On the surface, Def Leppard's new CD, X, looks like a carefully orchestrated attempt to revive the career of a band whose fortunes have faded sharply since the days when albums like Pyromania and Hysteria were racking up sales in the tens of millions.
On one hand, the song "Unbelievable" finds Def Leppard teaming with songwriters Andreas Carlsson, Per Aldeheim, and Max Martin-and Marti Frederiksen, another hit-making songwriter who became Aerosmith's primary songwriting partner on that band's most recent studio release, Just Push Play.
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen is well aware that such collaborations seem to follow a record company blueprint for crafting a hit album by bringing in so-called song doctors to help create radio-ready tunes.
But Collen said the outside involvement on X was entirely the band's doing, to breathe fresh life into the creative process for Def Leppard, a group that celebrates their 25th year as a band with the new CD.
"It wasn't the record company's idea. It was my idea. I wanted to do that on the Euphoria album, use multiple producers," Collen said, mentioning Def Leppard's previous studio effort. "And I think it was essential that we used new blood. I think it was great. I actually think we probably wouldn't have done the record had we not done that.
"We could have done another (typical) Def Leppard album, but it would have been so tragically dull," he said. "We've done that. It's time to move on. We wanted to do shorter songs that kind of said more."
For the band, the past decade has been a period of adjustment after several triumphs in the 1980s. After building a foundation with early albums On Through The Night (1980) and High 'N' Dry (1982), Def Leppard hit paydirt with the 1983 CD, Pyromania. Powered by hits such as "Foolin'" and "Photograph," the album went on to sell seven million copies.
After several false starts in the studio, Def Leppard finally released their next CD, Hysteria, in August 1987. With hits such as "Animal" and "Pour Some Sugar On Me," sales of that CD soared, eventually topping 15 million, making Def Leppard the most popular hard rock band on the planet.
With grunge transforming the sound of early 90s rock radio (away from hair bands and toward flannel), Def Leppard's meticulously produced style of catchy pop-metal fell out of favor. The band attempted to adapt with the 1996 CD, Slang, which dispensed with the group's trademark of layers of guitars and vocals in favor of a more raw and stripped down sound.
The shift alienated a large portion of their existing audience and failed to attract fans who were drawn to the rough and ready grunge sound of groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. Def Leppard responded by trying to recapture their classic sound on 1999's Euphoria. Again, that album stiffed.
"I think that album, looking back on it, was very clinical in its approach," Collen said. "We tried to make a pastiche of our career basically. We tried to make an album that sounded like [the group's greatest hits CD] Vault, that had some High 'N' Dry, some Pyromania, and some Adrenalize in there." For X, Collen said the band members decided to cast aside any preconceived notions about their sound.
"It was like let's do what we want to do, a commercial album that we think is really good, and not really mind what anyone thinks about it." he said. The obvious product of that outlook was the collaborations with outside songwriters, which have brought a decidedly different accent to the group's music.
The song written by Aldeheim, Carlsson, and Martin-"Unbelievable"- is the biggest departure. A big-bodied ballad featuring pulsing programmed rhythms, the song sounds like a classic power ballad in the mold of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing."
"I knew Andreas separately, independently from the band and all that stuff," Collen said, explaining how the "Unbelievable" recording came about. "My wife actually said to him jokingly, 'You should write a song for Def Leppard.' This was a while ago. And six months later he showed up with the song. He said, 'This would be perfect.' We played it and we were like, 'Wow, this is great, but we want you to produce it.'" The three tracks written with Frederiksen-"Now," "You're So Beautiful," and "Everyday," rock harder, but also have more of a burnished pop feel than the band's 80s hits.
But Collen said even the band-written songs (which were produced by the band and Euphoria co-producer Pete Woodroffe) were influenced by the studio approach of Frederiksen.
"With the X album, we said whatever the song needs," Collen said. "We just kind of made it very much easy. If the song needs a bank of backing vocals and we need to record in a process [with] programmed drums, then go for it. If it needs live drums, great. It still works on the same record, and it did. So that to us was the freedom thing and it did come easier because it was a fun process."
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