Def Leppard – Hysteria
Released August 3rd, 1987 on Mercury Records
Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria? I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier. It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it. Not at all. They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”. And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”. And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track. And “Rocket”. And “Women”. It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air. And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.
In 1983 the band released Pyromania. Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves. Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up. That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years. The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf. Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album. As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him. Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.
The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging. Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue. Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for. Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form. By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions. 1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.
The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties. Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is. Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”. They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time. Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.
Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full
Released July 7th, 1987 on 4th & B’way Records and Island Records
Is Paid In Full the peak of hip hop’s first Golden Age? No, because saying that implies that there has ever been a period in hip hop that couldn’t have been considered a great time for the genre (ok, ok, 1995-1999 weren’t mind-blowing but there was a lot of great stuff going on in the underground, etc. etc.) It is a definite guide-post of the Eighties, however, and it pioneered some stuff that would become standard in hip hop from 1987 onward. Rakim’s rapping is the key thing: he pioneered using internal rhymes, rather than the end-of-the-meter type that had been (and to an extent still is) the most popular way to rhyme in hip hop. Internal rhyming allowed Rakim to paint his words across the beats, rather than tie himself to them, which made his interplay with Eric B’s turntables that much more thrilling. It’s like hearing jazz give birth to itself (fitting, since Rakim was a huge Coltrane fan), and any great lyricist in the past thirty years has mentioned Rakim at least in passing in one interview or another. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane’s more intricate rhyme structures gave Marshall Mathers the inspiration to build his own style, and everyone knows that Eminem is the standard when sneering white boys want to assert that hip hop is just about “lyrics” and “flow”. On second thought, forget it. Rhyming was a mistake.
Eric B, meanwhile, lays down a solid foundation of beats that will rattle the foundations of whatever building you happen to play them in. They are also the product of a serious sampling jones, and the argument over whether sampling is a legitimate form of expression stems from here; James Brown himself sued the group over a sample in “Eric B Is President”. The ideas he put together here – gritty beats, thick bass, soul samples, horns, whistles, etc. – have an obvious if somewhat indirect influence on RZA, who was himself the most influential producer of his era. “Eric B. Is President” is still the funkiest track here, but others more than hold their own, notably “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Move The Crowd”, and the title track.
Ironically, Eric B. sued Island/Def Jam and Russell Simmons in 2003, alleging that neither he nor Rakim had ever been paid in full for the royalties from the album.
Napalm Death – Scum
Released July 1st, 1987 on Earache Records
Back in high school, my English teacher was big into heavy Seventies rock music. He had a cassette-player stereo he would keep in class that he would play old stuff on; incidentally, this is where I first heard the glory that is Master Of Reality. In time of course we put our own generation’s heavy music on, trying to introduce him to the evolution of what he’d grown up on. We put on Master Of Puppets and he remarked that it just sounded like Black Sabbath sped up.
Lord only knows what he would have said if we’d put Scum on. If Metallica took Sabbath riffs (filtered through a thick NWOBHM asthetic, of course) and concentrated them into pure modular speed, then Napalm Death did the same thing but on a hyper level, creating black holes of metal riffs that were played with such speed and power that they, too, ate light. This is where grindcore was born, and if Anal Cunt would later turn the genre into a stupid joke, Napalm Death came barreling out of the gate in all seriousness, spitting politically-inflected fire in all directions. Thrash metal, the scene that birthed Metallica et al., was a fusion of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and hardcore punk rock. Grindcore was the same idea, only taken to it’s logical, extreme conclusion. The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all speed by in a corrosive blur that carved out new spaces for metal, often in under one minute. Perhaps the most fully artistically realized moment, “You Suffer”, takes place in the space of two seconds (making it the world’s shortest song, at least according to the folks at the Guinness book).
Scum was not the first grindcore album, technically (the sounds that went into it had been brewing for a few years) but it was the first one to get a slightly more widespread audience than the six guys down at the basement hole that passed as an experimental metal club. It found an audience not only with metalheads unafraid of a little speed, but also among noise/ambient heads and the hardcore weird experimental wing of the jazz cats. It became quite influential in it’s own right, providing a guidestone for bands that thought even the death and black metal scenes in the 1990s was too tame.
The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me
Released June 17th, 1987 on Sire Records
By 1987 Minnesota college-rock heroes The Replacements – The ‘Mats to their friends and fans – were in a fatal crisis spot. Despite their penchant for being loud and ragged, and for having chaotic live shows that were more filled with fragmented, fractured cover songs than they were original material, major labels could smell the blood in the water that was the up-and-coming alternative rock scene. Let It Be had hooked them; the band’s first major label effort, Tim, remains a classic Eighties Alt album and a highwater mark of the band’s powers. In the aftermath of Tim, however, the group came apart at the seams. An addict even in a band full of addicts, founding guitarist Bob Stinson was fired by frontman Paul Westerberg for not being enthused with the divergent direction the band was going in, or for being too drunk and fumble-fingered to actually keep up, depending on who you ask. Band manager Peter Jesperson – the man who had heard something special in the band’s original 4-track demo and signed them to his label, Twin/Tone – was fired shortly after. Pleased To Meet Me, then, is The Replacements as a trio, driven mainly by Westerberg’s need to reinvent what he and his band meant in the grand scheme of things.
As such, Pleased To Meet Me is a remarkably uneven album. To be sure, there are the usual ‘Mats rockers – “I.O.U.” comes out of the gate charging hard, and “Shooting Dirty Pool” is as representative a Replacements song as you might ever find – but there is a lot more on here that wouldn’t have fit even in a chaotic setting like their two pre-major albums, Hootenany and Let It Be. Sure, “Androgynous” was a ballad, but “Skyway” was a goddamn ballad, acoustic guitar, digital production, and the rest. “Nightclub Jitters”, a weird night-life jazz number, is easily the oddest thing the band ever recorded. “The Ledge” seems to take it’s cues from the PacNorWest SST scene, like a scuffed-out early Mudhoney track. The best parts of the album, though, the ones that will (as a certain old-school ‘Mats fan might say) get scratched into your soul, are the two songs that channel the Seventies pop-rock ghost of Big Star: “Alex Chilton” (naturally) and the wide-open closer “Can’t Hardly Wait”, whose wryly regretful melodies inspired a weirdly good Nineties teen comedy.
Pleased To Meet Me would be the last creative gasp of an already strained band. There were two more albums – the overly-slick Don’t Tell A Soul and the hospice-hushed All Shook Down – but for all intents and purposes this was the last release of the band as the legendary force for Minnesota rock ‘n’ roll that they were.
Death – Scream Bloody Gore
Released May 25th, 1987 on Combat Records
The 1980s saw a grinding evolution of metal, one that splintered so deeply that there is today internecine warfare between various sub-sub-sub-genres that spun out of each of the genre fractures that came about in the decade. To understand what in the living fuck extreme technical melodic death metal is, you have to first parse out each of the various categories inherent in that genre and understand the paths that led to them. Thankfully we don’t have to do that here, because Scream Bloody Gore was a – some say the – founding document of the disgusting bloody mess that is death metal.
Metal was covered in rock ‘n’ roll cheese for the most part until Judas Priest finally got good right near the end of the 1970s. Around the same time two major influences on the metal underground sprang to life: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore punk. NWBHM included bands like Diamond Head and Iron Maiden; these were tight, riff-heavy metal bands that emphasized modular songwriting. Hardcore punk brought speed, pounding drums, and amelodic shouting and made them de rigueur for being on the cutting edge of how far music could be pushed. The two were combined into thrash metal, a by-now familiar genre whose Big Four were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Of those four, the biggest influence on the ever-heavier underground was Slayer; some might try to add Celtic Frost or Venom into the mix, but the birth of death metal is entirely due to Hell Awaits and especially Reign In Blood. Death metal itself stems from Death, the band (and not the Detroit proto-punk band), whose early work spawned a whole host of disturbing weirdos first in Florida and later the world who would be inspired by it.
Scream Bloody Gore is basically Reign In Blood with a few major exceptions. To be sure, it’s built around pounding, speed-obsessed passages drawn directly from “Jesus Saves”, but Chuck Schuldiner’s guitars are tuned down a hell of a lot lower, he uses a lot more palm-muting, the emphasis is more on blastbeats than separable riffs, and the band utilizes breakdowns quite a bit more. Also, Schuldiner’s vocals are harsher than Tom Araya’s; Araya has a certain scream he uses that hits an interestingly high register, and it’s much easier to pick out what he’s singing about. Schuldiner’s vocals are more like the howlings of the eternally damned, pitched lower and more of blurred screams than anything resembling what people traditionally think of as “singing”. The lyrics also feature a notable difference. Reign In Blood was about evil Nazi death-doctors and the hypocrisy of religion and insanity. Scream Bloody Gore, meanwhile, is exactly what it says on the tin: these are about zombies, cannibals, blood, slaughter, and gore. This, in essence, would be what “death metal” would be about from 1987 onward: downtuned guitars, blastbeats, low-pitched howls, and gore, gore, gore.
The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Scream Bloody Gore as “the first death metal album” and this is true of everywhere outside of Belo Horizonte. An entire underground industry was born out of it and the bands that poked their heads out of their dank practice spaces because of it. The production quality is utterly primitive by modern standards, but there are still bands who chase that sound out of a sense of purity and complete anti-commercialism. Schuldiner’s death in 2001 put a halt to the band’s activities but they remain among the most influential bands in modern metal – certainly the crazed proliferation of both bands and sub-genres would never have happened without Death or Scream Bloody Gore.
The Cult – Electric
Released April 6th, 1987 on Beggars Banquet
Electric is the sound of a band getting a taste of the high life and looking to sustain that immersion in success for as long as possible. Originally named The Southern Death Cult (for both American and English reasons), the Ian Astbury-led band made their name with a couple of albums of post-punk that skewed heavily toward gothic rock. When the single “She Sells Sanctuary” blew up, they started looking for ways to embed themselves further into the mainstream and all of the ridiculous amounts of money that were flowing through it in the 1980s. As a result they listened to a bunch of old AC/DC records and hired Rick Rubin to oversee the whole thing. At the time this was sort of a head-scratcher, as Rick Rubin, then as now, was best known for being a hip-hop producer (as well as Slayer, of course). In hindsight it makes a lot of sense, though. Rubin, a key driving force behind getting the Beastie Boys recorded, has always skewed more toward the hard rock end of things – his beat on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was pure hardcore, after all, and he did honestly use a goddamn REO Speedwagon sample on the Marshall Mathers 2 LP.
So, with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some simple classic hard rock riffs under their belt, The Cult turned around and made…a slick, commercial hard rock album. Sure, tipping your hat to Electric thirty years later feels like saying Jet was actually a pretty decent band, but there’s something about Electric that handles itself surprisingly well. The only actual misstep here (and it’s a godawful one) is the croaking cover of “Born To Be Wild”, which feels like something a record label makes you tack on so you can at least get play on year-end compilations and movie soundtracks if all else failed. Thankfully all else didn’t fail; “Love Removal Machine”, released on my fifth birthday, propelled the album to a chart berth that lasted 27 weeks and sold scads. While it’s follow-up, 1989’s Sonic Temple, was a better all-around album, Electric tends to kick more ass.
Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times
Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records
Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all. At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title). After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball. Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.
Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times. The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records. “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos. In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition. Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times. Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s. The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff. Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop. Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.
Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil. Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent). Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.
U2 – The Joshua Tree
Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records
Boy made them New Wave stars. War broke them into a bigger stage and staked their claim as political rockers. The Unforgettable Fire led Rolling Stone to claim them as “The Band of the 80s…for many, the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters.” One more push – The Joshua Tree – and they were bona-fide world-straddling superstars.
The Unforgettable Fire had been more in the line of an experimental album, produced as it was by the duo of Brian Eno and his faithful engineer Daniel Lanois. It’s textures were complicated, it’s songs more impressions than compositions, and it proved to be difficult to translate to a concert setting. For their follow-up, the band wanted to keep the best lessons they’d learned from Eno and Lanois, but pare down, and make their sound more expansive. In the write-up on Neon Bible a few days ago I mentioned that the ocean was the overarching metaphor for the album. In the case of The Joshua Tree, the overarching metaphor is the desert – wide-open, expansive, cinematic in quality. The foundation of this ideal is The Edge’s guitar work. He makes good use of delay, and by “good use” I mean “wrestles it into submission and makes the effect his very own.” Whole reams of music journalism have been written about his playing on tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and, more subtly, on “Running To Stand Still.” On the other side, he uses slide techniques he gleaned from a friendship with Keith Richards to approximate the sound of fighter planes and dive bombers on the hard-as-nails “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The rest of the band puts in a yeoman’s work – including Bono, whose voice has never fit the music better, before or since – but The Joshua Tree is without a doubt The Edge’s showcase.
It’s not just about wide-open desert vistas, of course. A big theme of the album is the Irish band’s love-hate relationship with America. Before the recording of the album, Bono visited El Salvador to witness the civil war first-hand. He returned deeply angry with the Reagan administration and American foreign policy in general – this was the heart of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”. Ireland and the UK did not escape his anger, either: “Where The Streets Have No Name” is about economic segregation in Belfast, “Red Hill Mining Town” is about the aftermath of the 1984 mining strike in the UK, and “Running To Stand Still” is about drug addiction in Dublin. There’s also a sense of Bono being on a sort of spiritual quest for faith and renewal, with Biblical references, the yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the grief for a lost friend that forms the basis of “One Tree Hill.”
In the aftermath, the band would go on to become crossover pop superstars: millions of albums sold, sold-out world tours, being taken seriously by world leaders. Achtung Baby would be a good follow-up in it’s own right, but after the things that were charming on The Joshua Tree would become over-exaggerated in the harsh floodlights of global fame. The Edge’s guitar work would strive to go further and eventually collapse into self-parody, then complacency. Bono’s anger and spirituality would become tiresome, as he became another jet-setting European elitist making pretty speeches about poverty in the Global South, while conditions continued to deteriorate. Simply put, U2 would never again be as good as they were on The Joshua Tree.