With their third album, Def Leppard proved themselves capable of writing stadium hits, culminating in an album that was tightly coiled and scintillatingly produced. Sliding out of perhaps the most devastating of accidents, drummer Rick Allen joined the band for their fourth album, using a combination of electronic and acoustic drums to compensate for a missing arm. Def Leppard’s decision to carry on was brave, but in some ways, the band didn’t have to. Pyromania said it all in one fiery album.
Lead single ‘Photograph’ was their answer to punk, which was slowly being discarded for the turbo-charged frenzy of metal, and the urgency – which soaks the tune to a tilt – floats into the music, carrying weight and gravitas that flits from Beatlesque to braggadocious, and all in the space of a soaring riff. The song didn’t need to be transcendent to hold some sort of euphoric weight, it carried importance that was bolstered by a commitment to the track.
“We went to a lot of effort to make me better than I was,” Joe Elliott recalled. “It was hard work, but you got something unique. I was right on the peak of my performance, and there was no better man than Mutt to push me. Sometimes I’d be thinking, ‘Jesus, how many times have I gotta do this? I’m gonna lose it!’ What Mutt got was a great performance from someone who isn’t a great singer.”
And yet there’s a tenderness to Elliott’s vocal on ‘Billy’s Got a Gun’, recalling the barbed truthfulness of Mark Knopfler’s stint with Dire Straits. For a record that’s so indebted to the power of rock, it’s a strangely diverse affair, as the lilting ‘Stagefright’ brings audiences back to the realm of English vaudeville.
Like Queen before them, Def Leppard worked on their harmonies, ensuring that the backspace was laced with a collection of disparate voices, each bringing the mosaic to a complete close. The band were growing as artists, as well as vocalists, and the pounding ‘Rock of Ages’ showed that the group were capable of playing with form. Creativity takes a tremendous risk, and by ripping up the rulebook, Def Leppard was at risk of appearing foolish, yet the polished work was so striking that it more than made up for the precarious recording process that brought it to this point of realisation.
The album also boasted stage favourites ‘Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)’ and ‘Die Hard the Hunter’, both explorations of sound, Rick Savage’s bass deep in the finished mix. The album made an impact and may have caused Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy to change course.
“I remember meeting Phil Lynott,” recalled Joe Elliott. “We’d delivered Pyromania and, with us sharing a label with Lizzy, he’d heard it. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I heard your album – it’s the reason I’ve split the band. I can’t compete with that.’ The crappiest backhand compliment I’ve ever had. I wish I had been brave enough to shove him up against the wall and say, ‘Well, make a better album then!’ But I just said, ‘Oh,’ and scuttled off.”
The album is soaked in the trappings of 1980s rock, although it does so playfully, creating a bouncy backdrop that only grows more confident with every passing track. The hooks are taut, particularly on the barrelling ‘Comin’ Under Fire’, but the end result was something much more sophisticated than the tracks of their hair metal rivals. Def Leppard was the most exciting northern English group since Black Sabbath, embodying the verve and muscle of the working classes that had built England from the ground up.
But what differentiated Def Leppard from Tony Iommi’s group was their decision to imbue the work with melody and infectious sing-along choruses, as the quintet transformed their sound from the studio to the live stages. It was their ultimate form of expression, creating a new type of burning passion, that worked both on record and riposte. That it was so commercial made it all the more enjoyable to listen to, making it one of the first hard rock albums to make an impression on the pop world, as well as the metal one.