“Not everybody realises that these guys are not just crowd pleasers. They also embody such an amazing technical excellence. They have it all.“-Queen guitarist Brian May, inducting Def Leppard into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
“We just wanted to put a smile on people’s faces. That’s all we ever wanted to do.”-Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliot
What need be said about the 80’s? As someone born just on this side of the 21st century, I feel like the world around me has glorified and fetishized the pop-culture and “simpler times” of the 1980’s for my entire lifetime. Maybe that feeling is amplified because my parents both graduated high school in the mid 80’s, but it feels like countless television shows, movies, songs, and other pieces of media have tried to get that “80’s feel”. Why is this? What is with the borderline aggressive nostalgia for the 1980’s? Well, it seems to me that, from where I’m sitting, the 80’s were probably pretty awesome.
As with any decade, the 80’s had its share of calamity. The dangers of progress reared their ugly heads when the Exxon Valdez oil spill pumped countless gallons of oils into ocean waters, the NASA Challenger mission went up in flames killing 7 astronauts only 73 seconds after launch, and the Chernobyl meltdown immediately killed 31 people and had long term effects on thousands more. The AIDs epidemic hit like a truck and 5 teenage boys of color, dubbed the “Central Park 5” were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault highlighting the persistent racial disparities in the American justice system. However, compared to the prior 10 years, the 80’s provided something of an upswing. The war on drugs started under President Reagan in an attempt to educate youth about the danger of drugs and combat drug related crimes and deaths. Major socioeconomic changes were happening worldwide as more rigid, planned economic styles shifted to lassez-faire style capitalism. Advancements in technology, although they had their mishaps, were altogether positive as the first personal computers hit the market alongside Compact Disks (CD’s), the Walkman, mobile phones, video camcorders, and home videogame consoles. Style trends were outrageous and incredible as everybody had too much hair and too many bright clashing colors. For one reason or another, the works that artists of the time were putting out decreased in quality and truly great artistic experiences became few and far between. In the place of art, however, we saw a rise in kickass entertainment. Popular culture had never been so radical.
In the 80’s the some of the first great film franchises came into their own with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the Star Trek movies, Back to The Future, Mad Max, and a variety of others. Rocky had gone from an Oscar winning slow and intimate character study to a 90 minute goofy propaganda movie where Stallone defeats communism by doing sit ups. Realism and meaning were cast aside in the favor for spectacle, and I think it may have been worth it. Music took a similar turn as people were ready to just have fun and enjoy themselves. Michael Jackson took over the world with a run of some of the best pop albums ever made while rock and roll made the shift toward big, loud, stadium anthems. Technology allowed for some really interesting things to be done with music and artists like David Bowie, Rush, and the Talking Heads explored their art with it, but most commercial acts just relished in the new sound. Synth pop came around and many of us still appreciate the particular sound of the era, but the artists who weren’t so interested in using synthesizers still found use for the new technology: the mixing booth. Hard rock and metal groups certainly didn’t have any interest in sounding like Milli Vanilli, but they were able to bring new elements to their music all the same, taking that same sound to a new place. While the 80’s provided no shortage of awesome rock groups and albums, few were able to make such incredible use of this cross roads in rock history, or their own unfortunate circumstances, as Def Leppard.
Formed in Shefflied, England in 1977, Def Leppard released 4 albums in the 80’s. This month’s Musical Training Plan title “Rock of Ages” is actually taken from the name of a single off of their 1983 venture Pyromania, and as such I really thought about exploring that album, but something just didn’t feel right about that. That’s not to say that Pyromania, or any of the Def Leppard discography for that matter, is undeserving, not even close. I just felt that very few albums could quite capture their particular moment in Rock and Roll, or what it means to rock on, quite like Def Leppard’s 1987 classic Hysteria.
After working hard for 3 years, Def Leppard got their big break in the form of a record deal and they then proceeded to release 3 increasingly awesome albums between 1980 and 1983, but following Pyromania, the Leppard’s hit something of a rough patch. The band’s guitarist at the time, Pete Willis, was kicked out of the band for excessive alcohol consumption (during the recording of Pyromania, actually), and after spending some time working with Jim Steinman on a new album, the whole thing was scrapped and never released. The Leppards already felt like they were swimming upstream when disaster struck. In 1984, the band’s drummer, Rick Allen, got into a serious car accident. He lived, thankfully, but the accident cost Allen his left arm. Waking up from a crash missing an arm would be enough to end virtually anybody’s professional drumming career, and interestingly Allen later reflected that he was losing interest in drumming before the crash, but in 1984 the accident acted as a wake up call for Allen. His commitment to the band was never greater, and he became devoted to finding a way to continue to make music with his friends. After working with the brand Simmons, Allen was able to have an electronic drum kit made that would allow him to drum with his remaining arm and his feet. Allen’s dedication and tenacity was a shot in the arm for the band and they were able to, for all intents and purposes, save their music careers. They put on their game faces, buckled down, and set their trajectory straight for the record books. Over the course of the next 3 years Def Leppard would write and record their greatest work yet: Hysteria.
Hysteria is a triumph, no ifs ands or buts about it. It so perfectly rides the line between cool and goofy and the result is an absolutely delight of a listen and a uniquely 80’s experience. Def Leppard was never better sonically. Making the most of the studio tech available to them they were able to bring out so much in each of their instruments. The bass is heavier, the drums are punchier, and the guitars hit harder than most rockers could even imagine possible. Sampling of different non-music sounds such as the space shuttle comms in the beginning of “Rocket” or the explosions and political broadcast sounds in “Gods of War” elevate their soundscapes and reinforce their ideas simply but effectively. It may get a little serious at times, but at its core Hysteria is all about rocking out and having fun. Pretty much every rock album ever has songs about sex, but Hysteria leaves a much more lasting impression than most with its most famous single, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”. The Leppards provide an album that is only metal in the most technical sense, shedding most of the challenging parts of the genre in favor of a faster pace, major key, and having fun. That being said, the album also delivers on its slower songs, especially the anti-love ballad “Love Bites” and the album’s title track, a personal favorite of mine. Looking back, it is easy to appreciate how Def Leppard captured their moment in the story of Rock and Roll with this album, but they seemed to have been aware of it at the time as well. On one of the album’s more interesting tracks, “Rocket”, Def Leppard uses the image of a rocket to take us on a ride, not only into the next chapter and heights of Rock and Roll, but also back through the history of the genre and their personal influences. Explicitly mentioning characters and songs by the likes of Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, and Elton John, they were paying homage to the artists who made them fall in love with Rock before looking ahead to how they would bring Rock to the next generations. There’s also some socio-political commentary on “Gods of War” and all around plenty to talk about and enjoy about this album, but I think its time I just let the music speak for itself.
Def Leppard captured the Rock and the Roll of the 80’s and embodied the determination and love which typified rock from the very beginning with their story and with their music. Hysteria doesn’t try to give us a mind bending artistic experience or change the world, rather, it makes the most of what it has and sets out to put a smile on your face. Joining the collective shift away from seriousness and toward fun that defined the pop-culture of the 80’s, Def Leppard sure as hell made an album that is great for having fun with. It may not have advanced the genre technically, creatively, or artistically, but it may have perfected the style of Rock typical of the time. Plus, it’s hardly a work of imitation or formula, if it was it wouldn’t stand out like it does. Regardless, Hysteria is awesome and I feel great about showcasing it in this month’s Musical Training Plan.
The 80’s were a radical time. A time of big hair, big spectacles, bright colors, and loud music. I didn’t get to experience any of the 80’s, but the way that the culture of the time is fondly remembered and emulated so often gives me some indication of how cool it was. When it comes to having fun, being loud, being cool, and having big hair, few could do it all quite like Def Leppard. Plus, losing an arm only to come back and rock even harder without it is one of the most Rock and Roll things I’ve ever heard in my life.
Knock knock! Who’s there? The 90’s!