Record producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange has so much to answer for. How different the world would be had he chosen to make his millions trading stocks or developing real estate rather that manufacturing pop songs. Whenever there is an awful trend in pop—Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears—his hand will inevitably be detected. Lange manufactures the kind of phenomena that make you think payola is rampant and the bulk of the record-buying public is a bunch of brainwashed dupes. His work makes one lose faith in the good sense of one’s fellow humans and adds immeasurably to the perplexed alienation of all of those poor benighted souls who think there should be a correlation between success and talent. The astounding list of songs he is responsible for reads like an Entertainment Weekly “50 Cheesiest Songs” list, if not a hack DJ’s playlist at the worst wedding you’ve ever attended: AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car”, Loverboy’s “Lovin’ Every Minute of It”, Huey Lewis & the News’ “Do You Believe in Love”, Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”, the Cars’ “Drive”, Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do, I Do It for You”—it goes on and on, betraying Lange’s unerring gift for the kind of putrescent schlock that sends people with even a passing interest in music scrambling for some blunt instrument to smash the radio playing it or, failing that, to bash one’s own head in to escape hearing it.
But Lange’s most egregious offense may have been his taking a perfectly harmless bunch of English lite-metal Slade wannabes, destined for the same career path as such other genre stalwarts as Armored Saint and Saxon, and making them into megastars, the quintessence of why the 1980s were the worst decade for recorded music since Edison invented the phonograph. This, of course, would be Def Leppard, whose dopey Zeppelin-rip-off of a name (and silly rip-off of Judas Priest’s logo font) didn’t prevent it from ruling the charts with a string of abysmal hits and dominating MTV with its flashy but equally inane videos: “Photograph”, “Rock of Ages”, “F-f-f-foolin’”, “Love Bites”, “Hysteria”, “Rocket”, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, ” Animal”, and perhaps the most imbecilic one of all, “Armageddon It”. If you’ve forgotten some of these horrific aural nightmares, then thank the Lord for the small blessings. But if you were sentient during the Reagan administration, you probably remember too many of them far too well—the stadium-sized bombast, the thundering drums (courtesy of one-armed drummer Rick Allen, unfortunate victim of a car accident), the snickering, sophomoric sexuality, the incoherent balladry, the pouting, the teased hair, and the clothing made of Union Jacks.
All these songs and more appear on this two-disc set, though “Rocket” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” are presented in “video edits”, which sound a lot like those bad ‘80s dance mixes where random samples plucked from the song itself are made to stutter. This package goes beyond the hits to include a number of album tracks from High and Dry and Pyromania (e.g.: “Billy’s Got a Gun”, “Mirror Mirror (Look into My Eyes”, “Die Hard the Hunter”), 1990s singles that had no particular impact (Leppard has released several albums in the last ten years—you, of course, remember Slang and Euphoria, right?), and a straightforward cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What”.
It’s important that you don’t make the mistake of thinking this music has somehow become kitschy, nostalgic, or fun with the passing of time. It hasn’t. But you can see the transformation Lange effected by comparing some of the later megahits with the early Leppard tracks included on this set, “Wasted” and “Rock Brigade”. These modest songs are competent, riff-heavy bits of throwaway hair metal, but they stand out starkly in this collection, because of the startling humanity and vulnerability of the musicians that comes through unmistakably when contrasted with the Lange productions. In the liner notes, the Leppardians give Lange credit for teaching them the power of arrangements, and there’s no doubt that Mutt is a master at extorting maximum hook potential from whatever material he tarts up. You can imagine the chorus of every song being shouted in unison in during a frat party. But more than that, he sheathes the artists he works with in an impenetrable armor of synthetic emotion and overwrought performance. And herein lies the key to the popularity of what he concocts: Because you never ever mistake what you’re hearing for authentic emotion on the part of the performer, you are perfectly free to believe the songs are about yourself. They can serve as impetus for your own bathetic narcissism.
Def Leppard epitomizes Lange’s formula because the members of the band themselves are so unmemorable that your recognition of their celebrity doesn’t impede your experience of the song either. You don’t listen to “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and imagine having broken vocalist Joe Elliot’s heart, and you don’t hear “Animal” and think of Screamin’ Steve Clarke or Phil Collen tearing you to pieces during some savage sex session. You probably don’t even know who they are. You can imagine yourself in their place effortlessly. The musicians have no personality, leaving you to luxuriate in the expansiveness of your own. So, with their histrionics and their oversized anthemic arrangements, the songs provide the impression of mammoth significance without it being tied closely to star glamour or the PR mechanics of the entertainment industry. In their absence, what seems significant is you the listener, as you vicariously experience the stock emotions Lange loves to play on.
If you listen to Rock of Ages straight through, your ears will hurt and your aesthetic sensibility will become thoroughly bruised. But you’ll likely be left with a curious sort of admiration for the egoless performers behind the music, who by the end of the set’s two and a half hours will have seemed to have disappeared altogether.