Def Leppard - Rock of Ages Review

by Anthony Kuzminski

Album collectors and artists usually hate "Best Of" packages. If you're a fan, you find yourself forking over money for what are most likely one or two new songs and a slew of songs you already own. If you're an artist you are basically chopping your children (aka albums) up into smaller pieces of much larger palettes. Book authors and film directors never do this. You don't see them compiling their best chapters and scenes from respective books and films? However, musicians are not only expected to do this, but unless you are Metallica or AC/DC, you will have to do it at some point in your career.

Personally, I love "Hits" records. I love hearing long forgotten tracks remastered and getting those cool collectible packages with liner notes and great photo's and if we're really lucky the extra tracks will be worth their weight in gold. In fact, the world of downloading has made artists and record companies create far superior packages than they were even doing a decade back. A prime example of this is John Mellencamp whose first retrospective covered a scant eight years of his career and was less than sixty-minutes long. However, just last year they released "Words & Music" a wonderful two-disc package that had every single top-forty hit he ever had along with essential other tracks, wonderful liner notes and two noteworthy new singles. Other acts like the Counting Crows and Everclear had packages which put into perspective how talented and underappreciated their catalogs are.

Just recently, Def Leppard joined the ranks of artists revisiting their past hoping to give the world a new perspective on their catalog. Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection, at its core, is an expanded re-release of their 1995 collection, Vault. Upon its initial release in 1995, the album went platinum, but then disappeared from the charts and the consciousness of the American public. But then, in 1998, with the help of "Behind the Music", the album found its way into the top-ten of the Billboard Pop Catalog chart where it stayed for over six years and now has sold upwards of close to five million copies. This all brings us to 2005.

I'm going to be honest without pulling any punches. Def Leppard's albums over the last decade have been so poorly marketed I'm amazed they are still around. Here is a band that created two of the best radio records of the last decade (1999's Euphoria and 2002's X) and yet a Bon Jovi "It's My Life" style comeback has eluded them. The irony is that both of Leppard's albums are superior to the Bon Jovi albums, Crush and Bounce.

So why is it that when this new collection of hits appeared in my mailbox recently that I opened it with more than just a passing interest? I owned every single song on this collection, except for the cover of Badfinger's "No Matter What", but I chose to see the distinctive qualities it did have. It's an incredibly comprehensive collection demonstrating the range of Leppards nearly three decade career. Where this package leaves Vault in the dust is with the inclusion of tracks prior to 1983's Pyromania. 1981's High 'N Dry is represented by a staggering six tracks. "Mirror, Mirror", "Another Hit & Run" are a testament to the band that they sound this good two decades down the road. "Let It Go" should have been on Vault as it's a classic Leppard tune; it finds its proper place here on disc two. Disc one now ends with the instrumental "Switch 625", a track showing the genius of the late and great Steve Clark. "Brining on the Heartbreak", the song that broke Leppard in the US when MTV added their video to heavy rotation in 1982, is included as well. However, it would have been nice if the band opted to include the 1984 remix of "Heartbreak" (with Phil Collen on guitar) on this package since it's never been remastered and has been out of print for well over a decade. However, beggars can't be choosers.

The Pyromania material is better represented this time around as well. Besides the stadium anthems "Rock of Ages", "Foolin'" and "Photograph", they have chosen to add "Rock, Rock Till You Drop", "Too Late For Love", "Billy's Got A Gun" and the live favorite "Die Hard The Hunter". Listening to these songs again, it's no wonder Rolling Stone magazine called this album one of the "100-Best Album's of the 80's"; it's a perfectly assembled set of rockers which took hard rock music to another realm the same way Toys In The Attic, Destroyer, Killer and Back In Black had previously and just like the aforementioned albums, Pyromania still holds up well two decades after it's birth.

Hysteria found the band four years later with a different perspective on life. The band overcame obstacles that would have swallowed most other bands into oblivion, but they did the impossible-following up Pyromania with an album that went on to become more successful and in many ways is even better. Def Leppard still stands as he only band, to this day, to have back-to-back albums that have sold in excess of ten-million copies. The album spawned seven hit singles, four of which went to the top-ten. This new collection houses all seven singles, which include video remixes of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Rocket". It's rare for a band to create an album that is a Greatest Hits within itself but Hysteria is one of those albums as all twelve songs could be played without skipping over any of them. It's an album for the ages and the irony is that even thought is closing in on its 20th Anniversary, sonically it sounds as good as any album released in 2005. However, the band's greatest triumph was their willingness to stand by their band mate and through determination and will power; they made Hysteria their landmark album. When Mutt Lange passes on one day, I believe his two defining albums for which he will be credited with shepherding will be AC/DC's Back In Black and Hysteria as they are timeless classic rock staples that should be in every record collection.

After the four-plus years between Pyromania and Hysteria, the band swore it would not take as long to record a follow up. Best laid plans they say. The actual time between Hysteria and it's follow up, Adrenalize, wound up being fifty-six months, just shy of five years. In that time, the band had tracked dozens of tracks (many of which would find a home on 1993's Retroactive) and more importantly, they attempted to find a way to help Steve Clark battle his demons. Sadly in, January of 1991, Steve was overtaken by those demons at the age of 29, the same age I am right now. He left this Earth long before he should have, however his memory lives on through the music and in the videos, most specifically "Armageddon It", which I see as a tribute to his talent and life.

When the band finally emerged in early 1992, the musical landscape had changed dramatically; the glitz and glamour of the 1980's was gone and replaced by gloom and grunge. However, they say that "only the strong survive" and that is just what Def Leppard did. Their new album, Adrenalize debuted at #1, ahead of not one, but two albums by Bruce Springsteen. When totals were tallied, the band had another five top-forty songs to their credit (a total of seven singles were released internationally) and the album sold close to four million records in the US alone. While it's a fine record of perfectly constructed pop numbers, I find it to be one of the band's weaker efforts. However, considering it is a follow up to not one, but two gargantuan albums and was recorded in the wake of the death of a band member, it's a miracle the album exists at all. Surprisingly, the singles "Make Love Like A Man", "Tonight" and "I Wanna Touch You" did not make the final cut for Rock of Ages. My personal favorite, "Tear It Down" (re-recorded from the "Women" b-side) did not make the final cut either, even though it has the final chords Steve Clark ever recorded for a Def Leppard album are on the end of it. In the end, "Heaven Is", "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad" and "Let's Get Rocked" did make the final cut.

Before the next Def Leppard studio album, Slang, appeared in the spring of 1996, the band released two "in-between" albums. Retroactive (1993) pulled together lost b-sides, forgotten favorites and unreleased material. Some of the parts were re-recorded and remixed and it is the album debut of new guitarist Vivian Campbell. Surprisingly, it also housed the band's biggest hit since "Armageddon It"; "Two Steps Behind". The acoustic ballad originally released as a b-side overseas, cracked the top-5 and became one of the band's biggest hits. Then, a bigger fluke was "Miss You In A Heartbeat" which was released solely on the heels of the success of "Two Steps Behind" and with little fanfare; it went on to become a minor hit. In 1995, Vault was released as a way to gear things up for the eventual release of Slang six months later. The lone new song on the collection was the ballad "When Love & Hate Collide". The record company asked the band for a proper single to promote the hits package, but the band knew that none of the material they had recorded for Slang would be in the vein of what they wanted and with them clearing the decks with Retroactive two years earlier put the band in a unique predicament where they did not have an appropriate song as a lead single. However, they dug a little deeper and found "When Love and Hate Collide"; a song demoed during the "Adrenalize" sessions and ultimately it was passed over, but would be resurrected for the new greatest hits collection. An interesting side note is that the international single for the song includes the original demo which is supposedly the final notes ever laid on tape by Steve Clark. Here is another advantage of a "Hits" package. If they had never released a best of package, this song never would have seen the light of day.

If there is any one downfall to Rock of Ages it is the under representation of the 1996-2002 era. During this time, the band made two radio ready albums and an underappreciated and misunderstood masterpiece. Slang, Euphoria and X are represented by a mere five tracks even though each one of these albums represented vital turning points in he band's history and I felt they deserved better representation on this album. Slang is wildly underappreciated and undervalued and is home to the band's most revealing work. Unfortunately, it never found an audience, but as the years have passed, it has continued to garner esteem as a lost masterpiece. "Work It Out" and "Slang" found their way onto Rock Of Ages, but it would have been nice if "Deliver Me" or "Where Does Love Go When It Dies" been able to possibly been given a second life.

Euphoria, released in 1999, was the band's bigger than life sounding hard rock masterpiece. Despite everyone and their mother declaring a rebirth of the band, great reviews and an album worthy of Hysteria comparisons, it did not establish them the way I had hoped. This album should have flown off record shelves ad even though it sold well, it paled in comparison to their previous albums "Promises" was their big monster single that should have caught on with radio and MTV. "Paper Sun" is sadly the only other song included here. I still say this album had four or five monster singles waiting in the wings; "Demolition Man", "Goodbye", "Back In Your Face" and "21st Century Sha La La Girl" all of which would have been worthy inclusions here.

The band's tenth album, X was released in July of 2002. It went on to become the band's least successful selling album to date, largely due to the fact that almost no one knew that Def Leppard had a new album in stores. The band worked with the record company and took advice and wrote with some outside songwriters and even though the final results were a bit too pop for my taste, the album is so derivative, while sounding distinctly like Def Leppard, that I'm floored it did not find an audience. The power pop of the album is stunning and sadly, only "Now" made it onto the Rock of Ages. If I was an up and coming act and needed a guaranteed hit on my debut album, I'd cover a song off this album, that is how radio ready this album is. The one track that should have made it onto this collection is the beautiful acoustic ballad "Long Way To Go" which deserved a second life as this song should have been a huge hit for the band.

When one finishes listening to Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection they will feel a rush through their body as the 35-track, 2-hour-40 minute collection is a reminder that Def Leppard was no flash-in-the-pan and far from settling intro retirement. Def Leppard is one of the most significant rock bands of their generation. Like the Who, Alice Cooper and Queen before them, they redefined the hard rock genre despite a laundry list of obstacles in front of them. Lesser bands would have let this overcome them, but not the Leppard boys, as they have fought their demons head on and endured. Love them or hate them, Def Leppard has made some of the paramount albums of the last twenty-five years, ensuring their place in the annals of rock n' roll history as a band who did more than just rock the ages but created music for the ages.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.

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