Def Leppard – Hysteria – How it (NEARLY) Flopped

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‘Hysteria’ was Def Leppard’s all time most successful smash hit album, generating over 20 million sales around the world. But it nearly flopped completely, and probably would have done, but for a late twist of fate. And what would have become of these Classic Heavy Metal Legends then? Strap in and read about how close they came to hitting the buffers.

The Challenge

As already written about on The Hawk’s blog, ‘Pyromania’ was the album that put Def Leppard on the map as a force to be reckoned with. Criticized by some for its Glammy overtones, and its seeming mission to sell out on traditional heavy metal values by making eyes at US radio stations, it was nevertheless hugely successful by any objective measures. Those radio-friendly songs allowed Def Leppard to crack the US market long before any of the other New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands on the scene at the time, The album hit the top 10 in the US and Canada, and the top 20 in the band’s home UK market.

And whatever you think of the style, nobody could question Def Leppard’s commitment and professionalism. Spending a whole year producing an album, as they did with Pyromania in the early 80s was seen as a risk, when other bands were releasing and touring like crazy.

They certainly compensated for their absence on the live scene during the Pyromania tour – 178 shows in pretty much a full year on the road, taking in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia, with even a stop in Bangkok, not exactly on the beaten track for heavy metal bands at the time.

Check out some footage from a show on that tour in France – it’s rough round the edges, but they were on a hot streak.

So, there was a high level of satisfaction in the band by the time they finished the Pyromania tour in early 1984. Great record sales, the fans had loved the shows. But what now? As with any band following a successful release and tour, Def Leppard had to challenge themselves all over again.

Could they now make a record which would go one better than ‘Pyromania’ had?

To get an answer to that question would turn out to be a long and tortuous process – certainly much more so than even the perfectionist band themselves had anticipated when they first got together in 1984 to make a start.

The Concept

Together with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, the same producer who’s worked with them on ‘Pyromania’ (and sometimes referred to as the 6th member of Def Leopard, such was his contribution), they came up with a concept – they wanted no less than a rock version of Michael Jackson’s 1982 epic ‘Thriller’, an album packed full of potential hit singles from start to finish.

That meant not only top-quality song writing, but also a further evolution in the band’s sound. The last vestiges of a traditional metal sound with heavy guitar riffing (which had anyhow only featured lightly on ‘Pyromania’) would be swept away completely. The role of the guitars would now be to emphasize melody and dovetail with the vocals. Every song would be produced to within an inch of its life. The journey towards embracing the radio-friendly USA would be completed.

(Mutt Lang has writing credits throughout what would become ‘Hysteria’, which is somewhat unusual for a producer, though not so much for him personally. His influence is interwoven throughout.)

With their ambitious concept, the stage was now set. But things did not get off to an auspicious start. Lange joined the band for pre-production, but then dropped out of the project soon afterwards, citing exhaustion. He only actually had one producing credit between ‘Pyromania’ and ‘Hysteria’, with The Cars ‘Heartbeat City’ in 1984, but still felt unable to continue. The creative immersion he demanded of himself in his projects meant he couldn’t go in only half committed.

Make it sound like ‘Bat out of Hell’ ??!!

It left the band in a hole – and for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, their next go-to producer was none other that Jim Steinman of Meatloaf / ‘Bat out of Hell’ fame. Maybe this is just 20 / 20 hindsight on the part of Classic Metal Hawk, but the choice of Steinman always seemed like a head-scratcher. For a start, Steinman was most famous as the principal writer on ‘Bat out of Hell’, not its producer. And whatever production influence he had, Meatloaf tends to be more associated with a raw, almost live sound with lots of different instruments and singers.

To say this was somewhat at odds with Def Leppard’s concept for their new album – pristine and complex – would be putting it mildly.

Still, everyone got together in Amsterdam to give it a go – but sure enough, the creative tensions would prove to be insurmountable. The band chafed at Steinman’s theatrical ideas, and by October 1984, they’d had enough of it and fired him. Def Leppard tried to carry on with themselves in the production hotseat, but that also went nowhere fast.

Perspective Arrives

If creative difficulties were not obstacle enough, further disaster struck at the end of 1984. Drummer Rick Allen was making the most of the band’s earlier success, and when the money started rolling in, he had bought himself a gleaming Corvette C4 sports car, in which he would tear around the countryside near Def Leppard’s hometown of Sheffield during any downtime from production.

1984 Chevrolet Corvette C4 Coupe 5.8 Front 1

On New Year’s Eve of 1984, whilst overtaking another road user at high speed, he lost control. The Corvette hit a wall, flipped, and landed in a field, causing Allen horrific injuries. His left arm was torn off – severed completely, and despite the best efforts of surgeons to re-attach it, a subsequent infection meant they were forced to amputate – his arm was lost for good.

This all meant that going into 1985, Def Leppard had a concept for an album, but no producer, and now a drummer with a lost arm, who presumably would never be able to play again, at least not to Def Leppard standards. Rick Allen himself had no doubts, however, and was adamant that he could and would return. He had a fully customized, electronic drum kit built, utilizing 4 different pedals which would operate the drums he used to play with the left hand.

The rest of the band crawled forward with the production. In fact, they could afford to give Allen time to master his new kit, due to the painstaking production process they had chosen to follow. As on ‘Pyromania’, all the instruments were recorded separately, with the drums usually dealt with last, due to the often-radical changes to songs that came through during the course of production.

Technical Demands

They were beset with technical issues. The band pushed the boat out technically, using a Rockman amplifier developed by Boston producer Tom Scholtz. Boston was a band that had pioneered instrument layering techniques in the 70s, using production techniques that made the guitars sound a little thin standalone, but rich and melodic in the full mix. So, it was the perfect approach for Def Leppard also – just massively time consuming.

Anyway, the painstaking process meant Rick Allen could rehearse in his own time, fully figure out his new kit, and only then lay down the drum parts on the album, all without causing too much extra delay to the production. There was a further boost when Mutt Lange returned to the project, apparently fully recuperated. There were a few further mishaps – Lange himself was involved in a car accident, though fortunately only suffered minor injuries. Singer Joe Elliott suffered from an attack of the mumps.   

But by early 1986, the band had recorded all 11 tracks, and had an album ready to dispatch for mixing.

The Glorious 12th

What’s that you say? ‘Hysteria’ has 12 tracks, not 11? Yes, it does. The band had recorded the 11th (and as far as they were concerned last) track. But Lange was still unhappy. He felt that strong as the songs were, the album still lacked a major cross-over hit – something to appeal to fans who may never have even heard of the bad before now. His instinct would prove prescient.

Speaking in Tongues

They had a spare riff that everyone liked (from Joe Elliott jamming on an acoustic at some point), and took a novel compositional approach. Elliott and Lange went to opposite ends of the studio, and performed the Classic Heavy Metal equivalent of speaking-in-tongues. A stream of verbal diarrhoea was poured into two Dictaphones. Then, each listened back to the other’s effort, and tries to discern what they could. That became the basis for the lyrics, starting with the famous ‘Love is Like a Bomb’ intro line. Amazingly by Def Leppard standards, the whole song was completed in a couple of weeks – compare this to ‘Animal’ which took them almost the entire 3 years to get right. ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ had been created and the full album really was now complete.

Lange still needed another 3 months to finish the mixing. But finally, on 3rd August 1987, ‘Hysteria’ got its worldwide release, with all 12 tracks and clocking in at just over an hour.

‘We need 5 million’

There was enormous commercial pressure from the outset though. The record company reckoned that with the 3-year lead time, ‘Hysteria’ was one of the most expensive albums ever made at that time, and certainly by a UK band. Early estimates were that at least 5 million copies would have to be sold if it was to make any profit. And sales at that level would require a serious breakthrough in the US market, bigger that even ‘Pyromania’ had managed. After a 3-year absence from anyone’s consciousness, that was by no means guaranteed.

The album kicked off well in Europe, sales-wise, where it soon topped the chart in the UK, as well as showing strong performances in other countries. But US sales were disappointing to begin with. Singles were released in the usual way to generate interest, but the first US single, ‘Women’ only managed a high of #80 on the US Billboard chart. By spring of 1988, ‘Hysteria’ had only sold about 3 million copies, and the accountants began to get twitchy fingers.

Beaten by Richard Marx

The breakthrough eventually came thanks to Lange’s instinct to add that final track. ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ was the fourth US single to be released, and had all the crossover appeal that had been hoped for. The single went to #2 in the Billboard charts, beaten to the #1 slot only by (ahem) ‘Hold on to the Nights’ by Richard Marx.

What’s Your Favourite?

But never mind. That single’s success generated renewed interest in the ‘Hysteria’ album which would now top the US album charts on 3 separate occasions and for 6 weeks on total, a full year after its release. Seven singles eventually hit the US market, with a #1 (‘Love Bites’) and 3 other top 10 hits. Over the next 3 years, ‘Hysteria’ went on to dominate charts round the world, and eventually tied the record for most weeks spent in the US top 40 (Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and 96 weeks, since you ask).

At the time of this writing, more than 20 million copies have been sold.

The critical reception was solid – though in truth your view probably depends mostly on whether you already liked the direction of travel that Def Leppard had set for themselves, and for which ‘Hysteria’ is a logical progression. Do you want Glammy, commercial precision? Or does that remain a sell-out of Heavy Metal Values? But nobody can deny that the tracks are well crafted, with some serious production values.

All the songs have their moments. Ironically, ‘Pour Some Sugar On me’ is probably Classic Metal Hawk’s least favourite – it lacks some of the more memorable melodies of the other songs and strays a little too far into the pop-commercial. The Hawk certainly remembers ‘Love Bites’ being in the charts as a chick. But for this blog, the favourites are left field, being the start of side B, where the first 3 songs ‘Gods of War’, ‘Don’t Shoot Shotgun’ and ‘Run Riot’ rule the roost. The fourth on side B, title track ‘Hysteria’ isn’t bad either.

‘Gods of War’ especially is a Hawk favourite, with it’s showcasing of sonic technology, and that nice opening bass riff as a change of direction. So that’s what we’re going to play out with. Enjoy.

It’s a tough old world – Def Leppard would have had a flop on their hands if it hadn’t have cleared 5 million. And it wouldn’t have but for one song. And the song was a rush job at the end. Crazy.

Share your thoughts on it in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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