The Early Years 79-81 figures as a compulsory addition to the collection of any seasoned Def Leppard follower.
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Def Leppard’s debut album, this five-disc reissue of the veteran hard rockers’ first two releases offers an extensive snapshot of the band’s formative output in all its live-wire glory. Squeezing a wealth of previously unreleased material hived from BBC Radio 1 sessions as well as performances at Reading Festival and New Theatre Oxford circa 1980, this is a boxset perhaps with completist fandom in mind but it does form an effective introduction to the uninitiated, charting the giddy origins from which the Sheffield stalwarts rocketed to stadium-conquering heights.
While the power balladry of later years would find Def Leppard garnering breakout success and much sought-after MTV rotation, in a trajectory mirrored by the likes of Whitesnake, this collection serves as an evocative reminder of the raw, stripped-down sound that propelled their nascent creative identity. Fusing the frayed no-holds-barred edge of acts such as UFO with the glam-rock dazzle of Mott the Hoople, oft cited as influences on the band, this deluxe set pinpoints the Sheffield outfit at the vanguard of the new wave of British heavy metal. With Joe Elliott supervising the remastering process, On Through the Night and High ‘n’ Dry sound fresher than ever, having at times been overlooked in favour of more celebrated entries in their back catalogue.
Long overdue for an expanded rerelease, with fans making do with a series of no-frills CD copies, On Through the Night is presented with a glossy luster that helps elevate each drum hit and guitar lick, cadences of Elliott’s vocals piercing through each number. The initial bursts of its first two tracks take on a new lease of life, replicated throughout a treatment that really does pull out all the stops. “Wasted” is similarly dealt a sleek finish; its short, sharp shock of high-velocity rock still packing a punch despite very rarely featuring on the band’s live setlists.
Ahead of the more commercially leaning Pyromania, Def Leppard’s sophomore outing marked a partial transition, nods to a more radio-friendly direction fading in at times but retaining the hard rock core for the most part. With this in mind, High ‘n’ Dry is resurrected with a newfound sonic sheen; the pulverizing percussion of “Another Hit and Run” brought to an entirely new level, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” pulsating with renewed vigour, its hook-heavy flurry of wistful harmonies anticipating the streamlined songwriting that was to come.
Disc four flaunts a 14-track stack of B-sides and rarities, adding yet another layer of strength to this release as a valuable archival document for long-term acolytes, with Thin Lizzy and Marillion producer Nick Tauber applying his expertise to fan favorite “Rock Brigade” alongside “Glad I’m Alive.” Both are distinctive enough in scope to avoid being dismissed as needless filler. Elsewhere, an early version of “The Overture,” from the band’s first EP, proves a particular standout, showcasing impressive guitar solo work courtesy of Pete Willis and the late Steve Clark. The inclusion of Reading Festival and Oxford New Theatre recordings further help establish a sense of the grassroots support the band enjoyed during the early ‘80s, prior to their behemothic rise as the decade would progress.
The Early Years 79-81 figures as a compulsory addition to the collection of any seasoned Def Leppard follower. That said, casual listeners and newcomers will find some merit in discovering an underrated era in the band’s history, providing a more comprehensive outlook on the outfit’s career beyond the stratospheric, and well-documented, heights of Pyromania and Hysteria.