Back in the dark ages of music on physical media, albums that were "out of print" were inaccessible and hard to find. Now, with wide swathes of popular music history readily available on major streaming services, the albums that aren't a click away can feel increasingly distant. In The Unstreamables, Noisey takes a look back at the blockbusters, intriguing footnotes, and cult classics that you might have to try a little harder to find.
This week Def Leppard is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their biggest album, Hysteria, with a fittingly lavish reissue campaign: colored vinyl, a seven-disc box of CDs and DVDs with B-sides and live tracks added—the works. But it's unclear if this release will finally bring Hysteria to the streaming services that most of the Sheffield hard rock quintet's catalog has been withheld from.
For the entirety of the streaming music era, Def Leppard has been locked in a power struggle with Universal Records over their classic recordings. In 2010, Def Leppard nearly reached an agreement that fell through. In 2013, singer Joe Elliott told Classic Rock Magazine, "We're at loggerheads with them over the digital rights. And as long as they're playing silly buggers we'll just keep recording them again."
Hysteria and the band's other Diamond-certified album, 1983's Pyromania, are two of the best-selling albums in pop history that are currently unavailable on streaming services. The band has figured out a workaround of sorts: Its Spotify page is full of 21st century re-recordings of songs from those albums, which make up nine of the band's top ten most popular tracks. A 2012 recording of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" has been streamed 86 million times by people who surely wanted the original 1987 track but were appeased for the moment by the band's reasonably faithful recreation. Yet there's a distinct magic to the original.
Everything about Hysteria is dramatic. It's Def Leppard's crowning achievement, bookended by their two most significant misfortunes. Drummer Rick Allen's left arm was severed in a car accident in 1985, and guitarist Steve Clark drank himself to death in 1991. In between, Def Leppard set out to answer the question that Mutt Lange posed to the band at the outset of the sessions: "Why can't a rock band have seven hit singles off one album?" It wasn't an arbitrary number: Pyromania sold millions in America, but it was held off from reaching number one for months by Michael Jackson's Thriller, which outlasted Def Leppard on the chart with its barrage of—you guessed it—seven singles.
As it turned out, Mutt Lange, in high demand after Pyromania, was initially too busy with other projects like The Cars' Heartbeat City to produce Hysteria. But after costly, unproductive sessions produced by Meat Loaf songwriter Jim Steinman, and other setbacks including Rick Allen's amputation, Def Leppard's schedule synced up with Lange's, and they moved ahead with their ambitious seven single mission.
Def Leppard set out to answer the question that Mutt Lange posed to the band at the outset of the sessions: "Why can't a rock band have seven hit singles off one album?"
What's remarkable about Hysteria meeting its very specific goal of seven hits is that it did so after getting off to such a slow start. The album's lead single in the U.S., "Women," was the least successful of the entire campaign, peaking at number 80 on the Hot 100. And even now, with the song practically forgotten, it's hard not to hear the chorus as a less successful attempt at what they nailed on what became the final single, 70s glam homage "Rocket." But "Women" set the stage for the unusual stairstep success of the next five singles on the album: "Animal" got to number 19, "Hysteria" peaked at number ten, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" hit number two, and "Love Bites" finally topped the Hot 100, 14 months after the album was released. And it's Def Leppard's success in America that really defines them; Pyromania stiffed in their native England, and it was "Animal" that finally broke them on the UK pop charts.
Also notable is that even with its massive commercial success, Hysteria is remembered as much for its studio innovations as its songs. The title track is famous for its dense array of dozens of guitar tracks layered on top of each other, individual notes recorded separately instead of played as chords. Phil Collen, Steve Clark, and Rick Savage, credited collectively as "The Bankrupt Brothers," stacked harmonies and gang shouts around Elliott's lead vocals. Mutt Lange took a painstaking approach to assembling these dense, gleaming pop/rock gems with his right hand man, Australian mixing engineer Mike Shipley (no relation, although I was incredibly excited to see my own surname on the back of a CD when I bought Def Leppard's Shipley-produced 1992 album Adrenalize).
Nascent technology in triggering and looping drums allowed Rick Allen to continue drumming in the studio and onstage with one arm. As a drummerwho's always been acutely aware of the Spinal Tap expendability of drummers in most rock bands, there's something genuinely moving to me about the way Def Leppard rallied around Allen and helped him continue with the band against all odds. Listen to how the crowd roars when Joe Elliott says "Mr. Rick Allen on the drums" at the end of their first gig after the accident, while Allen pummels away on a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band":
On an album where the hits outnumber the deep cuts, it's easy to boil Hysteria down to the singles. But the five remaining tracks on Hysteria live up to the band's lofty "all killer, no filler" goal; only the fun but flimsy "Excitable" sits alongside "Women" as a low point. But "Run Riot" and "Love And Affection" had untapped radio potential, and Steve Clark's largest contribution to the songwriting, "Gods of War," is a hearty heavy metal ode to pacifism. It's songs like those—and Clark's wilder contributions to the carefully constructed Def Leppard sound—that are lost if you settle for the later lineup's quickie Spotify re-recordings of the hits. When it comes to understanding the full impact of Hysteria, listening to the actual album is essential. Fortunately, with over 12 million used copies out there in the US alone, you should be able to find it.
Al Shipley is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.