Over The Hill (Three-Quarters): A Personal History of Def Leppard's Hysteria
We all start somewhere, right?
It was four or five years after Hysteria’s 80s-appropriate blend of hook-savvy and sugar-metal anthems had become permanently linked to my budding musical awakening that I found punk rock, which meant that all that had come before needed to be abandoned. I was all in. So, all that had been me was now forgotten with a cause, my newfound purpose to revel in my Alterna-angst and familiarize myself with all that was raucous and angry the main objective. Def Leppard’s Hysteria, despite all that it had meant to me, was no longer necessary.
We all go through this, right? As eras change and tastes shift, especially when one is afflicted with prepubescent self-doubt and the need to fit in somewhere, you find yourself trying to outrun the things you once enjoyed and become this other thing that you may or may not relate to. I was a child of the 80s, growing up watching Headbanger’s Ball on Saturday nights and appreciating the catchiness of the hair metal scene, sort of ignorant to the idea that even metalheads didn’t really like this shit all that much. Metallica and Slayer still seemed threatening and scary at the time. Def Leppard was at odds with speed and thrash metal and certainly my ears were attuned enough to know the difference between Hysteria and Master of Puppets, but I wasn’t thinking in cliques or genres yet. So, it was all metal to me.
That being said, though, Hysteria was the first album that likely gave me some idea of what it was like to identify with my “era,” a ten-year old not yet worried all that much about popularity or girls, but somewhat aware of my visual and cultural surroundings. I was still into toys, baseball cards, and comic books, but slowly becoming aware of the bigger kids and what they were into. Hysteria itself dealt pretty extensively with sex, obviously, songs as objectifying (“Women”) and laughably shrouded in childish metaphor (“Pour Some Sugar on Me”) as was permitted without upsetting the language police who were on a mission to label obscenity at the time. “Skin on Skin! Let the love begin!” was evidently not provocative enough for the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) to consider “obscene,” though Def Leppard did score a spot in the group’s so-called Filthy Fifteen with “High N’ Dry,” an entry recommended for banning from airplay and commercial distribution because it dealt with drug and alcohol abuse.
But, songs as odes to sexuality were lost on me. I was more into the riffs and the hooks, sort of caught up in the spectacle of it all, which I experienced as a concert-goer. I’ve written about this before, but, man, they could put on a show: their arena central to the surrounding stadium seating, an oversized tarp with the album art printed all over it coming down as the performance began, a rotating stage that enabled the band to position themselves face-to-face with every angle of the Spectrum. Cigarettes were lit and lighters were aflame at points so veritable fields of orange/yellow dots stood loud against the otherwise deep blue of the audience, a beautiful carcinogen-riddled aurora borealis with a second-hand haze hanging overhead. For me, it was all magic: scary, exciting, loud, and memorable. And I’ll swear till I’m dead that guitarist Phil Collen waved to me at the end of that show as the band took its leave, somehow making out the little boy swimming in a tour shirt waving frantically from rows up.
And, then music got serious. And, so did I. But, I’d like to say that wasn’t entirely my fault. I found the right bands at the right time and gave them what was expected. Because, they gave me a direction. A purpose. Def Leppard didn’t do that, but they did provide me some foundation that I can now, with thirty years of hindsight, appreciate.
And Hysteria is worth appreciating. First off, save its title track, every song on the A-Side of the album was marketed as a single. I consider this type of success coming from a metal band at the time significant in the years following Michael Jackson’s Thriller, another very prominent and important relic from the era, itself an indisputable pop juggernaut. Def Leppard reached a wider audience. And it can certainly be argued that the band toned themselves down from some of the louder, more aggressive sounds they offered with High N’ Dry and Pyromania, (one exception being “Photograph,” the success of which could very well have inspired the band to pursue a more FM-friendly vibe). I won’t say that there wasn’t some compromise, but it seemed somehow a more natural progression for this band than it would later on for Metallica.
Second, the story of triumph baked into Hysteria’s mere existence drew much of the public’s interest. This was a band that carried on with their drummer, Rick Allen, who had lost his arm following a car accident in 1984. Crafting an electronic drum kit that enabled Allen to use his pedals to manage the snare beat, the band was able to keep its bandmate. As far as press for the album, it’s hard to beat a story like that.
And, in a way, I consider Hysteria one last, significant breath before the wind was kicked out of the 80s by two other albums of 1987: Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses and U2’s The Joshua Tree, both of which signaled an early sea change that ultimately, if not directly, culminated in Nirvana’s very sudden impact in the early 90s. Social consciousness and the denizens of a morally bereft underbelly spoke. People noticed. And while Hysteria remained a top seller for quite some time, Def Leppard, along with those of their ilk, weren’t going to experience much by way of success in the coming years. My generation would come to lose interest.
I no longer own my vinyl copy of this album. To be fair, my portable turntable wasn’t kind to vinyl and eventually rendered the LP unlistenable. But, in all honesty, I probably would’ve gotten rid of it anyway. It was an impediment to the enviably informed and thoroughly studied music library I meant to build in my teenage years. I no longer own the t-shirt from the concert, the mere sight of Def Leppard emblazoned across my chest garnering ridicule from my peers as I transitioned to public school. So, I probably threw it out or repurposed it as a dust rag. Who knows where that ticket stub went, ephemera of a moment in my personal history vanquished to memory alone, no trace of physical evidence to speak of. So, I did a really good job of outrunning the things I once enjoyed. Unfortunately.
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