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How Def Leppard’s unlikely glam-metal revolution changed everything

Def Leppard weren't just rock 'n' roll clowns.

Def Leppard weren't just rock 'n' roll clowns. YouTube

Now that Def Leppard has finally slipped onto streaming services, it’s a lot easier to stump for the band as not just a monster singles act with surprisingly deep album cuts but as unexpectedly experimental populists and legit trailblazers.

Helping to eradicate the divide between the candied and the furious in the late '80s, Lep were equally capable of soundtracking trips to sleazed-out Sunset Strip bars, tween-fueled playground sing-alongs, shopping mall playlists otherwise stacked with Jody Watley jams, and arena-rocking performance clips full of benign debauchery. They influenced the speed-addicted architects of extreme metal, country bros with a weakness for power ballad triumphalism, and any drunk-on-novelty pop producer making cut-and-paste epics that still bang.

Despite crawling from the working-class headbanger dives that dotted industrial Sheffield, Def Leppard immediately slipped between scenes with surprising ease, even getting the nod from the BBC's iconic post-punk gatekeeper John Peel. Eleven tracks of pummel flecked with unexpected harmonies and hooks, their 1981 debut album On Through the Night was hard enough to leave a plausible mark on future apocalypses like Slayer’s Reign in Blood while also throwing in speed-blurred bits of catchiness rooted more in O.G. glam rock.

The band might well have sunk into "recalled fondly by Lars Ulrich in a metal doc" obscurity after that. Instead this collection of shaggy Charlie Buckets got their golden ticket in the form of a nod from legendary studio control freak Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who'd recently applied his blow-your-boombox production style to AC/DC's Back in Black. Mutt didn't so much remold Def Leppard in his own filthy lucre image as unlock their not-so-secret pop star dreams.

On their breakthrough, 1983's Pyromania, sleeveless t-shirt obsessive Joe Elliott was still occasionally gargling with lecherous intent like Bon Scott and screaming for vengeance like Rob Halford. But he was also leaning harder into those signature rasping melodies on supersonic video age strutters like "Photograph," while even the bash-it-out throwbacks like "Stagefright" courted Top 40 listeners with their harmony-stacked choruses. "Rock of Ages" provided the Heavy Metal Parking Lot hordes with their own bleacher-stomping anthem of generational unity, and "Foolin'" pointed toward the sturm-und-drang ballads that would define Lep's imperial phase, even if it barely hinted at the near-psychedelic glossiness to come.

Hysteria didn’t so much crash into the charts in 1987 as descend like a neon-wreathed starship blaring wall-of-coke power chords, a benevolent invasion from a more technologically advanced world. Lange pushed the cutting-edge studio tools till the circuits spluttered, building these gleaming hunks of thump-and-woosh one painstakingly sampler-assisted bit at a time, a hopeless gear-head furiously longing to reach our gleaming ProTools present. He delighted in foregrounding the unreality of his sound, making the most impossible-to-reproduce-onstage racket possible, a seat-filler and product-shiller who was suddenly exploring territory closer to the Bomb Squad.

Like that sample-era-defining crew’s productions for Public Enemy, you could enjoy Lange’s work on Hysteria solely for its blunt-force and thrill-powered impact. After all, this is an album consciously built on the who-gives-a-shit-if-it-ain’t-a-hit ethos, openly taking Thriller as its model. Or you could boggle at all the microscopically finessed layers of sonic detail, as Lange manipulated the band's performances instead of breaks filched from old funk 45s. Special mention must be made of Lep drummer Rick Allen, who lost his left arm in 1985, then allowed himself to achieve man-machine symbiosis with Lange, who helped stitch eardrum-battering grooves from the best of Allen's kicks and thwacks. 

Naturally Hysteria didn't dominate the world quite like Thriller. But Lep's formula proved right-place-right-time for an audience suddenly ready to accept bludgeoning riffola as pop, provided those guitars were buffed to a zillion-dollar gleam. It didn't hurt that Hysteria is rivaled only by Appetite for Destruction and 1984 when it comes to the pop-metal era's end-to-end burners. The band refined and revved up their previously obvious influences, and then synthesized and super-sized so much else that made the ‘80s great.

Flipping squeeze-my-lemon clichés for a generation hyped on "Rock Box," the dunderheaded-but-undeniable "Pour Some Sugar on Me" was pitched somewhere between chanted Glitter Band gibberish, robotic boogie metal raunch, and Rick Rubin's concrete-cracking drum machine abuse. The precision-tooled "Armageddon It" slipped into Marc Bolan's elfin bell-bottoms to pump up a vintage glam shuffle until it could rumble stadium upper decks. And before shifting into shameless melodrama, "Love Bites" opened with pensive slow jam synths now begging to be jacked by a left-field R&B auteur. A dozen-song album that spun off seven hit singles obviously isn’t hiding a wealth of forgotten classics, but "Run Riot" remains a thrillingly breathless sprint through everything-louder-than-everything-else new wave.

Despite its lingering metal aftertaste, Hysteria was obviously where much of Leppard's original denim-and-leather audience disembarked, and its real impact was on the teen-courting divas of the past 20 years, all thanks to Lange’s greatest disciple. Though it’s hard to name a massive rock album after 1990 that genuflects toward Hysteria, every time you hear a classic guitar riff coated in disorienting glitz on KDWB, you’re hearing Lange’s stamp filtered through former glam metal singer Max Martin, the even-more-reclusive Swede who's dominated retail and radio playlists since the Britney and BSB years. It wasn't much of a shock when a young Taylor Swift covered the title track on an old CMT Crossroads. (Can we start a petition to chloroform Jack Antonoff and get Tay into a session with Joe Elliott and Phil Collen?)

Rock’s great synth-and-sample future didn’t materialize precisely as envisioned. By the time Def Leppard returned, the gnarly barbarians of the Pacific Northwest had already sacked the charts to liberate us from the Aqua Net aristocracy—or some VH1 history-of-rock line of bullshit like that. The reality was much messier and more interesting. As Eddie Vedder was primal screaming to pin-up status, Adrenalize still went multi-platinum, if undeservedly so. A deadeningly metronomic plod had replaced the wildly computer-assisted swing of Hysteria, with so many roll-your-eyes power ballads that grafted “epic” guitar histrionics onto “soulful” Adult Contemporary gunk. And Lange had devolved into a check-cashing embodiment of his (largely earned) rep as a tasteless bombast merchant, displaying not even a fraction of the lunatic invention he lavished on Hysteria’s filler. There might be four halfway decent hooks during all 45 determinedly torpid and occasionally torturous minutes.

Of course even another Hysteria wouldn’t have reversed one of those musical sea changes fueled by the latest crop of teenagers ravenous for something new. At my 8th grade school dance, where the glam metal leftovers induced sighs of boredom and listless shuffling, one spin of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had both girls and boys slamming into each other with nose-bloodying release. (Those grunge revisionists weren’t entirely wrong.) And so in 1996, the Lep attempted to pander to just about every faction of the Alternative Nation with Slang: There’s elephantine power-pop chugging borrowed from Stone Temple Pilots, psych-punk solos seemingly nicked from Kim Thayil’s practice tapes, looped breakbeats and “exotic” samples a la Reznor, a dash of bar-band roots in the Blowfish vein, and old-school Leppard anthems drowned in 10,000 pounds of then-fashionable sludge. It’s a goddamned mess, but a historically fascinating one.

And that was about it for Def Leppard as a unit-shifting force, though an endlessly lucrative nostalgia tour circuit is theirs to rightfully exploit until the seas rise to swallow us all. Few of their studio albums of the past 20 years are worth much, though there’s one curious exception from 2006. Yeah! is that hoariest artifact of a band’s “lucky survivors” phase: the loving covers album charting the songs that jolted them into action before all the Behind the Music malarkey. This one just happens to be killer. The tracklist was clearly assembled by dudes who grew up breathlessly glued to Top of the Pops during the original glam and hard rock eruptions, ripping with unmistakable teenage energy through glitter-flecked standards by Bowie and Roxy and snarling with gleeful savagery when tackling the Faces’s problematically glorious “Stay With Me."

Maybe some bright young corporate spark should hustle the band into the studio with the similarly glam-worshiping but metal-identified Josh Homme—or at least a maestro of pastiche like Mark Ronson. Not Mutt though. Leave their former producer to dicking around with Nickelback. Def Leppard deserve better.