It’s often dangerous in the notoriously fickle world of pop music for artists to take too long between albums. Fans frequently move on to new favorites and musical climates can change, turning one year’s chart-topping sounds into next year’s commercial poison.
But Def Leppard, the English heavy-metal band, has survived a four-year break between albums in good shape.
Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” burned up the charts in 1983, selling more than 6 million copies and laying the groundwork for a heavy-metal resurgence that’s still flourishing through the likes of Ratt, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Poison.
The group’s follow-up, “Hysteria,” sold more than 2 million units since it was released late last summer, and it should be pushed even higher by the group’s current U.S. tour, which includes a stop tonight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
However, Def Leppard never meant to test its ability to bounce back. The group had hoped to release its follow-up to “Pyromania” two years ago but there were unexpected problems.
“It was like we were jinxed,” recalled lead singer Joe Elliott, 28, in a recent interview. “We wondered what we’d done to deserve any of that.”
Most of the setbacks were minor compared to what happened to drummer Rick Allen. On New Year’s Eve of 1984, not far from the band’s home base in Sheffield, England, Allen’s Corvette crashed after failing to negotiate a sharp curve. Allen, then 21, lost his left arm.
“That’s worse than death for a drummer,” Elliott pointed out. “For months afterward, we were working and getting things done, but we didn’t have the same mental freedom we usually have. We were in a strange psychological place. Music wasn’t as important as Rick. He had lost his arm and he had to deal with it. So did we.”
Before Allen’s accident, there hadn’t been much progress on the album because of another trauma. The band was working without its producer, Robert (Mutt) Lange, whose contributions were crucial to “Pyromania.” Elliott always said that Lange, who co-wrote all the “Pyromania” material, was more like a member of the band than a producer.
But Lange, one of the most highly regarded hard-rock producers, had just finished the Cars’ “Heartbeat City” album and wasn’t in the mood for another arduous project. For a few weeks in 1984, he helped them prepare some songs for recording and then bowed out.
“A major piece of the band was missing,” said Elliott of Lange, who had also produced the band’s “High ‘n’ Dry” album in 1981. ‘But we tried to go without him.”
First, they hired producer Jim Steinman, whose symphonic style had worked for Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler, but things didn’t work out, Elliott said, and they decided to produce the album themselves. That’s when Allen lost his arm.
Allen didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about his handicap. After three weeks in the hospital, he was hard at work learning to play with one arm, thanks to a customized Simmons electronic drum kit.
Through the first half of 1985, the band, which also includes bassist Rick Savage and guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen, was working at half speed while Allen was learning how to master the drum kit, which places extra emphasis on the use of the left foot.
“We weren’t sure he could do it,” Elliott said. “We knew he’d be honest about it. We knew he wouldn’t put himself in the embarrassing situation of having us say to him, ‘Rick, you can’t cut it.’ ”
It never came to that.
Last summer, with Allen on drums, Def Leppard played some warm-up club dates in Europe to prepare for a major festival appearance. Fearing a breakdown of Allen’s electronic drum kit during the shows, the band hired an extra drummer--Jeff Rich of Status Quo--and did a few shows with them both on stage. By the fourth date, however, Rich was superfluous.
Allen played without backup at the festival.
“It was an emotional moment for him,” Elliott recalled. “At the end of the show, he was in tears because he got through it and people loved him for it. In the shows since then there have been no problems.”
There was one bonus resulting from Allen’s accident. The delay gave producer Lange enough time off to feel ready to rejoin the band in the studio. He returned to work on the Def Leppard album in August of 1985. But bad luck struck again before the album was finished: Elliott lost his voice from overuse and then battled the mumps.
“I felt like a fool, with mumps at my age,” the easygoing singer said. “For while, I was so blown up I looked like Meat Loaf.” When Elliott was healthy, Lange promptly broke his kneecap in an auto accident and spent weeks in the hospital.
Looking back on those trouble-clouded years, Elliott found a silver lining: “All those delays helped the new album. It would have been more in the vein ‘Pyromania,’ more than we wanted it to be. With the added time, we’ve been able to expand our musical horizons. ‘Hysteria’ has more variety to it and it’s more mature.”
Why was “Pyromania” a breakthrough album for heavy metal in 1983? What was there about it that made it palatable to the masses when other heavy metal wasn’t? It’s still not totally clear.
However, the album got a big boost from MTV, which was red hot back then. For that image-conscious channel, it helped that the five members of the band are good-looking. Also, unlike some heavy-metal music, Def Leppard’s isn’t sinister and threatening.
Accompanying those deafening “Pyromania” instrumentals were lyrics that were a cut above the genre’s low-level norm. The album featured thunderous party songs slick and commercial enough to please the pop radio audience while at the same time being raunchy enough to rev up the hard-core head-bangers.
There was some industry speculation that the emergence of Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Cinderella and Poison might leave Def Leppard out in the cold after its extended layoff.
But, blowing the band’s horn a bit, Elliott noted: “There’s always room for a band that has good songs.”