Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania’ at 40: The Story Behind Every Song
Released on Jan. 20, 1983, Def Leppard's Pyromania changed the game for hard-rock acts with pop aspirations by providing a blueprint for how to make metallic music sound huge, not just loud.
There were some very specific elements required to build this particular beast. It helped to have, for example, a producer (in this case, Mutt Lange) who knew exactly what made artists like Michael Jackson, Foreigner, Hall and Oates, and others capable of making albums from which four or more hit singles could be extracted.
It helped to write songs with tension-filled verses and big, bold choruses. It also helped to have a band that shared the producer's desire to make hits, whose members were capable of both creative depth and prowess on their instruments, and who had a set of influences that helped light the way.
That last part was no small matter.
"We'd read about Queen and the Beatles using all these toys in the studio," singer Joe Elliott told Classic Rock, "and we wanted to do the same thing, but within a hard rock format. There were certain records from the '70s that were much better than the stuff that was coming out in the early '80s. Boston's debut and the first four Queen albums, they were huge productions, and that's what we wanted – a massive sound."
A massive sound is what they got on Pyromania – one that appealed to hard-rock fans and pop-radio listeners alike and helped lift the album to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart, selling 6 million copies in its initial release (on the way to more than 10 million required for diamond certification). We're digging deeper into the making of this huge record by focusing on each of its 10 tracks.
"Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)"
Pyromania kicks off with a barn-burner in "Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)," its opening riffs and lines ("hold on to your head / hold on to your heart / ready, get set / tear this place apart") meant to grab the listener immediately. "It actually began its life as a song called 'Medicine Man' back in 1980, We actually played it onstage when we supported Pat Travers," bassist Rick Savage told fans in a video interview on the Def Leppard Vault website. "It didn't change that much, in fairness. We changed a few vocal things, added a different guitar part in the second half of the verse. It's a great example of sitting on something until you get it absolutely right."
The song's anthemic introduction – a mix of loud guitars and even louder synthesizers – set the expectation that Pyromania would not be your typical hard-rock record.
"That big organ sound [in the intro] really took it to a new level," Elliott said in his Vault interview. "It's funny really that a lot of the kind of critical fans of ours, if you like, always say that Pyromania is a much heavier record than [1987's] Hysteria – and on the surface, I suppose it would appear to be. But Pyromania is absolutely just lathered in keyboards, but they're just disguised as guitar parts. And they just gave the guitars a clarity that you don't get out of just an amp a lot of the time."
Elliott's rough-hewn falsetto gives "Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)" an immediate air of party-forward urgency, which was what the song required at the time, but which tends to wear on one's pipes throughout a long career.
"It's one of those songs that's born out of youth," Elliott noted. "I was 22 when I was encouraged to sing in that register by Mutt. And I spent the next 20-odd years not regretting it, but cursing under my breath on the third show of three in a row – 'God, are we gonna open with this one?' [It's a] tough song to sing."
Def Leppard's first big hit "was a song left over from High and Dry – a song we never quite finished," Elliott recalled in the Vault video interview. "The intro sounded like something from Thin Lizzy; it was a twin guitar kind of intro thing."
The iconic and instantly recognizable main riff sounds effortless, but actually took quite a bit of work to make it so. Elliott recalled the moment everything clicked. "I remember being in kind of the common room [with] a couple crew guys [and] a couple band guys, watching cricket – a game I cannot stand," he said. "But we were watching cricket, and hearing through the wall this riff from 1981 over and over again. Between Mutt, Sav [Rick Savage], [guitarist] Steve [Clark], and [guitarist] Pete [Willis], they were trying to come up with something to make it work.
"Then there was a bit of silence, and then all of a sudden we heard the intro that is the intro now – which I'm guessing Steve said, 'I don't know. We're looking at this the wrong way; I've got this thing that might work [in the] same key.'" Elliott added. "But what I remember is the guys who were watching cricket, we all sat up and looked at each other, and went, 'What the fuck is that?'"
The riff was the perfect complement to the melody, and for Elliott and his bandmates, that's always been the primary element in songwriting.
"We've always tied our songs into the melody and the power that comes from it," Elliott later told Vulture, "as opposed to just bludgeoning people over their head with sound, which a lot of bands do. I've always thought that melody wins the battle at the end of the day … I think the most instinctive thing a human that's not a musician links onto is melody, not even necessarily the words."
It's not that the words are unimportant. A good deal of care went into crafting the lyrics for "Photograph," to give it a more resonant layer of meaning than one typically found in hard-rock songs.
"One day, Mutt had the line 'All I've got is a photograph,'" Elliott told VH1. "I said, 'That's a Ringo Starr song.' He went, 'Nobody will ever notice.' I said, 'It's a photograph of something you can't ever get your hands on, somebody that's not here anymore.' … The song was about somebody that's out of the picture. All I've got is a photograph, but it's not enough."
Def Leppard had to fire Pete Willis partway through the recording of Pyromania after the founding guitarist's excessive drinking began to impede the progress of the album and wear on his bandmates' nerves.
Willis' behavior "was holding us back," Elliott told The Guardian. "We all drank, don't get me wrong, but when we drank we just told dirtier jokes a little louder. Pete caused problems. He was disruptive and negative. The band had to come first."
Enter Phil Collen, who had just split from a glam-rock band called Girl which he formed with future L.A. Guns frontman Phil Lewis and a handful of fellow London players.
"After we parted company with Pete Willis, we needed a replacement as soon as possible," Rick Savage recalled in a Vault video interview. "Phil was always going to be our first choice, but obviously we needed him to come in and have him do something on the record, just to see if he worked out with Mutt and [to see] how that actual vibe was."
"Stagefright" became "the first thing I played on in Def Leppard," Collen remembered. "I got a cassette from Mutt and he said, 'Here's this track, 'Stagefright'; can you come up with a solo?' And [the solo] was the only first take on the album."
Joe Elliott said they opened the Hysteria tour with this song "because we chose to cleverly dress that song up with the opening line, 'Welcome to my show,' which – there's no better line to say onstage. It's totally written to play live.
"It was one of those songs that once we got going," Elliott continued during his Vault video interview, "we realized it was a song that would appear, on paper, to be a great song to play live because it's all massively big, chunky, 'chug-chug' guitars. [It's] relentless; it just never lets up."
"Too Late for Love"
"'Too Late for Love' is actually the first song we started working on when we got together to do Pyromania," Savage remembered in a Vault video interview. "The actual music, the guitars, were pretty much done in rehearsals and really didn't change that much at all."
The song's soft-to-loud dynamics, section breaks and collection of riffs (not to mention the underlying sheen of keyboards) established the blueprint Lange and the group followed for the entirety of these sessions.
"It was when Mutt came in and said, 'Look, this is the direction. We want to be heavy, but we want to be melodic. We want to have these backing vocals,'" Savage added, "and we just went, 'That's the way we [also] want to go' – and we were off and running."
"Too Late for Love" was released as the fourth single off Pyromania, but in Europe only – more as an afterthought. The band disagreed with this decision but went along with it.
"By the time we went back to Europe to do the end of the world tour, [Vertigo, their UK record label] decided they wanted to go to radio with 'Too Late for Love,' but we weren't really in any kind of a position to make a video for it," Elliott told Songfacts. "Plus, there was this feeling amongst us like, 'It's a fourth single, but it's just being put out there for the sake of it. It's only being released because of the success of the first three.'"
According to Elliott, the song, good as it was, lacked the key elements that made a successful single.
"It doesn't have the hook," he noted. "It's a brilliant piece of arrangement; it's a good bit of writing; it's a great lyric; it's a brilliant piece of music. But it's a rock track. It's never going to challenge [Michael Jackson's] 'Thriller' or 'Billie Jean' – whereas 'Photograph' and 'Rock of Ages' were because they were anthemic in a lyrical and a vocal way. They were a call to arms."
"Die Hard the Hunter"
Side 1 of Pyromania closes out with an intense, epic track that touches on topics previously unexplored in Def Leppard's discography.
"I was going through a period when I wanted to write about something other than sex, drugs, women backstage and Jack Daniels," Elliott told David Fricke in 1987's Animal Instinct. "I wanted to deal with a serious subject that I didn't necessarily have to be a big expert on."
The track was "basically based on the first Rambo movie," Phil Collen explained in a Vault video interview. "A soldier comes back and can't adjust to regular life. It just goes way off into this epic thing, and Def Leppard really hadn't done anything like that before."
Elliott describes "Die Hard the Hunter" as a "classic, epic song" in his Vault interview. Steve Clark was "great at all these bands that did epic stuff, like [Jimmy] Page with things like 'Kashmir' or 'Ten Years Gone' or 'Rain Song' and stuff like that. Steve was great at coming up with all these bits that you can join together really [easily] and come up with something that was 'epic.'
"Something like 'Die Hard,' from my memory of it, came together pretty easily," Elliott continued. "It sounds like it should have been a lot more complicated than something like 'Stagefright.' You often find that the simplest songs are the ones that are so hard to do because you're scared stiff of sounding like everybody else's simple song."
Rick Savage said they "would all individually come up with guitar riffs, guitar ideas, more so than vocal ideas to begin with – and 'Die Hard the Hunter' was a classic example of this. … I think I came up with the intro, Steve had a guitar section, and we used to have all kinds of different riffs that didn't fit to a song until we started piecing them all together."
For Collen, "everything about it is a journey to the other side. After you've finished it, it's like you've seen a movie or something, like an action movie. It's kind of overwhelming. And that was the thing – Mutt would often say, 'Let's create Star Wars for the ears.'"
The second side of Pyromania begins with "Foolin'," which became the album's third single and, by hitting the U.S. Top 30, confirmed Def Leppard's status as hard-rock hitmakers. Like many songs on the record, it is an amalgam of the band members' influences.
"It's full of dynamics," Elliott said in a Vault video interview, "which is something that we've always wanted to be able to do. We always wanted to harness the power of a band like AC/DC when we let loose, on things like the bridge through to the chorus. But then on the verses, then you come right back down to somewhere they wouldn't go, but maybe Queen would. So we had the best of both worlds, if you like, when we came to create this song."
One obvious bit of imitation can be found in the chorus, where Def Leppard nicks a Who track, with a familiar stutter. "I'm sure some people would say, 'F-f-f-foolin',' that's 'My Generation,'" Elliott noted. "Yes – it absolutely was. We just love the idea of [the word] 'Foolin'' but there [were] no three words before it that worked. So one of us, I don't know who, suggested the stutter – and we went, 'Well that works, right.'"
The over-the-top video completed things with swords, explosions and fire, all surrounding very cool performance footage. Most of the band laughs at the clip's excesses, but Elliott has a more painful memory of the video's three-day shoot: "The third day, the entire day, was me riding a horse. You remember that bit in the video? Yeah, me either, because it never made it. But my ass was sore for weeks afterwards."
"Rock of Ages"
From its faux-German gibberish opening, through its largely guitar-free verses, to the evil laugh that closes it, "Rock of Ages" is that rare anthem that winds through an entire album's worth of shifts and sections in just around four or so minutes.
"We had the backing track for 'Rock of Ages' but were singing melodies because we didn't have any lyrics," Joe Elliott told VH1, "We let somebody use the studio the night before, and they held a Bible study session. A [hymnal] was left in the studio open to the hymn 'Rock of Ages.' So I picked it up and started singing, 'Rock of Ages.' Mutt went, 'That's it! That's the chorus!'
Elliott said the track's dynamic verses had some pretty clear (and pretty cool) influences. "It was a very anthemic song," he noted. "This was us doing Joan Jett's 'I Love Rock and Roll,' or Billy Squier's 'The Stroke,' or Queen's 'We Will Rock You.' Big drums, handclaps, no guitars in the verse, singing, and then guitars blaring in on the chorus."
Phil Collen described the process in frankly epic terms. "'Rock of Ages,' that song has Thomas Dolby on keyboards," Collen later told Metal Edge, "and [there are] hardly any guitars in the verses – and the big deal with that was when the vocals and guitar come in on the chorus you get that 'super-rock' sound, you know?
"Instead of just being a bunch of guys playing the same old riff and everything, and losing the dynamic, you have no guitars on the verse, or very little [instrumentation] – mainly keyboards," Collen added, "and then it just … blows up in the chorus. Then you have all these vocals. … The whole thing just turns into an orchestra."
A bit of mystery surrounded the intro, or at least it did at the time "Rock of Ages" was released. Someone precedes the drum-and-vocal beginning of the track by saying "Gunter glieben glauchen globen." Fans wondered for quite a while who it was, and what the German phrase meant.
"It's Mutt Lange," Elliott admitted to VH1. "There were no guitars in the verses, just drums. So instead of counting off one, two, three, four, he'd say these ridiculous things to make everybody laugh. One of them was 'chapatti puppadum something something,' all about Indian food. The other one was 'Gunter glieben glauchen globen.'"
The mystery yielded some intriguing guesswork from listeners. "Some German guy sent a letter to our Artist Pages and said that it's German for 'running through the forest silently,'" Elliott revealed. "I'm assured it isn't. This guy must have just escaped from the happy house or something."
"Comin' Under Fire"
Buried midway on Side 2 of Pyromania is an under-appreciated gem that has a rather dubious distinction in the Def Leppard catalog.
"'Comin' Under Fire' is – I think – the only song [from Pyromania] that we've never played live," Elliott revealed in a Vault video interview. "And I know now I'm going to get a letter from some kid in Boise, Idaho, going, 'You did it once!' If we did it once, we [only] did it once. We've never played it on a regular basis … I can only think we thought it was too difficult of a task."
Rick Savage notes the song's construction started simply enough, before expanding a great deal. "Pete Willis came up with the jangle at the beginning," Savage said in his Vault video interview. "Steve came up with the riff that followed it. I suggested that we take the riff and split it open, just [to] make it easier for the vocals, [for us] to sing over. And we just decided to go to town on it – just a bank of vocals. There's probably more vocals on that song than on most of the others."
Those vocal performances are special to Elliott, as well. "It's one of my favorite vocal performances," he said, "because it starts off really low and I've got this kind of pulsating vibrato that I'm doing, which I'd never done before. Again, totally encouraged by Mutt to try to sound like [David] Bowie or something."
Ultimately, the lack of live performances of "Comin' Under Fire" has likely affected Elliott's perception of the song. "It's probably my favorite song on the album," he admitted, "and it's quite possibly because I'm not sick to death of it."
"Action! Not Words"
If "Comin' Under Fire" is a neglected favorite in the Def Leppard discography, "Action! Not Words" (buried one song deeper on Side 2) is neglected because the band itself doesn't much care for it.
"It didn't excite us to play it live," Joe Elliott noted in a Vault video interview. "It's a backwater song; it's halfway through Side 2. We must have put it there for a reason."
In fact, according to Playlist.fm, the band has played "Action! Not Words" exactly one more time than "Comin' Under Fire" – that is, once in late April 1983 in Odessa, Texas.
The band's influences were a good fit for the other songs on Pyromania, but their choice for imitation on "Action!" was admittedly not so great. "This was our rather feeble attempt to try to be the Rolling Stones," Elliott explained, "and we've since worked out that we're not the Rolling Stones and we never will be.
The results, he conceded, "turned into its own beast. I sang like [Mick] Jagger … I was doing all this Cockney stuff, [but] I'm from Yorkshire. I'm not even Cockney."
"Billy's Got a Gun"
Pyromania ends with an epic, six-minute track that Elliott once described in David Fricke's book Animal Instinct as "a kind of Death Wish scene, a real New York subway song about a guy that fell into bad company and turned into a troublemaker."
What wound up as a dalliance with darkness started with Mutt Lange hectoring the singer about writing song titles. "I remember Mutt ringing me up once," Elliott recalled in the Vault video interview. "He said, 'Have you got a book of song titles?' And I said, 'I got some.' And he said, 'Read them out to me over the phone.' And I didn't have nearly enough for his liking. He said, 'You need to get a lot more. We need tons of little phrases.' … 'Billy's Got a Gun' was one of the few I had, and he said, 'I like that one.'
Elliott admitted that he loved the name, "because it's always been my favorite guy in songs: 'Billy rapped all night about his suicide' [from David Bowie and Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes"]. 'Billy Porter' by Mick Ronson. … I think he's also in a Lou Reed track. Billy's a good punk name. … Billy was always going to be the guy that kinda chewed gum in class, wore a leather jacket, got kicked out of class more than anybody else. … 'Billy's Got a Gun' was going to be this kind of maverick loner."
Billy might have been a "maverick loner," but Def Leppard set his story to an enormous wall of commercial hard-rock sound, which made the character seem larger than life. "You've got this huge, big intro," Elliott said, "and then there's a crescendo, and then it's just a driving bass over the drums – which then brings in this clean guitar where the vocal starts. And it's dynamics, these are the dynamics we live and breathe by, dynamics we always wanted."
Everyone got in the act, including Rick Allen: "I guess it's my impersonation of John Bonham and trying to come up with that sensibility," he said in a Vault video interview, "that sort of rock-solid rhythm, that rock-solid beat."
Allen was also partly responsible for what the band called "March of the Dreaded Ziltrons," an unlisted noisy electronic percussion piece that closes out both the song and the album. According to Def Leppard's Vault website, the track consists of Allen "putting random numbers into a LinnDrum machine, later added to by the band and [Lange]."
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