Quite a few of the bands that have the honour of being prominent on the Classic Metal Hawk blogging radar (cough cough!!) first started out in the 1970s. And, for the British acts, that meant competing for attention and audience share when punk was the only thing making the news.
Those bands had to be extremely single minded about the style of music they wanted to play – should they set out their stall to be genuine heavy metal bands? Or would they allow their heavy metal commitment to be diluted, copying more commercial punk influences (sub-consciously or otherwise)?
Punk Era … But No Punk Here
There are a couple of very prominent examples of British acts ruthlessly taking the first option – no compromise in heavy metal. Iron Maiden were offered a recording deal quite early in their journey – but only if they’d agree to cut their hair and play more commercial music. The offer was rejected out of hand. And when Def Leppard first got together in 1978, their attitude to punk, according to lead singer Joe Elliot was to ‘totally ignore it, shut it off. We always wanted to play hard rock, and prove there’s still an audience for that’.
Well, they certainly did that, and some. Let’s look at the early development of the Leps, and how they were influenced by their musical surroundings.
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal
Many people at the time and since have criticized the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) moniker for one simple reason – that there was nothing particularly ‘new’ about it. Heavy metal bands had been around all through the 70s, with top names like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest cutting their teeth through that decade. And they had no shortage of fans either. Maybe nobody outside of the heavy metal genre was paying attention, but since when do heavy metal aficionados care about being popular?
So yes, punk and heavy metal had existed side by side for years by 1978, but musically, they are different animals, and bands had to choose which side they wanted to come down on.
After forming in Sheffield in the north of England, Def Leppard paid their dues in the pubs and clubs like most other bands at that time. According to legend, they lost out to Iron Maiden on what amounted to a coin toss to get a recording deal with EMI, but soon found themselves alternative backing with Mercury, releasing their debut album ‘On through the night’ in March 1980. (This was actually one month earlier than Maiden could manage for their own debut album).
Swiftly following up with ‘High n’ dry’ a year later, Def Leppard were establishing a melodic style of metal that would be their unique selling point among the upcoming generation of NWOBHM bands – and which also led to them breaking the US market much earlier. The influence of producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange was also critical, but only to reinforce and refine the style the band were already making their own, and get it successfully onto tape.
Mission: World Domination
Leppard had a clear ambition from early on to basically conquer the world. To be the first heavy metal band to crack the charts, and to do so all over the world, and especially I the famously difficult US. They didn’t want to be competing merely with similar sounding bands in the rock charts. The aim was to be spoken of in the same breath as genre busting legends like Prince or (later) Madonna.
The first 2 albums had done ok, but nobody was talking about them in the same breath as Prince. So something would have to change in order to achieve those lofty ambitions. Leppard basically broke the entire ‘new heavy metal band’ mold with their next album, ‘Pyromania’, released in early 1983. For a start they spent a whole year working on that record. At a time when most heavy metal bands were cranking out albums and tours at lightning speed so as keep in the spotlight, Def Leppard were happy to take their time. ‘There cannot be a filler on this record,’ was their attitude, according to Elliott.
‘We wanted the tenth-best song on the album to be better that anyone else’s best.’Joe Elliott
A Heavy Metal Ballad…
The plan worked. In the end, only Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, one of the highest selling albums of all time, stopped ‘Pyromania’ from claiming the number one slot on the US Billboard charts, and at the time of writing, it has sold over 10 million copies. Favourite song for this blog has always been ‘Photograph’, with its classic Def Leppard melodic guitars, ripping solo licks and to-die-for chorus. The Hawk’s isn’t too sure what the 10th best song is from the album, though it may well be ‘Too Late for Love’ – a song which shows why the heavy metal ballad genre has such a small population.
Of course, the next album after ‘Pyromania’ would be 1987’s ‘Hysteria’, which would propel the band to new heights again – and that album is deserving a blog post in its own right.
…Still Heavy Metal?
So, let’s take a backward step. Def Leppard grew up with rock and roll, and later with heavy metal. They started out wanting to prove that heavy metal had a massive fan base. They wanted to become the biggest band in the world by bringing heavy metal to the masses.. They wanted to do that with their own uniquely melodic version of the genre. And they wanted to work with people like Lang, who shared the vision and could help make it a reality.
They started the band in the punk era, but made it clear they were not punk and would stay true to their commitment to hard rock. And their work ethic produced the kind of musical precision (in both song writing and playing) that very few other bands could compete with.
So how did they do? Specifically, could they record melodic music and ballads that would appeal to US radio DJs and still ‘play hard rock’, as Elliott wanted? Could that circle be squared?
Let’s stop doing tip-toeing around the ‘S’ word.
Were Def Leppard SELLOUTs? Did they simply abandon their heavy metal roots at the first opportunity and gallop off in a glammy, commercialized direction aimed solely at generating sales in America?
Regular readers may know that Classic Metal Hawk has a low tolerance level for the sellout finger-pointing. I mean sure, we’ve all done it, but this blog only started in 2023, when we’re all hopefully a bit older, wiser, more patient and pragmatic. When we accept that all the bands featuring on this blog are indeed Classic Heavy Metal bands, and therefore deserving of ample respect for what they achieved, regardless of the musical decisions they made along the way. Classic Heavy Metal fans are now surely all old enough to agree that artists are entitled to make their own musical decisions, just as fans are entitled to either (a) buy the results and listen to them, or (b) say ‘Screw that, it’s just not for me,’ and move on.
Def Leppard were, by 1983 when ‘Pyromania’ hit the shelves, clearly on a more glammy, commercial route than some of their contemporaries, particularly if we compare them to other NWOBHM bands that started at roughly the same time.
And yet, ‘Pyromania’ occupies a very special place in Classic Metal Hawk’s record collection. The Hawk does not want to live in a world where that album never got made due to some bullshit code of conduct that requires nobody ever to try anything new. There, I’ve said it. Now off to blast out ‘Photograph’ for the millionth time.
Let’s hear more views of Def Leppard’s early American odyssey. Commercially successful, obviously, but did it lower them in your standing as heavy metal performers when they locked in their chosen style? Or is it just all part of the rich tapestry of our music?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.