Def Leppard - Hysteria

On New Years Eve 1984, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen was driving his Corvette to a New Years Party when an Alfa Romeo challenged him to a street race. During the race, Allen’s car sped off the road and over a wall, throwing him out into a field and ripping off his left arm. At the hospital, doctors reattached that arm, but because of an infection, they had to remove it again, permanently this time. A month and a half later, Allen was out of the hospital and back with his band again, understandably bummed because he didn’t think he’d be able to keep playing drums. For drummers in popular rock bands, the use of both arms had, to that point, always been sort of a career requirement. But Leppard frontman Joe Elliott pushed a depressed Allen to meet with engineers, who’d eventually help Allen put together a mostly-electronic drum kit that he could still play with one arm missing, using his feet to trigger synthetic booms. And that triumphant story fundamentally changed the band’s sound, leading them to spend the next couple of years making their best and biggest album. So Hysteria, which turns 25 today, is a triumph of the human spirit, and it’s also an album that changed the way commercial rock sounded. It’s a special thing.

Leppard was always known as a metal band, and the cyber-freaked Hysteria cover art used to scare the eight-year-old me when I saw it staring at me on the Woolworth’s music rack, the same way Iron Maiden covers would scare me (in a good way). But really, Hysteria isn’t a metal record at all. It’s the biggest, shiniest, most expensive-sounding rock record maybe ever. It’s all hooks and keyboard diddles and ahh-ahh backing vocals. And gigantic drums. Because of his disability and his brand-new drum setup, Allen didn’t play like a rock drummer anymore; he played like a mechanized beast. Leppard had always brought a serious glam-rock fixation to their sound, but with Allen playing the way he did, they took that even further, bringing the thunderously simplistic backbeat stomp of T. Rex and Gary Glitter into an era when rap and rave were in their commercial infancy. Over those gigantic beats, they layered yelps and squiggles and goofy samples and hooks so sticky that, listening to the album today for the first time in a few years, I can sing along with pretty much every word no problem. The band spent years recording and rerecording and mixing and re-mixing the thing, making it sound as glittery and humungous as they possibly could, and when it came out, they apologized for taking so long in the liner notes. But the levels of antiseptic perfection in this album takes time to achieve, and really, they had nothing to feel sorry for.

The Human League’s Phil Oakey, a friend of Leppard’s, once said that Hysteria was basically a Human League record, except that Leppard had a producer who knew enough to make the guitars sound heavy enough that it wouldn’t scare off the synthpop-averse — sort of the same way the Killers’ Hot Fuss is early-’00s teenpop with enough Interpol and the Faint in there that they somehow found a way to ride that moment’s return-of-the-rock hype to stardom. But that’s not really giving enough credit to Hysteria’s producer: Mutt Lange, the greatest butt-rock producer of all time. Lange had worked with the band before, on Hysteria’s gagillion-selling predecessor Pyromania, which had taken the band from relative bar-rock anonymity to global stardom. He’d already worked strenuously with the band to remove any trace of grit from their sound, transforming them into a crazy-efficient hook-machine. And with Hysteria, he wanted to make a rock version of Thriller, an album where every song could be a single.

He succeeded. Hysteria really does sound like a ready-made greatest-hits album. More than half of the album’s songs were hits, and the ones that weren’t — “Don’t Shoot Shotgun,” say, or “Excitable” — easily could’ve been. In its way, the album is as perfectly commercially calibrated as anything Journey or Boston did during their peaks; the hooks just rise up and obliterate anything around them. But it’s also more idiosyncratic, more drawn to dance music. “Rocket” is just a big stomping tribal-rock groove drawn out to six and a half minutes, with wonderfully goofy lyrics and vaguely militaristic samples. “Love Bites” is a top-shelf power ballad that Lange wrote as a country song, one that his future wife and collaborator Shania Twain could’ve done big things with, but it also has these ghostly little Art Of Noise synth-gasps. And Joe Elliott has a more distinctive voice, one with a lot more personality and vulnerability, than Journey or Boston did — a triumphantly girly pinched wail that meshed beautifully with the rest of the band’s equally breathy backing vocals. And then there’s the pure goofiness element, which had to be intentional (or at least self-conscious) and which Leppard’s more serious ancestors and peers never could’ve brought themselves to approach.

Hysteria came out a few weeks after Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, and it later traded the American #1 spot with that album a couple of times. Both albums have a lot in common: They’re both pristinely recorded, expertly recorded rock albums with serious rhythmic fixations and extremely high budgets. But it’s fun to think about what set them apart. Appetite came from a band who seemed legitimately dangerous, a crew of reprobates who wanted to pull you into their decadent world. The Leppard of Hysteria, meanwhile, came off like a quintessentially British group of good-time boneheads. There wasn’t the slightest thing threatening about them, and even their big political song, “Gods Of War,” seemed proudly and almost defiantly meaningless — more an excuse to show off their machinery by sampling politicians’ voices and helicopter noises than any sort of cogent statement. In fact, there’s pretty much no sweeping meaning to any of the lyrics on Hysteria. The band knows this, and they couldn’t give less of a damn. When Elliott mutters, “Rocket [pause], yeah” at the end of “Rocket,” you can practically hear him wink. That willful campiness is why I cringed so hard to see Tom Cruise bringing all his usual terrifying elfin intensity to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” in those Rock Of Ages trailers. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” isn’t about rock-god authenticity, or whatever the hell Cruise was trying to radiate there. It’s about having fun. And so Appetite is almost certainly a better album, but I’ve got a ton of affection for Hysteria’s lopsidedly-grinning sugar-rush abandon.

Unabashedly commercial albums like Hysteria tend to get a bad rap among indie-rock types, and their spiritual descendents get it even worse. But I’d take Hysteria over any of the Replacements albums that were coming out around the same time. When you’re thinking about an album like this, the key is acknowledging that its goals are completely different, that it’s more about moving mountains through sound and melody than expressing the dark ambiguities of the soul. And when someone makes a commercial rock album this perfect, it’s a tremendous human achievement worth celebrating. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Taylor Swift’s Fearless, an album I adore, for L Magazine (it’s sadly apparently been scrubbed from the internet). I compared it to Hysteria (and Michael Jackson’s Bad, and the first half of Hot Fuss). And the message I signed off with is one that applies just as much to Hysteria: “Respect motherfucking craft when you hear it.”

But let me step off my pulpit long enough to ask you guys what you think. Where does Hysteria fit into your worldview? Is it a great album, one deserving of respect, or is it another example of a soulless ’80s pop corporate machine? Can it be both? What’s your favorite Leppard song? What’s your favorite memory of hearing the album? And if someone offered you tickets to see Leppard tonight, how many seconds would it take you to say yes?

Also, let’s watch some videos.

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Comments (45)
  1. my favorite track was and always will be ‘run riot’ for the guitar solo alone. not that i, um, listen to this album any more. cough.

  2. A very special album, in a special olympics kind of way.

  3. The first album I was really truly obsessed over. My tastes have changed since then, but goddamn if I couldn’t sing along with just about every song on that record (and have a goofy grin on my face while doing it). There’s stuff on that record I probably haven’t heard in 15 years–”Gods of War”, for instance, which immediately popped into my head when I read the mention of it.

    It’ll always have a special place for me, even if I never listen to it again.

  4. Good album. Better than Appetite.

  5. What’s got 8 legs, 7 arms, and sucks…?

  6. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  7. What’s with the butt rock on here lately?

  8. I wasn’t going to say anything about you guys not writing anything about OK Computer’s 15th anniversary. However, since you have now done the all-important Def Leppard tribute that your readers have been clamoring for, yeah, why not pay tribute to the album that likely inspired many people who are now in their late twenties or early thirties to make that fateful dive into the world of experimental music?

  9. Spaceballs just turned 25, too!

  10. I’m going to get some downvotes here, but I’m going to say I just don’t much care for Def Leppard. Shocking, controversial opinion on Stereogum, I know.

  11. Metalers always considered Leppard pop metal. You can’t really separate Hysteria from Pyromania except that Hysteria was the apotheosis of the slick poppy over-the-top hook fest that Pyromania already was striving for. They were considered metal by grade school kids that just kind of knew they had the same types of t-shirts as other metal bands. They were always called the first metal sellouts by their English peers because they always wanted to conquer America. I’m surprised the article didn’t also cover that it took almost a year for Hysteria to get huge. Pour Some Sugar on me blew up many many months after the album was released- a lot of people probably remember it as the 4th single. Cool story bro if I don’t say so myself! I love the anniversary features- maybe I wish they weren’t so much chasing lost youth as discussing interesting albums, but I don’t think there is a limit for any of these pieces so I won’t complain. I’ll just ask for more pieces about maybe great or interesting albums that have been forgotten.

  12. It’s a great album for what it is, simple to the point grandstanding sonic ear candy rock and roll. But the difference is that some of the songs are actually great and memorable….and the emotion is real, not 80s cock rock posturing and sap. Def Leppard were really a viable act and there was truly some level of artistry in their work. Not unlike The Cars. Heartbeat City and self titled are radio friendly where nearly all the songs were hits, but it comes together in a fusion of great hooks, great song-writing and absolutely extraordinary production. If I’m not mistaken Mutt did both records. Great piece Tom, really and I think you hit the nail on the head with appreciating albums that cater to a pop demographic but somehow manage to transcend the artistic limitations of that world. Otherwise Thriller couldn’t be held at classic standard because thats also a slickly produced radio hungry POP record…but man, what a great slickly produced radio hungry POP record it is…and a big ditto for Hysteria

  13. great album

  14. simple to the point grandstanding sonic ear candy rock and roll. But the difference is that some of the songs are actually great and memorable….and the emotion is real, not 80s cock rock posturing and sap. Def Leppard were really a viable act and there was truly some level of artistry in their work. Not unlike The Cars. Heartbeat City and self titled are radio friendly where nearly all the songs were hits, but it comes together in a fusion of great hooks, great song-writing and absolutely extraordinary production. If I’m not mistaken Mutt did both records. Great piece Tom, really and I think you hit the nail on the head with appreciating albums that cater to a pop demographic but somehow manage to transcend the artistic limitations of that world. Otherwise Thriller couldn’t be held at classic standard because thats also a slickly produced radio hungry POP record…but man, what a great slickly produced radio hungry POP record it is…and a big ditto for Hysteria

  15. To celebrate I poured some extra sugar into my coffee today.

  16. PYROMANIA!

  17. need deluxe edition reissue.

  18. def leppard sucks

  19. This is a great fucking album. Particularly if you lived it as a 15-17 year old (because it was around that damn long).

    Hindsight and the passing of time will always makes people view things differently. Personal tastes change, so what was “cool” then becomes “lame” now without ever being given a fair chance. Would I pay to go see Def Leppard now? No, I would not. Will I listen to Hysteria front to back and marvel at how damn near perfect it is? Yes, I will. And I don’t listen to anything other music of this type from the entirety of that decade.

    From where I sit, anybody who appreciates well written, well produced music should be able to do that, regardless of whether or not it’s “your thing”. I won’t fight about it and I’m not claiming to be “right”. I just believe with every ounce of my being that this is a great album, always will be, and that it unfairly gets shit on because it was “popular” “pop” “hair metal” etc. and whatever.

  20. *Any other music. Fuck I wish I could remember to proofread BEFORE hitting “Submit Comment”.

  21. 87 was really the last hurrah of 80s metal, total downhill FAST once 88 came, Hysteria was the peak for sure. but yes the album definitely deserves respect, it’s near flawless.

  22. Another solid article. I bought this album the day it came out and I proceeded to play the hell out of it for 3 years. Guns get a LOT of credit and hype for putting out ONE good album. The Leps had 3(High & Dry, Pyro, Hysteria). Hysteria also was on the top 10 album charts in the U.S. for a year straight. It also got to 10 million in sales before any other hard rock album(including Back In Black). To me, it still holds up and even though I’m sick of hearing PSSOM, I’ll take it any day over any song in the sparse Guns catalog of decent songs.
    One thing that’s forgotten about this band is the Hysteria tour was the top tour for any hard rock band in the latter part of the 80′s. The show was in the round, which had never been done by a rock band(Prince bought it from them to do his Lovesexy tour afterwards) and their sets pretty much put an end to long guitar solos(except maybe Van Halen) and drum solos. Anyone that was there knows the deal.
    Unfortunately, when Steve Clark died and Mutt moved on, the band kind of gave up. Adrenalize just didn’t live up to their past works. If they had delivered another Hysteria, people would probably talk about them the way they talk about the greatest artists of all time. Now, it seems they’re just in it for the money. Playing with everyone from REO Speedwagon to Poison. It’s really one of the biggest disappointments in rock history.

  23. You guys, this is not news.
    “Hysteria” is–and always will be–a masterpiece.
    I’ve said it for years, I said it here awhile ago, take comfort.

    http://sockmonkeysound.com/articles/def-leppard-hysteria/

  24. You guys, this is not news.
    “Hysteria” is–and always will be–a masterpiece.
    I’ve said it for years, and I said it formally quite awhile ago.
    Relax, put your legs up and take comfort all ye nerds.

    http://sockmonkeysound.com/articles/def-leppard-hysteria/

    AW
    http://andywhorehall.com

  25. As much fun as it is, let’s be honest. It still sounds like a band with a one-armed drummer.

  26. Nice article. Loved this album when i was 10.

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