Sticky Sweet: 35 Years of Hysteria

Pouring some more sugar on the biggest Def Leppard album

Def Leppard “Women” comic art (Image: Def Leppard)

There was a point in history, thanks to the Walkman, that my primary mode of listening to albums was via cassette.

During that period there was one album that I listened to enough that the sound began to get garbled to the point that I had to replace it before it broke.

That album? Def Leppard’s Hysteria, which turned 35 this week.

The road to Hysteria was paved with good intentions and a whole lot of potholes. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

It was a simple plan at first — follow up the band’s commercial breakthrough Pyromania by continuing with producer Mutt Lange. So far, so good, right?

It was, until Lange left in early 1984 after pre-production. Having produced all or most of dozens of albums since 1976 and fresh off finishing The Cars’ Heartbeat City, Lange was burnt out.

Def Leppard approached other producers– Chris Thomas, whose credits included Never Mind the Bollocks and the Pretenders discography, and Trevor Horn, whose career as a producer was kicking off. They were rebuffed (singer Joe Elliott told Billboard in 2017 that Thomas told him that his management never even told him about Def Leppard’s approach). Phil Collins’ name was floated as a possibility.

Out of desperation, the band turned to Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell had been a multi-platinum success, so having the guy who wrote it should have made sense, right? Well, not really. 

Todd Rundgren was actually Bat’s producer. Cliff Burnstein, the band’s co-manager, suggested Steinman and thought his expertise in songwriting and arranging would overcome his lack of producing experience.

Def Leppard Hysteria, PolyGram Records 1987

Apparently Burnstein didn’t stop to think that Steinman’s Rock as Over-the-Top Musical Theater aesthetic might not be the best fit for Def Leppard’s pop metal instincts. Or perhaps everyone was indeed desperate.

It didn’t take long to realize the mistake. “We thought we’d got the Ferrari. In reality, we’d got a second-hand Cortina,” Guitarist Phil Collen told Classic Rock in 2021.

It was a disastrous two months, with Steinman alternating between production ideas that made as much sense as adding hot fudge sauce to a chicken parm and relative indifference due to divided attention (he was writing Bat Out of Hell 2 at the time).

Not a single song was finished, the results of the sessions still buried in the vaults decades later, the E.T. for Atari 2600 of Def Leppard lore.

Steinman was fired, getting a reported $300,000 flat fee (unfortunately for him, he didn’t take any points). It was on to Plan C.

The band was going to produce the album themselves with assistance from Lange’s engineer Nigel Green. Those sessions were moving along somewhat before, on New Year’s Eve 1984, disaster struck.

Drummer Rick Allen lost control of his Corvette while attempting a high speed pass of another vehicle, hitting a stone wall in the process. The accident cost him his left arm, necessitating an extended recovery. Allen still wanted to drum and his bandmates wanted him to as well. Eventually, an electronic drum kit was put together, allowing Allen to play with his right arm and a series of foot pedals.

Def Leppard ’87 (Image: Twitter)

As Allen was learning to play his new setup, the rest of the band was continuing the self-produced route. They started to have a solid batch of songs, but realized that they were trying to imitate what Lange had done, but couldn’t get it right.

At some point, Lange felt refreshed enough to return. There was one catch. The band would have to scrap the results from their sessions for a third time.

“Binning all that work… It’s not something we could do again,” Elliott told Classic Rock in 2006. “It was Mutt’s encouragement that helped us do that. The thing is, it wasn’t terrible. What we’d done was good enough – as good as Pyromania – but Mutt said: ‘Why do Pyromania 2? That was a leap from High ‘n’ Dry, now we have to make a leap from Pyromania.’ We were thinking: ‘Can we do this?’ It turned out we could.”

Lange was thinking big. His goal was to make Def Leppard’s own Thriller — an album where every song was a potential hit single. And frankly, the band needed it, as they’d need to go platinum many times over just to break even with the production costs.

But over the next several months, Lange’s production and songwriting ideas meshed with what the band had already come up with. It was an often exacting process – recording layers of vocals (credited to The Bankrupt Brothers– all the band members along with Lange and friend Rocky Newton of Lionheart and McAuley Schenker Group). Also, sometimes recording guitar parts one string at a time. Although, it should be noted that the urban legend that Collen and Steve Clark had to record all their guitar parts that way was untrue. It was only for the pre-chorus on “Hysteria”.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Hysteria”

Finally, in February 1987, three years and $4.5 million (over $12 million in today’s money) after starting, the album was finished.

It didn’t reach Thriller’s sales, but by any other stretch, the goal was reached. Six of Hysteria’s seven singles were Top 10 hits on U.S. rock radio. Four of them were Top 10 on the pop charts. It would top Pyromania’s sales, eventually selling over 20 million copies (12 million in the U.S.), enabling the band to more than break even.

As is the case with a number of classic album tracks, Hysteria’s longest-lasting hit was a late addition. Lange felt the album was missing something, just one more song. By that time in the arduous on-off-on-off-on-off-on recording process, he was likely the only one. The break came from noodling around with an idea on guitar, not from Collen or Clark, but Elliott. 

Coming back during the break, Lange heard Elliott playing his idea and told him it was the best hook he’d heard in years. The two worked on it together, then had to pitch it to the rest of the band. 

At first horrified at having to do another new song, the remaining four members realized what Lange and Elliott came up with and, perhaps more importantly, that it wouldn’t require a ton of futzing around to get right. At ten days, it was the shortest time spent on any of the album’s songs.

And thus, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, the utterly and knowingly silly ode to sex and part of strip club soundtracks for years to come, would get added.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar On Me”

The percussion booms. Elliott almost raps the verses, full of lines that seem to channel the UK glam rock of his youth. The bridge has its own hook before the chorus tailor-made for arena-wide singalongs.

Sure, the lyrics are full of “sex as a sweet treat” cheese (see “I’ve got the peaches/You’ve got the cream”), but the craft and the performances sell it in a way that hair bands soon to follow usually couldn’t. It was the single that propelled the album from doing respectable sales to the huge behemoth it became.

Hysteria leaned heavily and unabashedly on the pop side of pop metal, full of hooks and catchy riffs, burnished to sleek efficiency by Lange.

As much as Def Leppard might have started out with the metal tag, their influences owed more to other areas of rock-and-roll, including a healthy dose of ’70s British glam rock, like T. Rex and Mott the Hoople.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Armageddon It”

“Armageddon It” is the sort of punny title Slade somehow didn’t use for a song (even if they’d have to spell it “Ahma Get Innit” or something). If not as fast as their influences might have done it, you can see the connection through the riffs. And it boasts one of those trademark Def Leppard gang vocal choruses, to boot.

“Rocket”, sans the synths, effects and the massively layered vocals has Marc Bolan circa 1972/73 at its core. The “Ah ah, ooh” part’s as catchy as the actual chorus. Collen and Clark fill the track with rock guitar with a Capital R while bassist Rick Savage holds things down with Allen’s drums.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Rocket”

Lange’s process was exacting, but the band trusted him. “In the studio, Mutt was the king of “Do It Again.” We used to say, “You sound like a chugging train— ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again’ (train whistle)’,” because he wanted the best out of us,” Elliott told Billboard. “Some songs were insanely difficult to nail down to the standard that he thought it should be. When you’re a fan of the New York Dolls, it’s really hard to explain ‘It sounds fine to me.’ But he’s like, ‘You’re not David Johansen.’ David Johansen singing ‘Love Bites’ would have been a bit of a head fuck.”

“Love Bites”, one of the hit power ballads, was originally brought in by Lange with more of a country feel. It soars on the strength of Elliott’s lead vocals, which Collen to this day feels is one of his best performances.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Love Bites”

“Hysteria”, the other hit ballad, is a good example of why Def Leppard’s iteration of pop metal worked so well. It’s melodic enough to work as pop, but the guitar parts (11 in all) keep it grounded. And it’s all delivered with commitment and energy, whereas later ballads felt like bands were recorded during hostage situations at the behest of the label.

If “Pour Some Sugar On Me” was, by Hysteria terms, quickly done, “Animal” was its 180-degree opposite, needing nearly all of the various recording sessions to get right.

The work paid off. The lead single in the U.K., it remains one of the most enduringly infectious songs Def Leppard’s cut.

“Women”, the lead single in the U.S., opens with those instantly recognizable guitars, but in retrospect, it was too plodding of a choice for a first single, even if it’s one of the best guitar tracks to be found on Hysteria.

 

VIDEO: Def Leppard “Women”

Clark and Collen sound terrific throughout the album. Collen, who was taking part in the songwriting from the ground up for the first time after joining during the Pyromania sessions, played most of the leads. They weren’t wedded to it, though, throwing in ideas to serve the various songs.

“Gods of War”, an epic built off Clark’s opening riff, is where Def Leppard sets aside the wink-and-a-nod wine, women and party atmosphere. It was a few years after the Falklands War. The Cold War had yet to cool down. And the ones paying for the wars weren’t the ones making the decisions. And it’s those voices — Reagan and Thatcher — heard over the outro over increasingly apocalyptic sounds.

Lange’s stated goal came true, in that even the non-singles sound like hits, including “Gods of War.” “Run Riot” is an energetic rush that’s as close to uncontrolled as Hysteria gets (and is all the better for it). You can hear the intended AC/DC feel in “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”, but it comes out sounding like classic Def Leppard anyway. “Love and Affection” plays like a gorgeous love song, until you realized they’ve paired the melodic chorus to lyrics that are anything but.

In retrospect, Hysteria is an album that could have easily gone wrong with its hugely elaborate ’80s production and tortured recording history. But while Lange gave it that sheen, it never feels sterile. Even at its poppiest, the band was giving it a rock edge. And for the talk about the producer, the band members were becoming seasoned vets even while still in their 20s, with a growing confidence in their craft. And as classic as Pyromania was (and still is), they were driven to improve on it, resulting in pop metal that sounds like commitment rather than an obligation. Even the filler sounds killer.

Hysteria U.S. Tour 1988 poster (Image: eBay)

Hysteria would be the last Lange-produced album for the band. They co-produced 1992’s Adrenalize with Mike Shipley, who’d been their engineer on the Lange albums. 

Lange would go on to produce mostly more pop-oriented fare for the likes of Billy Ocean, Michael Bolton, Maroon 5 and, primarily, the country-pop crossovers of then-wife Shania Twain.

Tragically, Hysteria would also be Clark’s last album. His alcoholism had really begun to take its toll, especially after the 1987-88 tour. The rest of the band staged an intervention, but Clark left rehab without finishing and went back to drinking. He was involved in some songwriting, but not much recording. The band imposed a six-month leave of absence for him to clean up, but his addiction claimed his life four months later in January, 1991, over a year before Adrenalize was released.

The band soldiered on as a four-piece to finish the album, joined by Vivian Campbell for the subsequent tour and ever since. If not at the peak of Pyromania and Hysteria, Adrenalize still had some good material. That, coupled with remaining career momentum, enabled it to be the final Def Leppard album to go platinum. 

While the days of huge commercial success left Def Leppard with shifting tastes in the ’90s, including explosions in alternative rock and hip-hop, they still managed to make solid efforts. In a different commercial climate, 1999’s Euphoria would have been a big hit. 2006’s Yeah! was a better than expected covers album. Even Diamond Star Halos, released earlier this year, offers proof that the band still has the love of a good hook.

Yet Hysteria remains the band’s highwater mark, the completion of the 1-2 punch with Pyromania — the right songs with the right producer (finally!) at the right time. It’s as good as any mainstream rock album that came out in the ’80s.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, it was worth buying a second time.

 

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