There was a time, long, long ago when Def Leppard rocked. By listening to the band’s musical out-put for the last fifteen years, it may be hard to believe that, but it’s true. Early on, before “Let’s Get Rocked,” before touring with Bryan Adams and Journey, before making adult-contemporary soft-rock with the stink-bomb “X,” (2002) there was a time when Def Leppard was genuinely a great rock band.
Released at the start of a new decade, the Judas Priest sounding debut from Def Leppard, ‘”On through the Night,” (1980) may not have been the most original album of all-time, but it’s still a great little-known gem in the chronicles of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). For their sophomore release, the band hooked-up with its unofficial sixth member, long-time Def Leppard collaborator and producer, John “Mutt” Lange. Released a year after the debut, Def Leppard’s second album “High N’ Dry” (1981) has some of the same NWOBHM elements that were on the “On though the Night, but also sees the band establishing its own identity and searching out new terrain.
AC/DC’s monumental album “Back in Black” (1980) no doubt had an influence on Def Leppard’s “High N’ Dry.” From singer Joe Elliot’s attempts to sound like Brian Johnson, to guitarists Steve Clarke and Pete Willis attempts to imitate the Young brothers, “High N’ Dry” sounds a lot like AC/DC. This isn’t so surprising when you consider the fact that Lange produced “Back in Black.” That said, the seeds of Def Leppard’s signature sound that is so apparent on “Pyromania” (1983) and “Hysteria,” (1987) like the melodic sing-along choruses and metallic yet infectious hooks, make their appearance on “High N’ Dry.” In a sense “High N’ Dry” can be seen as the album that bridged the gap between Def Leppard’s NWOBHM years, apparent on their debut, to their definitive pop-metal heyday of “Pyromania” and “Hysteria.”
The band’s early line-up on their first three albums was by far the best. Sorry Phil Collin (and Vivian Campbell), but the Pete Willis/Steve Clarke combo were by far the finest duel-guitarists that the band ever had. Their riffs and solos throughout the album are just plain killer, easily as good as anything AC/DC had to offer (is it blasphemy to hold that opinion?). It should be noted that apart from “Hit and Run,” every song on “High N’ Dry” was co-penned by either Clarke and/or Willis. With both long since gone (Willis was fired in ‘83 and Clarke died in ‘91) it’s easy to see how the band has suffered creatively ever since. The songwriting throughout the whole disc is terrific, with very well-crafted but hard-rocking songs, one after the other, without a dud in the lot. Even the album’s one balled “Bringing on the Heartbreak” sounds great and is light-years better than the syrupy trash that made up the band’s most recent steaming-pile of manure, abomination of an album “X.”
Another great feature of “High N’ Dry” is its organic sound. While the band may be most well known for their ultra-slick “Hysteria,” on “High N’ Dry” the band sounds a lot rawer, much more rough-around-the edges and a lot more ballsy than they would on later albums (“Pyromania” can be seen as a mid-way point between the two).
“High N’ Dry” is also great simply because the band wants to rock. Def Leppard at this point in their career were hungry and eager to prove to the world that they kicked ass, and they did. Don’t believe Joe Elliot when he tells you that Def Leppard were always really a pop band at heart, not a metal one, that just isn’t true. While there is a clear pop-sensibility to “High N’ Dry” it most definitely has a metallic edge and a lot of balls.
When I think of Def Leppard, I think of the group existing as two separate entities. First, there is the Def Leppard of the 80s, a great rock band who put out four terrific albums, even if they did get a little too commercial towards the end. And second there is the Def Leppard of the 90s/00s, an embarrassment; a band for soccer moms, the less said about the better.
So even if Def Leppard has sucked beyond belief for years, go back in time with “High N’ Dry,” and rock out to an album from a once really great band.