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With Pyromania, Def Leppard made a pop-metal hybrid for the ages

With <i>Pyromania</i>, Def Leppard made a pop-metal hybrid for the ages
Image: Natalie Peeples
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In 1983, when much of the music world was turning toward “modern-sounding” synths and electronic music, one young outfit from Sheffield, England was about to make its impact by focusing on straight-ahead rock. Def Leppard’s Pyromania actually bridged the disparate musical islands of pop and metal, resulting in a blockbuster album that was only kept out of the Billboard top spot for six whole months by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Pyromania was only the band’s third album (in as many years), but when it came out, the median age of its members was around 21. They specialized in atomic, anthemic calls to action like “Let It Go” off of 1981’s High ’N’ Dry, resulting in a tour supporting AC/DC, an outfit that was no stranger to the rock anthem itself. Def Leppard’s concoctions featured catchy builds, highlighted by the born-to-front-a-rock-band vocals of Joe Elliott and the guitar playing of Steve Clark, who could also craft amazing lyrical hooks out of ferocious riffs.

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

What Pyromania really had going for it, however, was the production by one Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who had also worked on High ’N’ Dry. His demanding, multi-take precision methods resulted in erratic guitarist Pete Willis being replaced with Elliott’s friend Phil Collen, for a light metal album that practically shone from all the gloss. This early ’80s era marked a bit of a rock high point for Lange, as he also went into the studio with AC/DC for Back In Black and Foreigner for its classic 4 album. Soon Lange would take off for the schlockier waters of Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, and future wife Shania Twain, but meanwhile, he corralled a randy group of post-teens in the studio to create a career-making hit album. Pyromania’s not-so-hidden theme is “more cowbell.”

The album took nine months to record, according to Classic Rock, and would need to sell at least 3 million copies to get the band out of debt. But Joe Elliott wasn’t worried: “We knew we’d made a great record… And we knew it had the potential to be huge.” The young Elliott was downright prophetic: Pyromania went on to sell 10 million copies in the U.S., going platinum several times over.

You could find a cassette of Pyromania in a high-schooler’s Chevy Nova in practically any town in the country (at one point, it was reportedly selling 100,000 copies a day in the U.S., begging the question, who didn’t own Pyromania in 1983?). Hard-rocking songs by metal bands were a dime a dozen; hard-rocking songs with hooks that refused to get out of your head, augmented by Elliott’s commanding vocals and Lange’s polished production, made Pyromania the album that first paved the way for Def Leppard’s ascent, culminating in its 2019 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction. The album also contains an invaluable combo of hunger and fun—elements missing on follow-up Hysteria, which sold even better. Def Leppard had already poured all that vibrant energy into Pyromania, securing its spot in the rock firmament.

The album kicks off with a triumphant flourish of keyboards (supplied by Thomas Dolby himself) as if announcing the arrival of Def Leppard with considerable fanfare. Unfortunately, that fanfare leads us to “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop),” a slight dirge that shows the AC/DC “call to rocking” influence, but with mind-numbingly repetitive lyrics like “Rock! Rock! Till you drop / Rock! Rock! Never stop.” For a kickoff, it still captivates, as Joe Elliott’s powerful, multi-octave vocals and well-rocked guitars vie for dominance.

Fortunately, some (though not all) of the songs veered away from the themes of just straight-up rocking. Pyromania’s second track is its high point: Not only was the pop brilliance of “Photograph” immediately palatable for the non-metal fan, but also it blazed a metal trail on the nascent video platform of MTV. Unlike darker metal outfits like Sabbath or Iron Maiden, the Def Leppard boys were TV-ready cute—like a boy band with instruments, long hair, and a multitude of bandanas. Most importantly, they actually seemed to be having a good time, effortlessly chiming in on multi-part harmonies (early ’80s Van Halen developed a similar fun party vibe for 1984, and they already had the vocals down).

Def Leppard appeared less concerned with snarling at the camera than using it to seduce new fans. The video itself is a bit of a mishmash: A Marilyn Monroe stand-in, the girl in the photograph of the title, gets murdered. (When in doubt, just add some hot dystopian women in cages—a disturbingly common trend in 1980s videos.) Still, the band joining in on the “Oooh-oooh” before the chorus is damn near irrepressible, and Elliott’s eight-second commitment to the last note in “You’ve gone straight to my heeeeeaaaaaad” remains a thing of beauty decades later. Incoherent video aside, “Photograph” stands tall as a perfect pop song—albeit one with cowbell—by a metal band.

“Stagefright” starts out fiercely, with Elliot taunting, “Welcome to my show,” as he sets us up for a typically heavy dirge before shifting to the tamer chorus. “Stagefright all night, your dream starts today,” he sings, perhaps revealing the true feelings of songwriter-guitarist Steve Clark, who occasionally suffered from acute stage fears, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. “Too Late For Love” starts out like the bleak score to a spaghetti Western with tumbleweeds running through it, of a piece with the band’s previous success “Bringin’ On The Heartache”—a nightmare relationship scenario, and yet, a rare metal-ish song with love right there in the title. The album’s cinematic theme continues with the helicopter effects that kick off “Die Hard The Hunter,” a well-crafted ode to the tough domestic transition of a post-war vet: “Let’s toast the hero with blood in his eyes / The scars on his mind took so many lives.”

Then, mid-album, Pyromania kicks into high gear with the double blast of “Foolin’” and “Rock Of Ages.” The triple threat of these two tracks with “Photograph” (and their accompanying videos) is what propelled Pyromania to that (almost) Billboard top spot. “Foolin’” is another relationship song: In the video, Elliott is the one not so subtly in bondage this time, but as he pines for his lost love, he also lets out a fierce rant against solitude in general. The multi-multi-tracked vocals of “Is anybody out there?” tapped into the psyches of disaffected teens who felt like they were the only lonely ones out there.

“Rock Of Ages” is yet another “call to rock,” but it stands as one of the greats. Nonsense words, more cowbell, and yet the only possible answer to the question “What do you want?” is “I want rock ’n’ roll.” It’s Elliott’s show all the way here (with Rick Allen’s percussion close behind), an enticing invitation to a new rawk generation to burn out before it fades away. His evil giggle at the end just clinches it. One of the myriad fascinating anecdotes in the greatest episode of VH1’s Behind The Music episode of all time—the Def Leppard one—is the fact that while the young band was touring the globe, it had concocted a giant circular stage. While Elliott and Allen dragged out a long call-and-response “Rock Of Ages” intro with the massive crowd, the guitarists all headed under the circular stage and traveled a hedonistic gauntlet of sex and drugs until it was time for them to return to the stage.

After Pyromania’s midpoint peak, things wind down rather nicely with the last three songs. The chugga-chugga momentum of “Comin’ Under Fire” is another example of Def Leppard’s now-perfected mix of rock edge with pop sensibilities. “Action! Not Words,” with its twanging guitars, calls back to the record’s movie theme, but with an MTV-era sensibility: “I’m gonna make my own movie / I wanna star in a late night show / And all I need is my video.” And “Billy’s Got A Gun” (which predates Aerosmith’s similarly titled song by several years) showed, like “Die Hard The Hunter,” that Def Leppard wasn’t always consumed with whether it was time to rock or not, instead crafting a harrowing tale of a wrongly accused man out for revenge. Steeping the last song in this “danger” is an ominous, effective note to leave Pyromania hanging on; as a coda, the album trails off curiously with an electronic dirge, maybe hinting at the more synth-driven sounds to come.

Even with the success of Pyromania and its too-slick follow-up, Hysteria, which sold 25 million copies worldwide, dark times were approaching for Def Leppard. On New Year’s Eve 1984, drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a car accident (another compelling bit in that Behind The Music episode—it actually tracks down the two strangers who found Allen on the side of the road and tried to save his arm). Allen made an improbable comeback, but in 1991, Steve Clark’s alcoholism led to his death at the age of 30, and the band lost one of its most talented songwriters.

The Behind The Music episode was filmed in 1998 and depicts Def Leppard as a band of thirtysomethings looking for a comeback. The advent of grunge cast them as dinosaurs, even though they probably weren’t that much older than Eddie Vedder and company. The lineup has remained much the same ever since, with Vivian Campbell replacing Clark, and this year’s Rock Hall induction extends not only to Clark but to Willis, that early guitarist.

Every year, the Hall Of Fame pares down a list of countless deserving acts to about 15 nominees, and sure, we’d all like to see T. Rex or Rufus with Chaka Khan in there as well. That doesn’t mean that the members of Def Leppard have no right to be there. They make up one of only five rock bands that have two original studio albums selling over 10 million copies in the U.S. They made metal palatable to an audience that otherwise might have shunned it. They helped usher other bands into the MTV era. And they seemed to actually enjoy their resounding success, with little of the in-fighting and squabbles of other bands, even though they were barely out of adolescence when their huge success first hit.

And with Pyromania, Def Leppard made a pop-metal hybrid for the ages, wearing out the needles of turntables in a multitude of teens’ bedrooms. There’s a certain brand of fortysomething who is still trying to nail that opening “Photograph” riff on guitar, who attempts a call-and-response with a karaoke take on “Rock Of Ages,” who can appreciate and even gravitate toward a song that just wants to rock you—nothing more, and certainly nothing less.