Part Seven of the Def Leppard Review Series
Original review: Pyromania deluxe (1983)
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.
- The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night
- The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
- The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
- The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
- The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings
- The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
- Pyromania bonus disc Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983