of rare material.  Everything has been reworked to some degree — everything.  There are even two “new” songs, unfinished tracks with Steve Clark that were finally completed for this album.  We will take this album track by track and go over the changes made to the original B-sides.  (The printing on this 2019 CD reissue is so small, I had to pull out my original 1993 CD to read the notes.)

1. “Desert Song”.  A track begun during the Hysteria sessions but left unfinished without lyrics or vocals.  Joe finished the words in 1993, while Phil laid down guitar overdubs and Rick Allen re-recorded the drums.  Steve Clark is featured on the second guitar solo.  What’s surprising about “Desert Song” is how modern it sounds even though it was originally written in 1987.  A slow, heavy groove is melded with middle-eastern vibes for a dark winner.

2. “Fractured Love”.  Another from the Hysteria sessions.  You can tell the intro is of more recent vintage compared to the body of the song.  Joe’s vocals suddenly revert to the old screamin’ Elliott and it’s absolutely brilliant.  Drums were re-recorded in ’93, along with the new intro by Joe and Phil Collen.  Both these songs sound ahead of their times and well suited to the darker moods prevalent in the early 90s.  “Fractured” is choppy, intense and reminiscent of the old band while still sounding like a 90s song.  Steve Clark on lead guitar!

3. “Action”.  This Sweet cover originated on the 1992 “Make Love Like a Man” CD single.  Vivian Campbell had joined the band by this time and the track features some of his guitar work.  Like most of the tracks on Retro-Active, the drums were re-recorded by Rick Allen in 1993.  “Action” became a Leppard staple over the years, and as a rare fast/heavy rock singalong, you can hear why.  In fact, it was later released as a single, from this album!

4. “Two Steps Behind” (Acoustic Version).  As we’ll see, “Two Steps Behind” exists in a number of different versions.  The demo was electric.  The first version released appeared on “Make Love Like a Man” as a purely acoustic song with no drums.  The second release had strings added by Michael Kamen for the Last Action Hero soundtrack, and that version was released as its own single.  The version on Retro-Active is the popular Kamen single mix.  This was Leppard’s very first acoustic song and it opened new doors for the traditionally hard rocking band.

5. “She’s Too Tough”.  Helix recorded this Leppard outtake themselves for 1987’s Wild in the Streets.  From their version, you could hear the song deserved wider renown.  Def Leppard released their finished version on the single for “Tonight” in 1993.  The drums were re-recorded for Retro-Active but there were no other changes made.  This blitz of a rocker features the screamin’ Joe voice and all the adrenaline you can handle (and was missing from Adrenalize).

6. “Miss You In a Heartbeat” (Acoustic Version).  This is actually a piano version of a song that exists in many forms.  It was first recorded by Paul Rodgers and Kenney Jones as The Law in 1991.  For that band, it was a low-charting single.  It faired better for Leppard themselves, who released it as a single A-side themselves in 1993.  This quieter version features a stunning acoustic guitar solo by Phil Collen.  There are many, many versions of this song, as you will see as we proceed through this series.  (And this album!)

7. “Only After Dark”.  The Mick Ronson cover was first released on the “Let’s Get Rocked” single.  Both Vivian and Phil added guitar overdubs for the Retro-Active version.  The additional guitar depth is noticeable.  Leppard are so good as these kinds of glam rock songs.

8. “Ride Into the Sun”.  From the very first EP, and then re-recorded on the “Hysteria” single.  Could this be the fastest Def Leppard tune?  It’s certainly among them.  Also ranks highly among the heaviest, and best, of Def Leppard!  Rick re-recorded the drums, and for some reason Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople added a honky-tonk piano intro.  The “studio talk” at the end of the song has also been trimmed off.  Sonically, this could be the best sounding version of “Ride Into the Sun”, though the preferred will always be the “Hysteria” B-side.

9. “From the Inside”.  Originally released as part of a three-song session with Hothouse Flowers on “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad“.  Billing themselves as “Acoustic Hippies from Hell”, Leppard were really leaning into their acoustic side!  The song originated as a TV broadcast on a program called Friday at the Dome with Joe Elliott and Liam Ó Maonlaí.  The only modification made to this version is that the count-in at the start has been deleted.  Leppard fans may be surprised by the tin whistle but it’s not too much of a stretch.  The bleak song is about the dark side of addiction.

10. “Ring of Fire”.  Dipping back into the Hysteria B-side collection, “Ring of Fire” has a new intro.  The drums were re-cut and backing vocals thickened up.  It’s one of two Mutt Lange co-writes on the album and stands as one of Leppard’s harder rockers from the era.  An excellent track, “so stick around and settle down, enjoy the mystery.”

11. “I Wanna Be Your Hero”.  From the “Animal” EP, this is the second Lange co-write on Retro-Active.  With new drums added, here it stands as one of the highlights among many highlights.  The track should always have been on Hysteria.  Combining ballad and rocker into one meaty package, “I Wanna Be Your Hero” is a stone cold Leppard classic.

12. “Miss You In a Heartbeat” (Electric Version).  Nothing was overdubbed or re-recorded for this track, but the opening fades out of “I Wanna Be Your Hero”, meaning it is still different from its original B-side release on “Make Love Like a Man”.  Another stone cold Leppard classic.  A majestic electric ballad with layers of Phil’s sweetest guitars and backing vocals.  A masterpiece.

13. “Two Steps Behind” (Electric Version).  Previously unreleased.  Joe’s original backing track was fully Leppardized with all the band members including Vivian.  This gives you an idea of how the song was originally envisioned before it took its better known acoustic guise.  The acoustic version is more original, but this one does boast a big huge Leppard chorus.

14. Unlisted bonus track!  “Miss You In a Heartbeat” (Acoustic, Acoustic Version).  This third version of the ballad is the softest.  It is the piano-based version, but without the backing band.  Just Joe, the piano, and Phil on an acoustic guitar solo.  A nice surprise.

There are more demo versions of these songs on the B-sides of singles, that we will get to when we arrive at the appropriate disc in the CD Collection Volume 2.

As it turns out, Retro-Active was not entirely the clearing of the vaults we thought it was.  There was still one more song with Steve Clark unfinished.  One more compilation to release.  The future was on the horizon, but the past had to be dealt with first.  Which doesn’t diminish Retro-Active in any way.  Where there is repeat of tracks, it is justified by the versions being completely different in tone and direction.  It plays like a “new Def Leppard studio album” to the layman, but a compilation of the deepest cuts to the faithful.  Cuts that have been freshened up and don’t repeat the exact B-sides in their collections.  A win/win.

4/5 stars

Previous:  

  1. The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night 
  2. The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
  3. The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
  4. The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
  5. The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings 
  6. The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
  7. Pyromania
  8. Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
  9. Hysteria
  10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
  11. In The Round In Your Face DVD
  12. “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
  13. Adrenalize
  14. Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert

Next:

16. Visualize DVD

12 comments

  1. I like this album better than Adrenalize. They had some cool B-side/soundtrack material to use, and it shows a less polished to a sheen side to the group not heard since the ragged debut.

    Like

  2. I recently did a review of this album as well. Great job on yours and detailing the changes.

    How good are the reworked versions of Desert Song and Fractured Love?

    I had those songs on mix tapes back in the day and now on playlists.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank the Lord for ‘Retro Active’! I love this album! Also, I kinda wish the band would play the electric version of “Two Steps Behind” live, since they’ve played the acoustic version way too many times in recent years.

    Like

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