Let's get rocked

Def Leppard tries to change its musical spots

The 1980s were a decade of excess, a hedonistic period obsessed with the high life, both figuratively and literally. Musically it was a time of overindulgence as well, full of hyperproduced albums and splendid, over-the-top concerts. Probably no other band exemplifies this decade more than "the heavy metal Beach Boys," Def Leppard.

Def Leppard ruled the '80s: The band's brand of beachball metal dominated radio playlists and roller rinks. The songs didn't say anything, but who cared? Def Leppard rocked. Critically indefensible and wildly successful, it appealed to nearly everyone: enough hair and bad-boy behavior for metal, enough harmony and slippery-smooth production to be pop, playing anthemic, shout-along rockers for the guys and sappy, synth-laden power ballads for the girls.

But it's the '90s, and Def Leppard is no longer a part of our collective consciousness. The band's traditional three-year absence between records allowed its fans to be swayed by grunge and punk. Now, except for die-hard pockets of Lepheads throughout the country, the group rules only in grade-school memories and Adam Sandler songs. ("I love my mama/Def Leppard's drummer has only one arm-a.") The band still can sell out arenas, but it's nostalgia more than anything else.

Everyone who went to high school or junior high during the '80s has at least one or two fond memories that are attached to a Def Leppard song: slow dancing in the eighth grade to "Love Bites," splashing around the local swimming pool while "Pour Some Sugar On Me" tested the limits of the pool's rusty sound system, or straining to hear that knock on the front door over the din of "Hysteria" at a parentless house party.

In a year when Kiss and Sex Pistols reunion tours prove that nostalgia sells, Def Leppard earns points for moving forward and attempting to distance itself from its Monsters of Rock days. The band stopped working with Robert John "Mutt" Lange, the man responsible for the signature Def Leppard sound. Perhaps the band realized that if you take his style of production to its logical conclusion, you have the Nash-Vegas country album of his wife, Shania Twain.

Def Leppard also released a B-sides compilation, Retro Active (1993), and a greatest-hits album, Vault (1995). These two discs helped bridge the always-long gap between studio albums and closed the book on the old Def Leppard, clearing the way for its new musical direction.

The band's new outlook began to take shape during its most recent tour, in support of Adrenalize. Def Leppard started the tour playing in the round, with huge productions in the center of the arena, reminiscent of its Pyromania-Hysteria heyday. The stage featured a spinning drum riser, elaborate lighting setup, and microphones positioned on all points of the stage so the band could dash around and perform to all parts of the audience. Near the end of the tour, the band reverted to a more customary stage arrangement and stripped-down theatrics, which gave Def Leppard a new sense of spontaneity and freedom.

"We could do different things, different songs, and not have to call a production meeting about it," says guitarist Phil Collen. "It felt great, like being let out of prison. It let us get closer to the audience."

The revamped outlook remained during the recording sessions for Def Leppard's latest release, Slang. The band members decided to simplify the recording process and produce the album themselves with the help of former engineer Pete Woodroffe; instead of returning to the sterile environment of the studio that they had grown to hate, they opted to rent a house in Spain and brought in their own equipment. Drummer Rick Allen--Sandler's pal--arrived first and shocked the rest of the band by setting up an acoustic drum set.

Since Allen lost his arm in a 1984 car accident, he had been using a specially designed, $150,000 electronic drum set. His return to a traditional kit surprised and energized the band and set the mood for the sessions.

"Rick going back to an acoustic kit was a hurdle that he had to overcome," says Collen. "He had been practicing at home with it for quite a while, but he never felt comfortable enough to make the switch. When we got to the studio and saw what he was doing, we all thought, 'If he can do that, then we can do whatever we want.'"

Collen and the other players discarded almost everything they had learned from recording with Lange. After spending more than three-fourths of their career in the studio, they wanted--needed--to make it fun again.

"You spend that much time in a studio, and it becomes as bad as a regular job," Collen admits. "You start going for coffee, anything just to get out of the studio. So we were in the mood for a change, you know? Recording in Spain was one of the best things we've ever done. The atmosphere, the setting--it revitalized us."

In the past, the band members hardly played together until they were rehearsing for a tour, spending months isolated in a soundproof booth concentrating on their individual parts. In Spain, Def Leppard became a band again, the members collaborating more than they ever had before, in the hopes of achieving a tighter, more realistic sound.

"It was a lot more like the old days, like a bunch of young kids playing in a garage," says Collen. "We just set up the gear, miked the amps, and let go. Not much fancy equipment was used, and I think we're the better for it."

Slang reflects the band's individual musical tastes and influences, incorporating Collen's love of hip-hop and rap music, guitarist Vivian Campbell's fondness for classic pop songs, and singer Joe Elliot's preference for loud, distorted rock. The album features a wide spectrum of styles, including the industrial-lite of "Truth?" to the funky, R&B-tinged "Work It Out." This may strike some as a last-gasp attempt by the band to reclaim the radio airwaves it once ruled, but Collen says that's not the case.

"We just got tired of other bands copying what we did. So we decided to let them do that. They can have that. We're doing something else," Collen states. "It wasn't a conscious effort to get played on the radio 100 times. We wanted to do what was right for us--making an album that we liked, that was representative of who we are. I think we succeeded."

1996 marks not only the opening of a new chapter in the history of Def Leppard, but also the first time since 1980 that the band has released an album that wasn't marked by some form of tragedy or turmoil. Original guitarist Pete Willis was fired from the band during the recording of Pyromania for drinking too much; Allen lost his arm during the sessions for Hysteria; and guitar player Steve Clark died after mixing painkillers and alcohol while the band was in the process of making Adrenalize.

With that kind of past, the future always seems a bit shaky for Def Leppard, but Collen promises at least another album and tour, which--with the band's tendency to take its time making records--virtually assures Def Leppard continuing into the next century.

"Why quit? I'm healthier than I've ever been, and there's nothing that beats being in a rock band," Collen avers. "I mean, it's fun again, and as long as it stays fun, why would I ever want to quit? Why would anyone?"

Def Leppard comes to Starplex August 2.

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