Review Summary: Plastic-Fantastic.
The hard rock and heavy metal genres have, over their rich and vast history, produced any number of albums which have come to be regarded as 'classic', but only a very few which truly qualify as 'legendary'. Appetite For Destruction
is one. Number of the Beast
is another. As are Highway to Hell, Back In Black, Led Zeppelin II, Nevermind
or Black Sabbath's first three albums, among (a very few) others. Individually or between them, these records have helped progress their chosen genre to new and unexplored boundaries, popularised it among mainstream audiences, contributed a significant number of tracks to its library of perennial classics, or – in rarer but still very much documented cases – all three.
Def Leppard's 1987 magnum opus, Hysteria
, definitely stands out as one of those rare cases, as it not only saw the British five-piece attempt to take their brand of overtly poppy hard rock to new heights, but also succeed
at it, creating one of the genre's biggest commercial hits to date, and the sort of album where the tracklist reads more like a Greatest Hits lineup for the band – a combination only the likes of Guns'n'Roses' debut or Nirvana's equally seminal sophomore effort (two albums with which Hysteria continues
to share the airwaves, over three decades
after either of their releases) would be able to replicate in years to come.
The history behind the runaway success of Leppard's fourth outing is well-documented, and will be familiar to any 80s enthusiast at this point: having started out as a somewhat grittier hard'n'heavy outfit (closer in sound to Whitesnake than Bon Jovi) the Yorkshire natives had deliberately set out to conquer international airwaves, a feat which they achieved with their third album, 1983's Mutt Lange-produced Pyromania
- a record which, arguably, is just as deserving of a spot in the 'legendary' tier as its successor. Not satisfied with riding the wave of that album's success, however, the five-piece once again made a conscious decision to aim even higher with their follow-up, once again enlisting Lange to take over production duties, then – once he stepped down to deal with burnout – doubling down and recruiting arguably the only person with more knowledge of studio trickery than Mutt (Meat Loaf collaborator and career mastermind Jim Steinman) as his replacement. When Steinman, too, fell by the wayside – apparently due to creative disagreements with the band about just how
studio-embellished the album should be – Lange was once again in hand to, at long last, help the band complete the album...or so they thought.
Indeed, there was still a ways to go before the Brits' finest hour, as a period of intense personal turmoil – famously peaking with drummer Rick Allen's limb-severing car accident, but which also saw a second auto collision, this time involving Lange, as well as lead singer Joe Elliot contract the mumps – further forestalled the completion of the now seemingly doomed record. As such, it would not be until early 1987 – almost three years
after work had started on the album! - that the newly christened Hysteria
would see the light of day, and promptly begin its all-out assault on mainstream music charts the world over.
In fact, for someone who has not lived through the period, it may be hard to understand – and, indeed, convey – just how
much of a juggernaut the record was upon release. Of its twelve songs, seven
charted in one way or another (by comparison, Pyromania
had three) with one of those making it all the way to the top of the most important and significant mainstream chart in the world: in short, while its predecessor takes the credit for introducing the world to Def Leppard, it was Hysteria
which positioned them as KISS-caliber worldwide rock megastars.
The reasons for this unprecedented international success are immediately evident to anyone with even a passing knowledge of 80s music trends, after so much as a casual playthrough of the album's sixty-two-odd minutes: not only is nearly every song carefully crafted for maximum commercial appeal, Lange also makes good use of every single trope of 80s music production - and then some.
In fact, the amount of studio layering employed across these dozen or so songs is so overwhelmingly evident that it is nothing short of staggering to consider just how
much more artificial Steinman's even more
over-the-top version might have sounded; Rick Allen's drums, in particular (already partly electronic, to account for the musician's missing left arm) are put through all the requisite 80s gating paces, while many of the songs serve as showcases for Lange's seemingly endless array of studio bells and whistles, from echo and reverb effects to vocal samples and electronic sound effects – to say nothing of the one track which is not so much a song as a meticulously assembled collage of sonic elements, not all of which necessarily involving the musicians. The end result is a record which – even in an era dominated by purposeful, intentional plasticity – still comes across as slightly too
artificial, the work of something not quite human – the sort of record which, if released nowadays, may have been attributed to a particularly advanced piece of Artificial Intelligence software.
In addition, as true as it is that crafty production can help mask uninspired songwriting, the opposite statement is no less accurate – as evidenced by Armageddon It
, which becomes enamoured with its own bells and whistles to the point where it loses the plot and ends up outstaying its welcome; and while this is not really a problem on most of the other songs on the album, the sheer much-of-a-muchness of Lange's production job ends up being a double-edged sword, turning what should have been simply fun, straightforward pop-metal songs into somewhat overwhelming listening experiences, much like fellow studio whiz Bob Ezrin had done with KISS's Destroyer
a decade earlier.
Even through all the superimposed layers of studio trickery, however, the quality of Elliot, Collen and Co's songwriting is still readily apparent - as noted, the majority of the tracks on the album are carefully concocted, blatantly radio-baiting potential hits, many of which are a slightly more subdued guitar tone away from qualifying as out-and-out pop songs. Opener Women
lays out the group's intentions right from the off, its strummed rhythm guitar work, leisurely mid-tempo beat and sleazily mellow vocal work from Elliot contributing to create the sort of track which makes Bon Jovi's contemporary output sound macho by comparison. By the time the chorus rolls around, Collen's and partner Steve Clark's guitar roar and Allen's thumping percussion have brought the track back into the realm of hard rock – if only just; the dichotomy it introduces, however, will remain in effect for the remainder of the album, with out-and-out sleaze-rock tracks like undeniable monster-stomp megahit Pour Some Sugar On Me
, Don't Shoot Shotgun
sharing space with borderline pop cuts like Animal
's even better-crafted spiritual successor) or the title track, and an actual
pop cut in standout ballad Love Bites
, Lange's painstakingly assembled tour de force which would eventually become Leppard's sole American #1. The resulting vibe is much more Bon Jovi than Motley Crue, which might explain why the Sheffield crowd met with nearly as much success as their New Jersey counterparts during the same period.
Despite the undeniable strength of most of its cuts, however, not everything on Hysteria
is quite up to the (admittedly very high) standard of its smash hits; in fact, most of its (very few) lesser-known songs are decidedly unimpressive slabs of typical late-80s commercial hard rock. Gods of War
, for instance, never goes much of anywhere, while Run Riot, Excitable
and Love and Affection
are utterly pedestrian, accentuating the album's front-loaded feel (the first half of the album is made up entirely and exclusively of single cuts), only somewhat mitigated by the perfectly enjoyable (and sole back-half single) Hysteria
Even still, while enough to detract a half-point or so from its final score, these few mis-steps hardly affect a casual listener's overall impression or enjoyment of what is otherwise a deservedly legendary – if not entirely
flawless or timeless – commercial hard rock classic; dated and overtly bombastic it may be, but (almost exactly thirty-five years after its initial release, and nearly forty after it first took form in the musician's minds) Hysteria
remains one of those albums any self-respecting hard rock and pop-metal fan owes it to themselves to seek out at least once.
Pour Some Sugar On Me