My god the day has come when I wax nostalgic about the day—20 years ago today—when I bought my first piece of recorded music as a willful teenage act. It wasn't like a total act of rebellion or anything, but I guess it did seem to have some of that effect in my household. It wasn't the latest and greatest, most cutting edge stuff that all my school buddies were listening to that season. Nor was it even radical in its message. It wasn't protest music like maybe Kelli was listening to at that time. It was just what got the ball rolling for me.
Def Leppard's Pyromania.
Pyromania was already about six years old when I got to it. I remember some of the songs from their early days on the radio: Rock of Ages, Foolin', Photograph. Only earlier that year of 1989 I had a paradigm shift in my musical tastes, away from the straight pop sounds on the radio to the more classic rock and hard rock that KGB-FM was playing back then. All of a sudden, all sorts of songs that I had not heard in years erupted into my consciousness, and this included a number of tracks from Pyromania. A certain older brother-like friend named Ross Shekelton was the link; the hobby shop he worked at was the place I haunted for hours at a time every damned weekend for eight months straight, so he was pretty influential at that time. And, for me at the impressionable age of 15, he brought all sorts of new and exciting things. We'd always have KGB on the radio and when the Def Leppard songs were playing he'd mock Rick Allen and his one-armed drumming. This was amusing and intriguing, so the curiosity mounted. It led me to getting my copy of Pyromania one day at the Wherehouse music shop down the road from the Command Post hobby shop. What I never saw coming was that by the end of the summer, my model-building days were over and out. And more so, only a couple weeks later did I attend (and win) my final contest of the IPMS (International Plastic Modeler's Society). By the start of the school year, I dropped the models, picked up drum sticks, started buying a recording a week, and I was off and running. Yep, rock and roll was here to stay. It was quite a summer for me.
I basically began drumming in earnest because of Rick Allen. I've told this story here lots of times. What I don't think I ever told was the fact that I used to use empty 2-liter soda jugs as drumsticks in the weeks before I actually set up my hitherto unused drum kit and unleashed my fury all over that no-named Taiwanese POS kit. The folly with the soda bottles really had to do with the fat thud that results from playing them on the tops of thighs, something approximating the deep snare drum sound on Pyromania! As it turned out, they made a more immediately useful sound than did my funky old kit that I was years from learning how to tune worth a shit. I was far from understanding the massively processed sound that was Mutt Lange's production signature on that album and most other things he recorded in the 80s. Whatever works, man.
My copy of Pyromania was without much liner note information, and no lyrics. In the pre-internet era, I was stuck with just getting off on the music if it rocked my little soul. Enough of the songs did do just that, and as I began to play drums and could keep up, it held its own for a while as I duly learned my rock drumming sensibilities from this album. Now, the lyrics were never my strong suit. It was years before lyrics functioned as more than filler in most of the music I listened to. So I never really listened to songs to extract lyrics much. On the song, Action (Not Words), the chorus has a thick Mutt Lange wall of vocals shouting "Shock Me!" which I misheard for a long time as "FUCK ME!" And I was certain that my old man was going to hear it that way when at one point he announced later that year that he was going to listen to my growing music library and throw out whatever he found objectionable. So I feared for Pyromania. None of that PMRC shit ever happened, but I think it was still a while before I got the lyric right to that song.
It might be that I got my first cowbell to play some of the songs on this album. Prior to my first "proper" drumset cowbell, I used one of those touristy cowbells from Switzerland, much to my old man's chagrin, who was unduly fond on his bits of European artifacts, cheesy as they might have been. Mounting the tiny thing to my kit was a challenge, and it didn't have that deep "thwonk" sound that would give Christopher Walken-as-"THE Bruce Dickenson" wood. Eventually I gave up the toy cowbell for the first in a series of cowbells coinciding with my Neil Peart era. (Oh, Shelby is still making fun of me for my Neil Peart era, I just know it!)
By the end of the summer of 1989 I had the four DL albums thus far. I enjoyed Pyromania and Hysteria for sure, but never really got into the first two much at all. The cassette sleeve for Hysteria included an offer for a book that chronicled their story to that point, and like a dutiful fanboy, I bought it and immediately read it cover to cover. (I still have it even now, even after trying to put it in giveaway stacks, or threatening to put it on eBay.) Rick's story is still oddly compelling to me, and no matter how many times I think I know it, I still look at the opening chapter of the book to find out one more nuance about his accident and recovery. (Even as I write, a combination of factors might permit me to meet the guy in person. He lives in Los Angeles now, not in England. And a customer at my shop has a past life in concert and event production and has told me he is friends with Rick's tech or someone who knows the custom drum kit inside and out. I actually put the word in with this guy that I'd like to meet Rick once and for all, seeing how he uh, singlehandedly (sorry!) changed the course of my life. (I'm sure that's not why he got into the accident in the first place.)
Okay, so you have to start somewhere. Nothing Def Lep ever put out has deep consciousness or political edge to it. They provide entertainment, a soundtrack to your own drama or your Camaro customization progress. And indeed, upon hearing some of these songs, the movies of my life play at once. They make for an odd mix of images as I moved out of one phase and into others: plastic models and that world; drums; the summer that launched my earnest participation in church life; sophomore-junior years in high school; the last summer that I was under regular adult supervision. Pyromania certainly sounds dated now, but some of the songs—a bit goofy as they are—are still joys to hear. They are still excellent productions with a certain melodicism, depth and detail and dynamic range that a lot of music lacks now. Taken for what it is—a pop metal album—it is quite good. I don't have any albums from DL's clones who came in their wake—Bon Jovi, Poison, et al. Even though that stuff was in the air just the same as this album, for whatever reason they never captured me the same way. Maybe it is Rick and his transcendence of tragedy. Or maybe it is the cowbell on Foolin' or the Swedish chef voice on Rock of Ages. I don't know. But from this vantage point, it does what music should do: remind you of good times, who you were at those milestones in life. It also makes me want to rock. Now, about the fact that I haven't hit a drum in 16 months. Just say you need it, and if you need it say YEAH!