1987 was the year a band named for an aurally challenged big cat conquered popular music. After achieving a startling degree of mainstream success with 1983’s Pyromania, Def Leppard set out to make an album that would incite even more people to rock rock till they dropped. The final product, Hysteria, would eventually and emphatically plant metal’s flag at the top of the charts.
As anyone who’s seen This Is Spinal Tap can tell you though, it was pretty much impossible for a British metal band in the ’80s to cut a hit record without the endeavor being in some way fraught. First, the legendarily persnickety producer Mutt Lange quit within a year and was replaced with Bat Out of Hell visionary Jim Steinman, whose vision just as quickly proved incompatible with the band’s. To close out 1984, drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a terrible car crash. Then singer Joe Elliott came down with the mumps. Lange returned, only to be sidelined by a (considerably less severe) accident of his own.
But the rock kept rolling. The band stood by Allen and he came back with a custom kit and a three-limbed drumming technique — he continues to bang the tubs for Def Leppard to this day. The mumps receded and most importantly, the band and Lange had a unified vision of what a more commercially appealing metal album should sound like. Finding that sound would mean countless hours of tweaking and layering in the studio, and thus a significant break from their sweatier, live-take roots. The album version of “Rocket” is a veritable science project made of drum machine and other samples, but still somehow courses with the unmistakable lifeblood of heavy metal.
The search for the right sound also meant rejecting amp after amp until finally settling on the portable Rockman, the brainchild of Boston guitarist/gearhead Tom Scholz. What engineer Mike Shipley would later call “that ****@y little box” [sic] was selected for its lack of crunchiness, which made it a better tool for layering guitar takes. Indeed, while Hysteria isn’t devoid of all crunch, its guitars are remarkably clean for a metal album, and even more remarkably shallow. Though little else about the two bands’ sounds is similar, hone in on some of this album’s guitars and you’ll hear the slightest hint of Boston amid Def Leppard’s towering hooks.
And man, are those hooks massive. Every song on Hysteria is capable of blowing the roof of an arena sky-high, and several are liable to raze a stadium to the ground. Album opener “Women” immediately and appropriately sets the tone as Elliott sings of ice, fire, and “skin on skin,” explaining the origins of the fairer sex in epic fashion. As God grants man the blessing and curse of “lots of pretty women,” the force behind the band’s throaty backing vocals expands the soundscape of the record to biblical scope.
Those husky harmonies are a certified Def Leppard trademark, and lend a great complement to Elliott’s propulsive stylings. The band is perfectly capable of hanging with Elliott at upper registers when the occasion calls for it, as it enthusiastically does on the unabashedly melodramatic ballad “Love Bites.” In some ways this is attributable to Lange’s studio wizardry. But the backing vocals are at their most effective when providing contrast, like in the call-and-response chorus of “Armageddon It.”
If pop metal has a zenith, it’s almost certainly to be found among the dizzying heights of Hysteria, and it might just be “Armageddon It”. All in one song, Def Leppard throws in an absurd pun on the end of the world, the aforementioned call-and-response featuring the phrase “Gimme all of your lovin’,” and a kickass solo to boot from lead guitarist Steve Clark. Or is it lead single “Animal,” which includes another silly pun (the titular creature actually doubles as a full clause), a bridge in which Elliott howls at the moon, and perhaps the album’s most soaring hook? But then again it might be the strip club anthem “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which features an iterative thunderclap of a beat, one of the more infectious riffs of all time, and lyrics that barely qualify as innuendo (“You’ve got the peaches, I’ve got the cream”). For many fans, this is the band’s theme and most enduring hit.
If Side B is slightly weaker than Side A, that’s only because the first six tracks include no fewer than six smash hit singles in a row. No one could accuse “Run Riot” or “Don’t Shoot Shotgun” of failing to rock. “Gods of War” is as awesome as its name implies, though its full minute of Reagan, Thatcher, and miscellaneous combat samples feels a bit de rigueur for the decade.
Nestled toward the end is the title track, which might be the tightest alchemical synthesis of pop and metal on the whole album. It’s not quite slow enough to be a ballad, but it’s almost all melody right down to the guitar solo. It also represents the apotheosis of the Mutt Lange method: the song is so meticulously produced that every guitar chord you hear, clean almost to the point of sounding acoustic, was built from the ground up by recording separate notes played on an open string.
Def Leppard had broken irrevocably with the so-called new wave of British heavy metal. But, at the height of their powers, they had also created a blueprint for other hard rock acts to follow if they ever wanted more than a just taste of mainstream success. Indeed, Hysteria would go on to utterly dominate the mainstream in a way no metal album ever had, and in so doing set the stage for pop metal’s moment in the spotlight. Eventually grunge would emerge out of the alternative scene to angrily reject everything about what hard rock had become, but in 1987 that seemed an utter impossibility — everyone in the world was listening to Def Leppard.