Metal Monday: Def Leppard’s Pyromania

Pyromania (album)

Some may take umbrage at the notion of including Def Leppard in the category “heavy metal,” but for Pyromania, at least, they deserve it. And the genre can thank them for it.

Released in 1983, it was one of a number of albums that pushed heavy metal into the mainstream. Leppard, along with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, was part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but while Maiden and Priest had core audiences in the U.K. and scattered across North America, it was Leppard that got Americans and Canadians to wear Union Jacks.

When Pyromania came out, Leppard had several things going for them. One, it was their third album, following On Through the Night and High and Dry. They’d already gelled as players and songwriters, and it showed on Pyromania.

Produced by Mutt Lange, who had helmed AC/DC’s career-making records Highway to Hell and Back in Black, the album had a sharp sound that still let the Leps rock out. Songs such as “Rock, Rock (‘Til You Drop)” and the frenetic “Stagefright” come blasting out of the speakers like the band was trying to blow the doors off a nightclub gig.

But if that were all the album sounded like, it wouldn’t be much different from High and Dry. In numbers like “Too Late For Love” and “Foolin’,” you can hear pretty much every power ballad to come in the eighties.

Of course, there were radio-friendly standouts such as “Photograph,” an ode to Marilyn Monroe, and “Rock of Ages,” the title of which confused me mightily when I saw it in a hymn book in Confirmation class. (“Wow, was it a cover tune? Oh, wait… different lyrics.”) Sadly, the former has remained so radio-friendly that I almost can’t stand to listen to it anymore. Almost.

But for me the real standouts on the album, after listening to it year in and year out since I was 14, are songs like “Die Hard the Hunter” and “Billy’s Got a Gun.” Both are lyrically more than empty posturing; the latter is based on real events, and becomes more haunting with every new incident of a shooting rampage. Musically, both are epic, showing Def Leppard’s reverence for Queen-like layered harmonies and willingness to change tack in the middle of a song.

What does heavy metal owe Def Leppard? Mainly, with singles off this album, like “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’,” they made it OK for anybody to get into hard rock. Along with Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,”  their songs broke them through onto music video shows, school dances, roller rinks, and radio.  They made it mainstream. Hordes of purists who preferred Iron Maiden or Ozzy Osbourne might well sneer; but Leppard’s Pyromania was the gateway album for many a metal fan. It still holds up, and if you want to understand or appreciate 1980s metal, you can’t ignore it.

Worth noting for die-hard fans is that the Deluxe Edition, released a few years ago, includes an entire live album from the Pyromania tour. Not only are there some great live versions, including “Billy’s Got a Gun,” but also tons of early Leppard songs, some of which they don’t play live any more. In the case of “Mirror, Mirror” and the rambunctious “Rock Brigade,” this is a crying shame. The live tracks were apparently taken from a well-known bootleg of the band’s L.A. Forum show in 1983, and for those who never got to see Leppard in their heady early days, the Deluxe Edition is a must-have.

Pyromania

  • Def Leppard
  • Produced by John “Mutt” Lange
  • Vertigo, 1983
  • Five out of five stars

UPDATE: Adds missing paragraph about “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages,” edits line about “Billy’s Got a Gun.” Adds a live video of “Billy’s Got a Gun,” taken from a different concert on the Pyromania tour.

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8 thoughts on “Metal Monday: Def Leppard’s Pyromania

    • Me too! Though I didn’t fully appreciate it until I listened to the whole thing a few years later in grade nine. Was a glorious way to end the year and start the summer.

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  2. Wow, some kind of synchronicity. I was in college majoring in Viola Performance. Beethoven has and will always be my favorite composer. Were he alive today, he’d be a Heavy Metal dude. In my Music Analysis class, we were up to Mozart. I fucking hate Mozart, always have, always will. He almost wrote music that wanted to be ballsy, the way music should be. But alas, he failed. The last thing I wanted to do was analyze his drivel. I was listening to a lot of great rock in 1983, and in Ann Arbor on Saturday nights, at 8 pm, on PBS, there was this great little show out of Detroit, run by the local rock geek, named Doug Podell, called “The Beat,” which played all the latest and the best rock videos. A lot of Police, Bryan Adams, The Romantics and Def Leppard. “Foolin'” was in heavy demand.

    I really, really couldn’t stand the thought of spending any more time with Mozart than I already had to. It was bad enough I had to play some of this asshole’s music, I sure didn’t want to have to analyze it as well. There was kind of a standing rule that if you just loathed whoever you were going to perform/analyze/write about you could get a substitute, as long as you cleared it with your professor, so I did a Schenkerian analysis of “Foolin'”

    • Bwahaha — I LOVE this. It’s funny, though I never made a serious study of music (some piano, some guitar), I always felt there were real areas of crossover between heavy metal and classical music. In fact, when I eventually started burning out on metal and was looking for something new, it was Beethoven I turned to and he’s always been one of my favourite composers as well. Would have loved to have heard your performance and analysis of “Foolin'” 🙂
      BTW, you get the awesome comment award for this:

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