As a hard rock/metal fan growing up in the '80s, the summer of 1988 was like the storied home run derby chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But instead of two sluggers that were placed with the burden of nothing less than rekindling America's love for baseball, it was two distinct rock acts vying for the number one slot on the Billboard album chart. In one corner was a hungry band that was a monster on the L.A. club scene a year before, but was relatively unknown to middle America. In the other corner was a bunch of seasoned veterans that were forced to reintroduce themselves to Americans after being out of the spotlight for four years.
In the summer of '88, Def Leppard and Guns N' Roses kept swapping places at the top of the Billboard album chart. As a journalism geek, I was in love with the story of both bands as much as I was in love with the music on both albums. As one who usually roots for the underdogs, I should have rooted for Guns N' Roses – after all, they didn't have two platinum albums under their belt, they didn't have a budget to make the most expensive album ever recorded (at the time), and they slugged it out on one of the toughest areas to make it as a band.
But I wound up pulling for the 'Leps. Yes, they already had fame, but the problems they encountered during the album's recording were the stuff of legends. The band started recording in 1984 with Meatloaf producer Jim Steinman. Those sessions went nowhere. The band tried with engineer Nigel Green. Another no-go. Then, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in an auto accident on New Year's Eve.
After more than a year's worth of recording scrapped, a drummer without an arm, and some seriously low band morale, a storybook recovery was in order. Then, the band's first choice for producer, Robert John "Mutt" Lange (musical genius to some, embodiment of evil to others), returned to the fold. Lange's studio approach may have detractors, but he gave the band a much needed focus: to make the hard rock version of Thriller where almost every song could be a hit single. That didn't mean the band couldn't take some risks – two songs on Hysteria stretched past six minutes. To add to the comeback story, the band taps into state-of-the-art '80s technology, enabling Rick Allen to use his feet to compensate for his lost arm. And here's where the story gets interesting.
After trying out their material at a few high-profile concerts and riding a wave of curiosity and even sympathy, Hysteria finally hits the record stores. And lands with an anemic "thud." The album is packed with insanely catchy singles ("Pour Some Sugar On Me," "Animal") and arena-tailored power ballads ("Love Bites," the title track), but the band chooses a straightforward rock song ("Women") and one of the weakest tracks on the album, to reintroduce themselves to a legion of fans who were in elementary school when Pyromania came out. People listened. A few people bought the album, but the momentum that Hysteria was riding was quickly deflated.
I felt so sorry for the band that I wound up cutting out our paper's "Best selling albums of the week" and mailing it to their fan club, writing something like "You may not have the bestselling album right now, but you're the number-one selling album in Lincoln!" The band tried again with "Animal" – a bit more of a success, but it failed to move albums. Winter and spring arrived. The band fell back on the tried-and-true power ballad with the title track and they achieved its biggest sales yet.
Still, it was not enough. According to accounts by band members and people within the Leppard camp, the band had to have a triple-platinum album just to break even. As a kid used to seeing storybook endings, it was difficult to grasp the reality that the band could endure this much hardship in the recording process, rack up a hefty studio tab that would need to be paid back by having nothing less than a smash album, still manage to produce a great product and still come out on the losing end.
But of course, that speculation ended once "Pour Some Sugar On Me" hit the airwaves and MTV. At the time, it was MTV's most requested video, spending more than 70 days on top of the request charts. As great music stories go, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" belongs in the same ranks as The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" for unexpected smashes. While the band spent nearly three years trying to make "Animal" into a single, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" was thrown in during the final weeks of recording.
The single was so massive that each following single was its own hit, culminating with the band's only number one hit, ballad number two ("Love Bites"). So great was the response to "Sugar," "Love Bites," and "Armageddon It" that in 1989, nearly two years after the release, the fairly unconventional song "Rocket" was even a hit.
Some rock fans that preferred a rawer sound (like Appetite For Destruction) faulted Hysteria for sounding sterile and bloodless. As I moved from Poison and Bon Jovi to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, I had to agree. But listening to Hysteria nearly 25 years after its release (as well as discovering bands like T. Rex and Thin Lizzy during the time that Hysteria went idle in my CD player), the album holds up remarkably well. It may still sound like it was recorded in a lab, but you hear the sound of a band desperate to prove themselves again. "Love Bites" and "Hysteria" may be manufactured ballads, but songs like "Rocket" and "Run Riot" sound like a band trying to emulate their glam heroes of the '70s, not trying to be another Led Zeppelin clone à la Whitesnake. The band may have stumbled trying to be topical with the anti-nuke (as opposed to pro-nuke) song "Gods Of War," but it's hard not to get chills as Steve Clark lays down a scorching riff of an introduction, backed by Rick Allen's thundering drumming.
Hysteria may be front-loaded with hits, but with seven songs played to death on the radio, the second half of the album is actually the most interesting. After the six-minute, effects-laden "Gods Of War," two relatively short, back-to-back rave-ups reenergize the listener, paving the way for the power ballad, then throwing in another fist-pumping anthem with "Excitable."
As a Nintendo-obsessed, awkward teenager, Def Leppard seemed easier to root for than Guns N' Roses. Hysteria was made with the wonders of '80s technology, Appetite could have been made a decade prior to its release. The members of Def Leppard seemed to be more approachable as they didn't have the bad boy image of Axl and Co. (though the band's actions would prove otherwise – be it Steve Clarke drinking three times the amount that killed Led Zeppelin drummer Jon Bonham or the absolute rock star feat of the band members having sex with groupies midway through a concert during Rick Allen's drum solo). Still, two decades later, Guns N' Roses Appetite For Destruction continues to sell better than many major new releases each year thanks to the timelessness of that album.
Pop metal will never earn the same type of critical acclaim as hard rock, mainly because it's viewed as a disposable genre. And judging by the majority of the albums that were released during pop metal's heyday in the '80s, it's easy to see why the genre has such a distinction for being disposable. But Hysteria, like a James Cameron's Titanic or even Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is that one pop culture blockbuster that actually works. Yes, the budget was inflated, but no amount of money can make a memorable song 20 years after its recording. Studio wizardry definitely helped, but you could hear the very real determination of the five bandmates after enduring the most famous in-studio drama since Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. It may be as healthy as Pop Rocks, but even fluff can have its masterpieces.