Music

Looking Back

Def Leppard’s Hysteria at 35

Thirty-five years later, Def Leppard's classic album is still the pop metal gold standard by which all others are judged


Something happened to metal and hard rock around 1986 and 1987. Across two years of big hair and even bigger choruses, rock became pop. You can maybe trace it back to Halloween 1986, when Bon Jovi set the world alight with ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, a song that is just as inescapable now as it was then. Or you can rewind all the way back to 1983 and Def Leppard’s ‘Photograph’, a song that accurately predicted all that was to come.

If it’s possible to construct a sledgehammer entirely out of hooks, the Sheffield rockers did it with the highlight from their acclaimed Pyromania album, aided by the super slick production that Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange slathered over everything. ‘Photograph’ is the point where 80s hair metal collided with 70s power pop and produced something that sounded like Cheap Trick on steroids.

Def Leppard - Photograph

Mutt Lange was already on to something when he produced Pyromania, but ahead of the band’s next album, he’d had a Damascus moment. According to Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott, Lange approached him with the idea of creating the rock equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a super-sized pop rock container overflowing with hits. If you’re struggling to imagine what that might sound like, just listen to Hysteria, because that’s exactly what they made.

Lange’s stylish production – all massive, gated drums and angelic choruses of pristine guitars – is one thing, but it wouldn’t amount to much without the songs to give it substance. It certainly helps then that the band knocked it out of the park, not just delivering some of their most fun rockers (‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’, ‘Animal’, ‘Armageddon It’) but proving themselves equally adept at slick ballads (‘Love Bites’, ‘Hysteria’).

DEF LEPPARD - "Pour Some Sugar On Me" (Official Music Video)

Hysteria landed in a world that couldn’t have been better prepared for it. Appetite For Destruction had just turned Guns N’ Roses from the self-styled “most dangerous band in the world” into one of the biggest bands in the world. Bon Jovi had stomped their way onto mainstream radio and right up the charts with the aforementioned ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ and ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’. Just a few weeks after Hysteria’s release, Aerosmith would go from 70s casualties to household names via Permanent Vacation, ‘Angel’ dropping them into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time in over a decade. Hard rock was en vogue in a big way.

But almost across the board, 80s rock albums were plagued by a 50/50 balance between killer and filler. You’d splash the cash for the hits and discover that there wasn’t much past that point. The albums that really blew up were the ones where it becomes almost impossible to tell what’s a hit single and what’s an album track. Hysteria is one of those. The quality here is so ridiculously solid that every single track on side A (and one on side B) was released as a single.

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Of the seven singles released from Hysteria, five cracked the UK Top 20 and ‘Animal’ went to No.6, while ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ got all the way to No.2 in the US. If Pyromania suggested that Def Leppard could be unlikely popstars, then Hysteria confirmed it. By all accounts, it wasn’t an easy process, with Lange labouring over individual songs to the point of lunacy, layering and layering guitars, drums and backing vocals to create the desired effect. All in all, the entire album took three years to perfect.

Def Leppard - Hysteria (Long Version)

What makes this phenomenal success all the more phenomenal is that it followed a tragedy unlike any other. While driving home on New Year’s Eve in 1984, drummer Rick Allen crashed his Corvette, severing his arm in the accident. Initially, it looked like the end of his career, but Allen showed remarkable perseverance to adapt to playing one-handed, working with an electronic drumkit manufacturer to create a kit tailored to his needs. He eventually made an emotional return to the stage at Monsters of Rock in Donnington in 1986. Elliott has suggested that sympathy for the band played a role in Hysteria‘s meteoric rise, but that’s maybe a tad too humble.

DEF LEPPARD - "Armageddon It" (Official Music Video)

Mutt Lange would repeat his Hysteria feat twice more, putting his trademark shine onto huge albums for Bryan Adams and Shania Twain before vanishing into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Def Leppard would go even higher in the charts, falling just shy of top spot in the UK with ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ off the almost-as-massive Adrenalize. But Hysteria remains that golden moment, that rare bit of alchemy when time, taste, talent and vision all align. The world of 2022 is vastly different to 1987, and music has moved through several comprehensive cycles in that time, but putting on Hysteria is like a rapid unravelling of all that. Even 35 years later, its brilliance comes leaping out of the speakers. Armageddon It? You bet I am. Every single time.


Get tickets for Def Leppard’s 2023 tour with Mötley Crüe here