Sunday, November 11, 2018

Def Leppard: Look What You've Done to This Rock and Roll Clown

There was a cover story in Rolling Stone about Def Leppard fairly late in the band’s career, when they were down to a collective total of nine arms, that ended on a scene of the band trying to jam together, and failing miserably. They eventually admitted to the writer (the great David Fricke) that if they ever showed up at a bar and tried to take the stage, the only thing they’d be able to play is Def Leppard songs. Maybe. 

That says a lot about Def Leppard’s music, which is often characterized as heavy metal, because of the power chords and the shaggy British hair and the name consciously evoking Led Zeppelin, but to my ears, it's much closer to high-gloss pop. It’s a studio construction, a la Ace of Base, much more than it’s like Motorhead. Pyromania and Hysteria were both recorded by each member individually, with none of them playing together as a band, and that's how they sound to me. That's not very metal.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that - I much prefer well-constructed pop. But I think it’s the reason why Def Leppard has been characterized as the heavy metal band that girls like (a formulation I believe I first heard from my friend Gavin Edwards). It’s because they were focused so much on creating radio-friendly singles, and because they lacked the misogynistic vibe that so much metal traffics in. And it worked, because they ruled the charts in the MTV era, putting nine singles in the pop Top 30 during the 1980s.

That’s a strong factor in their favor. Also, there’s the fact that “Photograph,” which put them on the map, was really great, a McCartneyesque construction crammed with hooks and gorgeous harmonies, crunched out with those ‘80s guitars. “Photograph” was the band’s first Top Forty hit, in 1982, and they seemed to spend the rest of the decade trying to remake it.

The follow-ups were close enough to the archetype to reach the charts, but I don’t know that very many people are listening to “Rocket” or “Animal” these days. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” seems to be their most enduring non-“Photograph” hit, but points off for stealing its trope from an Archies song.

Def Leppard had a very strong cultural impact in those early days of MTV, with videos in constant rotation and a crossover appeal to the teenage girls of the era. I don’t discount that at all, and I think it’s the best reason to vote for them. But I look at their cultural impact since then, and I just don’t see it. They got outflanked on one side by Guns n’ Roses and on the other side by Radiohead, and by the early ‘90s, there weren’t a whole lot of bands cranking out radio-ready processed metal, vying to be the next Def Leppard.

The Matched Set I liken Def Leppard to Duran Duran, another MTV-ready band churning out pop hits from underneath carefully chosen haircuts. “Rio,” like ‘Photograph,” still sounds great if you come across it on the car radio, but the other hits have a lot less impact, and they didn’t leave a lot of footprints. Also, girls love Duran Duran.

Duran Duran has never even been nominated for the Hall of Fame, near as I can tell, despite a dozen Top Forty hits in the '80s, even more than Def Leppard had. Their image is that of a lightweight, photogenic pop band, and that’s the same bucket I’d put Def Leppard into.

The Verdict Let’s face it, Def Leppard is going in. They were to the ’80s what artists like Chicago and the Steve Miller Band were to the ‘70s, and those acts were voted in to the Hall of Fame fairly easily. 

But I’m just not feeling it. For all their chart success, I can’t say that I’ve go out of my way to listen to their music since "Photograph," was on the charts. I don’t see any bands that appear to have been strongly influenced by them, and that's important to me. Nothing against Def Leppard, but they haven’t earned my vote.


  1. Def Leppard is proof we've truly run out of worthy eligible nominees.

  2. Duran Duran isn't in the hall? That actually surprises me.