first round game
(2) def leppard, "rock of ages"
(2) def leppard, "pour some sugar on me"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls close @ 9am Arizona time on 3/6.
On “Rock of Ages” by Def Leppard: a musing by Drew Burk
And these songs that we sing, do they mean anything?
—Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Songs That We Sing
We’re gonna burn this damn place down, down to the ground.
—Def Leppard, Rock of Ages
Def Leppard’s Pyromania had to take the Concorde, it was so late. This essay, were email not available to me, would also have to take the Concorde, were it still around and I had that kind of cash. This essay has been in the mixing room since November. This essay began triumphant and assured, certain of its many victories, only to realize that track after track was derivative, or out of touch, weakly premised, or (as of the new year) composed of notes that nobody wants to hear me sing right now. The entirety of this essay will be released in 25 years as a box set, with full liner notes and all the alternate mixes, the demos, the rejected b-sides; however au courant the material, today’s audience just isn’t buying that kind of stuff right now. It’s partially delivery systems, partially a Dylan sort of problem: someone else could sing these songs and they’d be hits, but like I said a few sentences ago, it’s not my voice that people want to hear singing them right now.
Def Leppard’s Pyromania was a series of accidents necessitating on-the-fly fixes at the last minute which resulted in a singular and unprecedented artistic achievement which, because all existence is marketing, was presented as intent. The album, accidental and unintentional and twist-tied and gumstuck for delivery as it was, nonetheless changed everything. Nobody recorded the same way after Mutt did what he did with that album.
(But seriously, fuck that. They changed how they recorded, but they didn’t change anything that made a goddamn bit of difference. Let’s agree here that words have meaning and that language is kind of a big deal, all right?)
Def Leppard, up to this point, up to 1982, had put out a couple workmanlike bits of rocknroll, On Through the Night and High ‘n’ Dry, both of which did pretty well, and sure, they’re fine. Whatever. Pyromania represented a higher level of obsession and geekery and delusion than had been seen or attempted prior
(Delusion, really, is the most essential component of any human endeavor. Belief that our actions mean something. Letting people know that we took these steps, alerting the masses and colluding with them in our delusion is essential to external perception of a meaningful outcome. If we are to stave off the ever-encroaching despair born of an objective glance around ourselves, we must believe that our actions are meaningful, and we must inform others of our actions and we must convince them that these actions, however fractional they may be in context, contribute meaningfully to the whole. It does not matter that they do or [most likely] do not, it only matters that we agree that we think they have meaning. It’s the accretion of these fractional details into a localized and oftentimes highly personalized zeitgeist that concatenates into the seed of a disseminable meme, a talking point, a blurb, a digestible snippet whose mass is tolerable to a degree that it puts no undue strain upon any individual social participant in their participation of the dissemination of the shared delusion. E.g., fandom.
Fandom, in its collectivity and gathering around an externality, can serve as a first step toward an eventual destination of self-selected cultural identity and participation, a replacement for what we currently understand as culture. Gibson and Stephenson [among others, but these two are the ones I return to most often, especially the Dovetail clave from The Diamond Age] have posited and elucidated upon how it might look when we’re unmoored from the weight of imposed history and have begun to choose from available options a presentation based upon freely chosen participation. Or, unfreighted and free, created anew.)
And while the end result might not have been what Mutt or anyone intended, the fixes necessitated by the fuckery of the delusions and cocksuredness and deeply held belief that this was the path, produced innovations and processes that didn’t exist before, mostly because none of them were necessary if you’d just done the work correctly in the first place. Mutt wanted to capture a special something, a precise and controllable whatnot, and so he had them lay down the notes one at a time, string by string, drum by drum, everything doubled and tripled and run at from all sides—only to discover with the next instrument or at final mixing time, that the instruments were out of tune with each other. So chorus, then. Wobble the wrong notes into an amorphous fuzz, and have Thomas Dolby come and synth the fuck out of the background, and then hey, presto! here’s some crazy dense atmospherics that nobody’s accomplished before. Because nobody’s fucked up in this way before this.
Sitting in the back seat of my stepmother’s Ford Futura, being driven to Pomona First Baptist, I listened to Pyromania, over and over. Ozzy’s “Flying High Again” had already done its stereo magic via my foam and wire crap headphones, so the left-right-left guitar hit held no special thrill for me, but the density of dissonance forced into harmony created a sonic cloud unprecedented in my experience, all the unintentional minors and ninths and floating thirteenths in an otherwise straight-up progression that simply had no business being there in a rocknroll fist-pump—a chance emotional jar, an unsettling where they’d meant to push push push—this sonic fog introducing structures I’d never had cause to consider and which I didn’t understand, but which I experienced viscerally and which indicated to me that there was more in the world than I’d been told. Not every track performed thus. I assumed that it was because they were kind and didn’t want to destroy me. I know now that some tracks just never got finished. I understand now that had they had the time they would have gone and re-recorded those fucked-up guitar lines and obviated the need for the chorus and blend and fuzziness. We didn’t talk about that then. We all acted like it was on purpose. Going forward, sure, yeah, they did these things on purpose. Lycia accomplishes their impossibilities via multiple layers of delay slightly out-of-phase with each other, and I feel safe in the assertion that without Mutt’s fuckups, Mike VanPortfleet would not have had the sonic shoulders upon which to do his gothy shuffle. The groundwork would simply have not been laid in time. Someone would have done it, but not soon enough for us to be having our thoughts about this right now. We’d be—I would be—telling you stories about something different.
No. I wouldn’t. Absent the accidental atmospherics on Def Leppard’s Pyromania, I would have never considered the vast majority of the things that led me to where I am today.
Absent the sounds and songs we consumed, none of us would be who we are today.
(Language is a physical thing. The neuronal representation of a single letter is a physical structure in our brain. Words are interconnected physical structures. Repetition of these words strengthens these structures and increases the distribution of their bonds, and thus their influence, throughout the distributed cortices of our hemispheres. Association of these words with other words and further with externally-based real-world context and consequence and effect informs how we as individuals pilot our frames through our meatspace reality. Shared structures communicated through memes or song snippets or bobbing our heads in time while asking that some sugar maybe get poured on somebody establishes a collective understanding that this is, in fact, what we want, what we do. Or we fumble our beads and assert that blessed is she among women and blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. [Jesus was the OG Grateful Dead. The Pope is his Phish.]
“Rock of Ages”, linguistically, is a pile of gobbledygook. It’s an assemblage of unfocused and lazy nihilism, taking its lyrical cues from punk, but having no real truck with it except that it sounded hard and badass; the refrain was the result of somebody seeing a hymnal and the hymn Rock of Ages and thinking that it sounded pretty awesome. There’s nothing here. There’s nothing there. It’s a nonsensical mess that effects no meaningful transfer of information. It’s a linguistic placebo, a blank mantra one can recite when looking to focus on nothing. It’s safe.
But it’s an aberration. Much of our top-40, top-whatever, mass consumption media is not without substance. It’s got its hooks, got its winking themes clearly laid out and we sing along. And we sing along and we introduce our children to these songs and they sing along, and really, it’s all fun and games until our collective recitation of tuneful misogyny and sexism manifests itself in a horrific second or third-generation cultural behavior system we now find abhorrent, while we simultaneously still continue to wax nostalgic re: same. We sang ourselves to this. Let’s sing better songs going forward.)
Let’s sing better songs in the future. Because none of us is immune. This is lizard-brain shit. Complex and well-executed work engages higher functions and lets us participate in the continuing delusion that we’re not a bunch of fucking monsters. But we’re wrong. We’re a bunch of fucking monsters, and some of us might be just smart enough to wonder why we do what we do, but I am unconvinced at present that we are fundamentally interested in not being monsters anymore.
I think that what’s always appealed to me most about Pyromania, second only to the atmosphere, is its verbal incoherence. I grew up in churches, where it was incantation and recitation and belief and belief and faith and and damnation and memorize and repeat these words and those words; the spiritual shapes they presented represented what I was told was reality. Def Leppard rocked me with layered chorus and linguistic white noise, where I could retreat into a soft comfort of blunt-edged phonemes that would occasionally hint at meaning, but never went so far as to convey any. Responding that “I want rock and roll” when asked what I want, feels, even today, like the kindest softball any song has ever lobbed my way. Pyromania said nothing. It meant nothing. It intended things wholly other than what it delivered. It is a pearl, layers of snot coating an irritant resulting in an object of beauty, “Rock of Ages” a single layer in this jewel. Def Leppard, the oyster in this metaphor, followed up by opening its shell and, having nothing left to give, waved its glistening foot and said, “In the name of love…”
Drew Burk believed SO HARD that his band would change everything.
elena passarello on def leppard's "pour some sugar on me"
I must admit, this essay on Shredness hasn’t been easy to figure out. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is an awesome song, of course. Listening to it now—almost exactly 30 years after its single release—is still a foam-finger-in-the-air, chest-bump-the-peanut-vendor, climb-a-stripper-pole-ass-first kind of experience. The song’s drum line remains indefatigably stirring, especially when you remember it was pounded out by a guy with twenty-five percent fewer appendages than any other drummer in this tournament (including the drummer who recorded “Rock of Ages”). And the song belongs to what was then the most expensive album in human history and what remains the best-charting Hard Rock record of all time.
But all these superlatives aside, does “Pour Some Sugar on Me” literally SHRED? To answer that, we gotta go the tape, a.k.a. the concert-footage video of the Leppards (the Def?) rocking a few thousand of Denver’s finest one February night in 1988.
Our beloved March Shredness selection committee’s official criteria for any qualifying entry is that the song “must be in the style/genre of Hair Metal [from] 1983-1992.” They go on to define said style/ genre by three features, all of them easily evaluated by watching the “Sugar” video.
It’s tough to call any coif on this band big when in league with the follicular efforts of Messrs. Snider, Rockett, Sixx, etc. I’d rate Def Leppard’s overall hair game as fair to middling. Lead singer Joe Elliot brings MacGyver realness to his layered dishwater mullet, but it doesn’t look like any mousse was ever involved. Back on the drums, Rick “The Thunder God” Allen has pulled his curly lob into a little broccoli floret at the nape of his neck. Guitarist Phil Collen’s hair is short enough to get him a job at the DMV; at one point in the video, Collen offers a little headbang and barely a strand of hair moves. Bassist Rick “Sav” Savage and guitarist Steve “C’mon, Steve!” Clark register a little closer to the Hair Metal ideal; their shaggy layers fall way past their shoulders and sport the texture of labradoodle clippings.
But the only truly big hair in this video appears whenever the camera cuts to the crowd, often lingering on select Def Heads (Leppers?) of the female persuasion. The hair on these young women is uniformly glorious, especially considering they’re not supposed to be the ones in the spotlight. Their bangs launch from their foreheads in cotton candy mushroom clouds, permed to the bejeezus belt and whipping about in these vicious little slaps as the girls shake their hoop earrings from side to side. This, for me, was the official hair of 1988’s babysitters—older, cooler girls full of secrets, with Gucci Crew tapes and gum for days and boys who they called on my cordless phone. Ten-year-old me thought of them whenever this video aired, hoping with all my flat-haired heart that one day my bangs would spike that high and my eyes—ringed in that same navy blue pencil—would find a person, or even a pet, to gaze at the way that these Aqua-netted confections gazed at this band.
In this criterion, “Sugar” falls further behind. Even those girls in the audience just wear tank tops and jeans. The single “flashy” article of clothing I was able to spot after myriad viewings is Sav’s cropped bolero with leopard (Leppard?)-print epaulets. But he pairs the jacket with unbedazzled dark pants and what look like white Reeboks. In fact, the whole band is shod in either sneakers or some nondescript, flat-heeled boot—save The Thunder God, who drums barefoot (perhaps for technical reasons). TG’s also wearing gym shorts(!) and a baggy t-shirt that appears to have his own image silkscreened on the back. Phil Collen’s got on a pair of Obama Mom jeans and a white undershirt for half the video, and for the other half, he’s kept the jeans, but is now bare-chested. He looks like a suburban Dad out mowing the lawn.
My favorite non-flashy sartorial choice belongs to Joe Elliot, who struts around the stage IN A DEF LEPPARD TANK TOP. Holy brand management! And what’s this? In the video’s black-and-white backstage footage, Elliot has on A DIFFERENT DEF LEPPARD SHIRT. Good lord, Joe, was it laundry day or something? Even Peter Cetera had enough sense to select a Bauhaus tee over some Chicago ’84 World Tour merch for the “You’re the Inspiration” video. Wearing your own shirt to your own arena show is the polar opposite of Shredding; it’s akin to putting a novel that you wrote on your syllabus. It’s like that time Mumford and Sons got kicked out of Atlanta’s Claremont Lounge strip club for Snapchatting themselves doing karaoke to their own music. Anyway. Elliot’s lower half does deserve more credit. Though not exactly “flashy,” the jeans he sports are aerated with two perfect ladders of horizontal rips, the kind of distressing that your mom would sigh over if she saw similar pants hanging, new, on a rack at the mall. If anything in this video undeniably involves shredding, it’s Joe’s dungarees.
“Shreddy, ostentatious guitar solos”
And here’s where the Shred truly hits the fan. One of my favorite Hair Metal tropes is when the video cuts to a lead guitarist pantomiming his (it’s almost always “his”) scorching—and requisite—solo. In all these clips, the rocker also sells the Shred with corporeal details, like a leg up on an amp or a wagging tongue or a head tipped heavenward in ecstasy. Bonus points if the hairy, flashy soloist is back-to-back with an equally histrionic band mate. But if you’re following along in your YouTube hymnal, you’ll note that this moment does not exist at any point of the “Pour Some Sugar” vid. That’s because there are no prominent guitar solos in this song. Come at me on this; I’ve spent the past weekend combing thru every measure like a litterbox, listening for any run of music that might qualify as a Shred-guitar solo and coming up short. And in the video, most of the guitar footage involves Phil or Steve striking a chord and then floating their pick-hands away from the strings to balance on the sides of their axes while they bop sexily through the next resting measure.
Even the general moments of discernible guitar action are never “shreddy” or “ostentatious.” The entire structure of “Sugar” is built on power chords, which seem to me the opposite of Shred solos, as they involve only the lowest strings and claw-like, close-to-the-headstock fretwork. We do hear the signature “Sugar” lick on top of those chords throughout (starting at 0:32 of the YouTube clip), but said lick only consists of three mid-range notes and a little string bend, repeated. You can find noodlier licks (and bigger hair, and flashier outfits, and actual solos) in 1988 hits by Richard Marx, Taylor Dane, and Jefferson Freaking Starship. So if one had the stomach to do so, one could argue that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” Shreds less than Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a.k.a. the love theme from the movie Mannequin.
Sure, once the second chorus gets going (around 2:47), Steve Clark plays a lead line over the three-chord stomp we all know and love, but his contribution is a single mid-range note (an F3) repeated over and over and over again, without variation. If this is Shredding, it’s Shredding a la Philip Glass. C’mon, Steve. And perhaps one might make a Shred-case for the eight measures leading into “if you got the peaches/ I got the cream” (which I misheard as “you got the beat ‘cuz I got the feet,” until, like, yesterday). That spot in the song is a perfect launch pad for a searing solo, but instead we hear Clark volleying back and forth between one measly pair of notes using a plucky, reverbed touch. A similar guitar attack is often employed by U2’s the Edge, and I will challenge anyone on the planet who thinks that the Edge can Shred to a screwdriver fight.
In all fairness, I detect something closer to a traditional solo in the final twenty seconds of “Sugar,” but it’s so buried in the sonic lasagna that producer Mutt Lange famously built for Hysteria—exponentially tracked vocals, effects-drowned drum hits, layers of woofs and slides and feedback. You couldn’t sing or air guitar that melody if you tried. I’ve been listening to those thirty seconds with quality headphones all afternoon and I still can’t quite make it out, other than the fact that it’s slow and decidedly un-Shreddy. To fully detect the line, I’d have to be the rock dork equivalent of the princess sleeping on her pea.
This embarrassing amount of headphone time did teach me something, however. In the past three decades, I’ve listened as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” blared from the speakers of infinite Jumbotrons and titty bars. I once heard (and can never un-hear) an auto-tuned-within-an-inch-of-his-life Tom Cruise writhe through the song for the film Rock of Ages. But I’d never given the track a careful listen. Having done just that several dozen times, I now know that “Sugar” isn’t the blunt-force object I assumed it was; this song is spectacularly crafted. Crisp, pounding, and shiny, it’s like sunlight hitting the top of an ocean wave, if the wave was hot, sticky-sweet, and potentially riddled with chlamydia.
The whole album is a marvel, really. Lange’s reported vision for Hysteria was a Hard Rock take on what Quincy Jones did with Thriller: engineered within an inch of its life, jam-packed with radio singles, and full of crossover influences. Weirdly enough, Thriller’s crossover efforts include a toe-dip into metal, thanks to the thirty-second extravaganza of dive bombs and hammer-on-pull-offs that Eddie Van Halen dropped into the middle of “Beat it.” I’m pretty sure “Beat It” is the first Shred guitar track ever to go platinum, and it’s most certainly Shreddier than anything “Sugar” has to offer.
Unlike the other songs on Hysteria, which took most of Reagan’s second term to complete, “Sugar” smacks of spontaneity. This is owed, perhaps, to the fact that Joe Elliot and Mutt Lange tacked the song onto the end of their sessions. The other Defs (Leps? DefLep Schrempf’s?) weren’t even in town when the two started writing; Elliot was cutting vocals alone in the studio, farting around on an acoustic guitar during his coffee break. He’d only figured out “Sugar’s” five-word chorus when Lange walked past him and heard gold in that short line of song. The pair then worked backward, building the lead-in to the chorus (the rising chords behind “take the booooottle!”), and finally the verse structure.
For lyrics, neither had any story or idea in mind. Run-DMC’s reimagined version of “Walk this Way” had basically ruled 1987 radio, and Lange saw “Sugar” as a chance to piggyback off the resulting rap-rock fervor (note the thirsty add of the verbatim phrase “walk this way” to the album’s intro to “Sugar”). But instead of hiring actual rappers, Lange and Elliot just scat-sang through the demos, babbling in quarter notes and then in double time. Elliot says they got the final lyrics via a game of telephone, trying to interpret one another’s gibberish phonemes from the demo into actual words and phrases. The whole composition process took less than a single day. And holy shit, it worked.
I see nothing in our Shredness criteria about lyrics, but maybe this is where “Sugar” gains some ground. Like a lot of good Hair Metal content, the words stick as slogans rather than as poetry. They’re not unlike the work of the big-haired, flashy-outfitted 70’s rocker Marc Bolan—“demolition woman can I be your man” could’ve come straight off Electric Warrior. And speaking of Bolan, something about the lyrical looseness of the lyrics to “Sugar” allows for a wobbly, T-Rexy sexual double vision that’s present in quite a bit of our Shredness cohort.
I know in my bones that such lyrical inexactitude is part of the fun—both in 1988 and today. My buddy Patrick once unearthed a tape of himself singing “Sugar” at some amusement park karaoke booth back in the 80’s, long before his voice changed. Years later, he’d play the tape for me when we were running errands in his Hyundai and I’d lose my shit at the sound of his old chipmunk soprano growling through “love is like a bomb, baby” and “easy operator come a-knockin’ on my door.” The absolute glee in his pipsqueak voice! In it, you heard how Pat knew these words were fun and edgy, but still PG-13 enough to keep him from getting grounded.
I think the pull of “Sugar”—and much of Shred as a whole—is how it can be understood as sexy even if the listener’s not yet sure what sex entails. The practices and body parts alluded to in these lyrics are not exactly direct; I’m a 39-year-old woman who’s been around the block a few times and I have loads of questions for Mutt and Joe: What exact substance is Elliot covered in from his un-moussed “head” to his Keds-clad “feet”? Is this coating the titular “sugar,” or is it something else? Are we describing a physiological byproduct here? If so, whose glandular system is the source of it? Does it “pour” from the “easy operator” or from the man on whose door she knocks? Or should I just be imagining two fully consenting adults dumping champagne all over each other?
The fact that these lyrics boil down to a bunch of hot-nonsense make the song both filthy and virginal, which seems crucial to this genre. Hair Metal sex-talk often sounds like an inexperienced fifteen-year-old trying to brag about all the steamy stuff he does with his girlfriend who “lives in Canada.” Which is to say that when the catchy innuendo typical of this genre marries Lange’s downright Apollonian sonic architecture, there’s no way the product of said union is leaving our consciousness for decades, Shred solos or no.
Which leads me to my present pickle. “Sugar” might not fit our definition of Shred, but the song has lasted like a champ, and it still rocks. What’s more, I think it carries a surprising musical depth that deserves acclamation. But is that enough to advance it in this competition, especially when (and I’m biting my hand as I type this) its very first opponent is a song performed by a band with bigger hair, flashier outfits, and even a tongue-out shreddy solo…and said band is the same damn band that recorded “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?
My only hope for saving this song, I suppose, is to argue that “Sugar” still embodies Shred without checking Shred’s crucial boxes. I’m not even sure this is true, because all that I’ve covered, especially the glimmering production of the song, makes “Sugar” feel less porous and more complex than the majority of its bracket-mates, “Rock of Ages” included. But perhaps none of you care about any of this. Maybe you’ve already figured out that Shred at its very best is a feeling more than a practice. And perhaps in our collected kabillion listenings to “Sugar,” we have felt the Shred in enough intangible ways that our sticky, sweet energy cancels out the band’s uninspired clothes, their chill hair, their neglected whammy bars. Maybe this crowd-generated feeling is what elevates Def Leppard to the Penthouse of Shredness.
I’ve spent too much of my adult life desperate to never substitute feeling for substance, and this might be where I must—where we all must—make an exception. Maybe feeling the ways “Sugar” Shreds is enough to give it wings. Perhaps the white-hot sensation of a thousand guitar solos, of myriad “oooh-Alberto”-stiffened mullets, of countless pink spandex leggings has, for the past thirty years, been thriving in the abstract. You can find evidence of this Shred miracle in every babysitter bopping across her wide-eyed charge’s living room, every Florida catwalk that’s humped IN THE NAME OF LUVVV, and every tween screaming Mutt and Joe’s baby-brained dirty talk into an amusement park recording booth. You can certainly find it in the countless bros who’ve air-guitared their way through the track, pantomiming a blistering solo over the measures where one never existed.
It’s not unlike the moment in Barrie’s Peter Pan when all the children clap their hands and a flashlight turns into Tinker Bell. I can see her right now, newly alive and kicking on the sheer force of youthful belief. Watch her flit to the window, tossing her poufy bangs, shouting while the crowd lifts up its hands to her. The kids sing along as she launches up to the stars, all of them howling the lift into the final chorus, do you take Shredness? One lump or two!
The most metal thing about essayist Elena Passarello is that she and Mastodon's bassist went to the same high school. Here is a photo of what she looked like the year Hysteria was released.