The Sugar-Sweet, Bittersweet Story of Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’

Def Leppard (Photo: Courtesy of Polygram)
Def Leppard (Photo: Courtesy of Polygram)

On Aug. 3, 1987, British hard rockers Def Leppard released their fourth album, Hysteria. The follow-up to the band’s 1983 breakthrough, Pyromania, Hysteria was born of tragedy and unusual circumstances. During its creation, the band went through multiple producers; endured the life-threatening and nearly career-ending car accident of drummer Rick Allen; revamped their entire rhythmic style to accommodate Allen, who lost his left arm in the crash; and, in the process, created a polished, powerful, and accessible album under the guidance of producer Mutt Lange, who hadn’t planned to work on Hysteria when Def Leppard began writing for the project.

By 1988, 12 million copies of Hysteria had been sold in the U.S.; to date, more than 30 million units have been sold worldwide. This week, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most successful and ambitious hard rock albums of all time — and the release of a remastered edition featuring B-sides, live tracks, and the previously unavailable audio for In the Round, in Your Face (Live)Yahoo Music talks to Allen, lead singer Joe Elliott, guitarist Phil Collen, and bassist Rick Savage about the album that changed everything for the band.

Rick Savage: When we did Pyromania, we were trying to make a specific type of heavy metal album that had never been done before. And when we went into Hysteria, we wanted to get to a wider audience rather than just the metal fans. We saw what Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were doing, and we wanted to make an album that still had its soul in rock music but would reach more than just the standard rock and metal fans.

Joe Elliott: I don’t think any of us spent one nanosecond during the Pyromania tour thinking about what we wanted to do with the next record or working on any of the songs. Then, when we finished [touring] in Bangkok in February ’84, we literally flew straight to Dublin, rented an old house, and self-furnished it. We had to go up to this shite little furniture store and go buy couches and carry them in. Management was like, “Keep your feet on the ground.” You think, “Well, we just had all this success with Pyromania. We’re established!” But the place was rat-infested. So once we got over the initial 10 days of celebrating the fact that we didn’t have to get on a tour bus or an airplane the next day, we just got on with it. We started to tune up the guitars and get out the pen and paper, and go, “OK, come on, let’s get going here.”

Savage: We were given 30 pounds [about $50] to furnish the whole house. We had to buy five beds and a sofa and a TV for that! It was hideous. We were living as if we didn’t have a recording contract, and we’d actually sold 5 million albums the previous nine months.

Elliott: Yeah, but by the time we finished Pyromania, we had a huge debt to clear. We’d been a band since ’77; we’d been borrowing money from our record company since August ’79 to record On Through the Night and Pyromania, which was expensive. And by the time the money started to come in, we still owed the record company a lot. So we were on a budget.

Savage: We were so excited about making the record, we didn’t worry about being in s*** conditions for six months. We knew we still wanted to represent what we grew up listening to, which was Slade, Bowie, Queen, and AC/DC. But we wanted to push the boundaries as well.

Elliott: When you’re a band, you push each other forward. You’re always going, “Can we do this? I don’t know. Let’s give it a go. Why not?” You have the instant confidence of everyone else saying, “Well, yeah, what do we got to lose?” So we were very ambitious, and we were trying to capture lightning in a bottle. We didn’t have a clear direction; we didn’t know what we wanted. We just knew that we wanted to do something that everybody else in our era that was a rock band wouldn’t dare do.

Phil Collen: The whole idea of this album came from [songwriter and producer] Mutt Lange. He understood what we were going to do even better than we did. It was his idea to do something that was going to be like a rock version of [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller — a new genre of music. So he was steering the ship from the start.

Savage: The first hurdle was dealing with people saying, “How are you ever going to repeat the success of Pyromania, or even get close to it?” That kind of went to our heads, but I really felt we could do better than Pyromania. I mean, if we didn’t think we could make something better, we wouldn’t have even tried.

Elliott: After six months in Dublin, Mutt dropped this bombshell on us. He said, “Look, guys, I’m sorry to tell you, but I’m not going to do the album because I’m burned out.” He had been working straight since ’76 and he needed a rest. It was suggested that we work with [Meat Loaf collaborator] Jim Steinman. We just rolled our eyes and went, “Why? He’s a songwriter — but Todd Rundgren produced Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, if that’s what you’re referencing here for his worthiness.” I guess people thought that we weren’t capable of writing the songs, which is a valid point because we’d co-written with Mutt on Pyromania. But it wasn’t like we were the Monkees. He wrote with us and was our guiding light. He had all the information, all the experience, and we had all the enthusiasm, and the two banded together really well.

Collen: It was a real struggle when Mutt wasn’t there. He was the only one who knew that we didn’t work like other bands. There was a theme and an imaginary sound we were going for that was in his head. He was absolutely the most important person to the whole project. And Jim Steinman didn’t get that.

Savage: It was a huge mismatch with ourselves and Jim Steinman. It was not a meeting of the minds. He was into recording records with a vibe and having the whole band play at the same time. We’ve always been a band that has looked at the individual sounds and really went to town on every single aspect of a song, which is why it took four years to record Hysteria.

Elliott: We were all frustrated, and we dealt with it in different ways. [Guitarist] Steve [Clark, who died from alcohol poisoning in 1991] might not roll into the studio until 2 a.m., but he never partied when he was working; it was always afterward. At the time, he was no different to anybody else that’s got a reputation like that, like Jim Morrison while he was alive working. Keith Richards, Greg Allman, even Eric Clapton created some amazing music while under the shadow of some incredible toxins. When we did Hysteria, Steve somehow managed to keep it together, and he came up with some phenomenal parts. The guts of “Gods of War” was his, and he came up with some beautiful passages in “Armageddon It.” He came up with great bits in tons of songs.

Savage: We’d never go onstage under the influence of drink. We’d never go into the studio to record that way, either. But when we were writing, there was a lot of alcohol consumed. That was five guys living in the same house, trying to write. It very often turned into a bit of a party. And Steve was fine during the whole process for Hysteria. We all were, but we had our moments, one of which involved Phil and Steve getting completely blind-drunk and walking into a famous jeweler in Dublin, buying two very expensive Rolex watches, and not remembering a thing about it the following day. Stuff like that happened all the time.

Elliott: We spent six months in Dublin, from February to August, without coming up with all that much. By the time we got to Holland in August of ’84 to start recording, I think we had the backing tracks for six or seven songs. “Gods of War” was one of them; “Women” was another. “Don’t Shoot Shotgun” was written in a basic form. “Animal” was done, but we changed the backing track. We recorded a lot of these songs in the Jim Steinman sessions and then when we realized that wasn’t working, so we kinda went back to the drawing board.

Collen: After Jim Steinman left, we were in Holland for almost two years working on things with various producers and not getting very much done. We were waiting for Mutt to finish up with the Cars so he could rejoin us in the studio. We did some stuff, but we spent a lot of our time messing about, spinning our wheels, because we really needed Mutt.

Savage: One time, Phil was driving his car alongside with Steve and they were probably the worse for wear for drinking, and Phil crashed his car. I don’t want to make light of it. The front end of his Porsche ended up in a shop window, and fortunately he walked away. Nobody was injured, but it caused a little bit of a stir for a few days.

Collen: The most outrageous thing that happened during the time we worked on Hysteria, of course, was Rick Allen’s car accident. We already started recording, or writing at least, so we knew where we were heading. We already had stuff done when Rick crashed his car. And while he was recovering, we just kept moving along. But it was strange and horrible.

I was with Steve in Paris on New Year’s Eve [1984]. We’d just gone out and I got this really weird phone call from our manager. He said, “Rick’s been in a car crash, and his arm is severed.” I couldn’t get my head around what he meant. I said, “Sev— what? You mean it’s cut and he’s injured?” And he said, “No, man, his arm’s cut off.” And we were like, “What?” Me and Steve just could not believe that something like this had happened to one of us. And then the details started coming out. Rick nearly lost the right arm as well. They had to put a 6-inch bolt in that one just to get it going. They reattached the left one and it didn’t connect [due to a serious infection that developed]. It was the first time in our fairly short lives that we’d actually experienced anything like that.

Allen: My initial reaction was, “I’m done for. I can’t do this anymore.” Doctors told me I’d be in the hospital for six months and that I’d never be able to play again. But I discovered something that many of us who have been through a very traumatic situation have discovered — the power of the human spirit. My family stood behind me. There was no pressure. I was surrounded by love and support. The guys in the band were the same way. Everybody wanted to leave me alone and let me do what I needed to do in order to play drums again.

Elliott: We were totally rudderless. We were doing the honorable thing, which was trying to continue. But that was the real low point of the album for the band. A couple of months before, we were working away with Rick, and next thing we knew, we weren’t sure if he was going to be able to play with us again. We hoped for the best. But we were shuffling around, going through the motions almost. But then there was a kind of camaraderie within the band, so dark humor would always rear its head and that would kinda make you smirk. So then we’d go, “Ah, come on, let’s just reconvene tomorrow and see what happens.”

Collen: Before me or Steve visited Rick in hospital, Mutt Lange had been there. And he said to Rick, “You can actually do this! You can carry on playing drums and use your foot instead of your hand!” And that changed everything.

Allen: When Mutt visited me in hospital, he really gave me a boost. And then Steve and Phil came to visit and the pair of them were just s***faced drunk. I think they were expecting me to be really, really down and depressed. But it had reached a point where I was like, “I can do this.” My brother brought my stereo system in a few days earlier. I started listening to all the music that had inspired me when I was a kid. I had this piece of foam at the bottom of the bed, and I realized I could play all the basic rhythms that I grew up listening to. That was the beginning of it. And then when Steve and Phil came to visit me, I started to show them what I was doing, and they realized that I was serious about this and I was able to do it.

Collen: We weren’t drunk. We definitely had a drink to get a bit of Dutch courage, because he was all bandaged up like a mummy, and where his arm used to be there was, you know, these bloody bandages. We said, “S***, we gotta go down to the pub.” We drank some brandy and then me and Steve went to hospital, and when we saw Rick, he acted as if nothing had happened. It was like the scene in Monty Python where they chop the knight’s arms and legs off and he goes, “Oh, ’tis but a flesh wound.” We’re all somber and he says, “Right, so I’ve been practicing.” We thought he was hallucinating, because he was acting like nothing had happened. He was determined to carry on, and he made us feel we needn’t be that concerned about him because he actually had it all figured out. And Mutt had planned this amazing new way for him to play drums live using foot pedals to substitute for what he would normally do with his arm.

Allen: I can kind of understand why they were drunk, because they didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t really spoken to anybody. Nobody knew where my head was at. Ack, it was a horrible time in many ways, but in many ways it became a blessing. The main thing for me was to stop comparing myself to how I used to be and to others, and to embrace uniqueness. And once I was able to get my head around that, I was able to get to a point where I could do things that nobody else could do. I couldn’t play the same way I used to play, but I could play in a way that was totally unique, and not too many people on the planet can emulate that. So I went with that. I started again. I thought, “OK, these are the tools I’ve been given, so that’s how I’m gonna work.”

Elliott: When he was in hospital, we were fortunate to have had enough stuff to be getting on with, like loads of drum tracks recorded that we could just fart around doing overdubs on while he recuperated. But his recuperation was drastically different from what we thought. He was supposed to be in hospital for six months, and he discharged himself after six weeks, went home to his mum’s, got bored s***less after two weeks, jumped on a flight, came out to the studio, and sat on the couch in the back of the control room. We said, “Look, you’re still in this band until you say you’re not, so if you’ve got any ideas, speak now.” We involved him straightaway. He wanted to be back with the boys, if you like, but he was just waiting for his friend in Sheffield to design the first-ever electronic kit that he used to play on. When he got it, he locked himself away and tried to figure out if he could do, in practice, what his brain was telling him in theory he could do, which was channel all his left arm playing into his left foot. He had been practicing every day in his head and rewiring his mind. When he sat on the stool, it took him about four months to really get to grips with the basics. During that time, he wouldn’t let anybody watch or listen. I don’t blame him. It was his own private time, and we knew when he was ready he would invite us in to have a listen to what he did. And that was probably sometime in ’85.

Allen: At times in the early days, it was almost like the equivalent of stuttering. I’d start playing something, and I think because the neural pathways in my brain were still developing, it still felt a little alien to me. I was a little uncomfortable. But the more I did it and the more I developed those neural pathways, the easier it became to play. There was always pain, but I was able to start to perceive the pain in a different way. Whenever you lose something, there’s always what they call the “phantom nerve.” Even right now, I can feel my entire arm. I can feel all the fingers and I can actually move a couple of fingers, which is really weird. Whereas, someone that was born without a second arm, that part of the brain never developed. So there was discomfort, there was pain, but that was offset by the fact that I saw myself and experienced myself making improvements and steps in the right direction.

Savage: Obviously, you wouldn’t wish that kind of a terrible accident on anybody, but if it was to happen, there was a timing aspect that couldn’t have worked better. Rick’s new way of playing was all geared into what was happening in the mid-’80s. There were electronic sounds, and people were using electronic drums. It was the right time for Rick to start creating a new way of playing drums. He fit it in with the musical landscape, and it became almost like a defining part of the Def Leppard sound — the electronic-sounding drums that were a little bit more than an acoustic snare drum that’s miked up in a large room. And then, because of it, everything else needing to fall into line and be a part of this big thing.

Collen: All of a sudden we had this new sound because we didn’t just have a regular drum anymore, we had a Robocop version of a drum kit. And that made all our stuff have this larger-than-life feel. It totally changed us for the better.

Elliott: When Mutt Lange came back in ’85, we clicked right back on track. We started reevaluating the songs that we’d written in February ’84, which we thought were good but just sounded out-of-date.

Allen: We were kind of working on everything all at once. While I was away, the guys started laying down really basic drum tracks, just using a drum machine. That enabled me to go in and play the songs and make them work as well as they possibly could with the vocals and guitar. And because these songs evolved so much over the period of time we were working on them, I could go in and punctuate the songs in exactly the right way.

Elliott: When Mutt decided to come back and help, he totally lit the fire under us. I’d be laboring over something and then someone might say, “Hey, guys, look — this might not be appropriate right now, but I’ve got this idea.” And he’d play the drum machine beat with some chorus chords and everyone would light up and go, “Christ, that’s really cool!” And boom, we had the embryonic version of “Rocket.” And we had this real moronic riff that sounded like the Red Army marching through Red Square, and then all of a sudden Steve went, “We need to T. Rex this thing up,” and he started playing it like “Get It On.” And then we had the beginning part of “Armageddon It.” It was those moments that reaffirmed that we were doing the right thing; it was just taking a lot longer than most people would have expected it to.

Collen: Things just started to flow again. Mutt would say, “Let’s try this,” and it would be something we never would have done. He helped us create a theme, like this imaginary sound. He had it in his head, and the more that we went on with it, the more we got inspired.

Elliott: These things were exciting, but it wasn’t a party; it’s never been a party in the studio. We’re heads-down, no-nonsense rock ’n’ rollers when we get into the studio. It’s work, work, work, work, work. We’d layer it up a thousand times, put a trillion guitars on stuff. There are 11 guitar parts on the title track. It’s an orchestration, and we weren’t afraid to do that. We didn’t go, “Oh God. How the hell are we going to play this live?” We figured it out later.

Collen: People are scared to try something different. They’re so worried about being judged that they won’t try anything different. All this stuff we were doing sounded so loud and proud and confident. We had everything going for us because what we were doing was unapologetic. It was its own style of music.

Savage: At some point, we were told Hysteria was probably the most expensive album ever made. If we had taken that on board in a really businesslike manner, we would have been freaking out. But we just didn’t care. This was the album we wanted to make. Fortunately, the record company and Mutt kept believing in us. And they allowed us the time and the budget. But obviously, it was all recoupable and we had to pay it back. We honestly didn’t care at that point in time. We were just so pleased with the outcome of the album. We weren’t even doing it as a financial investment; it was much more of a musical statement. That’s why it turned out the way it did, because we weren’t ever bogged down by those financial details.

Collen: When we were recording, we were going from country to country, studio to studio. We rented all these machines, shipped cargo. And then one day I was sitting in the studio in Holland and we’d finished the record. They were mixing it and I saw the breakdown of how much we owed, and I had tears well up and I nearly choked when I saw. That’s the point when I really felt it. But our managers and Mutt all said, “You know what? Don’t worry about it. We have something to do that’s more important than that.” And in that case it really was, so yeah, it worked out great.

Elliott: Before we recorded “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” we had an 11-track album. We were done. We were on the dregs of the vocals for “Armageddon It,” and I was working on it with Mutt while the rest of the guys disappeared for a few days. We took a coffee break, and when Mutt stepped out, I picked up an acoustic guitar and started banging these three chords out and singing this hook over the top. Unbeknownst to me, Mutt popped back in and stood behind me. When I turned around, I went, “Ah, I’ve seen a ghost.” And he said, “What is that?” I said, “It’s just this thing that I’ve had going for a while, but don’t worry about it because I know we’re done.” And he goes, “No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s the best hook I’ve heard in years! Play it again.” So I played it and sang the chorus and he went over to the tape machine, put a brand-new piece of tape on, and said, “Just keep playing it.” Then he starts programming the drum machine to play a beat that was almost like “We Will Rock You.” We started banging the chords over the chorus and then working backwards over the bridge. We didn’t have the guitar lick that’s there now, but we had enough of a song to present to the guys a couple of days later.

Savage: At the time it sounded a little like “Summertime Blues.” Phil came up with the guitar intro, and once we had that, the drums became everything on that song. It just had to have that beat that sounded almost like a dinosaur walking through Jurassic Park.

Elliott: At first, the melody for the vocals was a bit more like “Come Together” by the Beatles, but then we doubled up the meter, having heard Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith [on “Walk This Way”]. We felt that it was a slow song, so it needed a fast vocal and I should “rap” it up. Me and Mutt had little microcassette recorders back in those days, and we had a melody in mind, so we were just mouthing noises, just scatting like Cab Calloway. He went next to one big speaker, and I went over to the other one on the other side of the control room. And then we swapped each other’s machines and tried to translate what we thought we’d said. And I came up with the line “Love is like a bomb.” And his eyes lit up and he said, “Oh, that’s awesome!” Then we just took it from there and totally Marc Bolan’d it up. It didn’t have to make sense. We weren’t trying to write “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Savage: The record company didn’t want to hear of it. We’d already spent four years and millions of dollars on the record, and they were like, “No, that’s it. You’re done. We want to put this thing out.” But Mutt would not let it go. He said, “This is the kind of song that’s lacking on the album. It will make the album complete.” So we all reconvened and recorded it really quickly by our standards. It went from nothing to finished in 10 days. And we always felt that was going to be one of the standout songs. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way right away. It went to radio quite early, and it wasn’t received overly well. It was OK, but it wasn’t as popular as “Animal” at the time. It was only nine or 10 months later when the live video started to be shown on MTV. And that pushed “Sugar” right over the top.

Elliott: We were actually away on tour in Europe, and I’d get all these phone calls saying, “You won’t believe what’s happening to the record. It’s shifting 300,000 a week and it’s gone up to No. 8.” “It’s gone up to No. 6.” “It’s at No. 4!” Then, when we get back to the States, it goes up to No. 1 a year after we put out the record. … It’s the song that turned the entire album around. The record was at a slow burn when it came out. It wasn’t an instant success. It was knocking around, but it wasn’t exactly boom! In a nutshell, that song started getting requested by strippers in Florida. They requested it on local radio stations. All of a sudden, people are asking, “Why is your song No. 1 in Florida?” And it really was the strip bars and the girls. The dancers requested it because it wasn’t just a standard rock song, and they wanted to dance to it. It straddled pop music, early hip-hop, and rock, and it had this sweaty, sleazy vibe, so it was perfect for them. And then other people went, “This is awesome. We love you guys!”

Savage: In fairness, it was written not specifically for that environment, but we had that in mind. That sleazy, sexy feel was exactly what we were trying to create. And we wanted to make something that women would actually dig listening to. We found that if you can get the women on board, it’s pretty easy to get the men on board, rather than the other way around. With our songs, it’s always been at least 50 percent women. Still is. It’s a formula we’ve never abandoned.