35 years ago: Def Leppard unleashes ‘Hysteria’

They were one of the first bands the British press categorized as part of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) movement, but at the time Def Leppard released their fourth record, Hysteria, on Aug. 3, 1987, they had completely shattered the mold and discovered a sound based on catchy melodies, heavily processed drums, layered, shimmering walls of guitar and clean, crisp vocals. If the 1983s Pyromania marked Def Leppard’s toe-dip into pop, Hysteria was a cannonball off the deep end. Then again, guitarist Phil Collen say they never liked being categorized with British metal bands.

“Even when we were grouped as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, we didn’t think we were at all like the other bands people were talking about. [including Iron Maiden and Diamond Head]”, he told me in 1999. “We never wanted to be a metal band. We’re about as close to metal as we get Madonna.”

Despite their fascination with metal, Def Leppard still had a number of commercial metal and glam rock fans who didn’t buy into them, and with radio hits such as “Pour some sugar on me,” “Suction cup,” “Animals“and”Rocket,” Def Leppard attracted a new fan base from fans of U2 and Prince for kids who only had one or two hard rock records in their collections.

Def Leppard, “Animal”

“We’ve always wanted to be a band for the people,” says Collen. “When we started working on Hysteria we had just sold eight million records Pyromania so we knew we had a fan base. We didn’t necessarily try to top it because you can’t go into something saying, ‘Okay, yeah, this one is going to sell more than 8 million copies.’ That’s a lot of records. We just wanted to make a record of good songs that we really liked that were maybe a little more polished and sounded more modern. Even when we were done Hysteria we had no idea how it would do, but it felt like a triumph for us.”

Within days of its release, it was clear that others saw it as a triumph as well. Hysteria reached no. 1 on both the US and UK album charts and went on to sell over 12 million copies in the US and over 20 million copies worldwide. And it proved that after four years of waiting for a new album, audiences were still eager to embrace Def Leppard’s heavily processed sound.

Hysteria was not an easy record for the band to make and only came to life after some serious drama and soul searching. At the time of its release, Def Leppard’s drummer Rick Allen had lost his arm in a near-fatal car accident, and the level of stress they were under while writing the songs led the band to consider breaking up. Then, after they toured for Hysteriaguitarist Steve Clark died of an overdose.

“People talk about ‘The Curse of Def Leppard,’ and it’s so weird to me,” Collen said. “We have been a band since 1977. We have been like a family, and things happen in every family. People get into accidents, people die. You enjoy the good times and you stick together and help each other through the bad times.”

There were good times and bad times, while producer Mutt Lange – who had been with Def Leppard since their second album, 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry — worked on Hysteria. From the beginning, his goal was to help create the most commercial hard rock album of all time, and achieving that goal put everyone in a pressure chamber, from the engineers to the band members. “His plan for Hysteria was Thriller,” Collen recalled. “He thought, ‘Well, that album has six or seven hit singles on it.’ Let’s do a rock version of it.’ Talk about a challenge. And to be honest, Hysteria was a difficult record to make. Nothing came easy. We worked on it for a long time and it cost a lot of money, but in the end we got there.”

To give Hysteria a sound that wanted to stand out from the rock records flooding the marketplace, Lange used a variety of technologies. All the guitars were recorded on a Rockman amp, and dozens of tracks were recorded and layered for each take. Then the drums were sampled individually and played through a Fairlight digital sampling synthesizer. Eventually, the recordings were saturated with echoic reverb, giving the songs a stadium rock feel, even without the low, booming tones of most hard rock.

“It was a hell of an experiment at the time,” Collen said. “It was excruciating to record. We just redid things over and over and over – guitars, vocals, everything. And then if it didn’t sound the way we wanted, we’d modify it and start the whole process over until we found the parts that worked best for the song. Then we’d move on to the next one.”

Def Leppard, “Love Bites”

There is no doubt that Lange played a big role in shaping the sound Hysteria. And when, due to mental exhaustion, Lange bailed on the project in the pre-production phase, it looked like Hysteria can turn into a completely different type of publication. Def Leppard employed Mincemeat bread‘s songwriter Jim Steinman to replace Lange. But Steinman wanted to capture the band using traditional hard rock production techniques, and Def Leppard was unhappy with the sound he was getting. The band members let him go and then attempted to produce the album themselves in an attempt to capture Lange’s widescreen sound, but soon closed up shop. The situation went from bad to tragic.

On Dec. 31, 1984, drummer Rick Allen was speeding along a country road in Sheffield, England, with his girlfriend Miriam Barendsen. Attempting to pass another car, Allen lost control of his Corvette C4, which bounded a brick wall and flipped through a field. Allen’s left arm was cut in the crash and he nearly bled to death before paramedics got him to the hospital. The doctors were unable to put the arm back on, but Allen was not willing to give up playing drums in the band. After he recovered from the accident, he started playing again, using his feet to make drum sounds he used to play with his left arm.

“People have asked us why we didn’t find a new drummer after Rick’s accident,” Collen said. “It wasn’t even a thought. We encouraged Rick to get his spirits back up and work hard to rejoin the band. I mean, for God’s sake, you don’t kick a man when he’s down. How awful that would have been saying, ‘Okay, you’ve just had this horrible accident and it’s really traumatic for you. But sorry, you’re out of the band.’ No way, we were determined to continue with Rick.

Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”

Just when Def Leppard was ready to continue working Hysteria with Allen, Lange contacted them and said he was ready to come back into the studio if they were interested. Def Leppard worked steadily with Lange from mid-1986 to January 1987. During their final recording session, they tracked “Armageddon It” and the last-minute addition, “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which became the most popular song on the album.

“‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ was based on a rap song, which sounds so silly coming from this British rock band,” Collen said. “It had crazy vocals, and it pulled from areas we’d never been close to before, but were happy to mess around with.”

Hysteria was the last album guitarist Steve Clark worked on with the band. An alcoholic, he was in and out of rehab several times in the six months before he died of an overdose of codeine, alcohol, diazepam and morphine. Clark was replaced by the former Dio guitarist Vivian Campbellwho remains with the band to this day.

On Oct. 22, 2013, Def Leppard released the double album Hysteria: Live at the Joint Las Vegas. Recorded on March 29 and 30, 2013 during the band’s residency at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the first disc contains Hysteria in its entirety as well as two hits from Pyromania — “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph.” The second CD featured more obscure cuts from the band’s catalog, which Def Leppard had performed as the opening act for their own shows, using the name Ded Flatbird. The set contained the entire side 1 of the band’s 1981 album High ‘n’ Dry.

Decades after its release Hysteria, Def Leppard continued to play many of the songs from the album as staples in their sets. On their summer tour 2015 with Styx and Teslathe band regularly performs “Animal,” “Armageddon It,” Love Bites,” “Rocket,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Hysteria.” Looks like Mutt Lange was right all along when he said Hysteria would be the hard rock version of Thriller.

Def Leppard, “Hysteria”

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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