When Def Leppard Beat the Grunge Clock With ‘Adrenalize’
Def Leppard had always aimed to be a big deal. Their iconic 1987 album, Hysteria, had been a giant of an LP, breaking sales (and length) records, and propelling them to where they’d always wanted to be. Singer Joe Elliott said of their fourth record, “We set out to be the biggest band in the world. And for a short while, we were.”
The momentum built by the British band had propelled them through the end of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s – but things were different by then. Musical tastes were changing; relied-upon colleagues were looking in other directions, and guitarist Steve Clark was dead. That was the backdrop to what would become Def Leppard’s fifth album, Adrenalize, which was released on March 31, 1992.
Clark had been given a six-month break from his duties in the hope that he’d take control of his alcohol and drug issues. “It became a vicious circle," Elliott told MTV: "He couldn’t play guitar because he’d been drinking too much; because he’d think he was letting everybody down, he’d go for another drink. Consequently his playing would get worse.” The band told him, “Come back in February and see how you are.”
On Jan. 8, 1991, Clark’s girlfriend found him dead on his sofa. He’d suffered compression of the brain stem the previous day, brought on by alcohol and pills. Def Leppard had faced tragedy before, most notably the 1984 car crash in which drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm. “Whenever anything negative happens to us, it always pulls us together, personally and musically,” Allen said after Clark’s death. “You batter on with the record and it takes your mind off whatever bad is happening.”
So that’s just what they did, operating as a four-piece, and leaving guitarist Phil Collen to play both his own parts and those of the much-missed Clark. The pair had influenced each other throughout the band’s career, with Collen’s Van Halen style set against Clark’s Jimmy Page influences. “It was never a competition,” Collen told SteveClarkGuitar.com. “It wasn’t like a lead player and a rhythm player – we were making an orchestrated sound.”
Collen was forced to channel his late bandmate during the sessions. He described it as “the weirdest thing ever.” “It was like talking to a ghost," he noted. "I’d done my parts, and I’d have to learn Steve’s parts as he played them. Although he didn’t play on it, he did through me. It was schizophrenic; his personality would come through.”
The band had reunited with longtime producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange – but there was a new twist. “I think Mutt was getting tired of the work that he was putting in," bassist Rick Savage told Classic Rock. "A little jaded. It was obvious Mutt wasn’t going to be a hands-on producer, like he’d been on the previous three albums. He said, ‘You know what you should do – you should forget about doing a Hysteria-type album and make a Guns N’ Roses-type album.’ We didn’t know how to take that.”
Def Leppard decided to take matters into their own hands and co-produce, along with engineer Mike Shipley, while placing Lange in the role of executive producer. Elliott described it as the “biggest risk” they’d taken. “But we went in with our eyes wide open, confident that we could do it,” he explained.
The result was a 10-track LP that spawned seven singles, including three major hits. “Let’s Get Rocked” was conceived as an amalgamation of Bart Simpson and Elliott’s childhood, and came with a groundbreaking video created by Steve Barron, who also made Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” It was the only promo in which the band appeared as a four-piece, because it was shot before former Dio and Whitesnake guitarist Vivian Campbell was hired.
Elliott described the lyrics for “Make Love Like a Man” as “too stupid” after they attempted to deliver a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of "macho" (the video featured Campbell’s first appearance in the lineup). “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad” carried B-side tracks by the Acoustic Hippies From Hell, who were made up of Def Leppard and Hothouse Flowers members covering the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
The LP was dedicated to the memory of Clark and contained the track “White Lightning,” which had started off as a Clark-Collen collaboration but eventually became a song about the band's fallen comrade. It was one of the last pieces to be completed. “Let’s Get Rocked” is said to have been written afterward as a way of lightening the mood in the studio.
Savage later confirmed it wasn’t his favorite Def Leppard album. “We ended up making a record almost by numbers," he said. "We were in a daze. We were numb. It wasn't coming from the same place any more, through tiredness, through the shock of losing Steve, and from confusion over what kind of album we should be making.”
They knew the world was changing. “The fans that we had on the last record may no longer be fans on the new record," Savage said during an interview at the time. "It's something that every band has to contend with. You never know how your new album is going to be accepted. You never know what's around the corner – especially when you’re in Def Leppard.”
Adrenalize was the last time Lange worked with the band. And it turned out to be the last album categorized as "glam metal" to achieve chart success before the musical revolution of the early ‘90s. It topped the U.S. and U.K. charts and sold more than three million copies in the U.S. during its first two months on sale. It kept Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch off the top spot, while the Boss’ simultaneous release Lucky Town got to third position. It was also the last Def Leppard album to achieve large-scale mainstream success.
Meanwhile, at No. 7, Nirvana’s Nevermind remained in contention six months after its release, and it was the grunge heroes’ turn to be the biggest band in the world – for a short while anyway.
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