The fine folks in Def Leppard have been doing an outstanding job of getting their rarities and fan-wishes on the store shelves. We wanted the Def Leppard EP reissued, and they did it. A few times in fact, including a cool 3″ CD included in a recent box set. We wanted all the early B-sides available on CD, and here they are. We begged for decent remastered CD editions of High N’ Dry and On Through the Night, and the band delivered. More than once.
Now there is a wealth of Def Leppard riches out there for you to buy in your format of choice. The Early Years 79-81 is the way to go for a complete set of the music from those years. We’ve gone over it all disc by disc so let’s talk about the box itself.
The 10″ x 10″ box format is awkward to store, but Leppard seem committed to the size, with their London to Vegas set having the same dimensions. They’ve at least maximised the space, with a generous hardcover book included inside. This book has the liner notes and essays you expect, broken down disc by disc. A generous set of unreleased photos keep the eyes from being bored while your ears indulge themselves. The CDs are stored separately in a cardboard folder, and they don’t seem to move around in there. Each one has its own cardboard mini-sleeve. The packaging works.
The sequencing is perhaps the only complaint. The set is not a chronological anthology of the early years. In terms of sequencing it’s best looked at as a On Through the Night / High N’ Dry deluxe edition. Two albums, remastered in their original track listing (not the 1984 track listing for High N’ Dry) with a bonus live CD, a bonus disc of B-sides and rarities, and a bonus disc of BBC sessions from the period. Which really doesn’t matter so much, except when trying to review a chronological Def Leppard series and figuring out what order to do it in! The sequencing matters little because the discs are so complete. All those singles, B-sides, edit versions, unreleased versions, and live recordings are what fans have been demanding ever since the idea of “deluxe reissues” were conceived. This is it!
Oh sure, there are a few things left in the vaults. We know of a couple more early tracks called “Heat Street” and “See the Lights”. These are unlikely to ever see official release, but one must leave some scraps for the bootleggers. If the band ever changes their minds, that’ll be cool, but the best stuff is right here.
Consider that these three complaints about The Early Years 79-81 (box dimensions, sequencing, missing bootlegs) are so minor, we can disregard them in our final score. This box accomplished what it set out to do, and when listened to in completion, offers up a real clear picture of the band’s ability and determination. They had a bright future ahead, and a chapter was about to close while a new one opened. With the band scheduled to re-convene with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange in early 1982, life would never be the same again.
DEF LEPPARD – Raw – Early BBC Recordings (The Early Years Disc 5) (2019)
This final disc of Def Leppard early tracks consists of two separate BBC sessions: 1979, and a few songs from Reading in 1980. Due to this fact, there is some minimal repeat in the song selections, but you won’t mind getting two versions of “Wasted” instead of just one! This disc offers a variety of early Leppard songs and rarities.
BBC Andy Peebles Session – June 7 1979
The EP was out and Leppard were starting to get radio play. They were invited to the BBC and recorded four songs for broadcast.
Opening with “Glad I’m Alive”, Leppard get one of their most underwhelming non-album tracks out of the way early. It sounds better and heavier than the studio cut on Disc 4 produced by Nick Tauber. Solos and backing harmonies are fire. “Sorrow is a Woman” follows, with a quiet, cool laid-back intro of a different flavour. Things kick in on the chorus of course, but this is not the definitive version of the track. The guitar solo section has a nice shimmer to it. Third up is “Wasted”, which opens with a growl. That guitar is vicious, and Joe just goes for it on the vocals. This recording has bite. The final track, “Answer to the Master” is absolutely fine.
Friday Rock Show Session – October 3 1979
“Satellite” enters with a crash of drums, a little hesitant on the pace. The fun “Rock Brigade” is similar to the early version on Disc 3, but heavier. The second version of “Wasted” sounds heavier than the first — the band was growing. Really this song is a highlight of anything it’s on. This BBC sessions ends with “Good Morning Freedom”, probably the fastest and most pumped-up version we’ve heard yet. This might be the best recording of the track available.
Live at the Reading Festival – August 24 1980
The next time the BBC caught up to Def Leppard, they had an album out. With Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, Whitesnake and UFO on the same bill, Leppard were anxious. Then Ozzy dropped out, and Leppard had to follow Slade in one of their best festival performances — a daunting task. Fortunately the bandt fought hard and had some killer new material up their sleeves.
Opening with “Satellite” (2nd appearance on this CD) and “When the Walls Came Tumblin’ Down” mashed into a medley, you can hear that the band were fired up. After this workout, it’s the unreleased “Medicine Man” which today we know as “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)”. Imagine getting to hear that track back in 1980, and then when it was finally released in ’83 on Pyromania, going “I know that song!” The early “Medicine Man” version is cool because that riff is unstoppable.
The apocalyptic epic “Overture” is right in the middle of the set, but it was already well known due to its inclusion on the original Leppard EP. Joe’s unholy yelp of “Go!” at 1:50 is the moment that the band just tear it loose. Then it’s another new song in “Lady Strange”, absolutely off the hook and hammering with delicious chord after chord, each one more addictive than the last. Finally after some audience participation noise, it’s “Getcha Rocks Off”. The audience goes nuts and Leppard leave triumphant.
This excellent disc collects some seriously well-recorded and preserved archival material. It’s all valuable, showing the growth of the band as they get more comfortable with themselves and performance. They were always great, with a serious knack for riffs, and this disc delivers plenty of them in unreleased format. Untampered, unhampered, and unchained.
DEF LEPPARD – Too Many Jitterbugs (The Early Years Disc 4) (2019)
Because of the non-chronological nature of The Early Years box set, we are now back at the beginning: Def Leppard’s first rare EP, and singles releases. Only on Disc 4 do we finally get to go back to the original Def Leppard EP, which has seen a few re-releases over the years, but none as convenient as this.
The story goes that young Def Leppard used money loaned to them by Joe Elliott’s father, and booked a studio for one weekend. Drummer Tony Kenning was fired just before the start of recording, for being sidetracked by a girlfriend. Frank Noon from The Next Band (featuring Rocky Newton on bass) was chosen to fill-in temporarily. It was The Next Band’s own three-song EP release that inspired Leppard to make their own. They only had a handful of rehearsals with the drummer completed before it was time to hit the studio.
“Ride Into the Sun” was properly perfected when it was re-recorded in 1987 as a Hysteria B-side. The original still boasts the same relentless riff, but without the increased velocity. The chorus is a bit different, but here it is: the beginning! Out of the gates with a good song, with room to improve. And improve young Def Leppard would.
Next on the EP is “Getcha Rocks Off”, the only track that has been available on CD for three decades. It saw its first digital release on Lars Ulrich’s excellent 1990’s NWOBHM compilation. The version that eventually made its way to On Through The Night is heavier, but this ground-floor version has an identical arrangement. The solo work shows the band had early talent, and the riff demonstrates their ability to come up with the goods.
Finally: “Overture”, the big Def Leppard epic that later closed On Through the Night. A little progressive, the 7:45 track meanders from mellow acoustic opening to galloping riff to blasting guitar workouts. Much of it is first takes, with Joe having little time to finish the vocal. However the job was complete. The record was made.
All that was left was to ask Frank Noon to join the band full-time, which he declined. 15 year old Rick Allen was selected instead. (Noon later reunited with Rocky Newton in Lionheart.)
All 1000 copies of the EP sold within a week. Radio started to play Def Leppard. Finally they signed the big record deal and the rest is history. Still, there are plenty of rare tracks from the early years that were recorded. Most were released but some are here in this box set for the very first time.
“Wasted” with “Hello America” on the B-side was originally released in 1979. These are early versions that differ from the Tom Allom-produced tracks on the album. Neither are as as heavy, with “Wasted” in particular needing more bite. These versions, by Nick Tauber, were deemed not worthy of album release by the record company. The ferocious “Wasted” riff is there but needs to be turned up – way up! “Hello America” fares better as a more melodic rock tune. It lacks that synth riff on the chorus of the song, which makes it a little more raw. It also has a really long fade-out.
The Tauber sessions yielded two more songs that were never released. “Rock Brigade” and “Glad I’m Alive”, for whatever reason, were held back until The Early Years box set. “Rock Brigade” is probably the best of these tracks. Rick Allen’s marauding drum rolls steal the show, but not as much as on album. In general, the Tauber versions are less aggressive recordings, and Joe’s vocals are not as unleashed as on the final album. “Glad I’m Alive” is the only one that didn’t make the album. It is the song with the lyric “too many jitterbugs”, but is otherwise unremarkable. Not many hooks (if any). It is only available in The Early Years.
Leppard’s next B-side was “Good Morning Freedom” from the eventual “Hello America” single. This is a song that surprisingly and delightfully was resurrected by Leppard live (more on that later in the series). It is early quintessential early Leppard, centered on the riff and designed to get the heads-a-bangin’. It is not without hooks, and might be as good as anything else On Through the Night has to offer, “Wasted” notwithstanding.
The next tracks are the disc are single edits, which are padding to some and valuable curiosities to others. Moving into the High ‘n’ Dry era, they are edits of “Let It Go”, “Switch 625” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak”. Nice to have to be complete, but not essential listening. All three are obviously better in their full length versions, but you gotta try what you gotta to get on the radio. “Let It Go” has a shorter intro, and a truncated middle section, weakening its impact. “Heartbreak” fades out early.
“Heartbreak’s” B-side was a fast and heavy fan favourite called “Me An’ My Wine”. It was given a raucous and fun music video when it was remixed by Mutt Lange in 1984. Both “Wine” and “Heartbreak” were remixed for 1984 reissue, and were included in updated editions of High ‘n’ Dry. All versions, original and remixed, are present in this box. For some, the remixed “Heartbreak” with added keyboard accents will be the favourite, because it’s the one they grew up with. It sounds more like a Pyromania single. The keys do help spruce up the song, which honestly has a couple dead spots otherwise. As for “Me An’ My Wine”, it has a longer intro and the drums have been treated to sound a little more 80s. Incidentally, though you can get them on old High ‘n’ Dry CD pressings, this is the first time that these remixes have been available in a remastered form.
And that’s the disc — a damn fine one in fact, because it manages to include every non-album track that Leppard released during those early years. It makes for a fun listen, as you hear the band evolve. Even if some songs repeat, they are different enough to not interrupt the flow. Many of the B-sides have never been released on CD format before, so the value here cannot be understated.
DEF LEPPARD – When the Walls Came Tumbling Down – New Theatre, Oxford 1980 (The Early Years Disc 3) (2019)
Of Leppard’s many live releases, When the Walls Came Tumbling Down is the most ferocious. The early Leppard including Steve Clark and Pete Willis was a different kind of predator. This particular setlist, captured after the release of the debut album On Through the Night, is extremely valuable to fans. The band performed all 11 albums tracks, a clutch of early singles, and unreleased material.
“When the Walls Came Tumbling Down” is played first, full speed ahead. Joe playfully changes one of the choruses to “When Oxford Came Tumbling Down”, and without pause they barrel right into the adrenalized “It Could Be You”. There are no touch-ups or fixes done to these recordings.
The single “Rock Brigade” has a different flavour, more focused on the melody, with the foot less on the gas pedal. Joe Elliot demonstrates confidence. Rick Allen is a monster on the drums and Rick Savage is audibly holding it down. Keeping to a similar tempo, “Satellite” swaggers all over the stage with determination, and Pete Willis absolutely slaughters on the solo.
There’s only a brief respite. “Medicine Man” is an unreleased song that was later reworked into “Rock Rock (‘Til You Drop)” from Pyromania. The quiet opening only lasts a moment before that now-familiar riff kicks in. There’s no question that “Medicine Man” benefited from its later evolution, but many elements of the song were already, joyfully, in place.
“Answer to the Master” is rolled out with that snakey riff, and Joe is extra-engaging. A trend is now apparent: virtually all these songs are better than they are on album. Another unreleased gem called “When the Rain Falls” might be more familiar under its later name, “Let It Go” from High N’ Dry. Some elements including the riff survived to the final track, but what a serious riff that is! When Leppard had both Willis and Clark in the band, they were a riff factory.
Back to On Through the Night, “Sorrow is a Woman” is more lively than it is on LP. Same with the non-album single “Good Morning Freedom”. From the drums to vocals to sheer energy, it’s better than its studio counterpart, with an intense solo to burn.
“It Don’t Matter” has a cool groove, and more drive than it does on album. This version is evidence that Joe already had ample frontman abilities. This takes us to “Overture”, the Leppard epic with the soft opening and big arrangement. This is where Leppard’s two lead guitarists get to show off in dramatic fashion.
The last unreleased song is “Lady Strange” from High N’ Dry, which is in more complete shape than the other two. As it is on album, it’s one of Leppard’s most impressive songs so far. Riff, verse and chorus are combined in perfect form. Only minor tweaking would be needed before it was album ready.
The final batch of album songs for the night are laid out. “Getcha Rocks Off” is a blast. “Hello America” is looser than album. And “Wasted”? Total blitzkreig. Unstoppable and unbelievable. Finally the very last track, “Ride Into the Sun” is the timeless beloved B-side, originally from the Def Leppard EP making it three for three EP tracks. It’s over before you know it, two and a half minutes are gone and that’s all folks!
Even though it is completely lacking in hit singles, it might not be going out on a stretch to say that When the Walls Came Tumbling Down is a strong contender for Best Live Def Leppard album.
DEF LEPPARD – High ‘n’ Dry (The Early Years Disc 2) (Originally 1981, 2019 remaster)
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.
No matter how I do this, I’m doing something out of order. So here goes. Hi! Welcome to the DEF LEPPARD REVIEW SERIES where we will attempt to cover in some way everything Def Leppard here at LeBrain HQ. Some of these articles will be re-reviews. Some will be beefed up, some will be streamlined.
What about order? Deciding to start with The Early Years box set, we could go in two ways. We could run through Discs One through Five, starting with On Through the Night. Or, we could go chronologically and begin on Disc Four, Too Many Jitterbugs, which has the first EP and early demos pre-dating the album. Obviously, we’ve decided to to go in disc order, and worry about chronology later. So let’s get, let’s get, let’s get, let’s get rocked.
DEF LEPPARD – On Through the Night (The Early Years Disc 1) (Originally 1980, 2019 remaster)
The obscenely young quintet from Sheffield were starstruck. Drummer Rick Allen was just 16 years of age. There Def Leppard were in Tittenhurst Park, Ringo Starr’s home formerly owned by John Lennon, with Judas Priest producer Tom Allom, laying down tracks for their debut LP. Signed to Vertigo, the band was filled with awe to be on the same label as their heroes Thin Lizzy. Recording nine songs from their live set and two newly written tracks, the band took just three weeks to get the job done. Unfortunately, so much time was spent on Steve Clark and Pete Willis’ guitar overdubs, that Joe Elliott only had two days left to record all his vocals. This can be heard on the final product. At least Joe got to sleep in Lennon’s bedroom for the duration of the recording!
On Through the Night is a beefy 11 tracks, written mostly by Clark and Elliott with seven Rick Savage co-writes and seven by Pete Willis. It showcases ambition, promise, and raw talent. In a word: potential. One of its major strengths is the dual guitar team of Clark and Willis. Clark tends to be thoughtful and compositional in his solos, while Willis effectively jumps on the wah-wah.
“Rock Brigade” wastes no time getting cranked, 16 year old drummer Rick Allen going wild on the big tom rolls. An adrenalized band gets to work on a serious riff, while Clark and Willis dart in and out with curt fills. The handclaps sound lifted from a Judas Priest anthem, but this song burns it up. Joe’s vocals are set back in the mix a bit more than we’re used to, but there are hints of the kind of backing vocals that Def Leppard would endevour for in the future. In short, “Rock Brigade” kicks ass.
A strange layered vocal mix fails to hit the mark that Leppard would do with regularity later on, but it does serve to introduce “Hello America” uniquely. This naive rocker even has a little bit of synth to accent the sugary chorus, but otherwise sticks to the driving riff. Clark comes in with a wicked solo, showing off some of the creative technique he’d be famous for. A strange video clip for “Hello America” was filmed, with the drum kit featured at the front of the stage and everybody else behind. Rick Savage got stuck at the very back.
The acoustic guitars are out for “Sorrow is a Woman”, too heavy to be called a power ballad. The choruses rock heavy as anything else, though the verses remain quiet. This is one of the tunes that Joe could have used some more time refining. For fans of the early solo work of Clark and Willis, get ready for some pretty epic guitar constructions. They tell their own stories within the song.
One of the two songs written in the studio was “It Could Be You”: Fast choppy metal, with a Priest-like riff and unusually high Elliott vocals. Cool riff but more refinement time needed. Its energy is remarkable and as with all the tracks on On Through the Night, Rick Allen burns it up on the drums as a supernovic ball of nuclear combustion.
Taking it back to a metallic city groove, “Satellite” is the first use of one of Joe’s favourite astronomical objects in a Def Leppard song. This is a great car tune. Cool and classy staccato guitar picking on the second verse. Takes an unexpected acoustic detour midway, showing the ambition and ability that these five kids had in their blood. Then it breaks into another unique guitar section after the Willis guitar solo. Clearly, not the commercial techniques later employed by the band, but more an effort to emulate some of their heroes like Page and Lynott, as best they could.
Talking of ambition, “When the Walls Came Tumbling Down” closes side one with nothing but. A pretentious Joe Elliott monologue introduces the track cheesily enough.
In the first day of the first month, in some distant year, The whole sky froze gold. Some said it was the aftermath of the Radium bomb, And others told of a final retribution. A terrible revenge, from the gods.
The post-apocalyptic settings is a metal niche unto itself, launched by Black Sabbath and maintained by Aerosmith, Queensryche and Judas Priest. This is not one of Def Leppard’s more successful attempts at getting serious, but you have to marvel at their cohones for trying.
The “Wasted” riff, a Steve Clark creation, is one of Leppard’s most legendary. This simple steamer is pure power set to music. That riff, what a riff! Just a few chugs and then a unified resolution. But what a riff! No wonder the band had to resurrect it in recent years. The fans wouldn’t let it stay buried. “Wasted” is a centerpiece gem, and itself contains a certerpiece of a guitar solo by Clark, skillfully constructed by the young protege.
“Rocks Off” contains the annoying crowd noise overdubs, clearly artificial, but you can’t stop this little one from launching. Once again it’s all about the riff, and the Clark era of Def Leppard do not get enough recognition for their riffs. The song is disrupted by a solo section that harshly pans the guitars from right to left in distracting fashion.
The other song that was written in the studio is the surprisingly strong “It Don’t Matter”. Some very rich guitars, properly spaced in the mix, make for some cool riffs and licks. There’s a laid back chorus and good backing vocals. The cowbell is also effective except it’s not a cowbell. The band didn’t have one so they used the house tea kettle for which they were properly scolded by the housekeeper Ruth. Thing is — it sounds OK!
Moving on to the penultimate track, “Answer To the Master” has a verse that is stronger than its chorus, which is really more about the riff. Rick Allen gets the spotlight for a brief moment before the band break into an AeroZeppelin-like funk. “Whole Lotta Walk”? Then there’s a startling guitar solo section more influenced by the likes of Lizzy.
Finally Leppard decided to go with a big epic as their album closer, “Overture”, which also closed their debut EP (which is on Disc Four of The Early Years). It’s another post-apocalyptic soundtrack, a multi-parted manufacture. Some truly great guitar parts are buried within, but this track is an example of overreach. The kind of truly epic recording they were striving for could not be achieved in the time they had, but you can hear frequent shots of brilliance. Each riff and lick has its own unique hook.
On Through the Night went to #15 in the UK but failed to crack the top 50 in the US, charting at #51. It did not go Platinum until 1989, well after Hysteria made Def Leppard into demigods. If anything it planted the seed and made the band more focused on what they wanted to achieve when they had a second chance. And it wouldn’t be long before fate hooked them up with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, which would alter their course forever. On Through the Night stands today as a Polaroid of an innocent past, when Def Leppard caked on riff after riff in an effort to reach the heights of the bands they adored. It lacks focus, both within the songs and on Leppard’s collective strengths. Focus that they would soon gain in spades, and later in excess!
Storm Force’s debut album goes straight to #1 on their very first appearance! No surprise here. I’ve been raving about this disc since February and I owe it to Superdekes for putting these guys on my radar in the first place. This is a well-deserved #1. Age of Fear is an uplifting album with depth. It’s a thoughtful, heart-pounding blast of classic hard rock.
Deep Purple’s Whoosh! and AC/DC’s PWRUP prove two things: old dogs that both learn and don’t learn new tricks can all be champions. (I call this theory “Schrödinger’s Dog”.) Deep Purple’s growth continues while AC/DC managed to tap into the vein of success that always worked for them. Both records deserve their spots in the Top 3.
It was a thrill for me to learn that Dennis DeYoung both read and enjoyed my review of his newest album 26 East Vol 1. It’s a terrific, Styx-like conceptual work that will please the old fans. As will the new albums by Harem Scarem and Stryper, who didn’t stray far from their successful classic hard rock formulas. Kim Mitchell and Sven Gali on the other hand dared to be different. Kim went laid back and acoustic, while Sven Gali went with their heaviest uninhibited inclinations. As for Mr. Bungle, it has been 21 years since their last album California. All four Bungle studio albums are completely different from one another — four different genres. For The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, they teamed up with Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo to re-record their first thrash metal demo tape. And it could be their best album since the self-titled debut in 1991. Not bad for a bunch of songs they wrote in highschool.
Corey “Mother Fuckin'” Taylor makes his debut on any list of mine with his solo album CMFT. It’s a surprising collection of commercial hard rockin’ tunes. Also appearing for the first time is Now Or Never (NoN) with their third album called III, featuring singer Steph Honde. It’s an excellent, dramatic metal album with light and shade.
Ultimately whether or not you liked the new Ozzy, its success or failure falls at the feet of producer/guitarist Andrew Watt. He is already working on the next Ozzy album, so….
Huge thanks to T-Bone Erickson for the “LeBrain Train” theme song, which amazingly and unexpectedly became the song of the year in 2020! Weird how that happened. No bias here I assure you.
Finally, Wolfgang Van Halen finally released his first solo music under the name Mammoth WVH. The non-album single “Distance” is dedicated to his late father Eddie. Though musically it’s a modern power ballad, the lyrics and especially the music video evoke serious emotion. Well done Wolfgang. Can’t wait to check out his album in 2021.
There were a lot of cool rock releases in 2020, so we need more lists! Of course the brilliant new live Maiden deserved some loving attention. Meanwhile, Sloan, Def Leppard and Thin Lizzy have continued to put out quality collections of rarities & unreleased material, well worth the time and money you’ll spend on them. The Sloan collection is a vinyl exclusive and the first in a series of LPs re-releasing some of their B-sides and non-album and bonus tracks. Finally, Metallica delivered the goods even without Michael Kamen on S&M2, a very different live set than the first S&M. That’s the way to do it!
It’s naive to assume that major touring and concerts will return in 2021. This appears highly optimistic at present, with Covid still ravaging the landscape and vaccinations only just beginning. Instead of looking ahead at things like the resuming Kiss tour, or the Motley Crue reunion, we should continue to put our faith in new music.
Accept have a new album due January 15 intriguingly titled Too Mean to Die. It is their first without bassist Peter Baltes. Steven Wilson has a new record out at the end of that month. In February we get new Foo Fighters, The Pretty Reckless, Willie Nelson and Alice Cooper. Greta Van Fleet, Weezer, Rob Zombie, Ringo Starr, and Thunder will be back soon too. Many other bands are writing and recording without an announced due date. Ghost, Marillion, Scorpions, Megadeth and even Ratt are hard at work to make next year suck a little less. Support the bands by buying the music.
Having already done it once themselves, why not do it again? Once again Helix with manager Bill Seip raised the funds to record an independent album. Drummer Brian Doerner was gone, replaced by Leo Niebudek. On bass, Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg hung around long enough to record one new song (“It’s Too Late”). He was replaced by the young, talented and troubled Mike Uzelac. He was only 17 when he first joined Helix. He told them he was 19.
Sticking to the same formula as Breaking Loose, there is really no deviation in sound. Some members have changed but little else. The band still managed to come up with enough good material to fill an album to follow the first. I don’t know if the track “Breaking Loose” was a leftover from the first album or not, but quality-wise there is nothing “leftover” about it. I would call it a typical Helix party rocker: a fast one, often used back in the day to open their sets. The lyrics are the kind of thing that Helix were about: the weekend!
“4 O’clock Friday afternoon, Punch that time clock, now you’ll be home soon, Your week’s all done, now it’s time to roll, You’re like a time bomb about to explode.”
Vollmer reminds us “You only got two days, so make it last,” a philosophy I heartily agree with. Brent Doerner and Paul Hackman lay down a pair of ripping guitar solos for the icing on the cake. Then “It’s Too Late” is the kind of melodic mid-tempo rocker that their first album was loaded with. Surely something like “It’s Too Late” could have worked on the radio, and I think that was the intent. That takes away nothing from the song, which is classy with quality.
“Long Distance Heartbreak” at almost seven minutes is Helix’s longest song ever. In the early days they tended to experiment with their songwriting, coming up with the odd mini-epic. Like many Helix classics, this one reads as a road song. Thin Lizzy they were not, but Vollmer captures the heartbreak in their lyrics while Doerner and Hackman take care of the guitar drama.
Helix get even more serious for a moment with “Time For a Change”, and “Hangman’s Tree” also brings a few issues to the table. “Time For a Change” is sadly even more valid today.
“Everyday there’s a new headline, Another war and another lie, When will we learn to stop this killing while we can?”
It’s interesting that Helix didn’t seem to know their direction yet, but still infused every song with their bare honesty. They were riding a line between a party band and a more serious, more experimental rock band. In the end they chose the route that they were intended for, but that takes nothing away from these early songs. “Time For a Change” and “Hangman’s Tree” are unexpectedly ambitious for a young bar band from Canada. In each case, it is the guitar work that elevates the songs.
“It’s What I Wanted” lightens the mood, a mid-tempo rocker with a great melody. I don’t know why it is, but these melodic rock songs really sound like home to me. They conjure images of a more innocent time, when the world seemed smaller to me. They capture and bring back hazy, happy pictures of Kitchener in the late 70’s.
Brent Doener comes back with his only lead vocal on the track “Mainline”. Sounds like Brent was having no trouble getting satisfaction back then. “She keeps me happy, what can I say?” he sings, lamenting that his lady keeps him up all night and late for work in the morning! “Pick up my cheque at the end of the day, I find I’m down a couple hours’ pay.” So in essence, “Mainline” is about choices. You can either have tons and tons of sex at all hours of the day, or get to work on time. It’s your choice, people!
“Women, Whiskey & Sin” is pretty simple in its message. This smoking track is more like Helix would evolve on later albums like No Rest For the Wicked. “Ain’t no laws to hold us back on a Saturday night,” sings Brian Vollmer. (Hate to tell ya Brian, there actually are laws about some of the things you boys were doing back in the day!) Then “Thoughts That Bleed” is a proggy, slow closer with lots of dynamics, similar to how Helix ended the first album with “Wish I Could Be There”.
Ultimately there is no question that Helix made the right move to drop some of these softer, more progressive moments and focus on the heavy metal side of their sound. It got them signed to Capitol Records and secured their biggest hits. That leaves these first two albums as evidence of an earlier, more naive Helix willing to stretch out a bit more.
Long before they gave you an ‘R’, Helix earned a reputation as the hardest working band in Canada, year after year in the cold dirty clubs of the Great White North. Formed in 1974, Helix had a number of lineup changes before they even recorded their debut. If you want to get technical about it, even on their first album, Helix only had two remaining original members in singer Brian Vollmer and bassist Keith “Bert” Zurbrigg. Helix really solidified when they eventually acquired guitarist Paul Hackman, and twin brothers Brent (guitar) and Brian Doerner (drums).
Manager Bill Seip, who eventually guided Helix to a major label deal with Capitol Records in the early 80’s, was an early believer. Under his leadership, they managed to scrape together enough cash to record an independent album — something very few bands did back then. They released it on their own “H&S Records”, for Helix & Seip. What is remarkable about the album they created, Breaking Loose, is how great it still is today. I know people, very respected in the local rock community, who will tell you this is Helix’s best album.
Breaking Loose isn’t metal, but what it lacks in firepower is made up for in class, ambition and natural talent. Brian Doerner is one of the most respected drummers around, having acquired an extensive discography over the decades. As for Brent Doener and Paul Hackman, together they forged a guitar partnership that would take them up to the big leagues. They are not Downing & Tipton, nor are they Smith & Murray. Doerner & Hackman (R.I.P.) were in a hard rocking bar band, and Helix were damn good for their demographic. What they brought to the table was ability, but not flash. Both were capable of writing songs on their own, as the writing credits on Breaking Loose attest to.
Having toured extensively, Helix worked up a number of originals. The entire album is written by the trio of Doerner, Hackman and Vollmer, in various permutations. Even then, Brian Vollmer had a remarkable voice: power with just a tiny bit of grit, but also the ability to sing clean. The production on the album is flat by today’s standards, but perspective and context are everything. For a self-financed album in 1979, it sounds incredible! Though it lacks the oomph of Helix today, it’s perfectly listenable.
Starting with the mid-tempo “I Could Never Leave”, Helix right away hit you right off the bat with one of their catchiest tunes. You’ll notice the nice backing vocals, Brent being particularly audible. “Don’t Hide Your Love” has a similar vibe, that being hard rock with an emphasis on catchy melodies. Maybe Helix were aiming for the radio, but the songs aren’t wimpy by any stretch.
“Down in the City” is a Vollmer ballad, and a pretty good one too. The lyrics are cringe-worthy, but the music had ambition. It starts as a pretty, folky acoustic song and eventually builds with more guitars into something different. Plenty of guitars to go around. Then like night and day it’s onto “Crazy Women”, written and vocalized by Brent, otherwise known as “The Doctor”. Doerner has a quirkier writing style, which is a good thing, because it helped Helix stand out a little more from the pack. “Crazy Women” has plenty of guitars of course, but also has a neat drunken stumble to it.
Brent closed side one, and opened side two with a legendary song that helped them get a following on the west coast: “Billy Oxygen”. It’s still a favourite to this day, a short fast rocker about a guy named Billy Oxygen, captain of a starship called an ES-335, looking to meet some aliens to party with. Out of this world? Wait until you hear the band playing the shit out of it! Brian’s drumming reminds me of a good jazz drummer — fast, accurate, and hard! Keith Zurbrigg throws down a little bass, playing off with Brent and Paul in a three-way solo for the ages.
If you don’t like “Billy Oxygen”, then I’m not sure if we can be friends. The impact this song had on me cannot really be measured, as I played it on repeat ad-nauseum. As I recounted in Record Store Tales Part 2 (!), this tune even inspired me to do some writing of my own:
When I was in University I tried my hand at bad, bad science fiction short stories. Suffice to say, none of it survives today with good reason. However, Helix had a little moment in my fiction: My spaceship was called an ES-335, named after Billy Oxygen’s ship in the song. And only a little while ago did I learn that ES-335 wasn’t the name of a spaceship at all. An ES-335 was a Gibson guitar.
“Here I Go Again” is not the Whitesnake song, but another one of those melodic rock songs that seemed a bit contrived to get some radio play. That’s just speculation on my part, but I’m glad it was “Billy Oxygen” that did get the airplay. That’s not to say anything negative about the fine “Here I Go Again”. There isn’t a weak song on this album, but two other highlights are definitely “You’re A Woman Now”, featuring female backing vocals and a structure that builds into something dramatic, as if it’s Helix’s own “Stairway To Heaven”. “Wish I Could Be There” brings back the outer space theme, and has acoustic and heavy sections, sort of Helix’s foray into prog rock.
I should note that both “Wish I Could Be There” and “Billy Oxygen” made the Sausagefest countdown a few years ago, a lofty achievement indeed. “Billy” even cracked the top five. Musical scholar Scotty Geffros holds both songs in high esteem, and voted for them accordingly, as did I. Our host, Iron Tom Sharpe also voted for “Billy”.
This lineup only lasted for one album, both Brian Doerner and Keith Zurbrigg departed shortly after this, leaving Vollmer the sole original member. Their legacy of the lineup is this debut album, something any band would be proud of. Unfortunately, CDs are hard to find. Capitol did a bare-bones but fine CD reissue in 1992, with both Breaking Loose and the second album White Lace & Black Leather, on one disc. That release was called The Early Years, but it went out of print many years ago. Brian Vollmer did a CD reissue of each individually, but both are now sold out.
Now, fair warning: I have to disclose that I am biased when it comes to this band. I’ve met them a number of times, and I have the phone numbers of two guys who played on this album. For another perspective, I asked Scotty Geffros, who has a Masters degree in Rockology, about his relationship with Breaking Loose:
After being handed this album, as a youngster of maybe 9 or 10, I remember examining the cover first…and seeing the photos of the band on the back, and wondering why the singer had a Blackhawks jersey on? I was told by my father to listen to “Billy Oxygen” and quickly went to the turntable to give it a spin. Low and behold, instant love. From catchy tunes like “Here I Go Again”, to more epic works like “Wish I Could Be There”, this album grabbed me and holds up today as a really good, albeit under-appreciated record.
[Note: I was wondering the same thing. Brian, why are you wearing a Blackhawks jersey?]
I’d go a step further than Scott and call it really great. Being completely honest though, the only complaint I have about this album would be that some of the lyrics were a little weak. Young band…first album…I’ll forgive them. If you can too, then I suggest you hear Breaking Loose at your earliest convenience.