Def Leppard's 'Hysteria' is still a triumph of hard rock exuberance - 35 years on

Band will play the album's biggest hits at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix concert

Guitarist Steve Clark and singer Joe Elliott of Def Leppard at London's Wembley Arena in 1988 during the 'Hysteria' world tour. Photo: Pete Still / Redferns
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Taylor Swift made headlines this week for being the first artist to claim the entire top 10 singles chart with tracks from her latest album Midnights.

While impressive, an arguably bigger achievement occurred 35 years ago when Def Leppard's blockbuster album Hysteria spawned seven hit singles.

Not only was this the pre-streaming era, when music had to be physically bought, it was 1987 and Def Leppard’s exuberant rock was a far cry from the sounds of that era’s pop stars, such as Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Coming off the back of their successful 1983 predecessor, Pyromania, the UK group aimed for an impact of which Jackson would have been proud.

“We wanted to make the rock version of Thriller,” guitarist Phil Collen tells The National before the band’s Abu Dhabi F1 race day concert on November 20.

He is referring to Jackson’s 1982 album, which sold 70 million copies and is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

With Hysteria registering more than 20 million copies in sales, it remains a monumental achievement in presenting hard rock’s commercial clout, in addition to being a new high-water mark for the genre's production.

It is also a good news story.

Hysteria’s buoyant anthems were laced by personal tragedy and a budget blowout.

The drama began at the onset of the recording process in 1984, when a horrific New Year's Eve car accident involving drummer Rick Allen resulted in the amputation of his left arm.

While heroically returning behind a specially designed electronic drum kit a year later, Def Leppard were also stuck in a creative cul-de-sac.

With Pyromania they reached a commercial ceiling with their brand of heavy metal.

Keen to expand their reach and follow heroes such as The Beatles and Queen in playing arenas, the group wanted to release a supremely polished album full of earworm melodies.

Another obstacle arose when producer of choice, South Africa's Mutt Lange (who also guided Pyromania), was initially unavailable.

By the time his calendar was clear, the group had already burnt through their budget by hiring and effectively firing (they bought out his contract) Meat Loaf producer Jim Steinman.

“We wanted that Mutt Lange sound,” Collen says. “He pretty much taught us how to sing. We knew we had OK voices but he knew how to combine them all together and make us sound great.”

A notorious taskmaster, Lange’s inclusion meant the band jettisoned their hard-partying ways to focus on the work at hand.

“We didn't really go out. There was no partying. We were in the studio and supremely focused,” Collen says.

“While we perhaps missed out on some of the crazy stuff other bands go to, we ended up finishing what we wanted to do.”

And that is an album warranting the weathered adage: all killer, no filler.

Hysteria is full of tracks defining the rock sounds of that era.

The bass lines are muscular, the riffs come thick and fast and frontman Joe Elliott's vocals evolved from the whiny castrato of previous releases to take on a richer and deeper timber.

This is exemplified in marauding opener Women and the stomping glam-rock of Rocket.

Def Leppard's investment in melody also shines in the majestic power ballad and wonderful three-part harmonies of Love Bites.

Global hit Pour Some Sugar On Me is also indicative of the group's desire to please the masses.

Beginning with a squall of guitar riffs before moving on to a verse featuring Elliott's snarling vocals, the song could easily have settled into being a pretty decent hard rock tune.

However, it is that wondrous and surprising major key change in the chorus elevating the song to the kind of pop anthem used in film montages Coyote Ugly and Rock of Ages and heard in baseball stadiums across the US.

That nous is also heard in the work of guitarists Collen and the late Steve Clark.

Hysteria is marked by their exhilarating counter melodies and arpeggios which provide powerful songs such as Gods of War and the album's title track with added emotional resonance.

Of course, it was Lange, the band’s Svengali, piecing it all together immaculately.

Lange's meticulous approach allows listeners to appreciate the detail of Hysteria's interlocking guitar parts, highlighted in Animal, and the intricate harmonies such as in of Gods of War.

The fact that the follow-up album, 1992’s disappointing Adrenalize, was Def Leppard and Lange's last collaboration, is no surprise.

Hysteria is more than the sound of a band reaching new creative heights. It also captures the kind of kinetic energy and synergy between band and producer hard to find and harder to maintain.

For an album reportedly costing an eye-watering $3.5 million to make — it remains one of the most expensive rock albums yet produced — Hysteria easily recouped the costs.

While Def Leppard would never match that album’s critical and commercial success, it laid the groundwork for other big-selling titles from the likes of Bon Jovi and Poison.

Def Leppard's deft blend of melody and powerful sonics also influenced many of today’s leading pop stars, with Lady Gaga, Maroon 5 and John Mayer listing the band as an influence.

Such enduring appeal not only maintains Hysteria’s place as one of rock'n'roll's most influential albums, but also provides the songs that will contribute to what should be an awesome concert in Abu Dhabi.

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Updated: November 04, 2022, 6:22 PM
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