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Def Leppard are generally regarded amongst metalheads as sell-outs or something along those lines. This is fair enough really, since they did become extremely radio-friendly ever since 1983's Pyromania. Before their change in musical direction however, they were a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band. Naturally, singer Joe Elliot probably denies this, and the band most likely do try to skip over this debut when playing live or being interviewed.
It’s a shame really, because On Through The Night is, to me, a prime NWOBHM record, a real standout. If you've only heard Pyromania-onwards, then you probably will find it hard to believe that this album was recorded by the same band (granted, Elliot's voice is still fairly recognizable here, but even so, it still hasn't developed into how it would become). Of course, there were bigger and better NWOBHM albums released in 1980, but in my books, this album still ranks high in the movement's importance.
It does have it's commercial moments, but for the most part, it's just 100% heavy metal. Songs like ‘Rocks Off’, 'It Could Be You' and the main highlight; the heavy riffing of 'Wasted' prove this. Joe Elliot's voice DOES suit the raw NWOBHM sound here and Steve Clark and Pete Willis' guitars are superb. In my opinion, none of the songs are especially bad. 'Rock Brigade' is pretty cheesy, but hard rockin’ and catchy as hell. The chorus in this song instantly clicks as a memorable hook. 'Hello America' is probably the worst song here, mostly due to it’s annoying synthesizer in the chorus, but it's fun.
'Sorrow Is A Woman' is a more radio-friendly number. Despite this, the commercial touch of the song is actually well done and suits the song. The guitar playing is more varied and there’s a great solo too. ‘It Could Be You’ is pure NWOBHM. There’s nothing about this song that reminds us of the likes of Pyromania and Hysteria. It’s just a great little song with good riffs and hooks. It’s a shame it isn’t any longer though. 'Satellite' is pretty cool too with another catchy chorus, but heavy structure. It’s safe to say that On Through The Night succeeds in creating catchy but heavy traditional metal.
‘When The Walls Came Tumbling Down’ is one of my least favourite songs here, but it does contain some great lyrics. Next up is ‘Wasted’, which in my opinion, as I’ve already said is the biggest highlight of the record. Once again, this is a true heavy metal song, a song that proves to us Def Leppard once played a big role in the NWOBHM scene. Definitely an early Leppard classic.
‘Rocks Off’ is cool too, with some great riffing from Clark and Willis making it another highlight of the album. ‘It Don’t Matter’ is a bit weaker, and feels like filler material. The riffs aren’t quite as accomplished, although Elliot sounds just as good as he did on the rest of the album. ‘Answer To The Master’ is better, with an instantly memorable main riff, and a nice little change in direction half way through the song, with an excellent little guitar solo. ‘Overture’, the albums closing track which has a slight ballad-like verse. In this case, it’s a great way to end the album, and some of the guitar leads remind me of Thin Lizzy at times. So no complaints with the closer then.
While I must admit that Elliot’s voice isn’t quite as good as it would be on the following release, he does do a great job on ‘Overture’, and his vocal range is actually quite high at times as shown on ‘It Could Be You’. For that classic NWOBHM sound, his voice suits the album perfectly as he sounds a lot more natural. Unlike the over-produced material that the band would soon produce, the guitars are just purely distortion-driven and raw, like they should be.
On Through The Night stands as a great debut that is sadly overlooked and underrated by the band themselves. I think the record makes excellent listening in the NWOBHM field of metal.
Straight off the bat: the band disown/dislike this album so by that virtue alone it’s one of their better albums. But seriously, this is very much a curio in archive history – I suppose it’s still strictly a hard rock album, but Def Leppard never were all too certain about their own actual metalness and I’m not too sure myself. By the time they’d actually realised how to write more than two good songs per a record they’d all but ditched anything that could be considered NWOBHM for the frankly excellent AC/DC-derived hard rock of High N Dry. Then of course, they realised the fastest way out of Sheffield was viva pop music and they actually successful with that for a time being.
Def Leppard was technically one of the biggest bands to emerge from the NWOBHM movement – but the actual NWOBHM pedigree of this album is somewhat doubtful: metallic qualities aren’t really pronounced much outside of ‘Wasted’. Therefore we’d be best to compare this more to Demon than Maiden or Venom… but that in itself would be a little silly (did I mention that Leppard are a massive anomaly in the NWOBHM movement?) So in all actuality – and probably much to Joe Elliot’s delight – this is very difficult to judge as a metal record, as it really isn’t. It’s NWOBHM, yet not heavy metal if that makes any sense.
Interestingly – or is that amusingly? – it’s clear that though born and raised in the same rock ’n’ roll slum as those around them in the NWOBHM movement, Def Leppard had their eyes very much set on pop stardom even in their earliest days. ‘Hello America’ is of course what I’m talking about – it somewhat infamously alienated them to the British music press, and though this in itself is something I wholehearted endorse (has anyone actually read Kerrang! magazine lately, sheesh!) I can’t say the same for the song. Unadulterated shite. In as blunt terms as I can possibly describe. Why is it that British bands so often fall into the trap of figuring the only way to crack the American market is to sing about the nation itself? I think the ‘Dumb American’ idea has been greatly overstressed. Let’s just spell this out to end a problem that was fairly rife about 20-30 years ago (I know, I’m really helping matters, right?): Americans (nor peoples of any other nation, for that matter) aren’t inherently thick – you don’t sell records over there simply by singing about their nation. “Hey, they’re singing about us! I’m going to buy four copies of On Through the Night!” Def Leppard, having never left their native Sheffield, obviously were misguided enough to believe this was the case and as such inflicted us with this downright awful pop-rock song. Leppard’s signature vocal harmonies rear their ugly head here adding to the overwhelming cheese factor, as do some skittering synthesisers that make me cringe like a parent who’s just dropped their precious infant into a scolding bath. Ouch, the NSPCC is going to hear about that one! As I’m still at the crossroads between adulthood and being legally classified as a child I’d like to do the same – but unfortunately, I paid for this record out of my own pocket and therefore I don’t think this would stand up in court. Surprisingly enough, Def Leppard got a foot in the door with the American market with ‘Bringing on the Heartbreak’, a predictable yet successful ballad. So, from that alone one could devise that improved song writing was the key to Leppard’s success (again it’s amusing that they soon forgot how to do that… and they say the only joke about Def Leppard is “what’s got 9 arms and sucks?”).
As for the rest well it’s generally a sort of UFO/Scorpions/Lizzy derived hard rock with some frankly unwelcome quasi-progressive touches (see: the intro to ‘When the Walls Come Tumbling Down’). Song-craft is somewhat unsure but rather diverse as this Wounded Cougar really isn’t too sure at what they want to be yet. It would seem the rock world is all to keen to single out a band’s debut as their best; one only has to look at the world spate of unfocused, bumbling debuts to see that often this simply isn’t the case. The band wear their influences on their sleeves: the aforementioned three 70s hard rock bands rub shoulders with touches of AC/DC, T-Rex and even a bit of Killing Machine era Priest (or should that be Hell Bent For Leather? I mean I should be going for a bit of that ol’ ‘Hello America’ appeal myself, right?). Clichés are the order of the day. This is also true of the High N Dry record, but frankly though that was something of a clichéd hard rock record that wore its influences on its sleeve – it still has an undeniable charm to it and quite easily ranks as the band’s finest hour for me.
That said there are a couple of worthwhile moments present on this indecisive debut record. ‘Wasted’ is the band’s best claim to ever playing anything remotely metallic, and it’s not just that gives it its place as On Through the Night’s stellar track: it’s the only really track here that doesn’t leave something to be desired from. I love its lyrical ambiguity, too. Is the bottle of pills actually a bottle of pills? Or is it indeed a bottle of Pils (as in Holsten)? Something would reason me to believe that it could well be simple pilsner rather than any medication as the NHS had all but abandoned its hold on the South Yorkshire region given the ritual burning of those in the medical profession in and around 1978 due to a misunderstanding about the application of suppositories. Ahem, yes, but it’s one of Steve Clark’s best riffs and a hymn to getting hammered because there’s nothing better to do (which in this part of the world may well be the case, it's probably all these rolling hills and sheep). It’s a very weird song for Def Leppard and I suppose as good a reason as any to actually own this album. In contrast to a lot of the NWOBHM movements excitable, youthful vibrancy in, say, Diamond Head’s debut this is a NWOBHM anthem just a downtrodden one. It’s perhaps the most apt song the band’s early incarnation have ever written considering they lost both their guitarists to alcohol abuse (Pete Willis being fired for taking the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle a little too seriously and Steve Clark dying after years of excess). Opener ‘Rock Brigade’, too, proves its worth with a solidly stomping ode to, well, a rock brigade. That said, Joe Elliot doesn’t seems all too enthused by this song, and seems to have put more effort into his backing vocals than the lead. Point in case: “Oh no, it’s the rock brigade… ROCK BRIGADE! Oh no, it’s the rock brigade”. Could he be any more excited at the prospect of singing in a rock band? He makes Kevin Heybourne sound like Bruce Dickinson!
Overall, I’d say this is nothing truly of note considering the wealth of better NWOBHM or for that matter, just hard rock in the early 80s. Nothing truly of note here – barring one song – and certainly not a mandatory purchase for NWOBHM fans. I suppose if anything, it’s a tribute to how artistic integrity was never really Def Leppard’s forte.
Potential Spinal Tap album title: On Through the Shite
On through the Night is the portrait of a band young and eager to launch themselves onto the masses with this fun set of NWOBHM. One can see the group’s eyes gazing at a distant city called success, but the look is a hunger that drives riffs and twin leads down a vanguard of British invasion party anthems to drink along with and nod your head to. Metal was in a fairly sorry state in 1980, thus the much trumpeted revival crashing upon the scene in NWOBHM, and that was the secret of these infectious bunch of tracks – They made you believe in the future of metal; five guys jamming out with zeal, their innocent enthusiasm delivering a riff filled infusion to teenage ears, all eager for the next generation of metal hero’s to resuscitate the long haired masses and give them something to believe in.
Nothing fancy or necessarily superlative about this set of tunes, just solid guitar work and good times all around; the guys bent on playing for the sake of playing, writing catchy hooks and galloping rhythms. This isn’t an opus of musical might, only a soundtrack for a party at your buds house; this album blasting through your dated 48 inch wooden Pioneer speakers (still got them!), the evenings set to cruise as a bunch of jean jackets jumped and rocked away their teenage woes, our air guitars chasing the beers while later we chased the girls. Everyone laughing and drinking to tunes, none the wiser the sound is not the most technical display of writing, but damn the torpedoes the guys could play! All good with driving leads, great solos, and a passionate touch - It’s too honest to be corporate and too sincere to be from anyone but a bunch of guys who were most likely having their own party at the same time.
“Rock Brigade” is a simple enough opener, a ripping classic set to the time of party, while “Hello America” is almost too polished with its tracked in keyboards come chorus time, but infectious fun carries it through. “It Could Be You” rocks mighty for being under 3 minutes, containing depth lost from the bands sound in later years. In fact these and the rest of the songs clock in around 3 to 4 minutes, save the stately “Overture”; each a quick shot, for too many songs fail because they ride a good thing for too long, and these work because they get the job done and move on, not attempting to be more than what they are. “Wasted” gallops wonderfully and “Rocks Off” has those cheesy crowd noises piped in (thank you bad analog mixing!) but still pushes along nicely, the leads ripping through riffs and great solo work, encouraging someone to run out for another case of the good stuff. Speaking of solo work, check out the solo on “It Don’t Matter to Me”, the guitar work is wonderful and its criminal the band ran from this sound in latter years. Finally, “Overture” gets special mention, not only is it a great song, but probably the only real serious work towards an epic (that actually, you know… rocks) the group has put onto vinyl. The music rises and recedes to the tale and the lyrics realize the bands vision. While not noted anywhere I have read, it seems to be a companion peace to “When the Walls Came Tumbling Down”; it’s an optimistic closure that signals all will be well after the former songs apocalyptic vision, a sort of rebirth of man, well timed (though probably unintentional) with the rebirth of metal on the doorstep of the 80’s.
This is not an opus of the ages or a historical proto-type look at metal. It is also not a full on atypical NWOBHM album, smuggling in some polish and shine with the riffs and rolls. It’s not grim, brutal, conceptual, or even overtly technical. You get nothing more than the soundtrack to a great party circa 1980. And sometimes, that’s all you need.