Tracking the Def Leppard 

Admit it. Pyromania was the best pop record of the '80s, bar none.

Can you guess which of these were actual New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, and which are fake?

Bashful Alley, Handsome Beasts, Heavy Pettin', Witchfinder General, Pet Hate, Thin End of the Wedge, Agony Bag, Dumpy's Rusty Nuts, Truffle, Ethyl the Frog, Cloven Hoof, Ezy Meat, and Smokin' Roadie.

(Answer: They're all real.)

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal -- NWOBHM, as it's affectionately known by those fine people of Long Acronyms for the Musically Esoteric (LAME) -- was a movement afoot in the mid-to-late '70s after Deep Purple began to lose its luster, and drunken, lower-class laddies from industrial towns like Sheffield and Birmingham began rooting around for something heavier. So why didn't they just join the punk movement that sprang up around the same time, since the punks had declared heavy metal "dead" anyway? Well, sadly, punk rock had no goblins. Besides, who said that heavy metal was dead? Up your arse with some British steel, Nigel!

So the stovepipe-trousered, Druid hesher scene was born in tandem with London's Mohawk set, each group no doubt making fun of the other for looking ridiculous. Motorhead came out of all this, as did Saxon, Venom, and Iron Maiden. But the most commercially successful band of all was Def Leppard. In fact, in terms of single-album sales, Def Leppard's Hysteria is one of the few rock albums to reach "diamond" status -- they sold seventeen million copies of that sucka worldwide. This puts them in the same league as Thriller, Dark Side of the Moon, and some record by Eric Clapton.

But the argument has to be made that the band's third record, Pyromania, is in league with some of the best albums ever recorded. In fact, Pyromania is the best pop record to come out of the 1980s, bar none. To steal a classic zine line, it's all killer, no filler.

Now before you go off on a hipster tangent about how Def Leppard's best record is really High 'n' Dry. ... Yep, that one's awesome too. We already know the only Def Leppard record you own is High 'n' Dry, that Nebraska is the only Springsteen album in your collection, that Cheap Trick started sucking at Dream Police, and that you only liked Fleetwood Mac when they were a blues band. Now go back to cataloguing your Kinks bootlegs and let us continue.

Pyromania is the pinnacle of the perfect union of hard rock with pop. Arena anthemry, blues-boogie backbeats à la AC/DC, amazing melodies, building crescendos, and the best guitar solo of all time in "Die Hard the Hunter." That this band is playing Wal-Mart parking lots these days (yes, it's true) is a complete tragedy, possibly borne out of its being lumped in with all those other '80s hair bands, an association that the band members don't understand even to this day. Phil Collen, the guitarist who joined Def Leppard right before Pyromania, used to get a chuckle out of bands like Twisted Sister. "That was one way we didn't want to go!" he chuckles over the phone from his Orange County home, though he does cop to his band's love affair with the mullet. "There's pictures of us ... wow. You don't really get that embarrassed ... you have a laugh." But really, compared to Mötley Crüe, the guys in Def Leppard were altogether normal-looking, with jeans and torn T-shirts.

When asked about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Collen audibly groans. "Yeah ... we were all into Black Sabbath. When I was fourteen, my cousin -- he had an amazing record collection full of Allman Brothers bootlegs, Montrose -- he really got me into music, took me to see my first gig, Deep Purple."

Collen's only other acquaintance with a better record collection was Def Leppard's singer, Joe Elliott, who was obsessed with Mott the Hoople. "We always wanted to blend musical styles as a result," says Collen. "T-Rex and Led Zeppelin, but we also loved Stevie Wonder. ... It was just music, and I was a music fan."

That's why Mutt Lange was such a great fit as producer for Pyromania. He, too, wanted to blend pop with hard rock. "He's really great at creating successful hybrids," says Collen, citing the forays of Lange's wife, Shania Twain, into pop-country with tiny twinges of Pyromania's tight arrangement.

So how does it feel to be a legend? (Real question: How does it feel to be asked such a corny question?) "I don't think we are that," he says. It's an obvious answer, but this band actually has a well-deserved reputation for being down-to-earth.

"I don't take it too seriously. People who do end up weirded out and thinking about themselves too much -- I never think like that," Collen says. "All this is controlled by an industry, and if you are fortunate enough to get a record, and you are fortunate to play in front of people, then that is great."

Awww. You can take the man out of Sheffield, but you can't take the Sheffield out o' t'man.

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