Def Leppard’s ‘Slang’: The White-Trash ‘Achtung Baby’ That You and Tom Cruise Haven’t Heard

Def Leppard begins a U.S. tour this month supporting Rock of Ages, the awful-looking movie-musical in which Tom Cruise plays a 1980s’ hair-metal singer. Someone decided it was a good idea to let Cruise sing in the film, and he shamelessly slaughters Leppard classics like “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Fortunately, you won’t be hearing Cruise destroy any songs from Def Leppard’s criminally underrated Slang album in the movie. Usually, when an album is referred to as “underrated,” it’s because either no one bought it or no one cared; both are true with Slang. Most of the general public (and probably Cruise himself) has no idea this album exists. Slang is dark, edgy, and at times, poignant; the production is reminiscent of early-90s’ U2. As Chicagoist music critic Jon Graef said, Slang “sounds like a white-trash Achtung Baby.”

The year was 1996. The world the Lepps were preparing to release Slang into was vastly different from the one that ate up the band’s 1987 classic Hysteria. That album was so timeless, it even helped propel 1992’s Adrenalizean average record if there ever was one—to also hit number one in the United States. But music with pristine production and syrupy pop hooks wasn’t going to cut it in the mid-90s. Nirvana and Pearl Jam essentially took bands like Def Leppard out with the trash. The record-buying public’s tastes were changing.

The band’s dynamic was also changing, and Def Leppard didn’t have a familiar creative process to rely on. Long-time guitarist Steve Clark, the author of many of Def Leppard’s most memorable riffs, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose in 1991. He was by no means a technically gifted guitarist, but Clark had a way of writing guitar parts that stuck with you, such as the main riff in “Photograph.” The decision not to work with longtime producer and collaborator Mutt Lange also had an impact; Lange had been Def Leppard’s sonic architect, stringing together pieces of songs the band had written. Slang was the group’s first record without Clark and Lange, and the result is the most eclectic and organic music Def Leppard has ever recorded.

“Photograph” video

Slang Track-by-Track

“Truth”: With its industrial elements, this song was the perfect way to usher in a new era. “Truth” moves at a plodding, hypnotic pace, and displays sparse and chunky guitars. The Trent Reznor-inspired vocal effects during the chorus were very mid-90s, but that’s what Leppard was going for. However, guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell (making his recording debut with the band) keep some of the classic sound and pull off a dual solo mid-song.

“Turn to Dust”: This tune mixes Middle Eastern music with pop harmonies. Bassist Rick Savage, after years of playing root notes that simply followed the guitar chords, actually lays down a groove on this track. The best moment, however, is the drum breakdown. Rick Allen, who had been playing an electronic kit since losing his arm in a 1984 car accident, switched to an acoustic set on Slang. He actually sounds like a real drummer.

“Slang”: You either love or hate the title track. There is definitely white British rock stars trying to rap, and it’s disconcerting. It’s not so much gangsta Leppard as it is the boys playing what they assume rap music sounds like. But the song is decent, and there is more steaming bass work from Savage. This one’s a guilty pleasure, so listen to it with headphones (or not at all).

“Slang” video

“All I Want is Everything”: Stop the presses, is the band expressing actual feelings? The problem with a party band like Def Leppard is that they start to become faceless, devoid of any real emotion. But Elliott had just gone through a divorce, and the first line of the song—“I don’t know how to leave you, and I don’t know how to stay” —seems genuine. A ballad, yes, but not just for the sake of having one. There’s also a great, feedback-tinged outro solo by Collen.

“All I Want is Everything” video

“Work it Out”: A Top Ten Def Leppard Song of All Time. Campbell wrote this one by himself, and for a guy who used to play with Whitesnake and Dio, he wasn’t afraid to use all the colors on his palette. The guitar effects sound like something the Edge would play, and Elliott sings in a lower, almost Bowie-like register. The lyrics during the chorus may not have anything to do with Def Leppard, but they describe the band’s situation in 1996 perfectly: “We show the world a brand new face; it’s taken us all this time.”

“Work it Out” video

“Breathe a Sigh”: Who knew Def Leppard was influenced by TLC? This is a legitimate R&B number, complete with finger snapping. There are plenty of vocal harmonies here, and this tune is actually a good example of how well the band’s four voices mesh together.

“Deliver Me”: A mid-tempo rocker, “Deliver Me” sounds like it was recorded live. There are no overdubs, no wall of sound; it’s very stripped down, almost like an early Police song.

“Deliver Me”

“Gift of Flesh”: Really the only barn-burner on the album, this song starts fast and doesn’t slow down; the band actually opened part of the Slang tour with “Flesh.” The band doesn’t play it anymore, though, making it destined to be a forgotten deep cut. One of the only moments of pure guitar-shredding by Collen.

“Gift of Flesh”

“Blood Runs Cold”: A slow number with atmospheric, echoing guitar sounds and a sliding bass line by Savage. The band has said this song is about the late Steve Clark, and the lyrics discuss a fall from grace and time being up. Another forgotten track, which is too bad because Elliott gives a strong vocal performance.

“Where Does Love Go When it Dies”: This is the only “meh” song on the record. A typical acoustic ballad; the only interesting fact about it is that supposedly the band recorded the song outside, a la Led Zeppelin.

“Pearl of Euphoria”: Smoldering is the best way to describe this song. The lyrics suggest the song is about addiction, and the song is slow-moving and dark. “Pearl” builds up and cascades at the end—a cool way to close out the album.

“Pearl of Euphoria”

 

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