Recently I picked up a copy of Def Leppard’s seminal 1983 album Pyromania. I had been waiting for years for it to show up in the iTunes or Amazon MP3 stores, to no avail. After hearing a couple songs in the pregame mix at a high school football game, I thought it was time to finally take the plunge and order the CD.
This was a big deal. First, I don’t buy CDs anymore. Second, Pyromania was the first cassette tape I ever bought, back in the summer of 1983. It’s a very important album in my musical development.
Fortunately, it holds up very well.1 It’s still a first-class rocker and an essential album for someone interested in the hard rock with a healthy dose of pop scene of the early 80s.
Listening to it nearly 30 years after its release opened up a whole new perspective on its songs. I had always believed it to be a straight-up heavy metal album. When you dig into it, though, you realize that it is much more than that. In fact, it is a deep rumination on the state of the British Empire in the early 80s.
What follows is by no measure a complete review, but I thought it would be interesting to dive into a few of the songs to support this assertion.
“Rock Rock (Till you Drop)” – They started off slow. This is a pretty standard plea to embrace every moment.
“Photograph” – Now we’re getting somewhere. This explores the temporal nature of our relationship with the world because of the controls government and big business place on the media. The device the band uses is the infamous Page Three girls, who were tools to distract the masses from the massive issues facing Britain.
“Foolin'” – Even in the early 80s, technology was already beginning to separate us. When Joe Elliott makes his plea, “Is anybody out there? Anybody there?” he speaks of a world where the traditional bonds of community have been destroyed by television and pop culture. The pain of his isolation when he asks, “Won’t you stay with me awhile?” is almost too much to take.
It’s not hard to hear the monotonous thwack of the cowbell in the chorus as the protagonist pounding on the walls that separate him from those around him. I would not be surprised if this served as an important point of inspiration for Radiohead when they were recording OK Computer.
“Rock of Ages” – This is clearly a warning that if the economic imbalance in British society didn’t change, and fast, the working class of cities like Leppard’s Sheffield were ready to take radical, destructive action to ensure their demands were heard. Was the burning sound at the end 10 Downing Street or Parliament or Buckingham Palace or just the working class neighborhoods of every British city left behind as the economy fell apart?
“Stagefright” – This is about being at a pub with your mates and needing to piss but some drunk bloke next to you in the men’s room keeps yammering on about Manchester United and you can’t get started.
“Too Late for Love” – An ode to the death of the idealism of the 1960s.
“Die Hard the Hunter” – Most take this to be the story of a soldier returned from combat who struggles to find his place in society. They key line “Put down your pistol, put down your toy” reveals the true message of this song. It is about the fears that a generation of youths were being turned into zombies by video games, and they were no longer able to differentiate fantasy from reality.
“Action Not Words” – A withering indictment of both Labour and Tory politicians who yammered endlessly in Parliament about what was wrong with Great Britain but did little to actually fix those problems.
“Billy’s Got a Gun” – A case against the reckless, cowboy militarism of the Thatcher-Reagan era.
Perhaps you hear different things when you listen to these songs. There is no doubting, though, that Pyromania is an all-time classic that carries much more weight that I realized when I was 12.
- Unlike the band’s next album Hysteria. That album sounds like shit today. ↩