Foolin’

RE-REVIEW: Def Leppard – Pyromania (1983)

Part Seven of the Def Leppard Review Series

Original review:  Pyromania deluxe (1983)

DEF LEPPARD – Pyromania (1983 Polygram)

Disruption!  Midway through the recording of Def Leppard’s crucial third album, guitarist Pete Willis was fired.  It had been coming for a while.  His alleged alcohol consumption was causing problems and the band had their eye on Phil Collen from Girl already.  They were lucky to get Phil, as he had already been approached about joining Iron Maiden to replace Dennis Stratton.

This was serious.  Once again working with “Mutt” Lange, whose schedule was booked solid, time was money.  And music, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a business.  The third Def Leppard album was critical.  The potential of the band was not underestimated.  “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” made the top 20 in the US and the new album was intended to do better.  Lange has a songwriting credit on every song, indicating the level to which he was involved to make the album as perfect as could be.  It took 10 months to record, a mind-numbingly long time to the young band.  If only they knew….

Pete Willis had writing credits on four songs, including two singles.  With rhythm guitars laid down on all tracks by Willis, Collen just needed to whip up a few solos and finish off some bits and pieces.  He and Steve Clark made a formidable duo.  Collen had a more schooled sound than Willis and the contrast added a new dimension to Leppard’s solos.  Meanwhile, the songs were streamlined.  Sleaker, more hooks per minute, more direct…more commercial.

Some feel this is where Def Leppard started to go over the cliff.  The majority probably see it as Def Leppard becoming the real Def Leppard.

The opening music would have been familiar to anyone who caught Def Leppard live in the early years.  “Medicine Man” was an early track with an absolutely killer Clark riff.  With Mutt’s help they re-wrote it into the now-esteemed “Rock! Rock! Till You Drop”, but that riff is still the main feature.  After the headbanging commences, a screamin’ Joe Elliott lays down one of his most raging lead vocals.  Collen’s style is audible from the solo; a fretburner.  “Rock! Rock!” isn’t really that far off from High ‘N’ Dry, but you can tell it’s spent more time at the polishing wheel.  The production also seems colder and more clinical.

The triumphant “Photograph” really showed where Leppard were going.  Sure there’s a riff, but the main features here are the vocal melodies and harmonies.  Noticeable keyboard accents de-clawed the Leppard, and the sweetened harmonies have the full-on Mutt Lange treatment that you hear elsewhere with Bryan Adams and Billy Ocean.  None of that is necessarily a bad thing, but this is where Def Leppard decidedly left the New Wave of British Heavy Metal behind them.  “Photograph” went to #1 in the United States.  Mission accomplished.

Track three, “Stagefright” opens with a faux-live intro and a biting riff.  Credited to Joe Elliott, Mutt Lange and Rick Savage, it’s surprisingly one of the heaviest songs.  Back then Joe’s voice could deliver both menace and melody simultaneously, and he does that here.

While not a deep cut (#9 US), “Too Late For Love” is a lesser-known classic.  No music video was made though they did a lip-synched TV appearance that later ended up on their home video Historia.  A dark ballad with edge, “Too Late For Love” has cool atmosphere and just the right amount of scream.

“Die Hard the Hunter” opens with synthesised war sound effects and a soft guitar melody that deceives into thinking it’s another ballad; but no.  This rocker burns hot, but damn those drums are really sample-y sounding.  Rick Allen had a better sound on High ‘N’ Dry, but of course the times were changing.  Eliminator by ZZ Top was out the same year.

One of the big singles (#9 US once again) is the undeniable “Foolin'”.  Mixing rocker and ballad formulas, it set a template for bands to attempt to copy on their way up the charts.  The stuttering chorus is now a Leppard hallmark, and not a second of the song is boring.

You can imagine, spending 10 months in the studio, how monotonous some tasks must be, take after take after take.  The simple act of counting in a band — one, two, three, four — must be tedious the hundreth time.  Perhaps the next time, to stave off boredom, it’s uno, dos, tres, quatro.  Then something else, language by language until finally you end up with “gunter, glieben, glauten, globen”, a nonsense phrase that sounds vaguely Germanic.  And suddenly, without knowing it, you’ve created a catchphrase.  At least that’s how it happened for Mutt Lange on “Rock of Ages”!

That’s the story of “Rock of Ages” (#1 US), one of Leppard most irresistible hits, and also one indicative of the shift in Leppard’s sound.  A very synth-y bassline and tech-y drums stamp out a a robotic 80s groove that was destined for radio and video stardom.  The chorus was even more potent.  “What do you want?” yells the band in harmony.  “I want rock and roll!” you respond, fist in the air.  It all seems very contrived, and perhaps it was.  Is that so bad?  Back then, it really felt like you had to fight for rock and roll.  It seemed every church and every politician wanted to neuter rock bands.  A good, defiant, radio-ready smash hit like “Rock of Ages” tapped into the 80s.

The killer deep cut here is called “Comin’ Underfire” which, had there been five singles, would have made a fine fifth.  Tapping into the angst and tension of earlier tracks like “Lady Strange” and “Mirror, Mirror”, this is nothing but awesome wrapped up in a taut chorus like a bow.  Steady, strong, and loaded with hooks.  Pete Willis had a hand in writing it, demonstrating the guitarist’s often overlooked value.

Another wicked deep cut is the terrifically fun “Action! Not Words”, which, if there was a sixth single… Anyway, the slippery slide-y riff is reinforced by a simple and effective chorus.  Let’s face it, there’s very little fat on Pyromania.

If anything, perhaps it’s the closing track “Billy’s Got a Gun” that might be the the only one that could be argued as filler.  Laid back and emoting a dangerous vibe, it’s less exciting than the preceding material.  It is, however, the closer, which has to draw the album to a proper close, and end it on the right vibe.  “Billy’s Got a Gun” does the job.  The album concludes with a song that feels like an ending, especially with that “bang bang” at the end.

A brief record-spinning coda is tacked at the end of the album for those who let it play all the way to the end.  It probably fooled a few kids into thinking their turntable was broken, as the record seemingly spins fast and slow, over and over.

There were no B-sides or bonus tracks recorded.  No extras, no unreleased songs.  Talk about having your eye on the prize!

Pyromania had broad appeal.  The numbers showed it.  It put Leppard in the big leagues.  To date it has sold 10 million copies in the US.  It was the end of obscurity.  The band toured relentlessly.  Though they did not release a live album, the 2009 Pyromania deluxe edition contains one from the L.A. Forum in 1983.  We’ll look at that next time.

5/5 stars

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  • Pyromania bonus disc Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983

Gallery: Def Leppard – Pyromania (India import cassette)

Aaron finds the weirdest stuff!  In a recent Box of Goodness that he sent me (including an awesome Thin Lizzy Thunder and Lightning reissue on vinyl) I found this.  It’s Def Leppard’s Pyromania (review here) on cassette, but not just any cassette.

The weird extra-thick and bendy clamshell case was the dead giveaway that this was something unusual.  A quick look at the sleeve reveals it’s an actual Vertigo release, but also an import from India!  Does anyone know if cassettes in India always came in these odd cases?  The cassette actually snaps into the case, and is held by two tabs.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  This version even has an oddly coloured Def Leppard logo, that I’ve never seen on anything else.

Pyromania had a max. retail price of 60 rupees. That’s approximately one US dollar today.

Even though the yellow price tag on the side says $2.99, Aaron got this for the princely sum of one Canadian dollar!  And now here’s the gallery of this strange oddity.

REVIEW: Def Leppard – Pyromania (deluxe edition, 24kt gold Ultradisc II)

Another one that I wasn’t happy with my original review for.  I redid this one, with loads of new pics.  Here it is:  Pyromania redux!

DEF LEPPARD – Pyromania (1983, 24kt gold Ultradisc II, 2009 deluxe edition)

Pyromania is one of those landmark albums that every melodic rock fan should own: Over 10 million copies sold, four classic hit singles, and a sound that at the time was so new and fresh that everybody took notice. This is before Rick Allen’s accident, before Steve Clark’s death, and before Def Leppard had any serious hits. Three would prove to be their lucky number when they set down to record their third album.

Pyromania is also the only Leppard album to feature a three-guitar lineup, in a sense.  Pete Willis was fired mid-way through recording, ironically for alcohol abuse, the same illness that would take Steve Clark 8 years later.  Phil Collen (ex-Girl, with Phil Lewis of the future L.A. Guns) was hired to complete the unfinished guitar rhythms and solos.  Willis’ rhythm guitar appears on all 10 tracks, making this his final Def Leppard album.

Girl, featuring Phil Collen and Phil Lewis

Girl, featuring Phil Collen and Phil Lewis

At some point in the 1990’s, Pyromania was licensed out to Mobile Fidelity labs, who used the original master tapes to create a 24kt gold “Ultradisc II”.  The discs are “custom pressed” (don’t know what that really means) on gold, because it doesn’t oxidize (IE, it’ll last longer).  Although the back cover states that “all liner notes, photos and artwork from the original LP are faithfully recreated”, this is not so.  All the Ultradisc comes with are the lyrics, and nothing else.  Not even a producer credit.  And the weird thing is, Leppard didn’t even print lyrics in their albums at the time.

The ultradisc comes in its own unique case seen below, and does sound tremendous, I can vouch for that.  Does it sound better than the remaster?  Hell, I don’t know.  I’m no audiophile.  They both sound good to me!  The 24kt gold is obviously collectible, which is why I still have it, even though I upgraded to the deluxe since then.

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The Ultradisc II’s unique case

Now, onto the deluxe.  This was freshly remastered. It brings the glory of Mutt Lange’s groundbreaking production to daylight. The liner notes (by one of my favourite writers, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke) reveal Mutt’s obsession: At one point the band were laying down entire chords one note at a time in order to get the right alchemy. Their goal was to create an album that nobody had made before, and they succeeded. (Hard to believe that they would pull off the same stunt twice, and do it again on Hysteria, as different from Pyromania as Pyromania was from On Through the Night!)

This landmark album contains no weak songs:  All 10 of its tracks were valuable use of precious vinyl.  It even filled the vinyl, a full 45 minutes, pretty close to the maximum afforded by the format.  From the melancholy apocalyptic riffage of the power ballad “Too Late For Love”, to the manic gallop of “Rock! Rock! (‘Til You Drop)”, this album is nearly flawless.  Album cuts like “Comin’ Underfire” (tied for my favourite on the album) and “Stagefright” stick to the brain like peanut butter in the mouth.  (“Too Late” is my other favourite.)

And that’s not including the hits:  “Rock of Ages”, “Foolin'”, and “Photograph”, all classics in their own right, which I certainly hope you already know by heart.  The combo of Def and Mutt had, by this point, gotten quite good at writing riffs with hooks, and the songs to go with them.  “Rock of Ages” has a life of its own now, radio will never let this one die.  “Photograph” was a mid-tempo pop rock classic, pointing the way to Hysteria, four years later….

Unlike the Hysteria and Adrenalize deluxe editions on the market, Pyromania has no B-sides.  There were no extra tracks lying around unreleased, and no B-sides available. The liner notes reveal that an 11th song was written, but not much else is known about it.

Instead, the bonus second CD contains an awesome sounding show from the Pyromania tour. It’s important to remember that no live albums or videos were released by Def Leppard until post-Hysteria, so this is the only live release featuring Rick Allen before his accident. Def Leppard sound absolutely ferocious. Joe Elliot’s voice is at its vocal-cord-shredding best, gargling glass like Brian Johnson possessed. Steve Clark and Phil Collen (the new boy) rip and shred on their guitars, and weave them into a wall of thunder (listen to “Switch 625”). The two Ricks, Allen and Savage, keep it rolling on the rhythm, steady as she goes. And then Brian May of Queen even shows up at the end for a CCR cover tune (with a surprise foray into Led Zeppelin)! Some of these songs have never been heard live on a CD before. Indeed, Leppard rarely play anything pre-Pyromania anymore.

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I mean, it’s always a treat to hear “Wasted”, isn’t it?  Combine that with some great tunage from High N’ Dry, such as “Mirror Mirror” and “Another Hit and Run”.  These are some of my favourite Def Leppard tracks anyway, and to hear them live in ’83 by a young and hungry band is really, really entertaining.

Pyromania being their third release, it would have been totally appropriate (and in hindsight very wise, considering the gap between albums) to release this concert as a live album back in the 80’s as the band buckled in for the very hard Hysteria recording sessions. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. At least we get to hear it now!

5/5 stars

Pictured below:  the three versions I currently own.  The original LP, the 24 kt gold Ultradisc II, and the deluxe.