Hair Metal is an insulting term to describe many of the rock bands that made it big in the decade of decadence that was the 1980s. And while it is true that many bands from that time period rightfully deserve a tag that places style over substance and hair product over musical ability, Def Leppard is not one of those bands.
Hailing from the working-class town of Sheffield, England, the band was originally part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that came about in the late ‘70s as a response to overblown progressive rock and punk’s inflated sense of importance. Other acts commonly associated with the NWOBHM include Iron Maiden and Motorhead – which is about as far away from hair metal as you can get. Def Leppard’s heavy metal roots are most present on their 1980 debut, On Through the Night, an unpolished effort that showed the first hint of the band’s superstar potential.
Although On Through the Night wasn’t a major success, it did catch the eye of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who had previously produced AC/DC’s seminal Back In Black. With Lange in tow, the band recorded and released High ‘N’ Dry in 1981, and in the process, created their first smash hit single with “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.”
The band’s popularity quickly on the rise (thanks in part to that newfangled MTV), they kept up the with the release of Pyromania in 1983, a huge album that included the hit singles “Photograph,” “Too Late For Love,” “Foolin,’” and the immortal “Rock of Ages” with its unforgettable gibberish opening of “Gunter glieben glauchen globen.” On Pyromania, the band proved its worth, and was quickly on its way to becoming one of the biggest rock and roll acts in the world.
But all that nearly came to a disastrous end in 1984, when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash. Instead of kicking Allen out of the group, the band instead waited for him to recover from his injuries and relearn how to play the drums with one arm. While that act of camaraderie may have been commendable, it meant that the band would have to leave the public eye for some time, and it put the recording of their follow-up to Pyromania on the backburner for some time.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the band was finally able to finish Hysteria, some four years after the release of its last album. And while sales of the record were slow at first, that all changed with the release of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” With the help of that mega-hit, Hysteria eventually went platinum 12 times over and spawned six more hit singles -- a feat very few artists have accomplished, before or since.
With another great success, tragedy soon followed once more, as guitarist Steve Clark died from a combination of painkillers and alcohol in 1991. The band continued, though, recruiting Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell as a replacement shortly thereafter. And while the band was able to pick up the pieces and continue after Clark’s untimely death, they weren’t able to fill stadiums as easily after the fickle record-buying public moved on from heavy metal and into grunge in the early ‘90s.
While still a success, the group’s 1992 release Adrenalize sold far fewer copies than its predecessors. The B-side compilation Retro Active followed just a year later, and it too was a commercial disappointment.
It was obvious to the band that it needed to change with the times, and Def Leppard did so in 1996 with the release of Slang. Ditching the over-the-top production of their previous releases, Slang saw the band try to reinvent itself as a “mature” group – to varying degrees of success. Certainly a brave move on the part of the band, Slang was nonetheless a significant commercial disappointment.
Since then, Def Leppard has returned to its more pop-friendly sound on albums like Eurphoria and X. And while popularity didn’t return with them, they still find themselves with a loyal fanbase supporting their every move. In 2006 the band released Yeah!, a covers album featuring songs by T. Rex, Blondie, and the Kinks.
While they may not be the commercial powerhouse they used to be, Def Leppard still sells out shows across the world and it doesn’t appear that they’ll be slowing down anytime soon. So while you may associate the group with puffy hair and power ballads, you should probably give them a second look – and the respect they deserve as one of the most influential and popular rock bands of all time.