June 19, 2006

Def Leppard

Yeah! is the most appropriate album title since Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. While the Pistols’ made a declarative statement, Def Leppard simply went with the gut response one gets at some point during each of their cover choices.

It feels both weird and titillating to be energized in the summer of 2006 by a band that had some of my attention for a few years in the early 1980s. Along with New Wave, I bought into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and bought Def Leppard’s 1980 debut album,
On Through The Night. I hated the cover art, and was left cold by most of the contents, but it was obvious from interviews that Joe Elliot was a huge glam rock fanatic who was jazzed to finally have a band of his own, and they were all awfully young and cute. At 15 years old, this was sufficient reason to be a fan.

But the follow-up,
High ‘n’ Dry, was a genuine blast, and when unloading all my Def Leppard vinyl years ago, it’s the only one I held onto because it still moves me, hard. The band still had all the original members, and Robert John “Mutt” Lange came on board to create a loose, power crunch of pop metal. The singles “Let it Go” & “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak/Switch 625” still work perfectly.

There’s also a sentimental attachment to High ‘n’ Dry-era Lep. The weekend I turned 16 years old was celebrated with concerts by Van Halen (the Fair Warning tour), and Def Leppard. Actually, DL opened for Blackfoot (who?!), and even at that time, it was an absurd and backwards bill. But the DL boys packed a lot of tight rock into a 40-minute set, and they were awfully hot. When overly inebriated on a Sweet 16 weekend, that – and David Lee Roth the next night – was all I needed.

In 1983, there was no ignoring
Pyromania. Coming out the radio, “Photograph” was a bright and immediate latch-on. Then MTV bombarded our every viewing moment with the video (actually, it was more of a sword fight between DL & Duran Duran’s “Rio”), and chart domination was complete.

The appeal of that album was undeniable, but the relationship between Def Lep & Lange intrigued me way more than the music. Much like George Martin with The Beatles, or Roy Thomas Baker with Queen, producer and band worked together on the tunes to craft a distinct sound. In the process, these bands became better musicians, and left behind instantly recognizable slices of rock.

Robert John “Mutt” Lange produced a lot of seminal hard rock albums, but Def Leppard were like putty in his hands, allowing him to craft a signature wall of sound that eventually sucked the blood out of DL. While I wasn’t a fan of the chipmunk compressed vocals and layers of frills Lange plastered onto the boys, I did appreciate an audio craftsman perfecting his vision. Lange moving onto his own sonic Barbie Doll with Shania Twain makes perfect sense, and bought him a large chunk of New Zealand. So bully for Lange, but too bad about Def Leppard (if you consider untold riches and popularity a detriment to creativity), who were left without a master.

After floundering about, the boys decided to take a breather and rediscover what inspired them in the first place. What they discovered was pure joy, and how to properly share it.

Yeah! is absolutely exhilarating, both musically and spiritually. By returning to their roots, they uncovered the band they actually were under all that Lange pop rock tulle. They gave themselves a parameter: only 1970s British (save for Blondie) bands they loved before they got signed. They used a democratic system for song selections: everyone made a list and they found the common threads. They used good judgment: no obvious choices. They used their smarts: what they’ve learned over the decades reapplied to what made them do it in the first place. And they produced it themselves so they could just revel in the moment and deliver an honest set of songs.

The songs they settled on got my attention just from the advance blurbs. Anyone combining T. Rex, Blondie, Sweet, Kinks, ELO, Mott The Hoople, Badfinger, Roxy Music and Thin Lizzy on one record will probably get my cash. I did cringe at the thought of Def Leppard going light alloy on “Waterloo Sunset,” but that hurdle was easily cleared.

A good song is a good song, and shouldn’t depend solely on the performance. Ray Davies made an eternal impression with his wistful, trembling “Waterloo,” and anyone who’s covered it since latches onto that melancholy. Def Leppard get major props for having the balls to give the song some meat, and Joe Elliot’s vocal interpretation changes it from a hermit’s view of life, to an observer weary of city life just looking for humanity where it hides. In the extensive liner notes (totally worth the price of admission), Elliott writes: “
I don’t know what it is about the Kinks, but they had a wonderful knack of making what were essentially sad melancholic songs sound so uplifting! … his chord structures were so simple, that had they been kids, they’d have been in remedial class! Brilliant.

Elliott’s brilliance is in understanding that, seeing it as a template, and knowing more could be pulled from this classic tune. And for every time Joe endears himself to me with his reasons for doing a song (
“We had, HAD to pay tribute to Roy Wood somehow – so how???"), he and the band then deliver more than expected (ELO’s “10538 Overture,”) and more than we may deserve.

Twice, DL has me loving their cover more than the original: David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday” & Mott The Hoople’s “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” That last one made me feel like a traitor, but when considering how much Elliott adores Mott, he thought long and hard about how to do this without embarrassing themselves.

He shares his theory that the song “was really a Sex Pistols song minus, er, the Sex Pistols guitars!!! …it’s big, ballsy, & if I’m honest, the one song I had doubts about singing!! Paul Rodgers, no problem (they also cover a Free song); Ian Hunter, he’s my hero!!! What if I ballsed it up?!! …If I’m honest, I thought it was about time you all heard where the “woah ho” stuff in “Photograph” and “Foolin”’ and a lot of our “call to arms” choruses really came from.” And then they got Ian Hunter to appear on the song! You can just hear Def Leppard popping a woody every time they think about that.

The band introduced me to something I’d never heard before, but now can’t live without: “He’s Gonna Step On You Again” by John Kongos, a British one-hit wonder. And they tried a noble experiment that most everyone but me loves: “Rock On” by David Essex.

They’ve made me swoon because each band member picked a favorite album cover to replicate (Phil Collen doing
Raw Power = hot), and if he could curb his exclamation point tendency, I could read a novels-worth of Elliott’s music musings. Plus, I discovered some things undetectable under all that Lange production: Joe Elliot has an elastic, authoritative and manly voice, and Def Leppard just plain rocks; no disclaimers or descriptors, just rocks.

So, this is a kick ass summer album, and I’m grateful for every second. But what next?

Considering how the band has opened up and gone back to basics, this should translate over to future original work. Because, how can you have a journey like
Yeah! and remain unchanged? They’re 27 years into this game, and should have the guts to do as they wish from here on out. I’m hoping that they remain so jazzed by reconnecting with the essence of rock fanaticism that it allows them to drop the gimmicks and marketplace facades and produce something worthy.

Joe Elliott on their cover of “Hell Raiser”:
“The Sweet were, in my opinion, wrongly accused of being puppets because of their involvement with Chin & Chapman – an accusation occasionally leveled at us when we worked with Mutt Lange. All nonsense, of course, for both bands!!”
Here’s hoping that, in the future, Def Leppard remembers what they’ve learned from their past.

T. Rex & Sweet