If someone played you “On Through the Night,” without telling you who it was at first, you may be very surprised to learn that it’s Def Leppard’s debut album. Released in early 1980, before the band hooked up with its sixth unofficial member, producer John “Mutt” Lange, “On through the Night” sounds nothing like any other album in the British quintet’s catalogue. While Def Leppard, along with Van Halen, proved to be the decade’s innovators, more or less in inventing the formula known as “pop-metal,” on their debut, Def Leppard was just another band from the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). In addition, with a hint of blues-based metal and Jimmy Page-esque riffs and arraignments, there is a clear influence of Led Zeppelin on “On Through the Night.” Tom Allom, who produced such Judas Priest classics as “British Steel” (1980) and “Screaming for Vengeance,” (1982) was on board for “On Through the Night” and it shows.
While Def Leppard’s debut is somewhat derivative of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Led Zeppelin, it’s still an excellent album. The thing that immediately strikes the listener is how young the band sounds. At the time of its release, the members of Def Leppard were in their late teens and early 20s. The band sounds so youthful, so hungry, and so wanting to rock. Singer Joe Elliot sounds great, doing the best Robert Plant/Rob Halford/Bon Scott impersonation that anyone could hope for. Guitarists Steve Clarke (lead) and Pete Willis (rhythm) provide tremendous instrumental firepower. While their playing isn’t groundbreaking, they sound alive and invigorated. Steve Clarke shows early on that he was “the riff-master,” delivering killer song after song. “On Through the Night” may be a little unoriginal, but the riffs and solos are fully captivating and effective. Bassist Rick Savage and drummer Rick Allen provide an exciting and dynamic rhythm section.
On “On Through the Night,” the band just plain sounds good. One thing going for this album is that it sounds very live. There aren’t a lot of overdubs, it sounds as though the band just went into the studio, cut an album in a few takes, and that was that.
A lost Leppard classic, the opening “Rock Brigade” takes no prisoners and makes the band’s ambitions to play the arenas known. It sounds almost like a sped-up version of “Good Times, Bad Times” from Led Zeppelin I (1969). An early hit, “Hello America” shows even without Mutt Lange, the band’s innate pop-sensibility. As others have noted, the light keyboards add a nice effect. Led Zeppelin again makes its influence known with the hard-rocking-but-bluesy “Sorrow is a Woman.” “It could be you,” with its echoing vocals and Jimmy Page inspired riff, sounds a lot like Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” as noted by others. The melodic, metallic “Satellite,” sounds as though it came right from Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent for Leather” (1980) album. Def Leppard comes very close to Spinal Tap country with the Iron Maiden/Dungeons and Dragons mythological epic “When the Walls Came Tumbling Down.” It’s a little silly, and dated, but the song rocks hard and is effective. “On Through the Night” goes into full-out heavy metal mode with the blistering “Wasted.” Judas Priest again rears it influence with the slightly generic “Rocks Off.” While not a great song, it’s good and keeps up the momentum. “It don’t Matter,” gets the album back on track with its engrossing, mild-mannered verse that builds up into a satisfying melodic chorus. “Answer to the Master” is another good-but-not-great Zeppelin inspired mid-paced rocker. The album ends triumphantly with the majestic “Overture,” which sounds like a cross between “Stairway to Heaven” and Boston’s “More than a Feeling.”
When people think of Def Leppard, they undoubtedly think of such classics as “Pyromania,” (1983) and “Hysteria,” or the stink-bomb “Adrenalize” (1992). “On Through the Night,” and its equally underrated follow-up “High and Dry,” (1982) have unfortunately been overlooked and remain lost gems. While “On Through the Night” isn’t the most groundbreaking or original album in the world, it’s still a fine CD that fans of Def Leppard and rock in general should check out.