For years it was one of rock music’s great mysteries – where was the career-spanning box set to complement a hit-laden history? Def Leppard might have waited decades to satisfactorily collate and consolidate a bulging back catalogue but this is the band that once thought nothing of stretching the album process over four years. And the thing about Sheffield’s finest is this: when they do decide to put their minds to a project they don’t do it by halves.
CD Collection One is the first of four planned box sets and in typical Leppard fashion the band hasn’t missed a trick: the artwork on the spine is one segment of the quintet’s classic triangle logo and watching the remaining three pieces of this legendary puzzle come together will be a treat in itself.
There’s no doubt that the 80s belonged to four working class heroes from South Yorkshire and, although the band’s latest material stands tall alongside their signature hits, the four albums in this box of treasures tell you everything you need to know about Joe Elliott and his buddies.
Even in their infancy, Leppard boasted a certain swagger that set them apart from their peers at the forefront of the fledgling NWOBHM movement. With an ear for a chorus and a natural ability to pen that earworm riff, all they needed was the right man to capture the perfect sound. And following the slow burning success of debut On Through The Night, they found him. Leppard went into the studio to record High ‘N’ Dry with the legendary Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange and emerged with a record that screamed ‘global contenders’.
The man responsible for honing the sound of AC/DC’s iconic Highway To Hell and Back In Black albums sensed Elliott and co. required a ‘sixth’ member and a fresh outlook. “Mutt was our teacher,” explains Elliott in the hardback mini book bundled in with Leppard’s most famous music. “We wanted him on the first record but he wasn’t available.” Just imagine what Rock Brigade and Hello America might have sounded like had Lange been able to rearrange his schedule and get a handle on this band before High ‘N’ Dry?
Ultimately the title track, Let It Go and über ballad Bringin’ On The Heartbreak clearly benefited from the Mutt magic and hinted at the MTV-fuelled transatlantic success to come. No No No cried Elliott on the album closer: ‘yes, yes, yes’ replied an expectant US audience.
And there’s the nub where Leppard are concerned. Working with Lange ushered in a more polished, radio-friendly sound that appealed the America’s millions and initially alienated the band’s British brethren. Where Maiden, Saxon et al continued to plough a tried and tested NWOBHM furrow, their ambitious peers began to hone a sound more akin to hard rock than heavy metal. And in that respect Leppard released third long player, Pyromania, at the perfect time.
In January 1983 MTV, founded 18 months earlier, was beginning to hit its stride. At the same time as Leppard were finding theirs. It was a happy coincidence that Pyromania boasted made-for-MTV singles Photograph and Rock Of Ages (both topped the US Rock charts) and that record’s riff-fuelled pop rock found a home on FM radios and cable TVs across North America. According to the liner notes Lange had told the band: “We can make a record that nobody’s ever made before.” He was right. But Pyromania wasn’t it. Nearly, but not quite. Leppard’s landmark release would follow four years later following the most tumultuous period of the band’s brief yet colourful career.
Mention iconic 80s rock and metal albums and it’s unlikely that Hysteria will be shunted to the sidelines. In fact it’s far more likely that Leppard’s biggest-selling hair metal beast will make the top five every time. And for good reason. Given its own mini gatefold sleeve in the new box set (the only album afforded that luxury), Hysteria’s genre-leading artwork, pin-sharp production and procession of hits (three US top five singles for starters) made it the perfect package at a time when excess was en vogue. In the space of three albums Lange has transformed Leppard from bullish Brits oozing potential into global megastars leading their field. Hysteria is the sound of a band comfortable with its transition and ready to rule the rock and roll world. That it followed Rick Allen’s infamous car accident and charted the late Steve Clarke’s increasingly desperate battle with alcohol makes the record all the more remarkable.
There are those who suggest Hysteria marks the beginning and the end where Leppard are concerned but that’s where this box set – enjoyed in chronological order and supplemented by a series of brand new Paul Elliott essays – disproves the laziest of theories. Revisit all four of the band’s first wave of albums (plus the vibrant Live At LA Forum disc and occasionally underwhelming Rarities Volume One collection) and it becomes clear that Hysteria is, in fact, the culmination of a decade-long quest to be the best. Sure, it’s a record that’s never been equalled in terms of its initial impact, longevity and timeless appeal but bands don’t release four successive box sets on the back of one album. Hysteria is at the heart of all things Def Leppard but this is a band with a rich body of work stretching far beyond the mid 80s. CD Collection One might be the essential addition to any fan’s collection but Collection Two can’t come soon enough.