Hysteria Turns 25
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.