Music/Popular Culture

Tournament of Rock IV: the Def Leppard pod

For awhile there our seeded bands were on a roll, but now, two big upsets in a row as Foreigner takes out the #1 seed, Journey. Frankly, we’re stunned. We love Foreigner, of course, but we didn’t think anybody was going to be beat what we see as the prototypical, archetypal, über-corporate mainstream rock band. But hey, the people have spoken. We’ll see the Dirty White Boys in the Sweet 16.

Up next, one of the icons of Hair Metal faces a slate headed by the fallen remnants of a true rock legend and and the ultimate in cynical corporate supergroups.

  • #13 Seed: Def Leppard
  • Beach Boys (Mike Love/Kokomo years)
  • Damn Yankees
  • John Mayer
  • Toto

Def Leppard

In many ways, Def Leppard were the definitive hard rock band of the ’80s. There were many bands that rocked harder (and were more dangerous) than the Sheffield-based quintet, but few others captured the spirit of the times quite as well. Emerging in the late ’70s as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Def Leppard actually owed more to the glam rock and metal of the early ’70s, as their sound was equal parts T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Queen, and Led Zeppelin. By toning down their heavy riffs and emphasizing melody, Def Leppard were poised for crossover success by 1983’s Pyromania, and skillfully used the fledgling MTV network to their advantage. The musicians were already blessed with photogenic good looks, but they also crafted a series of innovative, exciting videos that made them into stars. They intended to follow Pyromania quickly but were derailed when their drummer lost an arm in a car accident, the first of many problems that plagued the group’s career. They managed to pull through such tragedies, and even expanded their large audience with 1987’s blockbuster Hysteria. As the ’90s began, mainstream hard rock shifted away from their signature pop-metal and toward edgier, louder bands, yet they maintained a sizable audience into the late ’90s and were one of only a handful of ’80s metal groups to survive the decade more or less intact.

Jim: Props for sticking with their drummer after his horrible accident. Props taken away for making the same damned album six times in a row because the first one in the series was a legit hit.

Me: People make a big deal of the band not ditching their drummer when he lost his arm, and the should. But they never mention that the band wasn’t really doing anything that required a two-armed drummer in the first place.

fikshun: To think, just 30 years ago, these lads from Sheffield, England were as pasty white as the recently departed Wonder Bread. Now they look more leathery than a pack of veteran CEOs at a management training retreat in Cabo. The alternate history buff in me really wants to know if they’d still have had a career had they not crossed paths with reclusive hit producer, Robert “Mutt” Lange. Come to think of it, “Mutt” also produced AC/DC’s Back in Black and Foreigner’s 4. If that isn’t the hallmark of a corporate formula, churning out more of the same, I don’t know what is.

Brian: Def Leppard tried to be just like all the other hair metal bands – and largely succeeded. Sex, drugs, more sex, more drugs, lather, rinse, repeat. That doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to them in high school, mind you. After all, what ELSE would a testosterone-charged high schooler in the late ’80s listen to?

Lex: I so remember when the cool, older burnouts had Def Lepard posters on their walls. And I guess Pyromania was a decent album for what it was. Did they do anything after that?

Me: Well, they did Pyromania a few more times, although they did change the name and cover artwork a little each time they rereleased it.

Bonesparkle: I remember James Carville’s famous comment re: the Paula Jones affair: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” That same hundred dollar bill, drug behind a Camaro blasting “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” will get you her sister, too.

Beach Boys

After 1979’s M.I.U. Album, the group signed a large contract with CBS that stipulated Brian’s involvement on each album. However, his brief return to the spotlight ended with two dismal efforts, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin’ the Summer Alive. The Beach Boys began splintering by the end of the decade, with financial mismanagement by Mike Love’s brothers Stan and Steve fostering tension between him and the Wilsons. By 1980, both Dennis and Carl had left the Beach Boys for solo careers. (Dennis had already released his first album, Pacific Ocean Blue, in 1977, and Carl released his eponymous debut in 1981.) Brian was removed from the group in 1982 after his weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, though the tragic drowning death of Dennis in 1983 helped bring the group back together. In 1985, the Beach Boys released a self-titled album which returned them to the Top 40 with “Getcha Back.” It would be the last proper Beach Boys album of the ’80s, however. Brian had been steadily improving in both mind and body during the mid-’80s, though the rest of the group grew suspicious of his mentor, Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy was a dodgy psychiatrist who reportedly worked wonders with the easily impressionable Brian but also practically took over his life. He collaborated with Brian on the autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice and wrote lyrics for Brian’s first solo album, 1988’s Brian Wilson. Critics and fans enjoyed Wilson’s return to the studio, but the charts were unforgiving, especially with attention focused on the Beach Boys once more. The single “Kokomo,” from the soundtrack to Cocktail, hit number one in the U.S. late that year, prompting a haphazard collection named Still Cruisin’. The group also sued Brian, more to force Landy out of the picture than anything, and Mike Love later sued Brian for songwriting royalties (Brian had frequently admitted Love’s involvement on most of them).

Alex: If you have Muppets in your video, it’s not your best work. Come ON! This is the group that did Pet Sounds! “God Only Knows”! “Don’t Worry, Baby!” So much good summer music. They have some of the most fantastically arranged harmonies in pop music, and they got John Stamos to strum a guitar and mug through a song about an island that may or may not exist? Psh.

fikshun: I’d be lying if I said I knew how much the Beach Boys had whored themselves out to advertisers over the years. Maybe they’ve been more conservative with their image than Marlene Dietrich. All I know is that I can’t picture a commercial for retirement planning or erectile dysfunction without whistling one of their tunes. That’s Coca-Cola level brand recognition there, folks.

Jim: This band ended after Holland. Simple question for doubters: Should any band without a single Wilson brother present be allowed to call themselves The Beach Boys?

Lex: I’ve rewritten almost all of “Kokomo” to take advantage of the silly way in which Wisconsin has named its cities. Baby, why don’t we go down to Peshtigo. We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow…. Also, while they wrote some memorable stuff, I guess I wouldn’t have figured there was a time when the Beach Boys weren’t pretty corporate, but I wasn’t there so maybe I just don’t know.

Me: You know, everybody seems fixated on “Kokomo” as the archetypal sellout moment for the BBs. I get that, I do – I was club DJing in a Midwestern college town when that happened and I’m still in therapy over it. But am I the only one who remembers the whole Fat Boys / “Wipeout” trainwreck? Here, let me provide a brief reminder. (BTW, the intro to this vid features the late, great Hector “Macho” Camacho, who died this morning. RIP.)

Damn Yankees

For a brief time in the early ’90s, the supergroup Damn Yankees enjoyed a considerable amount of success on the arena rock circuit. Comprised of guitarist Ted Nugent, Styx’s Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, and drummer Michael Cartellone, Damn Yankees arrived during the final moments of pop-metal’s heyday, and their music didn’t stray from that radio-friendly format at all. The group’s self-titled debut album spawned several hits in 1990, including the Top Ten power ballad “High Enough” and the radio hit “Coming of Age.” Although they proved to be a popular concert draw (Nugent even made headlines for his unchained behavior on-stage, which included shooting arrows into an effigy of Saddam Hussein), the band’s follow-up effort, Don’t Tread, didn’t fare nearly as well. The group disbanded soon after, with Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades continuing to work together as Shaw Blades.

Lex: So I once saw a big, over-the-hill corp rock concert in the early ’90s. it was Bad Company and Damn Yankees. Ted wowed us all by shooting flaming arrows into a cardboard cutout of Saddam Hussein. What’s funny is that Ted not only thinks he’s cool but also that Damn Yankees were cool.

Jim:  Yeah, let’s take Nugent, that guy who didn’t totally suck from Styx, a guy from fucking Night Ranger, and a drummer who would go on to play with a band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd who may/may not have any actual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and form a band. I believe Miss Dorothy Parker said it best: “What fresh hell is this?”

Bonesparkle: Everybody was so offended by Ted Nugent’s neo-fascist political ranting this election season. I don’t get it. Those of us who remember his work with Damn Yankees are actually happy to see him getting his life back on track.

John Mayer

After making his introduction as a sensitive, acoustic-styled songwriter on 2001’s Room for Squares, John Mayer steadily widened his approach over the subsequent years, encompassing everything from blues-rock to adult contemporary in the process. Arriving during the tail end of teen pop’s heyday, he crafted pop music for a more discerning audience, spiking his songcraft with jazz chords and literate turns of phrase. The combination proved to be quite popular, as Room for Squares went triple platinum before its follow-up release, Heavier Things, arrived in September 2003. Mayer continued to retool his sound with each album, however, moving beyond the material that had launched his career and adopting elements of rock, blues, and soul.

Brian: After listening to an interview with John Mayer on NPR years ago (before his first big album), I was excited to listen to him. And that first big album was pretty fun. He really should have stopped there, though. Of course, I’ve started to notice a trend in artists interviewed on NPR – they are either already big and suck, or they’re about to start sucking, with very few exceptions.

Bonesparkle: Wait – “first big album”? Are you talking about the one with “Your Body is a Wonderland” on it? New rule – you never get to say a word about anything I do, up to and including catching me wearing panties and eating chocolate chip cookie dough while watching Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Jim: Hey, where’s John? Shouldn’t he be practicing his guitar? He’s not that good. He doesn’t have to be good. Nobody gives a shit. Besides, he’s busy boinking Jennifer Love/Jessica/Taylor/Jennifer Aniston/Renee/Miley. He’s too tired to practice…the guitar….

Me: I was trying to think of something snarky to say. But we’re talking about a guy who once said this: “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.” I don’t think I can top that. He also said this: “Life is not short, man. Life is excruciatingly long.” Going all Nietzsche on that 14 year-old girl market, huh?

Alex: I can’t comment on John Mayer – I liked him in high school, and I’m only about six years out from high school. I’m too close to the crap to comment.


Toto released its self-titled debut album in October 1978, and it hit the Top Ten, sold two-million copies, and spawned the gold Top Ten single “Hold the Line.” The gold-selling Hydra (October 1979) and Turn Back (January 1981) were less successful, but Toto IV (April 1982) was a multi-platinum Top Ten hit, featuring the number-one hit “Africa” and the Top Tens “Rosanna” (about Lukather’s girlfriend, movie star Rosanna Arquette) and “I Won’t Hold You Back.” At the 1982 Grammys, “Rosanna” won awards for Record of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Instrumental Arrangement With Vocal; and Toto IV won awards for Album of the Year, Best Engineered Recording, and Best Producer (the group)….Toto’s fifth album, Isolation (November 1984), went gold, but was a commercial disappointment.

fikshun: Corporate history is rife with stories of young entrepreneurs cutting their teeth at one corporation, and using the connections gained there move on to bigger and better things. Intel and Toto have a lot in common in that regard. Just ask IBM and Boz Scaggs, respectively. Also, it’s said that every major music city has a sound that reflects its culture and style. London is often represented by Trevor Horn, whose mixes are clean and distortion-free; every sound is tucked neatly in its place. New York’s style is often associated with the Beastie Boys and other locals who compress their mixes so heavily that the personalities practically jump out of your speakers just to get in your face. The Los Angeles sound is often characterized as faux natural. Great expense is paid for synthesizers and reverb devices that sound more realistic than an orange tan and more luscious than ass-fat injected lips. The Yamaha DX7-laden production of Toto’s Toto IV was proof just how far digital had come and helped pave the way for the West Coast Botox sound we know and love today.

Alex: Nothing in the world could keep me awaaaaaaaaaaay from jumping in here. I honestly don’t remember any other song by Toto, and even that song I remember more from when they goofed on it on Scrubs.

Me: Hey, Jeff Porcaro was in Steely Dan, sorta. It is worth noting that while this was a corporate endeavor of the first order, it was also one predicated on having guys who could seriously play their freakin’ instruments. That counts for something, right?

Jim: There were these bands in the late ’70s/early ’80s…Pablo Cruise, Toto, Little River Band…which one is this again…?

Bonesparkle: You forgot Ambrosia.

Brian: I still sing along to Toto on road trips with the family. No, my kids aren’t old enough to demand I skip the song yet – why do you ask?

Wufnik: Glad you got Toto in there. It wouldn’t really be corporate rock without them.


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2 replies »

  1. I was the first kid on the block to have Pyromania and I loved it. I also had their first album. But I really hate “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Really, really hate it. And it’s the only song anyone plays from Def Leppard anymore.

    I loved the Beach Boys when I was in high school (early ’80s), but didn’t think they’d done much since the early ’70s.

    I was on a school trip once where a kid played “Africa” over and over and over for about 45 minutes. If I never hear that song again I will have heard it too much.

    Never did like John Mayer or Damn Yankees.