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.
- 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.