In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Mutt Lange had a vision. In a Guitar World interview a few years ago, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen laid that vision out in plain language: Lange wanted “a hard rock version of Thriller.” Lange planned for Def Leppard’s next album to be something that wouldn’t just cross over to the pop charts. He intended to make something that would just smother them. This was a lofty goal. Lange and Def Leppard basically succeeded. Def Lep had never had a top-10 single in the US before their 1987 album Hysteria. That changed. Hysteria has 12 songs, and it spun off seven singles. Four of those singles made it into the top 10. One of them — the only one in Def Leppard’s decades-long history — got to #1. That’s not Thriller, but it’s about as close as hard rock ever got.
It was the ballad that did it, of course. For the hard rock bands of the late ’80s, it was almost always the ballad that pushed them over the top. When Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” finally had its week atop the Hot 100 in America, Hysteria had already been out for more than a year, and it had sold seven million copies. (Its tally is now past diamond.) At the end of 1988, Billboard named Hysteria the #3 highest-selling album of the year, behind only Faith and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
The funny thing about “Love Bites” is that the band never played it all together in one room until after it reached #1 in the US. Hysteria was a mutant beast of an album, painstakingly assembled in the studio over years. This was not a case of a bunch of guys getting into a room together and hitting record. Mutt Lange surrounded the band with samples and screeches and whooshes and his own aaah-aaahs. (Lange did the album’s backup vocals himself.) The album’s drum sounds were an entire tragic and triumphant saga unto themselves; we’ll get into that below. Def Leppard had a set full of hits, so they never had to play “Love Bites” live until after the song hit #1. When “Love Bites” reached its chart apex, the band, on tour at the time, rented a studio so that they could figure out how to do their own biggest hit in front of vast crowds. The band figured it out. Def Leppard always figured it out.
When they landed that one #1 hit, Def Leppard had been a band for more than a decade. They’d formed in 1977 in Sheffield, when all the members of the group were teenagers. (Drummer Rick Allen was 15 when he joined up.) The Def Lep guys had been fans of glam rock as kids, and when they became a part of the UK’s surging early-’80s metal movement — the storied New Wave Of British Heavy Metal — they kept the stomping simplicity of early-’70s glitter-rock. An indie EP, released in 1979, caught on in part because tastemaking BBC DJ John Peel played their song “Getcha Rocks Off,” which doesn’t sound too terribly different from the punk and pub-rock that he was advocating for at the time.
Leppard signed with Mercury, and they released their debut album On Through The Night in 1980. It did well in the UK, and it got Leppard onto some big tours, opening for bands like AC/DC. Shortly thereafter, masterful crunch-rock producer Mutt Lange, coming off of the monster success of AC/DC’s Back In Black, signed on to produce Leppard’s 1981 album High ‘N’ Dry. That LP made a pretty good dent in America. None of the High ‘N’ Dry singles charted in the US, but Def Lep were figuring things out. With Lange’s help, they’d cleaned up their sound, making their drums boom and their guitars gleam and turning their choruses into massive arena-rock singalong material. Leppard’s “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” clip also got some burn in MTV’s very early years, a sign of things to come for the band.
Leppard knew that they had something, so they worked with Mutt Lange again on their 1983 album Pyromania. That’s the one where Lange really took over, cramming all kinds of slick, showy tricks into every track. Lange got a co-writing credit on every song from Pyromania, and the album took off in the US, making Def Leppard into stars. Pyromania was platinum within a few months, and then it just kept selling. (It’s diamond now.) On the album charts, Pyromania got as high as #2, only kept out of the top spot by Thriller. (No wonder Mutt Lange had Thriller on the brain during the Hysteria sessions.)
Def Leppard’s whole sound, vast and loud and expensive and almost insanely catchy, was custom-built to dominate American radio, which was a target for the band even from the beginning. (Leppard invited UK backlash by including a single called “Hello America” on their first album.) Pyromania came out during the period where American pop radio hadn’t yet fully embraced metal, even in its most pop variant, so none of the Pyromania singles reached the top 10. But a few of those songs came close; “Photograph,” the biggest of them, peaked at #12. Just as important, Leppard turned their videos into live-action cartoons, which made them inescapable on MTV and which might have created a blueprint for plenty of the glam metal bands that followed.
Pyromania helped establish an environment where a metal record could cross over, and if Leppard had finished up a follow-up album quickly, it could’ve been them, rather than Bon Jovi, who kicked off the glam-metal era on the charts. That’s not how things went down. Instead, the process of putting Hysteria together was long and painful. When the band started work on it, Mutt Lange needed a break, so Leppard teamed up with rock’s other leading maximalist: Jim Steinman, a man whose work has appeared in this column before and will appear in this column again. Steinman and the band didn’t get along at all, and they got rid of him quickly. None of what they made with Steinman has ever come out.
A few days after Def Leppard fired Jim Steinman, on New Year’s Eve 1984, drummer Rick Allen was on his way to a party when he crashed his Corvette over a wall on a hairpin turn. The accident severed Allen’s left arm. Doctors reattached it, but then, after an infection set in, they had to amputate it again. Incredibly, Allen remained in Def Leppard after that accident. Allen’s bandmates stuck by him, so he worked with the drum company Simmons to put together a kit that he could play one-handed, using pedals to trigger electronic sounds. In the end, this remarkably empathetic move probably helped the sound of Hysteria. The drums on the record — vast, simple, booming — have a weird resonance with the mechanistic, crunching rap and dance music that was coming out around the same time. Allen never lost a step; his thundering work on the single “Rocket” would sound cool as fuck even without that backstory. (“Rocket” peaked at #12.)
The whole story of Rick Allen’s miraculous return understandably cost Def Leppard some time. Singer Joe Elliott caught mumps during the sessions, and Mutt Lange, who returned to work with the band, got hurt in a car accident of his own during production. Those complications caused more delays. The whole process was vastly expensive. The album needed to sell millions to break even. Given everything that happened, it’s amazing that Hysteria exists at all. But it does, and it’s an absolutely ridiculous record.
Every song on Hysteria sounds like a monster hit; even the songs that weren’t singles easily could’ve become singles. (“Don’t Shoot Shotgun”? Banger.) As an album, Hysteria is an overwhelming experience, full of dreamy harmonies and precision-calibrated guitar crunches and helicopter sound effects. It sounds like a blockbuster, which is exactly what it is. It’s undeniable. Once, the great rap producer Just Blaze told me that Def Leppard is the only metal band he likes. Hysteria is the reason why. Leppard’s album came out two weeks after Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, and those two vastly different albums represent the absolute pinnacle of glam metal. Most days, I prefer Hysteria.
For months, Def Leppard kept dropping Hysteria tracks as singles. The first, album opener “Women,” peaked at #80, but follow-up “Animal,” a perfect song, reached #19. Shortly thereafter, the ballad “Hysteria” peaked at #10, becoming Def Leppard’s first top-10 hit just a week before Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” another song that Mutt Lange produced and co-wrote, reached #1. (“Hysteria” is a 9.) The Billy Ocean song was Lange’s first chart-topper. “Love Bites” was his second. There would be more.
The Hysteria song that everyone knows is “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” the horny stadium banger that finally came out as a single in the summer of 1988. It’s a world-destroyer, instantly memorable and indelibly fun, but it only got as high as #2. (It’s a 10.) Instead, to finally reach the top, Leppard needed to release the second Hysteria power ballad as a single. That’s what did it. Mutt Lange wrote the original version of “Love Bites” and played an acoustic version for Def Leppard in the studio. The band thought it sounded like an Eagles song, or like a country song — a possible foreshadowing of Lange’s future making monster hits with Shania Twain. Leppard added their own touches to “Love Bites,” and the final version sounds like it could’ve come from nobody else.
“Love Bites” is a howl of frustration from a guy in some kind of dysfunctional relationship. Joe Elliott sings to someone who’s out there fucking around: “When you make love, do you look in the mirror?/ Who do you think of? Does he look like me?” But this isn’t some faraway person he’s thinking of. Elliott’s narrator is hooking up with this person, too. Elliot’s narrator just isn’t a priority to this person, and this drives him nuts: “When I’m with you, are you somewhere else?/ Am I getting through, or do you please yourself?” Ultimately, Elliott decides that he doesn’t want to touch this person too much, baby, ’cause making love to them might drive him crazy. Elliott doesn’t seem to blame this person, exactly. He blames love itself. Love bites, bleeds, brings him to his knees, lives, dies, begs, and pleads. But it’s what he needs.
Of course, if you’re paying too much attention to the “Love Bites” lyrics, you’re doing it wrong. Def Leppard and Mutt Lange are lyrical geniuses only in that they seem to know what words will fit the right sound at the right moment. (“Living like a lover with a rad-ar phone!”) “Love Bites” has ghostly Art Of Noise-sounding keyboards and ominous disembodied voices and ethereal guitar-twinkles and electronic drums with just the right amount of echo on them. Elliott sings in a feathery yelp-howl, and heavy guitars and shimmery backup vocals land at the exact right time. It’s a silly and ultimately meaningless song, but it sounds glorious. There are so many layers, in fact, that there was a Satanic-panic rumor about one point in the song where people thought they heard a voice saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, go to hell.” (It was really a vocodered Mutt Lange saying, “Yes it does, bloody hell.”)
Today, “Love Bites” doesn’t tower over Def Leppard’s catalog, but it stands as a dizzy, monolithic pop banger on an album full of them. When the song had its week on top, the band wasn’t done with the Hysteria album cycle yet. They followed “Love Bites” with the wonderfully meaningless rocker “Armageddon It,” which peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.) Since then, Def Leppard haven’t been back in the top 10.
Def Lep toured hard behind Hysteria, and they wanted to follow it with another album relatively quickly. Once again, it wasn’t to be. Guitarist Steve Clark had serious problems with alcoholism, and he died from a combination of liquor and prescription drugs in 1991, at the age of 30. Def Leppard replaced Clark with Vivian Campbell, formerly of Dio and of former Number Ones artists Whitesnake. Since Campbell joined up in 1992, Def Leppard have kept the same five-man lineup — an absolute rarity in the glam-metal world. Those five guys have now been in the band for 29 years.
Leppard’s follow-up album Adrenalize, mostly recorded without Mutt Lange, didn’t come out until 1992, when the glam metal wave was definitively over. The LP still went triple platinum almost immediately. None of its singles reached the top 10, but a couple came close. (Lead single “Let’s Get Rocked” peaked at #15, while the ballad “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” got as high as #12.) Leppard didn’t really fall off commercially until their 1996 album Slang stalled out at gold. They kept touring arenas, and they never stopped. If you listen to a Def Leppard record from the past 20 years, they’ve stayed remarkably consistent. They still sound like themselves.
Four years ago, I saw Def Leppard play my local college-basketball arena, and they fucking crushed it. There were amazing. I was not prepared. I have seen a lot of arena shows in my life, and very few of them have left me as viscerally satisfied as that. Rick Allen played a one-armed drum solo that made me want to cry. Bassist Rick Savage, meanwhile, played a lot of the set one-armed, too. Apparently, a lot of Def Leppard basslines are so simple that you can play them with one hand while using your other arm to pump your fist or blow kisses, so that’s what Savage did. That guy fucking rules.
Def Leppard’s impact on pop music goes far beyond their one #1 hit. Partly because of Rick Allen’s accident, the band had to figure out how to play electronic rock music before anyone else. Their innovations turned an already-unstoppable hit-machine act into something transcendent. Def Leppard won’t appear in this column again, but we should all put respect on their name.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cheesed-out Euro-dance version of “Love Bites” that QED released in 2004: