English stadium rockers Def Leppard blasted into the mainstream in the 1980s as part of the new wave of British heavy metal movement, and have experienced a dependable stream of success since. However, prior to the gargantuan commercial success of albums such as Pyromania and Hysteria, the band were another struggling act, self-producing their debut EP before securing a contract with Vertigo Records (Mercury Records in the US and Canada.) The band would subsequently record one more album, 1980’s On Through the Night – which would peak at number 51 on the Billboard charts and provide the band with their first taste of commercial success – before forming a working relationship with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who would would prove to be crucial in the exploration of a new sound for the band on 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry, an album which would soon alter the trajectory of the band entirely.
While the pop embellishments which would adorn future releases are present throughout High ‘n’ Dry, the album would be the last to feature a more primitive iteration of Def Leppard which was road-tested, well-rehearsed, and much more direct in their presentation of straight-ahead rock music. Despite the overwhelming popularity the band would attain through later releases, there exists an impassioned minority for whom this album and its predecessor, On Through the Night, are representative of the definitive version of the band. Essentially, High ‘n’ Dry is the final instance of Def Leppard recording a studio album on which the songs would be presented to sound the way they might on cramped club stage.
Though High ‘n’ Dry was more the band’s pathway to mega-stardom than their gateway to it, the album was responsible for some of their most enduring songs, such as opening number and first single “Let It Go.” The song, which was originally written and performed under the name “When the Rain Falls,” has appeared on numerous compilation albums since its release, and continues to be performed live by the band. Musically, the track is indicative of much of the rest of the album, and features tight, yet unpolished hard rock which incorporates elements of heavy metal and glam rock. Featuring numerous allusions to carnal pursuits and tossing in a curse word before the album even reaches its first chorus, “Let It Go” sends a clear message that this is a band with teeth and they aren’t here to play games, a message which persists through the album’s ten tracks.
The rhythm section, along with singer Joe Elliot, orbit the crackling guitar interplay between Steve Clark and Pete Willis, predicting musical openings and inserting their respective strands of musical DNA accordingly, concocting a fluid, but unfaltering mass of sound that never quite approaches overkill due to the songs’ reliance on their core musical elements throughout. The outro break of the song displays the band’s chemistry – they were an exceptionally fine-tuned live band at this stage – with Rick Allen filling the spaces between deep, sustained barre chords to the brim with a flurry tom-tom fills, a technique which was staple of his playing style prior to the notorious accident which would claim his left arm.
“Another Hit and Run” continues the boisterous musical motif and seemingly takes aim at the band’s home-territory of the UK, which was notably hesitant to accept the band, as they achieved their first big break overseas in the Americas. The songs contained throughout High ‘n’ Dry are concise, with only one track, “On Through the Night,” surpassing a five minute runtime, albeit by only six seconds. Forgoing the more expansive, experimental approach being applied by popular bands at the time – Pink Floyd’s The Wall had been released just over a year prior to the album’s recording – Def Leppard consolidate their musicality into quick licks and melodies that crack like a whip and just as quickly re-emerge in an altered context.
The title track assumes the slash-and-burn mentality of the preceding numbers and, in under three and a half minutes, paints a portrait of renegades out on the town, looking for trouble and well-aware of their own less-than-admirable intentions. A promotional video was released for the song, despite it not being released as a single, and the track’s popularity has persisted through the years, with it being included in the band’s live repertoire up until 2011. The song would later be included in the Parents Music Resource Center’s (PMRC) “Filthy 15,” a list of fifteen songs that the committee took issue with due to vulgar or indecent subject matter.
The band shift gears for the album’s second single “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak,” a ballad in every sense of the word which makes a point to embrace the dramatic, making heavy use of its home-base of A minor from which it never strays far, and adding B flat and minor 9th chords to create suspense. “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” was later remixed and re-released in order to capitalize on the band’s increasing profile following the release of 1983’s Pyromania, and prominently featured synthesizer overdubs. The re-release was complete with a new promotional video for the song, which would see heavy airplay on the fledgling music channel MTV, effectively setting the stage for their commercial breakthrough in America. At the close of the track, the entire band drops out, with the exception of bassist Rick Savage who steadily pumps out 8th notes in G, creating a springboard for the minimalist Steve Clark riff around which the following track, “Switch 625,” is constructed and segued into almost imperceptibly.
The guitar-based track is completely devoid of lyrics, with Elliot’s lone vocal contribution owing to repeated refrains of “ah ah” which act more as another instrument in the mix than any means of lyrical expression. An exchange of riffs between the band’s two guitarists make up the bulk of the song, but rather than rely on instrumental acrobatics and blatant displays of virtuosity, the track draws its power from the measured, melodic lead guitar style that would come to define the band’s sound, although listeners are treated to some twangy double-picking during the song’s outro break, which reflects that of “Let It Go,” and features Rick Allen blasting away at the drums in what sound more like miniature solos than fills.
From the melodic and compositional influence of acts like Queen and Elton John which informed the band’s process of structuring their music, to more direct influences such as Thin Lizzy and T-Rex, Def Leppard have always been a band that was unafraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. Signs of these influences crop up at various points throughout High ‘n’ Dry, such as “Lady Strange,” “Mirror Mirror (Look Into My Eyes),” and the aforementioned “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” which take inspiration from the twin-guitar harmony technique over minor chord progressions developed by Scott Gorham and popularized by his work with Thin Lizzy. The incorporation of the duel-guitar technique seemed an obvious choice for the band based on their own sound, which relies heavily on the interplay between two guitarists, much in the same way The Rolling Stones’ sound utilizes what Keith Richards calls “the ancient art of weaving,” a playing style that is built around an intuitive and predictive approach to musical interactions between himself and Ronnie Wood, and was initially developed by Richards with Brian Jones.
Not every influence on High ‘n’ Dry was introduced by a member of Def Leppard, however. Mutt Lange’s influence on the sound of Def Leppard is thoroughly documented, and his approach to recording vocals and layering instrumentation has been divisive among fans of the band to say the least. However, inklings of Lange’s work outside the band are apparent throughout their work together, particularly on earlier collaborations such as High ‘n’ Dry. When the band entered the studio with Lange he was just coming off recording Back In Black with AC/DC, which itself came right on the heels of 1979’s Highway to Hell, also recorded with Lange. Upon inspection, similarities between the three albums aren’t difficult to spot. The guitar playing throughout High ‘n’ Dry, particularly the rhythm guitar work, is typical of that featured throughout AC/DC’s discography, specifically the technique of Malcolm Young whose playing makes prominent use of space, start-and-stop strokes, and thick, mid-range chords.
Willis and Clark can be heard adopting this approach in tracks such as “You Got Me Runnin” and “High ‘N’ Dry (Saturday Night).” The drum sound of High ‘n’ Dry is also vastly different from that which would appear on later releases, featuring a tight, punchy attack akin to that associated with AC/DC’s Phil Rudd, as opposed to the heavily processed, expansive sound which the band and Lange would begin to explore with Pyromania and would fully realize with Hysteria.
Aside from taking cues from the music that inspired them, the second half of High ‘n’ Dry sees the band expanding their own sound in a big way. The track “On Through the Night” shares its name with the band’s debut LP, but did not stem from the sessions for the record. Rather, the name was used at the insistence of Steve Clark who liked the idea of having two title tracks on a single album. The song is one of many on the record which showcase the band’s musical development in the short period between releases. Elsewhere, tracks like “Lady Strange” and “Mirror Mirror (Look Into My Eyes) herald a sound the band would perfect on later songs such as “Foolin’” and “Too Late For Love.”
Album closer “No No No” sees the band attacking their instruments with an aggression more akin to Bad Brains than to Rainbow, at a breakneck tempo which brings the song to its conclusion in just over three minutes. Along with the group’s uncharacteristic punk rock approach to the recording of the track, “No No No” is notable in that, on original vinyl releases of High ‘n’ Dry, Elliot’s frenetic cries of the title lyric repeat on a loop for some time once the musical has stopped. On subsequent releases of the album, however, the a cappella outro section persists for only about eight seconds before fading out.
High ‘n’ Dry was released on July 6th, 1981 to moderate success, but the album’s status would continue to increase in conjunction with the band’s profile. In the present day, the album remains, by the standards of many – particularly those who identify as fans of the rawer, more aggressive sound of the band, indicative of their work prior to their mid-eighties ascension into the mainstream – the best album Def Leppard ever recorded. High ‘n’ Dry would mark guitarist Pete Willis’ final album with the band, as he would be let go a year later and Phil Collen would be brought in to supplement the lineup. Two subsequent albums with Lange would propel Def Leppard to superstardom, but the ascent would not be without adversity.
Drummer Rick Allen would notoriously crash his Corvette on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 1984, resulting in the loss of his left arm and putting the future of the band in question. Through sheer tenacity, and with the aid of the latest in recording technology, Allen was able not only to continue on as the band’s drummer, but to develop a new, minimalist approach to his instrument which would contribute heavily to the aesthetic of the band’s comeback record, the massively successful Hysteria, released in 1987. It would only be four more years, however, when Steve Clark would pass away as a result of respiratory failure caused by a deadly mix of prescription drugs and alcohol.
Def Leppard’s success would continue through subsequent decades, albeit at a less substantial level, with the band regularly releasing music and staging live performances. Having become a cultural mainstay through the albums and singles released during their extraordinary mid-80s run, the band retains a significant level of influence today, and admiration for High ‘n’ Dry as the de facto catalyst of that journey remains at an all time high.
Def Leppard’s High ‘n’ Dry 40 Years Later article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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