Justify Your Shitty Taste: Def Leppard’s “Hysteria”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalogue. Occasionally, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Decibel site to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. This time around, Greg Pratt defends Def Leppard’s Hysteria.

Admittedly, this is going to be a tough sell, but Def Leppard‘s 1987 ultra-hit album Hysteria, which maybe you’ve heard of, and maybe you’re one of the 25 million people who bought the damn thing, ain’t half bad. On a few levels, it’s actually amazing. It has its shortfalls, but the good outweigh the bad, and, today, I’m going to justify the shit out of this thing.

Also, let’s get this out of the way, and I say this as a Gore Beyond Necropsy fan, and a guy who has Def Leppard snuggled up next to Deeds of Flesh and Defeated Sanity on his computer: the ballads on this album are great. They still have a bit of bite, something this band just lost rapidly from here on out (further albums can not be justified); here, the ballads totally work. I feel like half this album is ballads; the title track of this album is a ballad, so the band certainly were playing to their strengths.

Thing is, like all self-respecting metalheads, you probably think the first two Def Lep records are killer (I think High ‘n’ Dry is insanely good), and you either politely tolerate Pyromania or you’re honest with yourself and admit that it’s killer too (it is). But did Lep jump the shark with Hysteria? Let’s not be so hasty.

Now, we all hated Hysteria when we were younger (a lot of those 25 million people were disappointed metalheads who muttered something about the NWOBHM every time they pulled out one of their cassette drawers and the still-basically-untouched, glossy spine of Hysteria gave them a silent plea to just try listening one more time) because it was produced to the point of not even sounding human and because the songs were totally transparent ploys to get stuck in our brains. This was the “metal” equivalent of a really long ad jingle. But here in 2018, it’s worth reconsidering both these points, because while they’re totally valid, they’re also totally why the album is worth a second consideration.

Part I – Action! Not Words

Good lord is Hysteria produced. It’s over-produced, yes. It’s barely music as we understood it existing at that point, yes. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the argument of whether or not music made by machines can have heart and soul, because I think Hysteria was mainly made by machines. I’m not entirely convinced this album isn’t some kind of experiment sent down here by aliens who were trying to understand what the humans enjoy putting in their ears: sugar-sweet melodies? Why, yes. Choruses both predictable and anthemic? Definitely. Melodies that pull on the heartstrings but also inspire joy? Absolutely.

But, yeah, the production: now, I realize part of the reason why Def Lep plunged so deep into the world of ultra-modern production was necessity, as drummer Rick Allen had to switch over to a electronic drum set-up at this point in his career. Clearly, once the band got a glimpse of the technology bug, they dove in like a kid in a candy shop. Thing is, this album isn’t actually as robotic and stiff as we remember it being. Maybe that’s more a comment on modern production sounds than anything, but I feel that Hysteria just is not as soulless as we always say it is. It’s definitely odd-sounding and not exactly raw and rocking, but it works for this set of songs. (Also: Def Lep had the weird-triggered production sound down pat 20 years before your fave tech-death band, so this album is actually a bit of a pioneer as far as extreme metal production goes.) (Stick around, we’ve still got a lot of words left here.)

And here’s the rub, man: Hysteria brings me joy. Screw it. Say it with me, loud and proud: Hysteria brings me joy. It’s so formulated and cloying it makes me pull my hair out in frustration, and the sounds are way more clinical and processed than a guy who usually says things like “The production should sound more like a His Hero Is Gone record” should have any business liking, but I like it. Hysteria may kinda sound like weird garbage, but Hysteria is a ton of fun to listen to. My ears approve. It’s just this side of fingernails on chalkboard, and it’s glorious. Listen to it again, and you’ll see. Guess they got it right after all.

Part II – Foolin’

Now, Def Lep were always really good at melodies. The first three albums make that abundantly clear. With Hysteria, the band went neck-deep into melodies. At the time, it felt like too much. But you know what they say about hindsight: it makes you like Hysteria‘s melodies. And they’re right.

True story: one time when I saw Mötley Crüe play live, I was watching Nikki Sixx, ahem, sing backup vocals and I just felt like they were being piped into the back of my brain through some tubes I didn’t realize had been planted there as I was getting a security rub-down. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on but I knew it felt good because back-up vocals to rock anthems being piped into my brain is a new kind of heaven on Earth I didn’t know existed.

I feel the same way every time I listen to the choruses to most of the songs on Hysteria. Now, you know most of the songs even if you never owned the album, because fully seven of the album’s 12 songs were released as singles. Which is insane. Producer Mutt Lange famously remarked he wanted this album to be the Thriller of metal, meaning he wanted every song to be able to be a hit single; about a third of the album is actually pretty unremarkable, so, that didn’t quite work out, but here we are, regardless. And even though I feel that maybe four of the songs here are, yes, unremarkable, the remaining eight are so good the album deserves to be justified here in this column. And why are they so good? Because they were written by cyborg alien record-label executives in a boardroom in outer space, where they carefully put together combinations of chords and melodies that are focus-group approved to get the job done.

And I just can’t argue anymore that it wasn’t a good idea.

Part III – Rock Brigade… kinda

Alright, the songs. Strip away the negative connotations surrounding this album, and put on “Women.” Put on “Rocket.” If you like the ballads, which it’s totally okay if you do, we swear, put on “Love Bites,” then the (great) title track. Head back to “Animal” and “Armageddon It” to bring the rock back (side note: when this album came out I was young and thought that was a swear word in a song title because I didn’t know what “Armageddon” was because I hadn’t discovered death metal and crust punk yet, so I thought Def Lep were pretty damn bad-ass). These are really, really good songs.

To get a bit further into this, let’s look at the opening trio of songs, all of which rule.

“Women” is a great song; it’s absurd, it’s out of control, and it’s great. It’s a good simple rocker that was a wise choice for an album opener. I like the moody verses, the over-the-top choruses, and the fun video:

“Rocket” would fit in just fine on Pyromania, and although it doesn’t really rock as heavy as a song that almost has the word “rock” in its title should, this one still gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me for a great chorus and good vocals, as always. And I’m sure that behind all the layers of production there are even a couple guitars on this one. Plus, another fun video:

“Animal” continued on with the one-word song titles and was also where the uh-oh factor kicked in pretty hard back when longhairs first spun Hysteria all those years ago. If the first two songs could have passed for Pyromania b-sides, this was something else altogether, the band fully embracing pop melodies, song structures, and songwriting tricks that we probably shouldn’t fall for, but, c’mon, just listen to it! The guitar tones during the verses alone sell me, and that pre-chorus thing that Def Lep did so well during this era just totally rules here. Plus, fun video, I guess:

For the aforementioned ballads, I fail to see how anyone can legitimately feel the title track is not awesome, because it might just be my favourite song on this album (hey, if you’re going for it, you go all in, I always say). And, I dunno, I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time… is this song even a ballad? Is this Def Lep trying to rock but just forgetting how? It’s somewhere in between, and it’s a sweet spot.

“Love Bites” is maybe a bit overdramatic but… well, I’m not sure what to say without being beaten up by a swarm of dudes wearing Exhumed shirts next time I leave my house, but this song is pretty fantastic, as far as crap, cliche power ballads go. Like, really fantastic, actually.

“Pour Some Sugar on Me,” hmm, well, if there are verses in there, no one can remember them (including me, and I’m listening to the album right now), and that chorus is basically the catchiest rock chorus of all time, but it also just makes you want to kill yourself, so, call it even but with a clause to just never listen to this damn song again. No video link.

Part IV – Bringin’ on the Heartbreak

First off, no album is good just because of nostalgia, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t help sometimes, and Hysteria has a ton of nostalgia surrounding it; the guitar tones alone bring it all back every single time (see the title track and “Animal” for the best examples of this). But sometimes you go back and listen to an album and you’re just swept away to a different time. And sometimes you end up in the YouTube comments openly weeping reading other people’s recollections of growing up with Hysteria, such as this fella’s comments (all typos included to keep the spirit there, and I’ll keep him anonymous, because I just can’t):

To most people this is just a song. But I remember was in August of 1988 my parents were gone one day and my girlfriend performed a strip tease to this song in our living room. I just remember this tiny red headed teen age girl dancing around on the hard wood floor and I was just hoping the music wouldn’t stop. They say whenever you look back on something it is always with rose tinted glasses…not always. Some memories are special.

He’s talking about the totally forgettable album closer “Love and Affection”; when pressed for what happened between him and his red-headed strip-teaser, things got sobering fast over in the comments section:

Wish I could say the story had a fairy tale ending but it didn’t. We broke up a few months later and after school I only saw her once more. Last I heard she was living in Memphis with her own family. Makes we want to take teenagers today and tell them to appreciate the few short years they have to be young. Before you can blink, it’s gone.

Others piped in. It was group therapy, it was a sad Bruce Springsteen song come to life, it was set to the soundtrack of Hysteria:

Crazy How you can know somebody and never see em again. 29 years

High School is like that the world over. These people you get so close to, some very intimately so and then after you graduate time and experience just pull you all apart from one another.

Dude I’m a Def Leppard/Heavy Metal fan from when I was 12 I’m almost 29 I love love love all their albums but Hysteria is awesome it’s like Mutt Lang said a hard rock Thriller that’s awesome about your girlfriend btw

“Last I heard she was living in Memphis with her own family.” “Time and experience just pull you all apart from one another.” “That’s awesome about your girlfriend btw”

Love bites. Hysteria heals.