“Heavy Metal Heroes”: “Photograph” captured Def Leppard at their mid-80s pop-metal zenith

By on July 12, 2017

Our June 21, 1985 edition of “Heavy Metal Heroes” — which is one of the most popular segments we aired regularly on “Night Flight” back in the 1980s — featured some of the decade’s top heavy rock videos, including “Photograph” by Def Leppard, who were probably always more of a pop-metal band, doncha think?

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Initially, Def Leppard were, at least at first, considered part of a so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and occasionally they were lumped in with bands like Saxon and Iron Maiden.

However, by the early ’80s, they’d locked into a successful formula — twirling falsetto harmonies, fist-pumping drums, big riffing melodic guitar hooks, stacked arrangements and dumbed-down rock lyrics — which would launch them into the rock stratosphere, propelling them to the top of the charts with both sold-out enormodome ticket sales and diamond-platinum album awards (that’s 10× platinum, an award given for albums selling more than 10 million copies).

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Def Leppard reached that rare, lofty height few bands ever achieve by blending together hard rock and even a bit of glam-rock flair for what was a glossy, more commercial sound which would make them hugely successful in the 1980s, even as it now lumped them in with a much different bunch of pop metal-leaning MTV-friendly bands, including Night Ranger and Bon Jovi.

That popular sound was slagged off by critics as “bludgeon riffola” and it also brought about a backlash against them by their fellow countrymen, and the band fought that battle with UK’s rock critics and headbanger metal fans for the rest of the decade.

“We wanted to be the biggest band in the world,” Joe Elliott, Def Leppard’s shaggy-haired, Union Jack shirted frontman told MOJO Magazine about ten years ago. “Our blueprint was to be AC/DC with Queen harmonies.”

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Def Leppard formed in the steel-producing town of Sheffield, England, sometime around November of 1977, when they were of an average age of just eighteen years old. Three of them were students at Tapton School, located in Crosspool, in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England.

Elliott had auditioned to join a band called Atomic Mass on guitar (reportedly playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in its entirety) but it was decided by the rest of the band— Rick Savage (guitar first, then bass), Pete Willis (guitar) and Tony Kenning (drums) — that he’d make a better lead singer.

“For five guys from Sheffield who didn’t know shit about anything, being in a band was like winning the lottery,” Elliott once said. “Suddenly you didn’t have to beg for a date anymore – they’d come up to you.”

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Their first ever gig was in the dining hall in A Block in Westfield School in Mosborough, Sheffield, but before long they were thinking that they needed a new name.

According to Elliott, Def Leppard originated from a poster he’d made for the band for one of their early gigs, which, he recalled, had “depicted a rather strange-looking jungle cat with a hearing horn at his ear.”

Elliott: “I called him the deaf leopard. The guys in the band loved the poster, and after a bit of work, we decided to call ourselves Def Leppard. The name is funny, but it has strength.”

At Kenning’s suggestion, they modified the spelling to make it seem less like they were a punk band (they reportedly got the idea to alter the spelling from Led Zeppelin).

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Kenning would leave the band during their recording sessions for a three-track release, which came to be known later as The Def Leppard EP; after first using a replacement drummer, the band settled on Rick Allen as Kenning’s permanent replacement, who was just fifteen years old at the time.

The EP was a huge success — BBC Radio One deejay John Peel played one track, “Getcha Rocks Off,” on his radio show often — and by 1979, the Sheffield boys were signing a record deal with a major label, Phonogram/Vertigo (Mercury Records in the U.S.).

There’s more about Def Leppard below.

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Def Leppard’s debut album, On Through the Night, was released on March 14, 1980, and landed the band in the UK’s Top Fifteen albums.

Almost immediately, though, the British rock press (and many rock fans) turned on the band, calling them “sell outs” (even before they were, in fact, selling out arenas on their own).

It did seem as though they were trying to find a way to find success in America right from the jump — they’d recorded a song called “Hello America,” which is as good a clue as any, we think — while attempting to stand out from the heavier sound of their fellow British metal bands by leaning more towards pop-metal.

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Def Leppard found themselves added to a number of U.S. rock tours (supporting the Pat Travers Band, AC/DC, and Ted Nugent, among others) during the early ’80s, and by the time they came back to Britain, for a performance at the Reading Festival, fans didn’t hold back how they felt about them, pelting the band with beer cans and bottles they’d pissed in.

Meanwhile, over in the States, American audiences seemed to love Def Leppard from the very first time they heard them, beginning with tracks from the band’s second album, High ‘n’ Dry, which was released on July 11, 1981.

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High ‘n’ Dry was the first of three albums produced by the legendary Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who used the recording studio the way a sculptor might use his (or hers), meticulously trimming away any excess until what was left was seemingly a perfect hard-polished creation seemingly readymade for FM rock radio playlists.

Lange would also produce a shit ton of hits for bands like AC/DC and Foreigner in the 1980s.

Similarly, director David Mallet — who we’ve mentioned more than a few times here on Night Flight — produced the same results with the band’s über-popular music videos, making Def Leppard a made-for-MTV band right from the start, even before there was such an animal.

High ‘n’ Dry‘s standout track, “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak,” became one of the very first heavy rock videos played on MTV in 1982, in fact.

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Their critics weren’t as kind as their American fans, however. Pete Makowski — writing for the UK music paper Sounds, in the February 6, 1982, issue, claimed that: “While Leppard continue to ‘wow out’ crowds in the U.S., they still seem to be at the butt of abuse as far as certain British media and fans are concerned.”

Makowski added: “While groups like Saxon and Iron Maiden seem to be able to travel the world and lead a grandiose lifestyle and still retain that dubious street credibility factor, anything that Leppard do is regarded as being pompous and the general consensus of opinion from the average anglophile headbanger seems to be that they are egotistical popstars who sold their souls to the American rock and roll machine.”

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It was during the chaotic recording sessions with Lange for their next album, in fact, which led to original guitarist Pete Willis being jettisoned from the band, for his alcohol abuse, to replaced by lead guitarist Phil Collen.

That third album with Lange twiddling at the boards — Pyromania, released on January 20, 1983 — would also feature additional synthesizer riffage, courtesy of Thomas Dolby, which we told you about here (he’s credited as “Booker T. Boffin”).

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The recording sessions apparently cost more than a million pounds (equivalent to over $4 million in studio productions costs today, a figure that was unheard of at the time), but it would also end up making Def Leppard a household name, at least in households where the MTV channel was tuned in.

Leading the way to those massive sales was the lead-off single “Photograph,” written by Steve Clark, Pete Willis, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott and Mutt Lange.

The first few lines of the song — “I’m out a luck, outta love” — let us know that whoever the song’s protagonist is, he’s not doing too well presently with the ladies, and his photo collection (we think its porn, more likely) isn’t cutting it anymore.

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The lovelorn lyrics were meant to describe, according to Joe Elliott, at various times, “something you can’t ever get your hands on,” and “about somebody that’s out of the picture. ‘All I’ve got is a photograph, but it’s not enough.'”

When it came time to produce a video, the band turned to director David Mallet (we’ve told you about him here on Night Flight a few times), who came up with the idea of having female dancers on either side of the band — seen performing on a soundtrack with a dramatically-lit backdrop — in cages.

It was an idea that Mallet used frequently for videos in the 1980s (including his video for the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane“).

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Elliott and the boys from Sheffield were embarrassed by Mallet’s continuing penchant for putting women in cages in the videos he directed.

In Rob Tannenbaum’s and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Joe Elliot recalled the experience of shooting the video on December 2, 1982:

“We’d turned up at this soundstage someplace in Battersea, in London, and there was David Mallet. Now, I didn’t know who David Mallet was really, but I knew he had worked with Queen. That was good enough for me. We walked into this pre-built stage. We had nothing to do with it. We can take absolutely no credit for it. But Mallet had put this thing together – mesh flooring with lights coming up through it and these cages with all these girls in it with torn stockings and ripped tops and stuff. Hilarious now, but back in the time, it was like ‘Wow, this is cool!'”

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The iconic Battersea Power Station building in central London, near the Thames River, is the same building — decommissioned since the mid-70s, and now owned by Apple, who use it as their London headquarters– that Pink Floyd featured on the cover of their 1977 album cover for Animals.

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As for the scene near the end with the heel going through the singer’s Polaroid photo, Elliott adds:

“I remember where there’s this one bit where the ‘Marilyn character’ stabs her heel through a Polaroid of me screaming. The first thing I had to do when I walked in at 8:00 in the morning, before I even had a chance to have a cup of coffee, David comes in, and he calls everybody ‘dear boy’ or ‘darling.’ ‘Dear boy, I need you to scream into my Polaroid.’ So I did this kind of scream thing, and he goes ‘OK, done.’ You got pulled along. You got directed, because we didn’t know what we were doing. He just said, ‘Be yourselves. Leave it all to me.'”

As mentioned above, featured prominently in the video is a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who is being stalked by a paparazzi photographer.

The model/actress playing the role was brunette Kay Kent, who was from the working class town of Chatham, thirty miles southeast of London.

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Joe Elliott has always insisted that the song was not about Monroe herself, and would later tell VH1, “I don’t want to break anybody’s heart here, but Marilyn Monroe was just another average actress to me.”

Ms. Kent was reportedly obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, and in 1983 had signed with an agency called Look-Alikes, who at the time also employed doubles for notable celebrities (including Princess Diana and Mikhail Gorbachev).

She’d go on to do quite well in the UK, posing as Marilyn Monroe at department store openings and occasionally appearing in TV commercials, even re-creating some of Monroe’s famous poses in the buff (for the first issue of Playboy) in the December 1987 issue of their rival magazine, Penthouse.

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Signing in 1983 with Look-alikes, an agency featuring doubles for such notables as Princess Di and Gorbachev,  Kay Kent became a British sensation; making department-store appearances and occasional TV commercials, she earned $90,000 in 1988.

Unfortunately, her life took a tragic turn and on the night of June 12, 1989, at age 25, Kay Kent committed suicide, copying her idol down to nearly the exact manner of death.

Kent’s naked body was found sprawled across her bed, just as Monroe’s had been found back in 1962, and among the scattered photographs of Monroe in some of her most famous films were a vial of sleeping pills and a half-finished bottle of vodka.

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We’re showing you the “uncensored” version of the video in our “Heavy Metal Heroes” episode, which shows a knife at the beginning (the censored version of the video replaces that scene with a stationary black cat among a few edited frames where some of the women in cages were removed).

In Phil Collen’s 2015 memoirs, Adrenalized: Life, Def Leppard, and Beyond, the guitarist writes:

“The whole ‘passion killer’ lyrical bit allowed Mallet to create a little scenario as if there’d been a murder committed. Just a little bit of plot to keep things interesting. We got banned from British TV, which was amazing, because you could shoot people on camera but God forbid there was a switchblade.”

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In 1992, Joe Elliott would tell MTV that when he looked back on videos like the one they did for “Photograph,” he wanted to “crawl up into a corner and hide and deny that it’s me.”

Putting women in cages is not really cool. But in 1982 when we shot the videos, David Mallet the director was very keen on doing that and we were naive, young and it sorted of looked good just as a visual aspect you know. I think it’s a bit tacky now. I think there was a lot of energy in those videos and they didn’t open the doors for a lot of other people. Because when you look at Photograph, as old and as dated as it may be getting now, for its time it was a great video.”

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“Photograph” would climb to #1 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart, where it stayed for six weeks, and #12 on the Pop Singles chart. The single also topped Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and reached #12 on the Hot 100.

Pyromania would go on to sell nearly seven million copies in the U.S., but initially they sold just 60,000 copies in their native England.

All total, Def Leppard have sold more than 100 million records worldwide during their career.

They have never been nominated (and likely won’t be anytime soon) for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, despite the fact that they’ve been eligible for well over a decade now.

Watch “Heavy Metal Heroes” over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.