Part Nine of the Def Leppard Review Series
Note: This being the third Hysteria album review, we will be taking a different approach. The first two reviews were detailed and comprehensive so please check those out for all the nitty gritty. This one will be more nostalgic in nature.
Kiss were always my “favourite band”, but the majority of my highschool years from 1987 to 1989 were all about Def Leppard. Although they wanted to be the biggest band in the world with this album, many of us were cheering for them to win. The band had endured years of adversity since the triumph of Pyromania.
Most obviously was Rick Allen’s car accident. It was hard to imagine how the drummer was going to come back from it, losing his left arm and almost his right as well. But he did. He frickin’ did it. Rick Allen, the Thundergod, returned and Joe Elliott said it was biggest “up” the band ever had. How could you not want them to win under those circumstances?
The biggest change on Hysteria (so named to characterise the last four years of their lives) was obviously the drum kit. Rick Allen had a style, employing classic grip and wicked rolls. Now he had a new electronic kit, with samples triggered by foot pedals and an arsenal of modern sounds. Allen adapted with a fresh style, leading the charge with a chugga-chugga and some bam-pow. His new style is one of the defining traits of Hysteria.
The first single here, and first taste of the new Leppard, was “Women”, an unorthodox pick. A slow grind led by a synth-y sounding bassline from Rick Savage, it is neither a ballad nor a scorcher. It’s not immediately catchy either, but it drew us all back in for a second third and fourth lesson until we were hooked. The sound: clean, precise, with layers of vocals and assorted melodic tones. But shit, did the band ever look cool in the video.
Hysteria arrived on my tape deck Christmas of 1987. It quickly monopolized my listening time, though it took a couple spins to “get it”.
“Rocket” threw me for a loop. I considered it filler; too contemporary and not enough rock. Bogged down with samples, backwards vocals and tricks. It sounded like the kind of song that would be impossible to perform live (though they did). Over the years I’ve warmed up to “Rocket”. The tribal beat inspired by Burundi Black makes it quite unique in hard rock, and the lyrics are delightful once you realize that Joe’s just naming all his favourite bands and albums. The meticulously recorded chorus really illustrates the intricate kind of process at hand. Each voice recorded separately and mixed down to the final product. Then there’s the long droning middle section, a unique construction worthy of a detailed listen. “Rocket” was another odd selection for a single, but it was a hit as the seventh and final one almost two years after the album was released.
It was hard to resist “Animal”, even though it was a blatant sonic declaration that Leppard were going for hits. As the second single from the album, it made some impact with its circus-themed music video. Light rock, with a punchy chorus, “Animal” was a well-written track with yet more of those immaculately recorded backing vocals. In the lead singer department, Joe was content to sing more and scream less, a trend that would continue. The fact is, the guy didn’t have to scream, though he’s terribly good at it.
Hysteria has a variety of tracks, but only two are ballads. “Love Bites” was selected as fifth single, and a smash hit it was. I wondered why they used a Judas Priest song title, but the song actually has country origins. Producer “Mutt” Lange brought the bones of it to the band as a twangy country song. The end product is nothing like that, with odd computerized voices and a slow dramatic build. Like every song on the album, the chorus kills. The band (with Lange) had really honed in on writing and recording technically perfect songs. There’s a lot going on in the mix on “Love Bites” but none of it is wasted. Everything’s necessary for the right vibe.
“Step inside, walk this way! It’s you n’ me babe, hey hey!” Shakespeare it ain’t. A hit, it was! “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, the fourth single, was the breakthrough smash that launched this album on the charts for two years. Def Leppard had ripped off a couple classic rock tunes here, but they were selling them to kids who never heard the originals. Mixing rap and rock, Leppard sold a bajillion singles and umptillion albums to kids worldwide. It wasn’t even an obvious hit. The genre-bending song took some getting used to initially.
Closing side one, the sixth single: “Armageddon It”. The stuttering guitar riff made it easy to like, if a bit light. This tune is fun to listen to with headphones on, to help break down all the different tracks of guitar. The cool thing that each guitar part is catchy on its own.
The North American videos for “Sugar” and “Armageddon It” were filmed live, and showed off Leppard’s innovative “in the round” stage. From the TV in the basement, it sure looked like the ultimate concert experience. We’d get a full taste of it on the In the Round: In Your Face home video (1989). Today you can get this concert on both CD and DVD. The CD version is included in the comprehensive Hysteria 30th Anniversary box set.
Opening side two is the track we all thought should have been a single: “Gods of War”, an epic in its own right, from the same lineage as “Overture” from the 1980 debut album. With Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sampled in the tune, it just sounded cool. Steve Clark’s E-bow opening drone sets the stage for a dramatic tune full of riffs, hooks and guitar action. It’s not political, just anti-war like many Ozzy tunes of the time. Its length probably prohibited it from being a single…but they did edit down “Rocket”.
The first non-single on the album is the hard rocker “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”. Some odd vocal effects keep it from being a standard guitar rocker; almost every song on Hysteria has some strange twist in the mix. Though more laid back in groove, this is the first tune that hearkens back to old Leppard. Slicker, sugar coated and easier to swallow though. It is paired with “Run Riot”, a similar track with a faster tempo. Tasty guitars from Collen and Clarke, chugging drums from the Thundergod. Screamin’ Joe sounding like the Joe from Pyromania, and Savage sounding less synth-y than the other tracks.
The last single on the album was actually the third single released: the brilliant title track “Hysteria”. The diamond-like flawless ballad was laid down literally one note at a time, giving it a precise but delicate nature. It was arguably the most pop Leppard had ever been, and that’s just fine. When you have a song this good, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Best tune on the album? Arguably. The precise picking is delectable and Joe has one of his best vocal performances right here. Unlike other songs on the album, it’s low on sonic gimmicks.
If there was one song to eject from the album, it’s the penultimate track “Excitable”. Back to gimmicks, it relies too much on samples and weird digitally manipulated vocals. It sounds like it was intended to be a crossover hit. It could have been replaced by a superior B-side (which we’ll get to).
The album closer is a majestic mid-tempo not-quite-ballad-thing called “Love and Affection”, possibly the second best tune on the whole album after “Hysteria” itself. It’s all about taste, but this deep cut is one of the strongest. It’s all about the song, no extra trimmings, just melody and arrangement. It easily could have been a single. There’s this one chunky Steve Clark lick that just slays me. Rick Allen’s pound has never been more suited to a track as it slams through the chorus. A really triumphant track that I would have released as ninth single after “Gods of War”!
Although it took a year (until the release of “Sugar”) to recoup its costs, Hysteria was an undisputed win for the band that worked so hard for it. Their loyalty to their drummer was not to lost to fans and media alike, and actually worked in their favour creating a new and exciting 80s rock sound.
But there was more to Hysteria than just the 12 tracks. Remixes and live material aside, there were five notable B-sides. All excellent in their own right.
Backing “Women” was the straight-ahead rocker “Tear It Down”. These B-sides were not produced by Mutt and therefore have a more raw edge, akin to older Leppard. “Tear It Down” rocked relentess, hard but mid-tempo cool. After a one-off live TV performance, the song was earmarked for re-recording on the next album….
On the flipside of “Animal” we find “I Wanna to Be Your Hero”, with a ballady opening and hard rocking middle. How did this song not make the album? Clearly one of the best tunes, it has both a chugging riff and a pop-smart melody.
The heaviest tune backed the softest. “Ride Into the Sun” was the B-side to “Hysteria”, and what a smoker it is. A re-recording of a song from the Def Leppard EP, it is also re-arranged with new lyrics and new chorus. It’s far superior and kicks every ass in the room. The B-side to “Sugar” was “Ring of Fire”, just as heavy as “Ride Into the Sun” but not as immediately catchy.
Finally, the last of the B-sides was a cover. A very confusing cover indeed. “Release Me” featured their roadie Malvin Mortimer doing something that might be considered singing. To add to the mess, the band all switched instruments with Joe on piano, so nobody really knew what they were doing. The band credited the song to “Stumpus Maximus and the Good Ol’ Boys” and in the liner notes, Joe claimed “Rarely in my travels have I come across such a monumental talent as Stumpus Maximus.” Only when Stumpus unfurls his unholy screams at exactly 2:36 did I get the joke.
The Hysteria sessions yielded some unfinished material as well, that Leppard would finally release in the 1990s. One of these tunes, a screaming “She’s Too Tough”, first saw the light of day on Helix’s 1987 album Wild in the Streets, released two months ahead of Hysteria. Brian Vollmer is one of the few singers who can do justice to Joe’s challenging vocal.
Hysteria is available in a comprehensive 5 CD/2 DVD box set with all the B-sides, remixes, and live tracks. It includes the Classic Albums “making of” documentary, all the music videos, and the entire In the Round: In Your Face concert on CD. It is, without a doubt, the best way to own the most important Def Leppard album.
But before you buy, some perspective.
There’s a legendary 0/10 review by Martin Popoff that I’d like to share some quotes from. If I’m over-enthusiastic about Hysteria, then consider this.
- “High tech, tasteless, and devoid of life whatsoever.”
- “Even Elliott’s vocals, probably the last vestige that hasn’t completely been swallowed by robots, sound like some kind of dry-wheezing mechanical lung wired to the man’s death bed.”
- “Hysteria is a major assault to anyone’s intelligence.”
- “An offensive kick in the head sent straight from the rock ‘n’ roll bored room.”
Take my rating with a grain of salt.
Gallery of single covers
- 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 Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia (Record Store Tales)