If you’ve only listened to one or two songs from Def Leppard’s decades-long recording career, you probably don’t know just how versatile England’s most popular hard rock bands has been. Since they emerged from Sheffield in 1977, Def Leppard have blended rock and influences into an eclectic catalog that helped lay the foundation for various music movements. This chameleonic ability to mutate when necessary allowed them to thrive through scenes with which they vibed (New Wave of British Heavy Metal, glam, country) and survive those that didn’t compliment their long hair and spandex outfits (punk, grunge, EDM, hip-hop).
Def Leppard’s catalog can be broken up into four categories: The most metallic songs that were heralded by the rock press during the NWOBHM movement; the polished mega-hits starting with “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and progressing through the singles that propelled both Pyromania and its follow up, Hysteria, to Diamond status (10 million sales); deeper ‘90s album cuts that demonstrated Def Leppard’s penchant for experimentation and efforts to shift their sound to be accepted by fans that no longer cherished glam metal. And songs by other bands that Def Leppard covered and dueted on, exhibiting both their broad musical tastes and affinity for a good tune.
The Early Metal-Ish Years
Ride Into the Sun
In late 1978, shortly after Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott turned 19, the vocalist borrowed a little more than $200 from his dad and the band entered Fairview Studio in Hull, England to record three songs for The Def Leppard E.P.. The opening track, “Ride Into the Sun,” the only E.P. track that wasn’t redone for their 1980 debut On Through the Night, is a fist-raising, nearly three-minute-long introduction to the testosterone-laden rockers. In addition to covering all of the tropes of heavy rock, it shudders with youthful exuberance and authenticity. There are attitude-laced lead vocals, double-entendres about fast bikes and fast girls, and a blazing guitar lead. As simple as early KISS, the song is driven by a propulsive, repeated guitar riff, then briefly shifts gears for the bridge and chorus. To further season the mix, Def Leppard inserted a clanging cowbell and a flanged guitar effect into the intro, which they replaced with piano when they redid the song for 1993’s Retro-Active. Ambitious from the start, Elliott successfully promoted the EP by jumping onstage at Sheffield University during a DJ set by legendary UK radio personality John Peel and handing him the recording. Peel appreciated Elliott’s chutzpah and played the EP on his BBC radio show. The first pressing of the EP sold out by the summer of 1989 and soon after, Def Leppard were signed to a major label.
For their debut full-length, On Through the Night, Def Leppard joined forces with established producer Thom Allom (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and blasted out a batch of loud, high-energy songs with the type of nagging choruses and soaring background vocals that became a band trademark. The album opened with “Rock Brigade,” a hyper-charged track that drew from Judas Priest as much as Queen. Along with other burners including “Wasted” and “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down,” the album was heralded as an example of the more melodic side of the NWOBHM movement. Fans lumped Leppard so firmly into the Brit-centric scene that some were disgruntled when Def Leppard released the single “Hello America,” which waxed rhapsodic about a country they had yet to visit.
Being young, exuberant, and well on their way to fame exposed Def Leppard to the kinds of excesses and indulgences the band members had previously only dreamed of. While Def Leppard never let their extracurricular activities affect their songwriting or performances (at least at first), when they were offstage they reveled in the decadence and debauchery of the era. In retrospect, the On Through the Night track “Wasted” can be seen as a warning: Co-written by guitarist Steve Clark, who died from alcohol poisoning in 1991, the song addresses how drinking and drugs can be a crutch to veil heartbreak: “Well I’ve been lying awake all night just thinking of you/But a bottle of whiskey lies heavy obstructing my view/I’ve got a bottle of pills to give me my thrills/And I know that I’m leading a life that kills.”
Let It Go
On Through the Night was largely composed of previously released tracks and songs that were already written when Def Leppard got their first record deal. For their second full-length, 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry, Def Leppard wrote ten new songs that reflected the development of a band that spent nearly every night onstage together. Assisted by hands-on producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the album was a hard-rocking bridge between the band’s NWOBHM roots and the polished, poppy metal they would create with Lange in the years that followed. The opening track and first single from High ‘n’ Dry, “Let It Go” opens with the charged, bluesy main guitar hook, which repeats several times before the guitars take a ringing, chugging back seat to Elliott’s blustery vocals, only to come back at full force for the chorus and metallic leads.
High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)
In addition to being heavily influenced by British proto-metal bands like UFO and early Judas Priest, Def Leppard spent plenty of time listening to (and emulating) AC/DC. “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” is a sparse, mid-paced party rocker fueled by a combination of short, sharp bursts of guitar and nagging blues-bent choruses. Even the main guitar solo could have been an outtake from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. The sound worked well for the band, and they tapped into the formula a year later for “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop),” the opening track of Pyromania.
Bringin’ on the Heartbreak
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” was the bridge between the ballsy, bluesy sound of yore and the hyper-polished, futuristic rock tones that defined the band’s future. The architect of the song (and sound) was producer Mutt Lange. A melancholy power ballad filled with atmospheric arpeggios and riffs that both supported the vocals and provided complimentary melody, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” was a dichotomy of loud and soft, with an arrangement that emphasized the melancholy and anger that follow a shattered relationship. The song was the last album hit to include guitarist and co-writer Pete Willis. He was replaced by Phil Collen, who was featured on the song’s video, which provided Def Leppard their first exposure to MTV. In 2002, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” was covered by Mariah Carey, who said she used to listen to it growing up.
The first single from Def Leppard’s breakthrough album Pyromania, “Photograph” rocketed to the top slot of the Billboard Top Tracks chart and stayed there for six weeks. For the uninitiated, it was a stellar introduction to the band and a microcosm of the crisp, pristine, and infinitely catchy hard rock that turned Def Leppard into arena superstars. While the song is simple and straightforward, Lange’s production is huge. As with every song on the album, each instrument is perfectly audible through the multiple layers of sound that double gliding textures with hard rock rhythms. (Lange was so devoted to his perfectionistic techniques, he was known to record guitar chords one note at a time.)
Rock of Ages
An unforgettably anthemic song comparable to Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Night” and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages,” is both a silly statement of intent (“What do you want?/I want rock and roll/Yes I do!”) and a playful tribute to self-aggrandizing cock rock. The musicianship is pristine, the arrangement is perfect, and at the same time, it’s clear the band isn’t taking itself too seriously. Joe Elliott may swagger like Jagger but his tongue is at least partially embedded in cheek when he states, “I’ve got something to say!” and then says nothing original, quoting an overused Neil Young line: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
Pour Some Sugar on Me
The most popular and celebratory single from Hysteria, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” wasn’t an easy song to record. Unable to secure Mutt Lange, Def Leppard began work on the album with Jim Steinman but eventually aborted the sessions. So the group tried to produce the album themselves, with mixed results. Then, they hit a wall – hard. Drummer Rick Allen suffered a near-fatal car crash at the end of 1984 and had to have an arm amputated, delaying progress on the album for more than a year. When Allen had recuperated and the band finally returned to the studio in 1986, Lange was back. This helped Def Leppard return to tried-and-true form, regain their composure, and work exhaustively to create their second multi-platinum album in a row. Like most of Hysteria, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is driven by Lange’s giant pop production. The guitars sound huge, as do Allen’s echoing sample-embellished drums, and Elliott gets sleazy in both his vocals and lyrics: “I’m hot, sticky sweet/From my head to my feet.” Fusing the braggadocio of early hip-hop to the frivolous, sing-along lines that weave through the song, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is built upon a rock candy foundation that attracted the masses like bees to pollen.
The second single from Hysteria to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, “Love Bites” downplayed volume in favor of heart-on-sleeve hooks, sentimental pre-choruses, delicious refrains, and other earworms that left listeners singing along and softly bobbing their heads. The mid-tempo track exemplifies the band and Lange’s heavy reliance on modern technology for all of Hysteria’s infectious tunes (including the seven singles). This was part happenstance since, following his accident, Allen couldn’t play like he used to, so he loaded up his kit with electronic drums, and triggered many of the samples with his feet, providing the band’s new electronic-heavy tone. And Lange took every opportunity to heighten the soundscapes, glossing the vocals with multiple coats of reverb, using processed effects on the instruments that made basslines thud like seismic tremors and the guitars shimmer like celestial phenomenon.
Def Leppard have never been at a loss when stringing together a power ballad. “Too Late For Love” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” still stand as two of their best, but the final track from Adrenalize, “Tonight,” is right up there as well. The song opens with layered choir-ish background vocals, then glides into a band trademark – a slowly picked ringing arpeggio – but it’s this kind of simplicity and predictability that makes “Tonight” touch a deep emotional nerve. More a love song than a tale of woe, “Tonight” is a warm down blanket lovingly draped over 1,500-thread-count sheets and the lyrics suggest what happens under those cozy confines. There are a few tasteful sonic augmentations – a buzzy riff here, a whooshing backward drum sound there – but what really drives “Tonight” is the genuine belief that those who follow their hearts will wind up (pardon the pun) on top.
Beyond The Fringe (And Hairspray)
One of the more inventive tracks on Hysteria, “Rocket” is far more of a pulsing experimental funk-pop song than a blaring rock tune, and Def Leppard benefit from the transformation. “Rocket” starts with backward spoken word and a sample of a rocket taking off, and Rick Savage’s buoyant bass lines, marching percussion, and half-talked vocals set up a fun-loving tone before the band launch into yet another heavenly chorus and some whoa-oh-oh-oh vocals. Most intriguing, however, is the stratospheric jam in the second half of the song. As if Def Leppard have suddenly been hurtled into a black hole, “Rocket” spirals through a vortex of warped vocals, odd beats, and strange guitar noises. After the galactic excursion, their return to the somewhat unconventional main rhythm feels like a wondrous homecoming.
Let’s Get Rocked
With a chorus that repeats, “Let’s get, let’s get, let’s, get, let’s get rocked/Let’s go all the way, get it night and day” and double-entendres like “I suppose a rock’s out of the question,” it’s pretty clear that Def Leppard aren’t striving for poetry with “Let’s Get Rocked.” Yet there’s more going on here than the naughty lyrical suggestions and simple melodies and hooks that sink in like vampire fangs. Of course, the production is exceptional – this time without Mutt Lange – and the beat thumps along like the best pop/dance music of its era. But the band, which self-produced the album, is fueled by their own creativity. Instead of glazing the whole song with radiant guitar, Def Leppard hold back at times, letting the drums, bass, and vocals take the lead and using flashy licks as call-and-response embellishments to the raucous tune. Like a kid with a box full of new toys, Def Leppard pepper the song with a selection of exciting production touches including sped-up, repeated voices, a lascivious whistle, a revving car, and a couple bars of symphonic violin, suggesting that as much as Def Leppard enjoy working within their proven parameters, they also get off on bending their own rules.
Finding themselves at a crossroads following the alcohol-related death of guitarist Steve Clark (who was capably replaced by guitarist Vivian Campbell) and the demise of hair metal, Def Leppard shed their spandex and overtly commercial songwriting and created a dark hybrid of alternative rock and electronic music. Since some of Mutt Lange’s production effects already bordered on the sound of industrial pop, it wasn’t such a stretch for the band to shift gears and it did so credibly and convincingly. On “Truth” it seems like the band tapped into the Sturm und Drang they experienced when their world turned upside-down after Clark’s death. The sinister bassline and burping keyboards are reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails and the song is treated with unconventional blasts of heavily processed guitar and distorted chorus vocals. Most prominent, however, is the change in Joe Elliott’s vocal tone, both sonically and lyrically: “I’ve been burning and dousing the flames/I feel the whiplash of the backlash on my face.” For fans looking for new blood, the band’s pain was the public’s gain.
Breathe a Sigh
There are some way more unconventional moments on Slang – like the Prince-inspired funk of the title track or the tribal percussion and Middle Eastern instrumentation on “Turn to Dust” – yet it’s “Breathe a Sigh” that’s arguably the most striking departure from both Def Leppard’s signature sound and the dark tone of the rest of the record. Motivated by Phil Collen’s affinity for R&B, “Breathe a Sigh” features breathy vocals, bluesy acoustic guitar, and a shuffling beat punctuated by finger snaps. As impassioned as the verses are, it’s the harmonized choruses and lightweight rhythm that’s the real anomaly, sounding not unlike Backtreet Boys or ‘NSYNC. In a Spotify commentary, Elliott said singing the track was a huge challenge, and he had to record the vocals over and over. “Other than sounding a bit like Boyz II Men in places, it’s not too shabby,” he added.
When the NWOBHM and hair metal scenes were at full-tilt, no one would have figured a duet between Def Leppard and country-pop star Tim McGraw would be feasible, let alone palatable. The lesson here is, stick around long enough and anything’s possible. On their tenth studio album, 2008’s Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, the two superstars joined forces for “Nine Lives” a driving pop song that was more Leppard, less McGraw, but uncharacteristic of either. The main riff sounded like a cross between T. Rex and early AC/DC and the chorus featured a twangy passage with bluesy string bends. The idea for the collaboration came from McGraw’s then tour manager, Robert Allen, brother of Def Leppard’s Rick Allen. The deal was sealed in 2006 after McGraw joined Def Leppard onstage to sing backup for “Pour Some Sugar on Me” at the Hollywood Bowl, and, over the next year, McGraw co-wrote the song with Elliott and Collen.
Covers and Collaborations
The Sweet – Action
Surely, Def Leppard cut their baby teeth on classic Queen and Aerosmith, yet the flash and drama they exhibited from their first EP suggested a parallel love for UK glam. Maybe that’s why their 1992 cover of The Sweet’s “Action” sounds so exuberant (and why they also covered The Sweet’s “Hellraiser” and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”). Here, Def Leppard boost the guitar tones a bit and create additional layers for the song, but the highlights – the main riff, chorus, and falsetto backing vocals – are faithful and reverential. Def Leppard had so much fun with the song, they released it twice, originally as a B-Side of “Make Love Like a Man” and again with new drums for 1993’s Retro-Active.
Badfinger – No Matter What
Maybe Def Leppard related (somewhat) to the struggles of Badfinger, the first artists signed to Apple Records. The tragedy-prone outfit wrote a number one hit for Harry Nielsen, “Without You,” in 1972, and then dropped “No Matter What,” an amazing pop song many mistook for the Beatles. Other great songs went overlooked and Badfinger succumbed to lawsuits, royalty wrangles, and the career-ending suicides of their two lead members. For Def Leppard’s 2006 covers album, “Yeah!” the band recorded a crackling, exuberant version of the song, which was a band favorite. As Elliott wrote in the liner notes, it’s “the kind of song that we try to write, which is why, one would imagine, we all wanted to do it.”
“Love Story” with Taylor Swift
First, Rick Allen’s brother, Robert, was Tim McGraw’s tour manager, then he started working with Taylor Swift, which greased the wheels for Def Leppard’s CMT Crossroads episode with a then-teenage Swift. Reportedly, the country-pop singer once said that the only band she’d even consider doing a collaboration show with was Def Leppard. While Leppard classics like “Photograph” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” sound great as duets, Swift’s sunnier tunes are more compelling. Toning down their guitar bite and showmanship, and serving as tight backup musicians for Swift’s summery melodies, Def Leppard don’t even try to put their stamp on “Love Story.” Instead, Elliott complements Swift’s harmonies with a touch of grit and imbues his own vocal parts with a classic rock vibe that reinforces the notion that that, in the hands of talented artists, a great tune is still a great tune.
The Nerves – Hanging on the Telephone
Best known as a New Wave hit by Blondie in 1978, “Hanging on the Telephone” was written and originally recorded by short-lived West Coast power pop band The Nerves, whose members later splintered into The Beat and The Plimsouls. Def Leppard’s combination of punky grit and pop polish create a middle point between the two previous versions. Collen and Campbell clearly had a good time swapping leads – sometimes over the vocals – and the slightly loose take on the tune makes it sound like an impromptu jam rather than a premeditated, laborious performance, which must have been a refreshing change of pace for the studio-obsessed band.
Thin Lizzy – Don’t Believe a Word
For some reason, Think Lizzy didn’t resonate as profoundly in the U.S. the way they did in the UK, where they’re still considered innovators and champions. They’re also one of the childhood favorites of Def Leppard, who gleefully returned to their roots for their cover of “Don’t Believe a Word,” which originally appeared on the 1976 Thin Lizzy album Johnny the Fox. In Def Leppard’s hands, “Don’t Believe a Word” is shiny and electric, yet raw enough to be reminiscent of tracks from On Through the Night – before Mutt Lange entered their world and changed it forever.