by Steve Pick
In 1983, I landed the gig I'd been dreaming of capturing for years. I became a stringer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and was one of three people assigned to review concerts. The first show I reviewed included Mel Torme, Woody Herman, and Natalie Cole, and I was way too young and uninformed to realize that I was seeing two legends that night. I don't remember what came next, though I know the horrific Al Jarreau was to follow soon thereafter. After three or four negative reviews, I knew I was skating on thin ice, as my editor was convinced I didn't like anything.
Then he sent me to see Def Leppard, and I was ecstatic. Though it meant for the next few years I would wind up reviewing virtually every hair metal band that passed through town, I raved over this concert as if I were seeing the Ramones for the first time. It was energy, excitement, and hooks galore that won me over.
1983 was a good year for albums, but a magnificent year for singles. This was the last great year for the Top 40 - filled with Michael Jackson, the Police, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, and Def Leppard, not to mention a whole host of MTV-fueled lesser chartmakers. You could listen to commercial radio and expect to hear something you liked - it never occurred to me that this would never happen to me again.
Pyromania was fueled by three Top 40 smashes - "Photograph," "Foolin'" and the magnificent "Rock of Ages." These three tracks alone are enough to make this my choice for representative album of 1983. It wasn't the best - I'll grant Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones its place in that role - but it was the one that defines the year in my memories. (Michael Jackson was there, too, but his record came out the year before.)
Producer Mutt Lange (last seen in this blog helming the 1980 album by AC/DC - he will turn up again later on) helped Def Leppard blend metal bombast with pop music hooks. He also crafted a meticulous sound for these young men, one which benefits more from cranking up than almost any of the bands which followed in their footsteps over the coming years. It's got supple rhythms in between the chunk of the gated drums; it's got grinding bass, delicate guitar arpeggios and bone-crunching guitar riffs. And, most of all, it's got vocal harmonies which sound more like the Bay City Rollers than any heavy metal predecessors.
"Rock of Ages" is such a masterpiece of popcraft. There's that nonsense opening vocal - "Gunter glieben glauchen globen." Then the Neil Young quote - "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Then the furthering of the metaphor of burning, deciding to light the whole town aflame. And all in the name of rock'n'roll. Long live rock'n'roll. They've got the power, they've got the glory, just say you need it, and if you need it, say yeah! All of this set to several of the most uplifting, ecstatic, and highly enjoyable hooks I've ever heard, all in one song.
The songs which weren't hits ain't half bad, though they tend to have less interesting lyrical concerns (except for the somewhat challenging "Billy's Got a Gun"). I've got nothing against horny young men looking to get laid - I was one of those once myself - but the urgency of desire in "Foolin'" or the bemoaning lost love of "Photograph" just tops a silly sex metaphor like "Comin' Under Fire" or the typical rant against teasing of "Action! Not Words." Still, the song constructions can enchant no matter what the songs turn out to be about.
I've seen Def Leppard four times over the years, and they've never failed to leave me beaming with satisfaction. They may have saved my writing career back in 1983 - if I wouldn't have liked them, I imagine I'd have been given the boot in favor of somebody with something positive to say. I wasn't lying about any of it, either - Def Leppard deserves all the success they've had. Their sound was massive, and for a while there, they were as big as anybody in the world.