In 1984, Def Leppard set out to record what would eventually become Hysteria, their fourth studio album. “The idea was that this record was not going to come out until it was an absolute, bona fide, classic record,” the band’s lead singer, Joe Elliot, said in the “Hysteria” episode of the Classic Albums TV series. Not to spoil the plot, but the album did just fine. It would go on to cement itself as an iconic record, selling over 20 million copies and spending more than 130 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart in the process.
The previous year the band released Pyromania—a massive success that had catapulted the band into the spotlight. The album went gold (500,000 in sales) in 5 weeks and platinum (1,000,000 in sales) 5 weeks after that. For most of 1983 the album sold roughly 100,000 copies a week and, by May, was second on the charts only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In early 1984 with over 4 million copies already sold, Def Leppard knew they had a hit record on their hands. Now, they just had to record it’s successor, but it would be a tough act to follow and they knew it.
Making a bona fide classic record is easier said than done, and for Def Leppard, it took every ounce of everything they had. The next few years would involve a relentless march towards perfection, persistence in the face of unimaginable tragedy, and lasting, unconditional friendship. “If it [Hysteria] tells a story, it tells a story of determination.” Elliot mused in the Step Inside: Hysteria at 30 documentary, later adding, “I think it’s the culmination of all the hard work that we’d put in for ten years—a lot of desperation— the ingredients into this particular pie weren’t all positive. A lot of the good stuff came out of the bad stuff.”
Although Pyromania was the breakthrough album for Def Leppard, their previous record, High ‘N’ Dry, was a critical stepping stone. High ‘N’ Dry was released in 1981 and, although the reception was lukewarm and sales were disappointing, this is really where Def Leppard began establishing their signature sound with the help of an absolutely pivotal player— producer Robert “Mutt” Lange.
Robert “Mutt” Lange’s bar for perfection is, to say the least, lofty. To record an album with Mutt as your producer is to hurl yourself headlong into a process of incessant tweaking and fiddling. “He doesn’t just produce records, he midwifes them,” David Fricke wrote in Def Leppard’s biography, Animal Instincts. By all accounts, Mutt’s expectations for how an album should sound were notoriously precise—perfection was the bare minimum. He would tamper, fine-tune, twiddle, or otherwise monkey with the sound until, more often than not, he actually attained it.
By 1982, when Lange and Def Leppard set out to record Pyromania, Mutt already had a body of work that spoke for itself. He was the producer behind a number of blockbuster albums like Foreigner’s 4, and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Back in Black— these three albums alone went on to sell well over 40 million copies combined.
When Def Leppard set out to record Hysteria, they had already worked with Mutt on their two previous albums, and their relationship with him was something special. In their eyes, he had become more than a producer. “Mutt was as important as any member of the band,” Elliot emphasized in Classic Albums. Mutt himself added, “If ever I hear about Def Leppard, I always think of myself as part of it because that’s just the way it became.” The band had let him in completely and, in return, Mutt had helped them find their larger-than-life sound, rocketing Pyromania to the top of the charts in the process. So in 1984 when Def Leppard first learned that Mutt wouldn’t be available to produce the follow-up to Pyromania, they weren’t sure if they could record the kind of album they had in mind. As it turns out, their fears were justified.
Musical Chairs: Producer’s Version
To fill the massive, Mutt-shaped void, the band hired Jim Steinman, but Mutt’s and Steinman’s approach were polar opposites and this collaboration quickly fell apart. Steinman wasn’t without talent—he had worked as a producer for Bonnie Tyler and Billie Squier, and as a composer for the venerable Meat Loaf—but when it came to Def Leppard, the chemistry was all wrong. Mutt’s ambitions had become the band’s ambitions and to attain them, they needed to move on. Within a few months, they bought out his contract and discarded everything they had recorded with him at the helm.
After letting Steinman go, the band had a few problems. Obviously, they had no producer and nothing to show for the last few months of work, but the band had an even bigger problem. The cost of recording with Steinman and buying out his contract had strained the band’s finances. Suffice it to say there was no money left. “We had paid Steinman a ton of money to buy him out of this deal, which meant essentially that we had to sell a couple of million records to make up the money,” the band’s manager, Peter Mensch said in Classic Albums. David Simone, the record companies managing director added, ““This was an incredibly expensive project. I would guess that at that time in the UK, this may have been the most expensive record ever. The costs were staggering.”
But the Leppards persisted. This, you’ll soon come to see, is a common theme. After firing Steinman, they continued their search for this grand, imagined sound, but to little avail. “We had a two-year period in Holland where we worked around the clock with various amazing engineers…but we still weren’t getting anywhere near to this mythical sound that we had in our minds,” guitarist Phil Collen wrote in his memoir Adrenalized. “There was really no one else who could have done this album. We had to wait for Mutt.”
Eventually the waiting paid off. It was more than two years after they had first started, and they still hadn’t come close to what they had envisioned, but in mid ’86, Mutt finally took over the project full time. But not before massive tragedy.
Rick Allen’s Accident
On New Year’s Eve of 1984, Rick Savage, the band’s bass player, received a call from the band’s manager. Drummer Rick Allen was in a car crash that took his left arm and is currently in intensive care. Allen had been driving with his girlfriend when he lost control of his corvette. The car had rolled several times and Allen had been thrown from the vehicle, losing his arm in the process. In a long operation, surgeons at Hallamshire Hospital were able to reattach the arm, but it became severely infected and the arm had to be amputated.
Initially, the band’s main concern was with Allen’s life. Later, when it was clear he would survive, it was the future of the band and Allen’s recovery that was the subject of massive uncertainty. “It was an unbelievable feeling, an emptiness”, Savage said in Animal Instincts. In Adrenalized, Phil Collen wrote, “Rick was glad to be alive, but he also lived for drumming—how would he survive this?”
So now what? The experience of losing an arm and getting on with your life is itself unimaginable, but what if you’re a drummer? What if you’re a drummer for a band that’s in the middle of recording what is arguably their most important album yet?
In most cases—and admittedly there aren’t many comparable cases—you mail it in. Probably the band mails it in too, or maybe, they find a replacement and carry on. But Def Leppard isn’t most bands, they never have been. Def Leppard was bigger than all of this, and again, somehow, they did what they had always done before. They persisted. They didn’t replace Allen, in fact, they did the opposite. From day one, no matter what Allen decided to do, he had the band’s full support. What happened next—and this all seems so impossible—is that Allen relearned to play the drums, this time with only one arm.
Allen learned how to move through life with one arm, doing not just all the things I take for granted—brushing my teeth, making a sandwich, putting on pants—but also drumming for one of the biggest rock band’s in the world. With Mutt’s encouragement and the full support of the band, he relearned to play drums on a customized drum kit, with foot pedals taking the place of his left arm. In less than two years, Def Leppard played a live show with Rick Allen once again providing the beat.
A Wild Ride Over Stony Ground
Recording Hysteria was, to say the least, marked by tumult. Soon after Mutt had taken over the project, he was in a car crash and broke his leg. That same year, Elliot suffered from mumps which, for a singer—and this hardly needs to be said—is problematic. There was the costly hunt for a producer, the mounting debt, and, ah yes, the band’s drum player losing his arm.
“It was insane that we were even trying to make this record because so many things were against us.” Rick Allen said in Classic Albums. But again, the band persisted. “We realized the type of album we’d committed to…there’s no going back,” Rick Savage said in Step Inside, adding, “The memory of making the album is just one of no sleep. We just seemed to be spending our whole lives in the studio.”
Their was an end to the madness though. In August of 1987, the final editing was done and Hysteria was released. Def Leppard had first started writing songs for the album in early 1984 and now, over three ferocious years later, there was little to do but wait.
A False Start
Hysteria didn’t exactly explode. Six months after being released, sales plateaued around three million copies. In Collen’s memoir, he wrote, “I know I’m complaining about going ‘triple platinum,’ but this is where we ended up after three and a half years in studio time. In the red.” The turnout for the American tour was lackluster too, although the European tour fared better. After all the band had been through, was Hysteria just a long, exhausting project that would leave the band in debt?
Then something peculiar happened. “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, a track that was a last minute addition, began to take off in America. Driven by radio requests, this carnal anthem rose to No. 2 on the American charts. Demand for the album followed, and Hysteria began lifting off. A second American leg of the tour was added and this time, venues were sold out, sometimes within minutes. By July, Hysteria had reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts. Seven tracks would end up on the US Billboard Hot 100, four in the top 10. By now, reception to the album was frenzied, manic, hysterical even. In Classic Albums, Elliot said, “From the day we started in ’77, we wanted to be the biggest band in the world. And by the time that album came out and the tour kicked in for a little while, we were.”
Today Hysteria is widely considered to be the band’s magnum opus, but at the time, the only thing everyone knew for sure was that the summer of 1988 was coming up all Def Leppard.