30 Years Ago: Def Leppard Release ‘Rocket,’ Their ‘Surprise Hit’
In theory, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen in your ears.
Lay down some stacked, offbeat drum tracks, assemble lyrics out of a list of ‘70s rock icons, add some reversed recordings here and there and then make the result sound smooth, focused, powerful and convincing.
The fact that Def Leppard pulled it off says so much about where they were as a band in the mid ‘80s.
The album they were making, Hysteria, went on to become a defining moment in rock history. The track in question, “Rocket,” remains part of their set list and a fan favorite. The seventh and final single from Hysteria, it was released in January 1989 – two years after the album came out – and reached No. 12. That Def Leppard were still servicing the LP so long after its launch also says a lot about what they’d achieved.
A major contributor to that achievement was producer John Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, whose penchant for obsessive attention to detail made sure the disparate influences on “Rocket” came together in a cohesive whole. It all started with singer Joe Elliott’s discovery of Burundi Steiphenson Black’s 1971 song “Burundi Black,” which featured a notable approach to percussion – a group of Burundi tribe members playing drums ever so slightly out of time with each other, generating a massed chorus effect.
Listen to Burundi Black's 'Burundi Black'
“The original idea from the 'Burundi Black' song was very African, very tribal,” Leppard drummer Rick Allen told Music Radar in 2016. “We basically wanted the track to sound as though an entire village were out there playing, so as you can imagine there were a lot of overdubs. And it wasn't always a good thing when everything was played perfectly in time, it sounded more authentic when we had people involved just playing freely.”
The desired effect was delivered with help from Lange, he recalled. “We mapped the song using a Lin Drum [machine], then we went from using a Lin Drum to a Fairlight, and from a Fairlight to a St Clavier, so it was a hybrid of machines and the Simmons [electronic] kit and acoustic sounds," Allen explained. "It incorporated everything, really."
That was only the beginning. There was talk of making “Rocket” an instrumental, but when the idea came up of using the phrase “satellite of love,” the title of a Lou Reed song from 1972, it opened the floodgates.
By the end of the writing process, the lyrics tipped the cap to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Elton John, T. Rex, Chuck Berry, Queen, Thin Lizzy and others. “We just enhanced that theme and Joe and Mutt came up with the idea of making it a tribute to the '70s, and '70s bands, so we went on that theme,” Allen said.
There was yet more to come. Lange added a reverse loop of the lyrics “We're fighting with the gods of war” from “Gods of War,” another Hysteria track. He then added the titles of other Def Leppard songs, along with audio from the Apollo 11 moon landing. As if that wasn’t enough, he went on to add a drop section to the middle of the song.
“We had a lot of fun making that Star Wars bit in the middle – you know, 'Countdown commencing' and all that,” said guitarist Phil Collen in 2012. “It was an absolute blast. It's Star Wars for the ears. And again, what was great was to not be restricted by your genre. We knew what we were doing was different and it sounded great.”
In the song's video, which was recorded in the Netherlands in 1988, the band enjoyed hamming it up amid a set of TV screens, between scenes from recent tour dates. There are even short clips of Def Leppard dressed as a fake ‘70s glam band called Studly Grange, with Elliott on drums, Collen on vocals, Steve Clark on bass and Rick Savage and Allen on guitars.
“It was in fact one of the easiest videos to shoot,” bassist Savage said in 1993. "Everything we did was acceptable, the director liked it and everybody was so easy-going.” But it was to be the last Def Leppard video the feature Clark, who died in 1991.
Watch Def Leppard's 'Rocket' Video
Collen later reflected of the track. “It was a little weird and quirky, but it really came together," he said. "I feel that ‘Rocket’ is the absolute pinnacle of Def Leppard. It sums us up in a nutshell: massive drums, massive guitars, big choruses, and lyrically, it's what the Yeah! album was. So you've got all of our influences and elements right there.”
Allen recalled hearing it played through a venue P.A. system during a tour of England. “I was completely blown away,” he said. “I’d never heard anything like it in my life. … Just the power, the sheer power blew me away. It was like, ‘What a great song!’ To this day people love that song. … ‘Rocket’ was a surprise underground hit. It’s really fun to play, not necessarily drum-heavy but pretty challenging, and I love to feel an audience give in to the whole experience.”