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Def Leppard

The Sheffield steel industry was going through tough times when local act DEF LEPPARD were kicking into gear in 1977 as Atomic Mass, but by the early 80s and beyond, their kiss-ass brand of heavy metal music was taking care of business. A slightly more melodious hard-rock group next to Southern NWOBHM rivals IRON MAIDEN, or indeed their inspirations, JUDAS PRIEST, DEF LEPPARD found their appeal lay in America, where a touch of sleaze ’n’ glam were a big part of their commercial appeal. Classic rock buffs will vouch for the merits of multi-million-selling master-class albums, Pyromania and Hysteria, records that were maybe “Two Steps Behind” the hard-rock pack, but nevertheless stirring for Mr & Mrs Hair-metal-head.
Formed by Sheffield lads Rick Savage (bass), Pete Willis (guitar) and Tony Kenning (drums), the band weren’t fully operational until frontman Joe Elliott came into the picture; they duly adopted the name Deaf Leopard but altered it to the more rock’n’roll-friendly, DEF LEPPARD. Additional rhythm guitarist Steve Clark joined in time for the group’s first gigs in July ‘78, while Frank Noon replaced Kenning prior to the band entering the studio.
With finance provided by Elliott’s father, DEF LEPPARD handed out a self-titled debut EP (released on their own Bludgeon-Riffola imprint) to punters attending gigs in the first weeks of ‘79. Featuring three tracks, `Ride Into The Sun’, `Getcha Rocks Off’ and `The Overture’, the limited-edition 7” has since become very collectable, despite being re-released on two further occasions during the year; `Getcha Rocks Off’ was switched to lead track – was the young Bobby Gillespie (later of PRIMAL SCREAM) a fan, perchance?
Towards the year’s end, with Rick Allen taking up permanent residence on the drum stool, and following tours supporting AC/DC, etc., DEF LEPPARD were signed to Vertigo Records (Mercury in the States). This prompted a move to London, and, in 1980, their debut album ON THROUGH THE NIGHT {*6} broke into the UK Top 20, although it would be young fans across the big pond that would fully embrace them. Regarded as their hardest and meanest rock set, it boasted a couple of minor hits in `Wasted’ and `Hello America’, although others lacked the polish and sheen supplied on future records. Anthemic and hook-laden, an audience at rock’s annual metal bash, the Reading Festival, were less than impressed that Leppard were regurgitating the much-maligned glam-rock scene. They were certainly metal, albeit metal of the most easy-listening variety and, while the critics hated them, their growing army of fans lapped up their every release.
Although HIGH ‘N’ DRY (1981) {*7} marked the beginning of their association with meticulous producer “Mutt” Lange, and was far more assured in terms of songwriting, DEF LEPPARD’s blue-collar appeal was aimed squarely at America where the album reached the Top 40. Despite the lack of any hits from the set (although a re-mixed/re-issued `Bringin’ On The Heartbreak’ reached US No.61 in May ’84), tracks such as the AC/DC-esque `Let It Go’, `High ‘N’ Dry (Saturday Night)’ and `You Got Me Runnin’’ became live faves.
Willis’ tenure with the quintet was duly black-balled when heavy drinking bouts led to his dismissal in 1982, while his replacement Phil Collen (from GIRL) eased his way into the party for Leppard’s big breakthrough, PYROMANIA (1983) {*8}. Legendary for its use of all manner of studio special effects and state-of-the-art technology, the record revolutionised heavy metal and became the benchmark by which subsequent 80s albums were measured. Yet it wasn’t a case (as it so often is) of studio flash masking a dearth of genuine talent, DEF LEPPARD were actually capable of turning out finely crafted songs over the course of a whole album. Highly melodic and relentlessly hook-laden, the Americans loved the near chart-topping set and its attendant, MTV-endorsed smash-hit 45s, `Photograph’, `Rock Of Ages’ and `Foolin’’.
With former engineer-turned-producer Nigel Green having taken over from the ill-advised pairing with “Bat Out Of Hell” guy, JIM STEINMAN, sessions were once more underway by November ’84. Tragedy struck, however, when Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash on New Year’s Eve. A true metal warrior, Allen soldiered bravely on using a customised drum kit with programmable drum pads and foot pedals. Bearing in mind the man’s accident and the band’s perfectionist nature, four years wasn’t too long to wait for a new album, and for the majority of fans the delay was well worth it.
A melodic rock tour de force (with Lange firmly back at the controls), HYSTERIA (1987) {*9} finally struck gold-dust for the band in their home country with a handful of its attendant singles reaching Top 10 across the globe; `Love Bites’ giving the group their first US No.1. With further transatlantic hits on the horizon, `Rocket’, `Animal’, `Pour Some Sugar On Me’, `Armageddon It’ and the title track, the album sold a staggering amount; DEF LEPPARD now staking their claim as the biggest heavy-metal act on the planet.
Ironically, just as the group were entering the big league, tragedy struck again as Steve Clark was found dead on January 8, 1991, after a prolonged drink/drugs binge. Collen worked harder to compensate for the loss of his rhythm guitar buddy, and the band began work on their number one ADRENALIZE (1992) {*6} album. While the likes of single platter, `Let’s Get Rocked’, bordered on cringe-worthy (if only for the awful title), the album’s party pop-metal once again pulled in the punters in their millions. Equally anthemic or balladeering, songs such as `Make Love Like A Man’, `Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad’, `Heaven Is’ and `Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)’, might well’ve been better suited to BRYAN ADAMS (or even KISS).
The band recruited elder statesman of rock Vivian Campbell as a replacement for their subsequent world tour, as the ensuing years saw the release of a B-sides/rarities affair, RETRO ACTIVE (1993) {*5}. The trend towards cover renditions were emphasised on versions of MICK RONSON’s `Only After Dark’ and The SWEET’s `Action’ (a UK hit), while B-sides contained the odd tribute; `Elected’ (ALICE COOPER), `Now I’m Here’ (QUEEN), `Led Boots’ (JEFF BECK), `You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Little Wing’ (JIMI HENDRIX) and `Rebel Rebel’ (DAVID BOWIE), among them; roadie Stumpus Maximus (aka Malvin Mortimer) was behind the vocals to Engelbert Humperdinck’s `Release Me’, the flip to `Rocket’. A greatest hits collection, VAULT (1995) {*8}, saw one new song, the UK No.2 hit `When Love & Hate Collide’, but the band needed something fresh and vibrant if they were going to succeed in the day’s fickle market.
A comeback studio set, SLANG {*5}, eventually graced the racks in 1996, showcasing a more modern sound (Elliott had even traded in his poodle mane for a relatively trendy bobbed haircut). Produced by Pete Woodroffe and the band themselves, DF failed for once to get near the top of the charts, singles such as the title track, `Work It Out’, `All I Want Is Everything’ and `Breathe A Sigh’, worthy of only release on British shores.
A record executive’s wet dream, DEF LEPPARD remained radio friendly unit shifters in the true sense of the phrase. Very much a product of their era, and that era being hair metal’s late 80s pre-grunge heyday, the group seemed something of an anachronism come the dawn of the new millennium. Especially with a record as true to form as EUPHORIA (1999) {*6}; as muscular and as charismatic a set as the band have recorded yet completely out of sync with trends in music in general and in the rock/metal world especially. While the likes of BON JOVI seemed to be able to adapt much more easily, Sheffield’s veterans looked to be either unwilling or unable to do so. The result was that `Promises’ only just scraped into the UK Top 50, while `Goodbye’, failed completely.
X (2002) {*4} – their tenth album and their first on Island Records – didn’t exactly remedy the situation, with the band sounding more and more like candidates for a safe, unchallenging musical middle age. Nevertheless, it still managed to hit the UK and US Top 20, while outsider songsmiths/collaborators, among them Marti Frederiksen, were behind some of the best tracks; the opening `Now’ a good example at where the band were going.
By May 2006, DEF LEPPARD had succumbed to the fatal middle-aged temptation of a full-blown karaoke covers set, YEAH! {*4}; one can only suggest getting a hold of mainly 70s originals: `20th Century Boy’ (T. REX), `Rock On’ (DAVID ESSEX), `Hanging On The Telephone’ (a BLONDIE hit), `Hell Raiser’ (a SWEET hit), `10538 Overture’ (ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA), `Street Life’ (ROXY MUSIC), `Drive-In Saturday’ (DAVID BOWIE), `Little Bit Of Love’ (FREE), `The Golden Age Of Rock’n’Roll’ (MOTT THE HOOPLE), `No Matter What’ (BADFINGER), `He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ (JOHN KONGOS), `Don’t Believe A Word’ (THIN LIZZY) and `Stay With Me’ (FACES); `Waterloo Sunset’ (The KINKS) was of the 60s.
Elliott and Co were back to some sort of form (and the Top 10) with the release of SONGS FROM THE SPARKLE LOUNGE (2008) {*6}, a marked improvement for the pop-metal combo. While there were the odd forays back into glam, `C’mon C’mon’ going perilously close to an old GARY GLITTER anthem, Joe combined with country-rocker TIM McGRAW on `Nine Lives’. With each individual (with the exception of Allen), contributing their own ballads or rockers, DF were still in riff-tastic form – if melodic-rock was one’s bag; check out Elliott’s punk-y `Bad Actress’.
Five years and counting, one awaits DEF LEPPARD’s next outing, and while one is patient like always, was there really need for another live double-CD/DVD package, MIRROR BALL: LIVE & MORE (2011) {*6}. Containing three new songs, including `Kings Of The World’, it sold relatively well in the States.
Don’t you hate it when a band release an eponymous album, not as their debut, but way down the line – it’s as if they’d been granted an imagination bypass. Heavy rock-pop gods more or less immune from such considered categorisation, 2015’s DEF LEPPARD {*7} swam against the tide of prog-metal and entered their DeLorean time-capsule to set the controls for August 1987 when `Hysteria’ was all the rage. With formulaic fist-pumping anthems, `Let’s Go’, `Dangerous’ and the PRINCE-esque `Energised’, the ‘Leppard would not be changing their spots on this occasion and with a near transatlantic Top 10 success, who could blame them.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Nov2015

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