The clue’s in the title with Def Leppard’s Retro Active: essentially a retrospective collection of rare and hard-to-source archival material topped off with a few previously unrecorded gems. However, while this compilation may not be as well known as Leppard’s titanic studio albums such as Pyromania and Hysteria, its role in revitalizing the band’s career shouldn’t be underestimated.
First released on October 5, 1993, Retro Active arrived in the wake of the Yorkshire rockers’ storming fifth album, Adrenalize. Yet, while that landmark, multi-platinum release included perennial fan favorites “Let’s Get Rocked” and “Make Love Like A Man,” it was pieced together slowly while Leppard struggled to come to terms with the death of their friend and founding guitarist, Steve Clark.
Recruiting talented ex-Dio/Whitesnake guitarist Vivian Campbell to replace their fallen comrade, the group embarked on a world tour in support of Adrenalize, during which time vocalist Joe Elliott hit upon the idea of releasing an album of rarities and new songs – partly to offer the fans something special and also to help the band achieve closure after Clark’s passing.
Elliott also came up with the title, Retro Active, and the project gained further momentum early in 1993 when the producers of the action-fantasy movie Last Action Hero asked the band to provide a new song for the soundtrack. Due to touring commitments, Leppard supplied an acoustic version of their 1992 B-side “Two Steps Behind,” to which conductor Michael Kamen added a discreet string arrangement, turning the track into one of the band’s signature soaring ballads.
Suitably galvanized, Leppard began compiling additional tracks for their new collection, but while they decided to include rare B-sides, such as Phil Collins’s “Miss You In A Heartbeat” and “She’s Too Tough” (the latter previously a bonus track on the Japanese pressing of Adrenalize), they also embraced the idea of re-shaping existing material and recording previously unreleased tracks from scratch.
Most specifically, Leppard homed in on two tracks from the Hysteria era which they were determined to realize to their satisfaction. Indeed, the dynamic, slow-building “Fractured Love” and the brooding, belligerent rocker “Desert Song” were comparable with the best of the band’s canon, and they were captured with an uncharacteristic urgency.
“The majority of the recording was done [at Joe’s Garage studio] in Dublin in nine days,” Elliott later told DefLeppard.com. “I had a nine o’clock flight to Japan one morning and I was still in the studio at 8:20, having been in all night working on the intro to “Fractured Love.” I just made the flight!”
Inspired by this new way of working – the antithesis of Hysteria and Adrenalize, which were pieced together slowly during painstaking studio sessions – the band continued working and either re-recording or revising lesser-known tracks from their catalog. Originally “Make Love Like A Man’s B-side, “She’s Too Tough” was remixed and beefed up with a new snare drum sound, while a revised version of 1987’s “Ride Into The Sun,” featuring a piano intro by Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, was worked up, and a bruising, scarf-waving cover of The Sweet’s “Action” pointed the way towards Leppard’s future covers album, Yeah!.
With the band completing all their additional studio work in record time during breaks from the still-ongoing world tour, Retro Active was completed in August 1993 and released two months later, by which time their acoustic version of “Two Steps Behind” had already climbed to No.12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Retro Active quickly followed suit, going platinum in the US within three months of its release, and peaking inside the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not only a commercial success, Retro Active put the fire back in the band’s belly. Embracing what bassist Rick Savage described as “getting back to a more earthy feel”, Def Leppard took note of the era’s changing trends and vowed to make a more stripped-back, organic-sounding record whey they embarked on their next studio album, Slang.
“We physically started working on [Retro Active] in May ’93 and we finished it in August,” Joe Elliott recalled. “I’m hoping that we can keep that mentality when we go in to do the next record. The attitude of the band has changed so much since the start of ’92 – it’s a different animal!”