POP MUSIC REVIEW : Knock on Metal, Def Leppard Is Back

Never mind the typically nimble-fingered and pointless solo that guitarist Phil Collen tossed off late into Def Leppard's show Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Never mind the way the more high-pitched of Joe Elliott's lead vocals sounded too much like the late AC/DC screamer Bon Scott's.

The player that fans were most focused on was drummer Rick Allen, who's on tour with the English hard-rock quintet for the first time since losing his left arm in an automobile accident nearly four years ago.

The verdict? To paraphrase the Pretenders, He's got legs, and he knows how to use them.

The concert-in-the-round format gave the full house at the Sports Arena ample opportunity to get a gander at Allen and his band mates from all sides.

What they saw was a drummer who seems to have adapted easily to a special electronic kit, designed with an abundance of pads that keep Allen's left foot especially busy.

It's that left foot, lifted on and off the floor pads, that activates the all-important snare sound as well as several of the tom-tom sounds; the usual drum-kit fills were accomplished by the left foot and right hand in tricky tandem.

Other than that briefly noted triumph--singer Joe Elliott made passing mention of the band's recent ups and downs, saying that "the biggest up we've experienced was the return of the thunder god," pointing to Allen--it was business as usual for Def Leppard, as if the group had never been away.

After four years away from the transitory, teen-oriented world of hard rock, Def Leppard--which many feel blazed the way for that style to top the charts with its 1983 "Pyromania" album--has plenty of competition now in the way of equally handsome (if more pallid) metal or quasi-metal rockers like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake.

With the recent "Hysteria" comeback album and the current tour, DL still stands apart from the pack, often more for what it doesn't do than for what it does.

English heavy-metal is usually inherently less silly than American heavy-metal. Those Anglo-Saxons--they're always hesitant to let go of all their dignity, and in this show-biz-to-beat-all-show-biz genre, it's rare to find someone willing to hold on to even a shred or two of the stuff.

Not that Def Leppard's display Sunday was the model of decorum at tea time. But in the wake of all the sound-alikes who chart a far more obnoxious course to success with outright gimmickry and pandering, Def Leppard's minor charms are welcome for their lack of wretched excess.

If that sounds like faint praise, well, it should. Def Leppard does not match its restraint and fairly good-natured spirit with other virtues like spontaneity, sparks, originality or intelligence.

Cliches, of a mostly harmless variety, flowed through this show like beer in the Sports Arena parking lot. The in-the-round format provided Elliott the chance to indulge in some especially wearisome antics--like extending "Rock of Ages" for more than five minutes by engaging the four sections of the audience in a contest to see which faction could yell "I want rock 'n' roll" the loudest. (Guess what? They all won.) Theatrical effects were mercifully limited to the fog and the green lasers that never fail to amaze new and unjaded generations of arena concert-goers.

What you were left with was the quality of the songs themselves, and here the band comes out a little stronger, especially when it comes up with a solid pop melody that builds . Musically, at least, "Hysteria," "Animal" and "Rock of Ages" (minus the crowd-baiting rap) can stand up against the best numbers of a lesser competitor like Bon Jovi--no slouches in the hooks department themselves--and the slow and edgy "Foolin' " remains one of the great teen Angst singles of the '80s.

Also, even if you hate riff-heavy hard rock, you've gotta dig those harmonies--not so much Beatles-inspired as they are, well, almost Wings-inspired. Trust us.

Tesla opened with the blandest and most tedious possible version of the same stuff Def Leppard does. The players do toss their hair with more gusto, however.

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