Gig review: DEF LEPPARD – Wembley Arena, London, 8 December 2018

In the Def Leppard career chronicles, 1987’s ‘Hysteria’ will always loom large. Although its predecessor ‘Pyromania’ was a 10 million selling phenomenon in the USA and opened a lot of doors for similar bands, ‘Hysteria’ was on a different scale level altogether.

Four years in the crafting, the album fused a hard rock image with the crafted sensibilities of pop with a series of potential hit singles, six of which proved to be just that. Together with the equally multi million selling ‘Slippery When Wet’, ‘Whitesnake 1987’ and ‘Appetite for Destruction’ it ruled the airwaves and sales charts worldwide for the latter part of the eighties.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

In their native UK it was also the album that finally broke them big. ‘Pyromania’ had still seen them still playing to a core of spotty metalheads (many of whom, myself included, still prefer the rather more raw riffing of ‘Hysteria’s three predecessors) whereas from the moment ‘Animal’ stormed into the charts and the album soon followed at No 1 they crossed over into a wider appeal.

The hit singles have formed the cornerstone of a Leppard live show ever since, but some five years after a residency in Vegas, they finally played the album in full on home soil. This was also a commercially successful decision- as evidenced by the fact that their first ever show at the O2, which I also attended, sold out and led to this extra London date being added to the tour. It represented the completion of a comeback in popularity from the first half of the 2000’s which saw the Leps downsize to Hammersmith and Brixton on their London jaunts.

Their previous tours in the past decade have been Greatest Hits packages as an effective co-headliner- twice with Whitesnake, once with Motley Crue- but on this occasion the pecking order was clear. Nevertheless the influential and quirky Cheap Trick were no common or garden opening act.

Cheap Trick - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

Their show may be more naturally suited to smaller clubs, but they were also given the opportunity to have a backdrop, and after a rather faltering opening with ‘Hello There’, the sound on ‘Big Eyes’ was better than I would have expected from a support act at this cavernous venue.

Their own headline sets are noted for varying from night to night, but I was unprepared quite how much this night’s set would diverge from what I had assumed was a standard Greatest Hits set at the 02 (for completists, songs played there but omitted this time were ‘California Man’, ‘If You Want My Love’, ‘The Flame’ and ‘Never Had A lot to Lose’.)

Cheap Trick - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

‘Ain’t That a Shame’ featured some rough-edged, garage style guitar from the ever zany Rick Nielsen but if the ELO-sounding ‘Voices’ was a surprise, even more so was the introduction of a couple of special guests in Phil Manzanera and a harmonica-playing CT fanatic Michael Monroe on a cover of ‘Run Run Rudolph’, followed by Phil staying for the band’s take on the old classic ‘The In Crowd’, often associated with his old band mate Bryan Ferry.

Cheap Trick - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

We also got the holy trinity that they dare not leave out in ‘I want You to Want Me’, ‘Dream Police’ with Rick rapping the middle vocal section from a mike stand on the walkway, and ‘Surrender’ with Robin Zander’s voice stronger than a 65 year old’s has any right to be, before the usual outro of ‘Goodnight Now’ and Rick’s five necked guitar routine, completing a set that whetted the appetite very nicely.

With a clock with the band’s logo counting downward it was obvious Def Leppard’s show was going to be one of precision timing and immaculate choreography.  A backing track with the various intros to ‘Hysteria’ songs led into the album, played in its exact order, which was therefore a different experience to the pacing of a usual Def Leppard show.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

Instead during ‘Women’, with a video backdrop of the Hysteria ‘triangle’, and featuring fine solos from both Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, it was a time for those of us who remember to be transported back in a time capsule to the moment we first popped the new album on, in my case into one of the twin tape decks of my ghetto blaster, and be rather puzzled that rather than an out and out rocker like Rock Rock Till You Drop, to hear a highly crafted, polished song unfurl that took ages to get to a layered chorus.

The hits then came earlier than they normally would in a live set, with the shuffle beat of ‘Rocket’ (never my favourite I must admit) giving way to a glorious treble. Either side of the lush ballad ‘Love Bites’, the big hits ‘Animal and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ got the great reception you would expect (though I was surprised how many in the Arena’s side tiers stayed seated) and were all the better for a bigger and slightly rawer live sound that gave their pop tones a greater edge.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

The album was played with minimal interruption, save when Joe introduced proceedings and said that the same line up had stayed together ever since, with one solitary new boy of a mere 26 years standing, at which point Vivian- in danger of being in the shadow with Phil playing the majority of solo leads – stepped forward to play the intro to ‘Armageddon It’.

Touchingly and appropriately, a black and white photo of the one contributor to this masterpiece now longer with us, Steve Clark followed by a video of a live solo intro, led into ‘Gods of War’.

At this point of proceedings the crowd’s energy levels dipped, but I was in a minority at looking forward to the opportunity to hear some of the ‘album tracks’ that are less well known but actually I prefer to the more obvious hits. The aforementioned ‘Gods’ is the album epic, at least lyrically, while as I punched the air to the chorus, I was thinking ‘Don’t Shoot Shotgun’ would have been an ideal single as well.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

‘Run Riot’ harked back to the earlier rawer Leppard and gave Phil the opportunity to rock out that his polished solos do not always provide, before those who had taken a breather were back in the fold for ‘Hysteria’, Phil and Vivian going down the walkway as they played the sole harmony solo on the album and with a few bars of ‘Heroes’.

‘Excitable’ is unquestionably the filler on the album and yet this piece of dance-rock fluff was unexpectedly fun live, before the closer in ‘Don’t Give Me Love and Affection’, another that might have been a toss up with the title track a for a mid-pocket single, and with Joe admirably stretching for the higher notes.

The format for the tour was to play ‘Hysteria’ in its entirety then a five song encore of what Joe described as the before and after. The first song was varied every night- at the 02 those who us who still swear by their debut album were treated to a riff-heavy ‘Wasted’, others on the tour to ‘Let it Go’ or ‘Action’ and Cardiff drawing the shortest of straws with ‘Make Love Like a Man’. On this occasion , after thanking fans for voting the band into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, he turned to Phil for his choice and ‘Promises’ as a relatively rarely played cut did very nicely.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

Joe then asked for lighters to come out and was unexpectedly good on a version of their joint biggest single hit ‘When Love and Hate Collide’ which took on a more powerful dimension live.

They then closed with the three non-Hysteria songs that are unmissable from a live set starting with ‘Lets Get Rocked’, then Rick Allen’s usual count into ‘Rock of Ages’. It is hard both for performers and audience to get anything new out of such a familiar routine, but by this point the band’s stage movement seemed looser and more animated than earlier in the set and indeed I have rarely seen them enjoying themselves so visibly.

Def Leppard - Wembley Arena, London, 18 December 2018

Phil and Viv again marched down the walkway side-by-side to play the opening riff to a storming version of ‘Photograph’, the song that launched their rise to commercial fame, before Joe signed off with his usual ‘until next time – don’t forget us and we won’t forget you’ shtick. A set list of greater than an hour of 40 minutes might have been more of a treat however.

Def Leppard have always been masters at the presentation of a big arena show, but on the occasion of the celebration of their landmark album, they pulled out all the stops and excelled themselves even by their high standards.

Review and photos by Andy Nathan

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