35 Years Ago: Def Leppard Seeks Enlightenment on ‘Hysteria’
You've probably been misinterpreting one of Def Leppard's most popular songs all these years.
On the surface, "Hysteria," the fourth single and title track off the band’s fourth album, reads like a typical '80s love ballad. Singer Joe Elliott sings about his emotions whenever his loved one is near. Pretty straightforward, right? Not quite. Guitarist Phil Collen told Songfacts the song is really about something more spiritual.
"Not many people know that because it sounds like just getting hysterical, but it's actually about [finding enlightenment]," Collen said. "It's about finding this deeper thing, whether you believe it or not. It's just about finding that."
Part of the song's success is reflected in how the band fully leaned into the emerging pop-rock style that was overtaking '80s music at the time. When Def Leppard returned to the studio in 1984 to start recording Hysteria, producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange wanted to make it a rock version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller where every song could be a hit single.
According to Collen, Jackson’s cross-pollination of R&B, pop and rock inspired Lange to push the band to do the same. Def Leppard had dabbled with pop sounds in their 1983 hit "Photograph," but "Hysteria" marked the band's commitment to leaving the high-octane rock sound that drove their previous releases for a more pop-oriented tone that had more widespread appeal.
Watch the Music Video for Def Leppard's 'Hysteria'
Elliott noted in 2002 that there are 11 guitar parts layered throughout the song, but it's Steve Clark’s plucking melody that creates the mysterious but alluring atmosphere that houses the track. And the catchy chorus that helped make "Hysteria" a hit wasn't even included in the band's original version of the song. In the Songfacts interview, Collen remembered being shocked when he and his bandmates showed the song to Lange and the producer told them it was incomplete.
"We were in Dublin and Rick Savage started playing this tune," Collen recalled. "So I immediately started singing, 'Out of touch, out of reach.' That was literally the first thing that came out of my mouth. He said that was cool and he goes, 'I got to know tonight,' this whole other section.
"We sat down and were playing acoustic guitar, singing over the demo, and we thought that was going to be the chorus. And Mutt Lange said, 'OK, that's a great verse, a great bridge. Now we need the chorus.' Uh, OK. So we sat down and we kind of just goofed around. Steve had this idea and Joe came and sang this thing and before you knew it, the song was pretty much done."
After its release as a single in November 1987, "Hysteria" peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a regular part of Def Leppard's live shows.