Def Leppard’s Hysteria, the greatest hair-metal album ever made, begins by recounting the Book of Genesis, or at least the parts of the Book of Genesis that interest Def Leppard, which is to say the part where the ladies show up. "Women" kicks off with the forlorn windblown howls of what might well be several hundred guitars, and the robo-mastodon plod of rock ‘n’ roll’s most famous one-armed drummer. And then, frontman Joe Elliott, adopting an almost professorial air, gives us this:
In the beginning
God made the land
Then he made the water
Then he made man
Amazing. Every rock ’n’ roll album should start like this. It’s like how Armageddon’s first scene is a prologue set 65 million years ago. Joe is wailing now:
He was born with a passion
Love and hate
The production makes it sound like roughly 20,000 undead warriors grunt the word hate simultaneously. Get used to this.
A restless spirit
With a need for a mate
That’s not exactly how the Book of Genesis puts it, but OK.
But there was something missing
So he came with the answer
Here's what it cost
The guitars are stacking up, the lust intensifying, the recording budget mounting. The pre-chorus consists of God’s exact recipe:
One part love
One part wild
One part lady
One part child
[Chef kiss emoji.] And finally, the chorus, in all its knuckleheaded glory:
I give you!
Lots of pretty women!
They can’t live without them!
It ain’t Shakespeare—or is it? The video for "Women" features Def Leppard playing in a warehouse full of cardboard boxes marked HEART and LIPS and EARS and so forth.
Hysteria turns 30 years old today; it was released on August 3, 1987. It still sounds monolithic, monumental, historic, prehistoric. It sounds like Avatar, and every hypothetical Avatar sequel, screening simultaneously in the loudest theater man (or woman, or God himself) has ever devised. It took nearly four years to make and cost the band nearly $5 million. Supposedly, it had to sell as many as 5 million copies just to break even; it sold 20 million. As for critics, if you don’t believe my hyperbole, at least consider Rolling Stone’s: In 2015, Hysteria topped the publication’s 50 Greatest Hair-Metal Albums of All Time list. Most importantly, if you stacked every stripper pole ever utilized during a routine set to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" end-to-end, that chain would reach the sun. Which is actually quite shrewd: There is no better rock song in history that immediately makes every dude in the room 30 percent dumber. But numbers—be they sales figures, or chart positions, or list placements—can’t do Hysteria justice. Its appeal is spiritual, elemental, feral, sensual. Even biblical.
It is time once again to revel in "Pour Some Sugar on Me," a stadium-rock anthem so immortal it existed before man invented stadiums, or God invented man.
If you first heard it past the age of 9, this song is impossibly corny; if you first heard it at 9 or younger, it is the world, the solar system, the known universe entire. That booming HEY! on every fourth beat is preadolescent in its goofy joy; everything else here is very adolescent, pornographic in a bizarrely PG sort of way, down to the way Elliott yelps, "Do you take sugar? / One lump or two?" If you’re American, the only other cultural figure you’ve heard talk like that is Bugs Bunny.
Def Leppard were long-haired scamps from Sheffield, England, who started rehearsing as teenagers in an abandoned spoon factory, and by 1980 were leading lights in the bizarrely acronym’d NWOBHM scene. (That’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal.) Their transformation into stadium colossuses began in 1981, with their second album, High ’n’ Dry, produced by one Mutt Lange. He’s the guy who brought all the sugar.
Behind the boards once again for 1983’s Pyromania—featuring the massive MTV hits "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages"—Lange began to perfect a massive, infinitely multitracked, almost inhuman pop-metal sound. Hysteria is where he perfected it. The record sits precisely halfway between Lange’s deified work with AC/DC earlier in the ’80s, and his equally deified work with then-wife Shania Twain in the ’90s. Here, what animates smash singles like "Animal" or "Armageddon It" is the tension between the simple, sturdy, humbly hummable skeletons of the tunes themselves and the intergalactic-warfare armor Lange drapes over those skeletons, like 20 cloned versions of the band hammering away simultaneously.
Tales of this record’s bonkers recording process—its years-long nightmare of shifting arrangements and endless overdubs—are legendary. Guitarist Phil Collen estimates there are 100 separate vocal tracks on the B-side "Gods of War" alone, just in case the machine-gun fire and lengthy Ronald Reagan samples weren’t unsubtle enough. (Collen also recalls marveling at the massive budget: "One thing that sticks out is I remember seeing a line item that said, ‘Sundries: $20,000.’ And I was thinking, ‘What the fuck’s sundries?’ And that was just from sending out for food from the restaurant next to one of the studios. Because you have to eat, right?") The band was so afraid to attempt the towering power ballad "Love Bites" live that they held off until it became a no. 1 hit, and then it took two full days to work up an arrangement five humans could play and sing live.
Meanwhile, the drummer had one arm. The New Year’s Eve 1984 car accident that maimed Rick Allen is one of the most shocking and terrible non-fatal accidents in rock history. As meager consolation, it did result in this truly glorious VH1 Behind the Music footage in which the two genial rural Englanders—a retired nurse and an off-duty cop—who came upon the wreck and likely saved both Allen’s and his girlfriend’s lives revisit the scene years later to reminisce. (Allen’s first words to the nurse were, "I’m a famous drummer, and I’ve lost my arm.")
Allen stayed in the band anyway, and Def Leppard built Hysteria around him. (Lange recorded the drums last, which also let him futz endlessly with arrangements and tempos and the like as Allen mastered his new foot-pedal-heavy electronic drum kit.) What’s amazing about a song like the glam-rock tribute "Rocket" is how intricate and overblown it sounds—"the whole of the jungle playing at once," is how Allen has described it—while still very clearly being played by a man with one arm, the galaxies worth of glorious studio clutter never quite obscuring that simple kick-snare kick-snare. Allen’s prominence (and even presence, considering) on Hysteria makes it quietly the sweetest and most romantic rock album ever recorded, before you even figure women into it at all.
What Collen says the band wanted—or, more to the point, what Collen says Mutt Lange wanted—was "a hard-rock version of Thriller." And after "Pour Some Sugar on Me" broke through in the U.S. (Collen credits the strippers who started calling their local radio stations to request it), Hysteria delivered, eventually spending 78 weeks in the Billboard Top 10, still a record for a rock band. The U.S. tour promoting the record famously featured the band performing "in the round," with the stage in the dead center of the arena, the area beneath the stage infamously stocked with lots of those scantily-clad-at-best women Def Leppard sang so profoundly about.
It was a less enlightened time, and also the best of times where these fellas are concerned. Hysteria wasn’t so much influential as it was absurdly intimidating, an unreachable studio-god apex of man and machine, a hair-metal apotheosis that hinted at hair metal’s coming grunge-assisted downfall. That was a few years away, and there were great records yet to come, of course, from the likes of Poison, Cinderella, Warrant, and Winger. (OK, maybe just great songs.) But all offered an at least slightly grittier, scrappier, more mortal-feeling sound, content to lurk in Hysteria’s planet-obscuring shadow.
That shadow partially obscured Def Leppard, too. Tragedy struck again, and struck harder, in 1991, with the alcohol-poisoning death of guitarist Steve Clark. And though the band’s next record, 1992’s Adrenalize, topped the charts once again, it cowered somewhat in the face of alternative rock’s fearsome rise, and the band’s nostalgia-act trajectory was largely set. Hysteria is their high point, and also everyone else’s. These songs are ingrained in American (and, sure, British) culture to the extent that it hardly matters that the album isn’t available on any streaming service, in the hopes that you’ll buy the 30th-anniversary box set with five CDs and two DVDs instead.
But maybe revisiting the "Hysteria" video, with its blurry joyride footage (a little insensitive, maybe, considering) and suspect ballroom dancing, will be enough of a nostalgia jolt. If it’s not the album’s best song, it’s certainly Hysteria’s calmest and most human-feeling, a junior-high-slow-dance special that genuinely feels like five ordinary people playing music for two ordinary people to awkwardly tango to. Naturally, Lange apparently forced Collen and Clark to record some of their guitar parts one string at a time, to avoid any hint of arpeggiation. The complicated and frightening lengths even hair-metal gods must go to, to achieve the divine simplicity of perfection.