35 Years Ago: Def Leppard End ‘Pyromania’ World Tour on a High
When Def Leppard completed their Pyromania World Tour on Feb. 7, 1984, there was no doubt they'd made it to the big time.
After 178 shows over almost exactly a year, they had moved from a support act playing medium-sized venues to a headline attraction selling tens of thousands tickets a night. However, it wasn't all smooth sailing.
The road trip had kicked off on Feb. 9, 1983, with two warm-up club shows in London and Dublin before commencing a full run of 177 performances that included a total of 115 in North America. The first 24 of those had been as opening act for Billy Squier, but as sales of their third album, Pyromania, took hold, and MTV A-listed their video for lead single “Photograph,” things changed rapidly.
The second-to-last show took place at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, with Eddie Money, Uriah Heep and rising stars Motley Crue in support, and 55,000 fans in attendance. At that point, the band reported, Pyromania was selling 100,000 copies a day in the United States and kept off the No.1 spot by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“From a professional point of view, it was probably one of the best times of our lives,” bassist Rick Savage said later. “Looking back, and hearing old mixing-desk tapes, we were fucking atrocious most of the time! For some reason, though, it didn't really matter. That is when hype will work in your favor, because when you're hot, you're hot.”
Contributing to that heat was a 17-song set that usually included six tracks from their latest LP: "Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop),” "Photograph,” “Foolin’,” "Rock of Ages,” "Billy's Got a Gun" and ”Stagefright.” Pyromania had marked a move away from their heavy metal beginnings and, with the help of producer John Robert “Mutt” Lange, their move toward a hard rock sound that blended pop with as many other influences as they could fit in.
Watch Def Leppard's 'Photograph' Video
It was also their first album with guitarist Phil Collen, who’d replaced Pete Willis partway through the recording. “Phil is more jazz-rock oriented than Pete ever was,” Savage reflected at the time. “He’s what we call a speed freak. Occasionally he tries to see how many notes he can put in a five-second solo. And with him being more jazz-rock-oriented, he does have a stronger background of chords and what have you. He and Steve [Clark] complement each other really well because they have contrasting styles.”
Collen recalled his debut appearance at the tour warm-up show at London’s Marquee Club, noting that the Jack Murphy Stadium concert had taken place less than a year later. “That was really exciting, to go from no one knowing who you are to getting mobbed and escorted out of a restaurant, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s never really been like that since then. So that was a very exciting, very strange period.”
“We were really good as a band by the time we finished the Pyromania tour," he told UCR in 2013. "So the whole thing, I don’t want to say it was like a blur, because I remember all of it, but it was probably the most exciting period of the whole career. ... I think the first time you make it and the first time you go platinum, double platinum and quadruple platinum, it’s unbelievable just how everything changes around you, even though you’re exactly the same.”
For singer Joe Elliott, the tour featured the highest highs and lowest lows of his career up to that point. He later told Classic Rock that “Photograph” and the follow-up singles “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’” received so much airplay that he “turned the radio off ‘cause I got sick of hearing us every 20 minutes!” However, it also put Elliott through a couple of careful-what-you-wish-for moments.
Watch Def Leppard's 'Rock of Ages' Video
In June 1983, he began experiencing throat problems that forced the band to drop eight shows; all but one were rescheduled. He admitted to MTV he was ordered into complete silence and had to communicate with a writing pad. “I ended up putting tape on my mouth, because I'm like that once I get going," he explained. "It's really difficult. I've still got this pad. I actually filled a full pad up. Everything I wanted to ask anybody I had to write down. It was terrible."
Asked if he was doing something wrong with his voice, he replied, “No – what it is, basically, it was four and a half months nonstop. An hour and a half a night. And it just needed a rest.” He added he was relieved that two nights in Detroit were going ahead because, with ticket sales of 28,000 both nights, they’d beaten a record previously set by Led Zeppelin.
In November 1983, Elliott was forced to deal with backlash over comments he made onstage two months earlier. Known among fans as “the El Paso incident,” it took place on Sept. 7 in Tucson while the singer encouraged the crowd to clap along during “Rock of Ages.” “Last night we played in El Paso, that place with all the greasy Mexicans, and they made a lot more noise than that!” he told them.
Word soon spread to the point that band manager Cliff Burnstein received news that “they're burning Def Leppard records and breaking them over the air in El Paso.” Until then, no one knew there was a problem – and only drummer Rick Allen had actually known about Elliott’s words. “I tried to crouch lower into my drum kit, looking over the tops of the drums, thinking, 'No you didn't say that. You couldn't have,’” he said in the band memoir Animal Instinct. “Fortunately, nobody in the audience seemed to notice it.”
Watch Def Leppard's 'Foolin'' Video
But the “greasy Mexicans” remark was reported in the press, and by November it was beginning to seriously impact the band’s image. “That comment, I swear, was aimed at five Hispanic kids who were spitting at us, throwing Jack Daniels and kung fu stars at the band," Elliott explained. "It was aimed at those five kids, not at anybody else in El Paso itself. I was slagging off those five bastards.”
He added that the phrase itself wasn’t intended to be so incendiary, and that it had come into his head “purely because I'm a Cheech & Chong fan, and they use it all the time.” The backlash prompted the cancellation of a proposed tour date in El Paso in 1988, and the band didn’t return there until 2000 (though they toured Mexico in 1993 without any problems).
But there was no doubt the Pyromania World Tour was a massive success. “When I watched Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops, I just wanted to be up on that same stage, covered in glitter and wearing women’s shoes,” Elliott said later. “I dreamed of being the singer in the biggest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. Pyromania made it happen.”
While more turmoil was in store for Def Leppard, unimaginable further success also waited, as producer Lang began thinking about their fourth album and suggested that, since every other rock band in the world was trying to make a “Pyromania 2,” they should instead look at chart rival Thriller for inspiration. A great deal of Hysteria was the result.