Def Leppard deserves kudos for keeping their lineup fairly solid. By the time of their first major release they sported Joe Elliot on lead vocals, Rick Savage on bass, Rick Allen on drums, Pete Willis on rhythm guitar, and Steve Clark on lead guitar. (All members performed backing vocals.) That would last until 1982, after their first two records, when Pete Willis was fired for excessive alcohol consumption. Phil Collen was brought in to replace him, and he alternated with Clark in lead-guitar roles.
The new arrangement would be shaken, but not undone, in 1984 when Allen lost his left arm in a car crash. According to sources, the group never even considered replacing him. Rather he learned to use both feet with his remaining arm to produce the necessary drum tracks, and has never left the band. Can I get an ‘amen’ for loyalty and perseverance!
But more tragedy was brewing. In 1991 guitarist Steve Clark, who had been in and out of rehab for alcoholism, perished from an accidental combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Def Leppard subsequently picked up guitarist Vivian Campbell, previously with Dio and Whitesnake, and he too has remained with the band since.
In its early days heavy metal could be characterized by both ‘more’ and ‘less’. Motorhead pushed for more speed, Black Sabbath introduced more darkness and doom, Motley Crue spearheaded more distortion, and they all-but-all raced for more loudness, loudness, LOUDNESS. At the same time there was a marked deficit of complexity in subject material, lyrics… or pretty much anything intellectual. Arguably, Def Leppard was an exception on most of those fronts. Their guitars weren’t as hard as the most extreme bands, which sometimes prompted disdain from “real” headbangers, yet the band demonstrated an impressive ability to craft melodies. Furthermore, their song themes were widely varied and cleverly worded, a trend which continued throughout their career. They explored themes of ancient quests (“Overture”), nuclear apocalypse (“When the Walls Came Tumbling Down”), traumatized war veterans (“Die Hard the Hunter”), addiction (“White Lightning”), refusal of a come-on (“No No No”), and God’s wisdom in creating the fairer sex (“Women”).
Though Def Leppard’s first two U.S. albums didn’t make much of an initial splash, the increasing utilization of MTV helped them greater notoriety in the U.S. They would join pre-existing American groups like Van Halen and Kiss, together with newly-emerging ones like Quiet Riot and Motley Crue, to become ambassadors of heavy metal in America. Along with the fans of other nations, we in the U.S. are grateful Def Leppard put in such an appearance.
We hope you enjoy reading our Top 10 Def Leppard songs list. We would love to hear what you think and what your favorites are.
#10. “Stand Up (Kick Love into Motion),” Adrenalize, 1992
Adrenalize is the band’s 5th record, put forth at the height of the group’s fame. It latched down the number 1 spot in the U.S., the U.K., and four other countries. It was the first record to come out after Clark’s death, now using Campbell on guitar. A different band might have responded to their loss with jadedness or fatalism. But many of Adrenalize’s pieces go an opposite direction, that of increased sentimentality. “Stand Up (Kick Love into Motion)” is one of those. Finding its way to number 1 on the U.S. rock charts, and number two in the U.K., it illustrates a shared loneliness which is countered by a resolve to do something about it.
“Stand Up’s” melody achieves an artful balance between heartache and the bloom of new love. Directed to an audience, it’s the stuff to make noses sniffle and tissues appear. Sappy perhaps, but triumphant as well. And in a genre with an overabundance of doom-and-gloom material, sappy but triumphant is a pleasant flavor.
#9. “All I Want Is Everything” Slang, 1996
In the mid-90s, the U.S. heavy metal scene had finally knuckled under to the grunge era, and Def Leppard experienced the same inglorious sidelining as most other hard rockers. Still, their 6th studio album Slang made it to number 14 on the U.S. Billboards, landing gold status, and took number 5 in the U.K. Their style had taken on a bit of unkempt rasp, and their mood become much more somber, even dark. Part of the change in sound, however, came because the group recorded their songs together in the studio, instead of playing each part separately. That resulted in a more “live” feel. Furthermore, the one-armed Rick Allen was making the first foray into using an acoustic drum set instead of an electric one since his accident in 1984.
“All I Want…” is an anti-ballad of sorts. Its morose march recounts the plight of someone who feels unable to take hold of their heart’s desire. Yet, in a poignant touch of either cruelty or hope, that desire still looms large in our character’s mind. The tune made #38 in the U.K., but otherwise didn’t chart. Yet if you were to be concerned with the group’s direction, you would be premature. In 1999 Def Leppard came out with Euphoria, which jumped up to number 11 in the U.S. That’s another story though. On to…
#8. “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” Hysteria, 1987
The culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s slid headlong into the controversial trifecta of ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.’ But by the ‘80s, rock music was engaging in a bit of withdrawal (pun intended) from its drug infatuation, yet the sex and rock’n’roll remained in full presence. Def Leppard was an unrepentant part of that crowd, banners flying in full color. A great many of their pieces happily extolled either pleasure, yet over the course of their development, Def Leppard emphasized romance much more than raw sex. Out of all the Def Leppard songs ever released “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” is as racy a tune as the group ever concocted.
Love is like a bomb baby c’mon get it on
Livin’ like a lover with a radar phone
Lookin’ like a tramp, like a video vamp
Demolition woman, can I be your man…
It was probably tame by the standards of the time, and wouldn’t even cause a hiccup in today’s graphic mentality. But for audiences who preferred their sensuality with a modicum of taste or imagination, this little number was a treat. Its strength lies not in anatomical blow-by-blow (we know about the birds and the bees, thank you), but its colorful and evocative use of language to create the mood. Musically, the song is one of the band’s most memorable, weaving an outrageous aural display of precocious guitar, chain-gang vocals, and thunderclap drumming.
And speaking of drumming, Hysteria was the first record to be released after Allen’s accident, three years later. By now the band’s popularity was poured in concrete, having soared after Pyromania. The music of Hysteria displayed toned-down guitars and increased reliance on electronics, yet the album’s reviews in no way suffered. It achieved diamond status in the U.S. and number one in five other nations, as well as placing numerous hits on numerous charts. “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” reached #2 in the U.S. Score one for comebacks!
#7. “Let’s Get Rocked,” Adrenalize, 1992
“Let’s Get Rocked” immediately catapulted to hit status, reaching number 1 in U.S. rock ratings, number 15 in the U.S. overall, number 2 in the U.K, and number 3 in Canada. It’s a gleeful romp through a teenager’s mind.
Some adults remember what it’s like to be a kid, some don’t. For those who do, “Let’s Get Rocked” is laughable, cute, and most of all, fun. Its attending video was nominated for the Best Video of the Year at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. It also prompted a spoof by Jonathon Mark Davies called, “Let’s Get Spocked.” He’s your green-blooded Vulcan logical dude…
#6. “Desert Song,” Retro Active, 1993
And now for an opposite spirit, “Desert Song” describes the challenge of someone undergoing a deep and sundering personal struggle. In Bible culture, ‘the desert’ is an icon of deprivation or hardship, and it appears the metaphor isn’t lost on Def Leppard. Their guitars wax hard and ferocious from the start, and in the chorus they lift to invoke a feeling of windy turbulence. But two-thirds into the tune the instruments change. The drums soften a bit and the guitars lighten to cleaner notes. Is our hero resigned? Calm? At peace, knowing the dark night of the soul will pass?
Retro Active came out in 1993, and it contains multiple unreleased pieces recorded between 1984 and 1993. All those who call themselves Def Leppard fans and have not heard it should get off the couch and order it straightaway. It contains a wealth of superb material, including some magnificent rockers like “Fractured Love,” “Ring of Fire,” “Ride into the Sun,” and “I Wanna Be Your Hero.” Many of these boast licks from the late Steve Clark. There are also acoustical works or ballads such as “From the Inside,” “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad?” and “Two Steps Behind,” written for the Last Action Hero soundtrack. Retro Active is practically another studio album, and with some of Def Leppard’s best creations.
#5. “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” High’n’Dry, 1981
Though High’n’Dry was confined to a relatively lackluster performance, it snagged double platinum in the U.S., and 25th position in the U.K. This was partly due to the band’s wise decision to make use of the MTV phenomenon, so “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” became one of the first heavy metal videos to air anywhere.
Those who enjoy poetic composition can make note of the internal rhymes in the lyric structure. As for the melody, it dangles some gentle chords before switching up in the bridge to pummel the listener with surprisingly gruff riffs. In the chorus, both tactics are used to offer a sweet blend of slow tempo and rampaging guitar. Def Leppard is also hitting their vocal stride by now, with harmonies reaching a rapturous unison that is surely at the top of what the male voice-box can handle. It’s a great example of an early heavy metal ballad standing at the No.5 position on the Top 10 Def Leppard Songs list.
#4. “Rock of Ages,” Pyromania, 1983
No more messing around. The first two records managed some ripples, but Pyromania blasted the water clear out of the pond. Its meteoric trajectory culminated in number 2 for the U.S., number 4 in Canada, and in the U.K…. well, it still had some catching up to do there, securing number 18. In the U.S. it almost surely would’ve brought home number 1 had it not been for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Head-bangers back then loved to declare war on pop rock, but pop won that round, sad to say. No matter. Head-bangers had a new treasure trove which threw a whopping 7 hits all over the airwaves. Two of them snatched number 1, and “Rock of Ages” was one of them. This bad-boy is a guttural paean to all things rock, no mistaking it. Blunt and unflinching, it mixes the twin axes of Collen and Clark, Elliot’s screech with throaty backing vocals, and Savage’s bass with Allen’s hammering drums. You will listen, you will love it, you will have a good time!
# 3. “Foolin’,” Pyromania, 1983
Despite the title, this song doesn’t fool about in the slightest. The listener is lured by some clean chords in minor key, forming a wistful invitation to hear what’s around the corner. What’s around the corner is… Whang! And plenty of it. Clark and Collen blast the amps with long power riffs, but the song’s best aspect is the cleverly-conceived melody. It changes bass keys at least three times; a technique which doesn’t always work, but here it’s sheer magnificence. Elliot howls, along with his backing vocalists, in a primal plea we’ve all felt sometimes:
Is anybody out there, anybody there?
Does anybody wonder, anybody care?
“Foolin’” made it to number 9 on U.S. rock charts, but didn’t place at all in the U.K. Well, U.S. audiences sure cared. Yes we care, Elliot, we care!
#2. “Too Late for Love,” Pyromania, 1983
In similar fashion to “Foolin’,” this one starts off easy. But the guitars groan with mystery and foreboding, as Elliot murmurs about tragedy which joins themes of love and stage drama. Then the murmuring vanishes and the band launches into full attack. Allen’s drums are at their very best, both crisp and heavy, and discomfited guitars growl like alley cats. Twice the melody spirals into a majestic choral hum which hints of a Gregorian abbey.
In a recent interview Elliot explained why the song didn’t chart as high as other hits. Although it made #9 on U.S. rock charts, it reached only #86 in the U.K., and was totally gone from the U.S. overall charts. In Elliot’s opinion this was due not only to the song’s “lamentable” air, but the fact it was never released as a video. In the band’s view, tracks like “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages” had broader appeal, a sentiment which may have become somewhat self-fulfilling. Nonetheless, Elliot acknowledged that the track was a “brilliant” piece of music, and audiences agreed.
# 1. “Billy’s Got a Gun,” Pyromania, 1983
Whaaaat? Who’s heard of this one? Well my friends, if you haven’t heard it you need to give it a listen like yesterday. Picture the iconic tale of a wrongfully persecuted soul who embarks on revenge, then channel that angst through a whirlwind hard rocker, and you’ve got “Billy’s Got a Gun.” With guitars galloping like mustangs at stampede, the song sizzles through Billy’s battle. Elliot yowls in fantastic counterpoint with his backing vocalists who cry danger in rough symmetry, then ascend to some alternate plane between sirens and angels as they follow with can’t you feel it in the air. There is a phenomenal bridge which masterfully combines the moods of sorrow and determination, and the group’s lyric storytelling is at its loftiest.
“Billy’s Got a Gun” was only displayed on one chart: the U.S. Rock chart at #33. Possibly that was due to the band’s aforementioned choices to release some songs as singles or videos and not others. But that entails a subtle blessing: the unexpected euphoria that grips listeners when they stumble upon such a well-woven tune they’ve not heard before. “Billy’s Got a Gun” nails that in spades, and the listener can’t forget it.
At gatherings of reward or recognition, judges often preface their decisions with some version of, “All the contestants were so good, we were hard pressed to choose.” Perhaps at times they’re exaggerating for the sake of warm fuzzies; other times they’re probably sincere. In the case of Def Leppard one is sincerely hard pressed, no doubt. At the possible risk of imperiling his hide, this writer chose to give the axe to beauties like “Photograph,” or “Love Bites” or “Hysteria.” It wasn’t easy.
In music, that is a great problem to have. Def Leppard is one of only five rock bands to claim two separate albums selling over 10 million copies each. Great work, guys. You were leaders in the heavy metal scene, and the head-bangers of the world applaud you!
Top 10 Def Leppard Songs