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.
Radio Birdman – Radios Appear
Released July, 1977 on Trafalgar Records
1540 KHz on the AM band: that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market). From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations. The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.
Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice. The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records. In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows. The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.
Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though: Radios Appear had them in spades. The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences. “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession. “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult. “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.
Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band. Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best. For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction
Released July 21st, 1987 on Geffen Records
The highwater mark for Eighties hard rock came directly from the squalor of L.A.’s rock club circuit, the combination of two hot bands in that scene: L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, the latter of which featured guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose. The three members of L.A. Guns – lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner – were either fired or quit, and of their replacements, two were former Hollywood Rose alumni (Slash and Steven Adler). Bassist Duff McKagan was the only out-of-towner, hailing originally from Seattle. Still, regardless of the fact that the band was basically Hollywood Rose in it’s structure, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck.
It’s an apt name for the band on Appetite For Destruction: blazing-gun guitar work and attitude with a dash of the rose, or at least a facade over burning lust. In an era when so-called “hair metal” was dominating MTV with increasingly-saccharine pop music and power ballads, GNR were a fist in the nose. Bands like Poison and latter-day Motley Crue were pretending at being loud and dangerous; Guns N’ Roses actually were. This was the same era in which Vince Neil was singing about “Girls, Girls, Girls” and David Coverdale was crying in the rain. Right from Axl Rose’s snarl of “you’re gonna die!” (cribbed from a homeless man who’d warned him in that exact fashion when he’d arrived in L.A.) this was something different – brash and bold, the musical equivalent of a street kid offering you weed with a switchblade hidden behind his back.
There were a lot of ways it could have gone wrong. 1987 was also the year that Def Leppard released that most boneheaded of hard rock singles, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. GNR’s id-driven sound could have had thudded like that, but it was kept deft by the dancing rhythm section of Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler, who were much more Rolling Stones than they ever were Black Sabbath. Slash’s guitar work has always had trouble getting out of the minor pentatonic range, to be true, but it fits his work on Appetite exactly, like his leads were always meant to be married to the rest of the band’s boxer-bounce clamour. Axl Rose also never sounded better; his soaring, hectoring nasal voice found the vanishing point between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (ahem) and took up residence there, becoming the signature voice for a generation of aspiring hard rock vocalists.
Much has been said of the problematic nature of the songs on Appetite. The album’s original artwork featured a surreal beholder-like monster attacking a robotic rapist, with the robot’s latest victim lying disheveled on the ground. Indeed, there is a certain obnoxiousness present throughout the tracks – singing about getting sex on demand, regardless of consent, spilling out a tell-all on “My Michelle”, glorifying alcoholism on “Nighttrain”, spelling out the boys-club rock ‘n’ roll fantasy lifestyle on “Paradise City” – but, coming from a quintet of near-homeless, drugged-up and boozed-out miscreants barely out of adolescence and raised on Zeppelin and KISS, it’s maybe not hard to figure out where that obnoxiousness comes from. At any rate, the band sells their songs with such vitality and fervor that it’s hard not to bang your head along, even if you’re worried about the message it sends. It’s also important to note that a lot of the filth and fury present here is dredged up from the then-decade-old punk rock scene, and presented as a middle finger to the Just Say No, Nancy Reagan, Christian America of the 1980s.
Everyone from a certain era has put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a mixtape for a person they’ve been romantically/sexually interested in, except for me. For reasons I’ll never be quite clear on, my go-to was usually “Rocket Queen”, probably because the latter is a much better-written song and the former is built around a guitar exercise Slash found stupid, and for good reason. I’m convinced that the only reason he changed his tune on it was because it got so godawfully huge. It’s a really annoying riff, even if the rest of the song is pretty okay.
Even as the band’s star diminished (by 1992 they were mostly a bloated joke, made fun of by Nirvana and the rest of the Alt Generation) Appetite For Destruction remained a classic album, a legacy of where rock ‘n’ roll had been prior to Nevermind that carried over into the new alternative world by sheer force of attitude. Even in the face of sprawl, an acrimonious breakup, a revolving-door lineup, and a long-delayed vaporware album that was finally released, Appetite For Destruction remains the quintessential GNR album, the one that makes them rock stars for life, regardless of all else.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
Released May 12th, 1967 on Track Records
There are two eras in the use of the electric guitar: that before Are You Experienced? and that after. Before, it had a role to play mainly as a solid support – outlining odd chordings in jazz music, and pounding out familiar, well-worn rhythm sections in country, blues, and their bastard hybrid, rock ‘n’ roll. Blues players had seen the potential in something more for the instrument even during the swampy days of the Mississippi Delta (lord knew Robert Johnson could make it sound like he had four hands) but it wasn’t until the post-war move to the industrial boom of Chicago that the genre began flashing out solo moments for it’s main instrument like searchlights in the night sky. B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and especially Buddy Guy turned the instrument into something flashy, edgy, and utterly sexy. Early rock ‘n’ roll, however, didn’t cotton much to this, being much more interested in sex than sexy. Sure, Scotty Moore could bust out a good figure now and again, and the early Stones records had Keith Richards with some okay leads, but by and large these were all reverent tributes rather than attempts to progress the tradition.
In 1957, at the age of 15, a kid named James Marshall Hendrix started playing guitar. He was a blues head almost from the start, but unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the late-Sixties counterculture he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961 as a paratrooper. When he was discharged, he kept playing guitar, now professionally. Moving to Tennessee, he played in the Isley Brother’s band and then with Little Richard until 1965, when he switched to Curtis Knight and the Squires for a brief period before jetting off to England, where the rock ‘n’ roll world was picking up serious steam. By then he had a serious manager, Chas Chandler of The Animals. Shortly after landing he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and from there the whirlwind began. It is an interesting quirk of history that the initial demos for Are You Experienced were rejected by Decca Records, who also passed on The Beatles back in the early 1960s.
Are You Experienced, the first record from the power trio of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell, was a major revelation for rock ‘n’ roll. By 1966 even the mop-top proto-boy band Beatles were delving into psychedelic substances and sounds; the “Sound of the Sixties” was fully alive in London, and the spark that ignited the entire shebang turned out to be a guy from Seattle steeped in R&B and the blues who played guitar like a supernatural being sent to Earth to teach everyone to trip. Right from the beginning, “Purple Haze” showcases the absolute liquidity that Hendrix played with; the rhythm under the verses utilizes a jazz chord (C7(#9)) that sounds dissonant on it’s own but played with the strut and stoned sexuality that Hendrix imparts into it becomes something seemingly fundamental and essential to rock ‘n’ roll as a whole. “Fire” and “Foxey Lady” redefined the urgency of rock music; “Hey Joe” called on the dark and became a standard for garage bands ever after. “The Wind Cries Mary” features guitar work that slips and slides in an impossibly romantic fashion, and the instrumental melody of “Third Stone From The Sun” reframes that style in a stoned, breezy way. “Love Or Confusion” and “Are You Experienced?” conjure up lysergic visions that seem to frip and flit in the corners, as though Hendrix were translating an acid trip into a new language through his guitar.
To praise Hendrix’s guitar work is to only tell part of the story of Are You Experienced? Mitch Mitchell’s work on the drums is top-notch as well, filling in the bottom with a deft but aggressive fusillade of artillery fire that drives the squalling guitar leads before it. The reason that The Experience’s cover of “Hey Joe” succeeds beyond any other is because Mitchell’s playing is particularly inspired; at the same time, his busy playing under “Manic Depression” lends the track a hefty relentlessness that befits it’s subject matter. It’s a very jazz-inspired sound that propelled forward the idea (later reinforced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose title track Hendrix would open his shows with) that rock ‘n’ roll was more than just JD rebellion; it was an American art form building on previous American traditions that was in the right place at the right time to deliver a culture bomb to the world.
Are You Experienced? was the beginning of Hendrix’s ascension. Three years later he would be dead, but the innovations and playing he brought to the world of rock ‘n’ roll changed it forever. The sense of speed and abandon that guitar slingers chased in his wake stems directly from his heart and fingers, and the formation of hard rock and metal would be a very different thing without him.
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock. While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come. Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple. This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover. Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer. It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future. Much harder.
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.