Def Leppard’s Hysteria

Def Leppard’s Hysteria

In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Def Leppard’s Hysteria, which went to No. 1 on July 23, 1988, where it stayed for two weeks. It returned to No. 1 on Aug. 13 for one week, and Sept. 3 for three more weeks. 

The exhausted band members have hit the wall. That’s it, no more, not another take. They’ve done a million of them already, and if they don’t have the track by now, maybe they’re not going to get it. But the producer is unyielding. Sing the high harmony part again—only this time, push your voice just a bit higher. He’s after a sound in his head, and it sounds like a hit. And he knows what hits sound like and how they can transform lives, not just for the five young rocker guys staring at him skeptically, but for all the people out there who will end up weaving this song into their personal histories. He hears the song playing on car radios as new couples kiss for the first time. He imagines it being played at roller rinks and public swimming pools, over and over again, until the kids can’t stand it. He can even see it being played 20 years from now, at a high-school reunion, where drunken thirtysomethings dance clumsily with long-lost crushes. All they have to do is make the sound real. So, please: Once more, boys.

“I’m the map,” the producer says. “I can’t create the treasure—I’ll just lead you to it.”

If this sounds like a scene from a TV movie about a young band destined for rock stardom, that’s because it is. In the 2001 VH1 original motion picture Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story, Anthony Michael Hall plays famed record producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the guy who pushed a double-entendre-obsessed band of horny Australians suffering from the loss of an iconic frontman to make one of the best-selling rock albums of all-time, Back In Black. Lange would later do for Def Leppard what he did for AC/DC, and then some, but this scene takes place before all that, during a session for the power ballad “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” from 1981’s High ’N’ Dry (a song covered, some 20 years later, by possibly drunken thirtysomething singer Mariah Carey, in the midst of her troubled post-Glitter period). I don’t know if the real Lange ever likened himself to a treasure map while trying to inspire the real Def Leppard, but if he did, he was absolutely right to do so. Two years later, he guided Leppard to Pyromania, which was kept out of the No. 1 album slot by only the most successful record ever, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then came 1987’s Hysteria, which sold even more copies than Pyromania and, for six non-consecutive weeks in 1988, was the most popular album in America.

A No. 1 record: For a long time, there was no surer sign of ultimate success in pop music. Here was a quantifiable measure of a band’s prominence, something that could be relied upon as an indisputable measure for “making it.” It was the end of the rainbow, the spot marked by the X where only people like Mutt Lange could take you. Hysteria hit No. 1 thanks to “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which dominated radio and MTV in the summer of ’88. You didn’t have to be a Def Leppard fan to know the song; it was part of the same oxygen everyone was breathing. You loved or hated “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (or oscillated between the extremes), but anyone with a passing knowledge of pop music could hum the chorus. Similarly, you didn’t have to purchase Hysteria in order to be familiar with good portion of the record; seven out of the 12 songs were released as singles, and many of them became durable hits.

Even if the hugeness of Hysteria can be plainly seen in statistical terms, wrapping your head around it is difficult nearly 25 years later. We still have hit records, and artists and producers obsessed with discovering the newest ways of making them, but being No. 1 on the charts doesn’t have quite the same significance anymore. If you reach the top of the heap, you’ll be disappointed to find that the heap is much smaller than it used to be, and there are lots of other heaps nearby that are approximately the same size.

Those heaps seem to be shrinking all the time. In 2010, Eminem’s Recovery was the year’s best-selling album, moving 3.42 million units, the biggest number for a top album since Josh Groban’s Noel in 2007. Compare that with Hysteria, which sold 3 million copies in the first several months after its release in August 1987. That was considered a letdown from Pyromania until “Pour Some Sugar On Me” kicked the album into the stratosphere nearly a year later. (Incredibly, the band claimed in its Behind The Music episode that Hysteria had to sell 5 million records just for Def Leppard to break even, because of all the costs incurred during the album’s prolonged, costly recording sessions.) Hysteria ended up selling 4 million copies in three months at the height of “Pour Some Sugar”-mania, including an amazing 450,000 records in just one day.

Consider that Hysteria wasn’t even the bestselling album of 1987 or ’88—those honors go to Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and George Michael’s Faith—and the sliding scale of musical popularity becomes even starker. But maybe this is only a reflection of a sales chart becoming less meaningful as listeners have curbed their purchasing habits. That seemed to be the thinking last year when Billboard introduced a new chart, The Social 50, which lists artists based on their popularity and song spins on social media sites. “The Social 50 provides a weekly snapshot of the artists with whom music fans engage with the most in the social arena, which in today’s world is a significant validation of their investment in an act,” said Billboard chart director Silvio Pietroluongo when The Social 50 debuted last December.

The Social 50 was likely a reaction to the Ultimate Chart, created in 2010 by media company Big Champagne, which takes into account a variety of online usage—Amazon downloads, Vevo video views, as well as activity on Facebook and Twitter—to determine an artist’s reach. “Ultimate” claims aside, these charts at best complement the sales chart, filling in some of the holes for new and emerging artists, but they have their own blind spots. (All those grandmothers that purchased the Josh Groban Christmas record probably don’t spend much time online, to name just one example.) Our fractured music charts merely cover parts of the fractured music audience; they don’t bring us any closer to a center. At no point was this clearer than at the 2011 Grammys—another old-world marker for the mainstream—which, depending on your point of view, was a coronation for Arcade Fire, a rebuke of Eminem, the culmination of a very successful year for Lady Antebellum, or an introduction to something called Esperanza Spalding

More than anything, people who cared just enough about the Grammys to get angry about the show’s choices for the year’s best music seemed to relish in their indignation over not knowing who some of the big winners were. Blogs dedicated to Internet commenters proudly professing ignorance of Arcade Fire and Lady Antebellum quickly sprang up. Justin Bieber fans, incensed over him losing the Best New Artist award to the relatively unknown Spalding, desecrated the winner’s Wikipedia page. The reaction actually seemed like a boon for the Grammys; in spite of everything, people still cared who won, and apparently there was an expectation that the winners should be widely known (or at least known to those getting all worked up). But even though Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, and Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now ranked just behind Recovery on the list of 2010’s top sellers, it was entirely plausible that millions of people could be totally unaware of what millions of other people were listening to, and shocked when the Grammys—the Grammys!—enlightened them. For an institution that’s been endlessly pilloried for being behind the times, the Grammys angered detractors in 2011 because the awards showed just how out of touch we are. 

“Look at any forum or comments box where random strangers find themselves talking about music, and you wind up peering into some kind of chauvinistic Tower Of Babel: so many people fiercely sure that their vantage point is normal, despite being surrounded by so many staggeringly, radically different backgrounds, perspectives, and frames of reference,” critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote in the wake of the Grammys in New York Magazine. Abebe offered a succinct distillation of this sort of thinking: “What you’ve heard of is real, and everything else is marginal. The center holds, and you are that center. You are normal and aware, and not just some tiny atomized entity that can only hope to know one tiny corner of the universe.” 

As everything changes rapidly around us, we as music fans in many ways still think we’re living in a Def Leppard world, where winning a Grammy means you’ve arrived, and going to No. 1 on the charts makes you a pop star. In reality, we live in a culture where the terms “mainstream” and “underground” have become virtually meaningless, as practically every song by every band ever is equally accessible, frequently at no cost, to anyone with an Internet connection and the interest to seek it out. “Pop” is no longer short for “popular”; it’s simply one choice in a sea of genres that can be programmed into your music player in order to block out all other kinds of music. Music-related fame has been democratized to a greater degree than at any point in the media age, dramatically eroding the concept of fame as we once knew it. In the process, that Hysteria-style hugeness has mostly gone away. 

The lack of blockbuster albums has caused obvious damage to the record industry, which once covered all of its money-losing investments in the majority of recording artists with a small number of superstar smashes. For music fans, the effect of audience fragmentation is harder to gauge. But it’s clear that music rarely unites us under the banner of mass-accepted artists anymore; even in a concert audience, we’re all just a bunch of individuals, with little connecting us to one another beyond a shared interest in the artist onstage—one artist among hundreds on our abundantly stocked iPods.

Sounds lonely, doesn’t it? Sometimes I yearn for the old world, the one I grew up in, a place where dinosaurs like Hysteria stomped around pop culture for months, if not years, leaving sizable impressions in the hearts of a generation, whether they liked it or not. But maybe that’s just my nostalgia talking. After all, aren’t wide-ranging choices, approachable artists, and sustainable careers preferable to monolithic, all-controlling corporate gatekeepers, rock-star aloofness, and too-much-too-soon, flash-in-the-pan burnouts? If the music scene is now so disparate that a term like “music scene” seems laughably anachronistic, is that really such a bad thing?

In We’re No. 1, I’ll be examining some of the most popular albums of all-time—all of them No. 1 records on the Billboard charts—in order to find out what made them so successful, what that success tells us about the culture at large at the time, and how it affected the artists. I’m intrigued by the ambitious dreamer who declares, “I want to be rich and famous” and actually pulls it off, and what the ramifications are of that. Ultimately, I want to see what we can learn about the present by studying the past, and determine whether we still have it in us to get behind one big, shiny, joyously accessible, and all-inclusive album again—or if we’re better off leaving those days behind. 

Let’s go back to the 2011 Grammys for a moment. Among the less controversial winners that night was soul-patch-heavy soft-rock outfit Train, which took home a trophy in the Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals category for a live version of the song “Hey Soul Sister.” Not that rewarding the screamingly saccharine “Hey Soul Sister” wasn’t worthy of outrage, but no one could deny that it was a genuine hit in 2010, topping iTunes’ most downloaded songs list and popping up in numerous commercials. It was the closest thing to a ubiquitous song that year.  

The sales numbers for “Hey Soul Sister” would’ve certainly garnered respect from Mutt Lange, producer of Maroon 5’s “Misery,” another nominee in the category. Like Swan, the mysteriously ageless record industry mastermind played by Paul Williams in Brian De Palma’s 1974 horror satire Phantom Of The Paradise, Lange has stayed at the center of the pop-music universe even as many of the acts he’s worked with over the years have faded. Along with Maroon 5’s 2010 album Hands All Over, Lange’s fingerprints can be seen on Lady Gaga’s forthcoming, sure-to-be-blockbuster album Born This Way (he produced the song “You & I”), as well as Nickelback’s multi-platinum 2008 effort, Dark Horse. 

And yet, in spite of being so close to the nexus of pop stardom for so long, Lange remains an enigma, a recluse who reportedly has purchased the rights to every photo ever taken of him, and has asked that his image be cropped out of promotional materials. (He wouldn’t even meet with Anthony Michael Hall to discuss his role in that VH1 movie.) Christopher Noxon was among the many journalists who Lange has turned down for an interview over the years, but he pressed on anyway for a profile of the camera-shy record-maker published in Canada’s The National Post in 2002. According to Noxon’s story, Lange is a “hard bargainer” when it comes to getting his share of the profits for the songs he writes and produces, and “receives upwards of $750,000 in upfront fees and in the neighborhood of five or six points on a record.” That’s a huge piece of the pie for a record producer, and it seems fair to assume that Lange’s fee has only gone up in the nine years since then. 

Not that his clients can’t afford it. Lange is most famous for working with AC/DC, Def Leppard, and his one-time muse and ex-wife Shania Twain, but he’s also produced records or written songs for mega-selling artists like Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Backstreet Boys, Billy Ray Cyrus, Britney Spears, Huey Lewis And The News, Billy Ocean, Celine Dion, and Michael Bolton. Looking over Lange’s résumé, one fact is obvious: This is a man that cares not one lick about critical respectability. He has worked in a variety of genres, and almost all of them are considered, in some respect, to be artistically disreputable—pop-metal, glossy Top 40 country, and teeny-bopper bubblegum all make up Mutt’s canvas. 

Many of his collaborators have called Lange a genius, but it’s the kind of genius that’s rewarded in cash rather than critical raves. “Mutt knows how to design pieces of music that keep you interested between the Ford commercial and the Coca-Cola commercial,” Nashville songwriting coach Ralph Murphy told Noxon with the no-bullshit directness of a music-business lifer. “That’s why radio loves him. He’ll keep you listening right until the last bar.”

Lange is also gifted at creating music that is best heard in the wide-open expanse of arenas or—if he really does his job well—stadiums. No matter the song or the sort of music, a Mutt Lange production ends up sounding undeniably like a Mutt Lange production, with brassy guitar riffs designed to rev up large crowds, stomping rhythms simple enough to be clapped out by tens of thousands of people, and choruses that lend themselves to mass sing-alongs and more than a little fist-pumping.

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Take “Love Bites,” which was released as a single from Hysteria after “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and went to become Def Leppard’s first (and so far only) No. 1 hit single. The idea for “Love Bites” originated from Lange, who conceived it in the style of an old-fashioned country tearjerker. By the time it appeared on Hysteria, “Love Bites” had been re-made into an archetypical late-’80s heavy-metal power ballad, bolstered by Leppard’s characteristically creamy and spotless harmonies. But beneath the big hair and outsized emoting is a song that sounds like a cousin of “Love Hurts,” the heartrending pop-country weepie originally recorded by the Everly Brothers and transformed into an arena-rock make-out classic by Nazareth in 1975. Lange famously made country songs sound as big as ’80s metal anthems with Shania Twain in the ’90s, but he was already honing that method in surprisingly subtle ways with Def Leppard several years earlier.

Lange found an ideal vehicle for his talents in Def Leppard, which roared out of Sheffield, England in the late ’70s with big dreams of mass stardom. That the band members were barely out of their teens—drummer Rick Allen was only 16 when the band released its 1980 debut, On Through The Night—didn’t make them tentative about aspiring toward seemingly outrageous goals: million-selling records, arena-filling concerts, and backstages bursting with groupies. 

Almost from the start of the band’s career, Def Leppard attracted attention for being more than “just” a normal metal band. Rolling Stone declared Def Leppard’s music to be “heavy metal for people who think,” a weirdly condescending sentiment for a magazine displaying a shirtless Eddie Murphy on that issue’s cover. Writer Bruce D. Rhodewalt went on to praise Leppard for not being a “bunch of rude louts who can’t write their own names and who bite the heads off small animals,” and for making music that “for this generation of teenagers … seems to offer a good deal of entertainment value.” (With that, he re-inserted his monocle and returned to his “serious” Crosby, Stills & Nash record.) 

If anything set Def Leppard apart from other metal bands in the early ’80s, it was the band’s attitude toward pop music. Raised on a steady diet of melodic, teen-oriented glam-rock bands like T. Rex and Mott The Hoople, Def Leppard didn’t have the hang-ups that many headbangers did about appealing to girls, kids, and anybody else outside the denim-clad gaggle of metal’s core audience. From the beginning Def Leppard set out to make, in the words of bassist Rick Savage, “pop with guitars.” 

The band’s timing, at least initially, proved perfect—the same year Pyromania fought a losing battle with Thriller for chart supremacy, a band from L.A.’s Sunset Strip rock scene named Quiet Riot released the first metal record, Metal Health, to go to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. L.A.-based bands would go on to create the most commercially successful form of youth-oriented rock music—known pejoratively as “hair” metal—for the remainder of the ’80s. Def Leppard held itself apart from that scene, but there were enough superficial similarities for the band to cash in had it been putting out records. While work on Pyromania follow-up Hysteria began in early 1984, it would take more than three years and several million dollars for the record to be completed. 

The making of Hysteria, and Def Leppard’s cursed existence during the process, has since become rock legend, so much so that it probably doesn’t need to be rehashed here. The most famous example of bad luck occurred when Allen lost his left arm in a car accident on New Year’s Eve 1984. But Allen’s horrific accident doesn’t account for a majority of the delays on Hysteria; four weeks later, Allen was back in the studio, practicing on a new electronic kit that allowed him to play what his left arm used to with his left foot. (The band also wasn’t greatly affected by a less-publicized malady: Singer Joe Elliott’s bout with the mumps, which he later told Rolling Stone made his testicles “swell up like elephant balls.”)

What stymied Def Leppard more than lost limbs and pummeled privates during the early days of Hysteria was not having Lange in the producer’s chair. He initially begged off the project because he was overseeing The CarsHeartbeat City, which predictably went on to spawn a number of hit singles, including “You Might Think” and the band’s only No. 1 (on the Adult Contemporary chart), “Drive.” Over the course of making High ’N’ Dry and Pyromania, Lange’s exacting work habits—which called for multiple takes in order to achieve absolute sonic perfection—had become Def Leppard’s work habits. After being pushed by Lange to max out the high end of his vocal range, Elliott now stood at the studio mic like a well-trained soldier. “If the song demands a top C, I’ll do it, because the melody is more important,” he told Rolling Stone in 1992. “I do it until I get it right. And if you practice long enough, you get there in the end.”

In the absence of Lange, Def Leppard hired Jim Steinman to produce Hysteria. Best known for writing Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album, Steinman was the opposite of a pop perfectionist, preferring to work quickly in the studio in order to capture takes with the best feel. (Guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen later called Steinman a “bozo” in Rolling Stone.) After sacking Steinman and floating along with Lange’s engineer Nigel Green as they tried to produce themselves, the members of Def Leppard finally coaxed Lange back into the fold, and immediately began redoing all the songs they’d already recorded. 

Now Def Leppard was back to aiming high: The goal was to make a hard-rock Thriller, a behemoth that would just keep selling for months and months thanks to a steady stream of hit songs. In short, Hysteria was meant to be a de-facto greatest-hits record. In spite of Lange’s reputation for being a calculating technician, it was his ability to think extemporaneously that ensured Hysteria’s future triumph. With the record at 11 songs and nearly complete, Lange pushed the band to come up with one more track. Then he heard Elliott fooling around in the control booth with an irresistible hook on his acoustic guitar, something about sugar. 

It sounds like another scene from a TV movie, but this one really happened: By Def Leppard’s standards, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” fell together quickly and organically. It was the result of simple arithmetic: Take the band’s usual arena-rock stomp, add a dash of techno-pop sweetening, sprinkle Joe Elliott’s half-sung/half-rapped vocals over the top, and voila: A song with a little something for everybody. “When we did ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me,’ it was only written because Run DMC and Aerosmith had done ‘Walk This Way,’” Elliott said in a 2000 interview. “All of the sudden, rock and rap did mix, so we wrote our own.”

Displaying equal amounts of shamelessness and panache, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is no less engaging for seeming to be genetically engineered to become a hit on late ’80s pop and rock radio. But it was the video that really sold the whole Def Leppard package. It showed the band in full rock-god mode, playing for a sea of alluringly sexy ladies just dying to get inside Joe Elliott’s stylishly ripped jeans. The video for “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is nothing less than a commercial for the arena-rock experience: See the lights! The lasers! The shirtless guitarists who appear to stand 10 feet tall! 

There’s an old rule in stand-up comedy that says the audience laughs more if the lights are down, because darkness makes people feel less self-conscious. A similar sort of escape happened with arena rock. In the “Pour Some Sugar On Me” video, you can’t see most of the audience because they’ve willingly sublimated to Def Leppard’s larger-than-life sound and being. The audience is anonymous, faceless, but it’s a blissful anonymity.

“From the day we started in 1977, we wanted to be biggest band in world,” Elliott later said of the band’s Hysteria period. “By the time that album came out and the tour kicked in, we were.” But what do you do then? When the Hysteria tour wrapped in late 1988, Def Leppard rewarded itself by taking three weeks off, and then the band headed off to rural Holland to begin writing songs for what became 1992’s Adrenalize. Lange served as executive producer, but didn’t have the same hands-on involvement he had on the band’s previous three records. 

Def Leppard had to deal with an even bigger loss during the Adrenalize sessions: Guitarist Steve Clark was granted a six-month leave of absence by the band in 1990 after he was found comatose in a Minneapolis gutter and subsequently admitted to a psychiatric hospital. His blood alcohol level was .59; Rolling Stone noted that when Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died from asphyxiation after downing 40 vodka shots in 24 hours, his BAL was .41. The hiatus from Def Leppard was supposed to give Clark time to clean up, but it ended up sealing his fate. On Jan. 8, 1991, he was found dead from an overdose of codeine; he was 30 years old. 

As always, Def Leppard carried on, scrapping the recordings made with Clark and re-doing them with Collen playing all the guitar parts. (Clark was later replaced by Vivian Campbell.) Def Leppard has continued making records, and while they don’t sell nearly as well as in the band’s glory days, 2008’s Songs From The Sparkle Lounge did debut at No. 5 on the Billboard albums chart. It was Def Leppard’s 11th straight Top 20 album since Pyromania; the record sold 55,000 copies in its first week, and then like most albums these days, it quickly slid down the charts and into the nether regions of the band’s discography. 

To Joe Elliott’s chagrin, Def Leppard isn’t placed among the important British rock groups, no matter the musical merits of Pyromania and Hysteria or those albums’ indisputable track record of influence and popularity in their time. Def Leppard, funnily enough, is considered to be just another ’80s metal band. “It’s nice to walk down Oxford Street without being recognized, but then again, when music magazines write about us they take the piss because we’re not as cool as Johnny Marr, who isn’t as successful as us by a million miles,” Elliott said in 2010. “Bands who have sold shitloads of records, whether it be us or Depeche Mode, are becoming footnotes.”

It’s true that Hysteria is tied to the era that produced it, obviously because of the glossy production and Def Leppard’s look and sound, but also because the album touched so many people at a very specific point in time. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” conjures the late ’80s as surely as Motown is aural shorthand for the ’60s, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” signifies the grungy early ’90s, and, well, like no single song or artist defines the burgeoning ’10s. Hysteria was a record designed for a wide audience, by people who had witnessed that audience embrace their heroes. It’s an album guided by the belief—nay, the expectation—that ultimate greatness is tied up in reaching millions. Listening to Hysteria today, that belief is the most dated aspect of all. But Def Leppard needn’t take it personally. In the current musical landscape, everybody is a footnote.  

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