Def Leppard’s X album was released 17 years ago today.
Okay, with those facts out of the way, let’s dig deeper (much, much deeper!) into the X album, the circumstances surrounding it, and the NUMEROUS missed opportunities that contributed to its commercial downfall…
Def Leppard X
Def Leppard’s X (the Roman numeral for “10,” to commemorate the band’s tenth release) most likely divides fans into 3 different camps.
- Fans who love any and all new music from the band, whether it “rocks hard” or not.
- Fans who accept and appreciate any new Def Leppard album (though they’ll admit some albums miss the mark, yet don’t fault the band for trying something different).
- Fans who feel let down and disappointed when a Def Leppard album doesn’t sound like On Through The Night or High ‘n’ Dry, Pyromania or Hysteria, or is way too poppy and borders on adult contemporary.
Any of the options above would have its fair share of supporters.
And though some might consider the album to be polarizing, there’s actually a much deeper aspect when it comes to X, and it revolves around misdirection and missed opportunities — not by the band, but by their record company at the time.
X Marks What Spot?
As mentioned in previous articles on this site spotlighting albums like Adrenalize and Slang, it’s important to keep in mind the state of the music industry — and Def Leppard’s place in it — when X was released.
The year was 2002. It had been 3 years since Euphoria, an album that admittedly was made in the same vein as Hysteria. (Some considered Euphoria to be the final piece in the Pyromania/Hysteria massive album production trilogy — most notably the band’s record company — dismissing Adrenalize as if it never happened.)
So what was the band to do?
Release another album like Slang, which ventured into a completely different creative direction (and sacrificed commercial success in the process)? Or maybe attempt a much more raw, harder sounding album like High ‘n’ Dry?
But no matter which option fans might have preferred, the band wasn’t looking to repeat previous efforts, or as they put it, rip themselves off.
“We desperately tried to do that,” he says with a laugh. “With ‘Promises,’ I made the riff in the same key as ‘Armageddon It’ and ‘Photograph.’ It’s basically a rip-off. If another band was to do that to us, we’d go ‘Jesus Christ, let’s sue them.’ But no one noticed.”
So why not try something different?
In the same interview, here’s what Phil had to say about the X album:
“On this record, we didn’t do that at all. This record was quite liberating. We weren’t sticking to any rigid walls or boundaries, which were done on pretty much all of the other records.”
Phil could have said the same thing about Slang, Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, and the band’s self-titled Def Leppard album. In hindsight, I believe Phil’s comment rings truer for those three particular albums instead of X.
Not only was X a unique album, it suffered an unnecessary fate for a variety of EXTERNAL reasons.
Do You Wanna Get… X‘ed?
Getting back to 2002…
The music industry was still in flux, and Def Leppard was no longer the radio or chart powerhouse they used to be.
For example, the week X debuted on the Billboard album charts, top positions were held by Bruce Springsteen, Nelly, Linkin Park, Eminem, Avril Lavigne, and so on — the days of Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, and Poison battling it out and ruling the charts were long gone.
So for Def Leppard to return to the public eye in 2002 with a song like “Let’s Get Rocked” or “Make Love Like A Man” would have satisfied some, but done damage to the band’s brand — creatively and commercially.
To borrow from Bon Jovi’s album title, Cross Road could also have been a fitting title for the X album, because Def Leppard was at a crossroads of their own.
The band ultimately decided to go the route of trying different things, some to the album’s detriment as a result of misguided direction and influence from their record company.
The final product was a more “mature” sounding — aka adult contemporary — Def Leppard album, one which also included songs from outside songwriters.
To think that Def Leppard would relinquish songwriting duties on some of their music to songwriters for artists such as Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys (and future acts like Nicki Minaj and One Direction) is a little hard to fathom.
In recent years, Joe Elliott commented on how he felt about bringing in outside songwriters for the X album:
“I was completely not cool with [the idea of outside songwriters], cause I knew we were perfectly well capable of writing our own, so why would we want to that?”
Don’t overlook this point: The idea here is to bring in outside songwriters who are “hitmakers.” They are hired because they have a track record of writing songs for acts and “churning out” chart-topping hits.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and no disrespect is intended, but it also shows the amount of faith Def Leppard’s record company had in the band at this time. Though subtle, the message to them was loud and clear: Def Leppard was no longer capable of putting out an album of hit songs on their own.
Even though Joe took a more diplomatic route, saying the band considered outside songwriters more of an experiment, and that the songs that resulted were in the spirit of one of his favorite bands, Cheap Trick, he still ends with:
“…I think the stuff we wrote on our own has the real flavor of what Def Leppard is.”
The irony in all this is none of the tracks written by/with outside songwriters resulted in a “hit” song.
To be fair, though, those “experiments” didn’t hurt the album either — actually, they resulted in songs that were very worthy additions to the band’s catalog.
But Def Leppard’s X album did indeed have something working against it which hurt any chance the album had at commercial success: a release strategy that lacked…a release strategy.
Def Leppard’s X Release Strategy…Or Lack Thereof
The band’s record company released “Now” as the X album’s first single, along with a fairly amusing music video whose storyline centered around the decades’ long journey of a Def Leppard Union Jack shirt…
On the surface (and putting aside the acting), the music video tells a fun tale as the shirt is disregarded and lost over the years, goes through its share of owners, and finally resurfaces when it’s purchased via an online auction by its original owner.
Giving the concept the benefit of the doubt, you could assume the music video also communicated how Def Leppard’s appeal crosses over generations.
But beneath the surface, the underlying themes of the video seem to portray Def Leppard’s iconic “Union Jack” (aka Pyromania) years as more of a novelty, hokey, a thing of the past, and, more specifically, in THE BAND’s past — not as something that still remained an integral part of Def Leppard.
More specifically, it positioned Def Leppard as a band no longer in their heyday, and something they’ve moved on from.
The video’s message and the way the band is portrayed comes across as “We’ve grown up, matured since those silly years, and we should be taken more seriously now.”
Am I reading way too much into it? Possibly.
But I do believe the “Now” video shined a negative light and diminished Def Leppard’s image, all due to the (short-term) thinking of re-marketing the band as more contemporary and “hip” with the times.
Not Right “Now”
Just to be clear, “Now” is a good, albeit straightforward, song.
It has an effective urgency to it, and its momentum builds nicely into a chorus which, for better or worse, is quite un-Leppard-like.
So what’s my point?
While there’s no disputing the song quality of “Now,” it’s better off as an album track; it does not have — nor did it ever have — the makings of a radio-ready release, especially as a song that could light up the charts and handle the important workload of launching an album.
X marked the return of Def Leppard after a three-year hiatus. “Now” alone wasn’t powerful enough to reintroduce the group back onto the airwaves and reconnect with listeners.
The band’s record company must have known this, as they didn’t even attempt to go the route of a typical single release for “Now,” instead choosing to target only rock radio stations.
So right off the bat, it was a small-scale approach.
How did that work out?
Well, “Now” didn’t even crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and barely placed on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.
From a music industry perspective, “Now” was over (figuratively speaking) before it even started.
So much for making any type of meaningful impact to launch a brand new Def Leppard album.
And “Now”… Even More Misfires
After “Now” quickly fizzled out (so much for building momentum to coincide with the band’s X tour), it looked as if the band’s record company had already determined that X would not be a hit.
The band’s excellent song “Four Letter Word” was more of a throwaway track to AOR (album-oriented rock) stations — months after “Now” had come and gone, mind you — and it lacked any type of meaningful promotional push.
As a result, powerhouse “Four Letter Word” barely made a blip on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Def Leppard did their part, even performing “Four Letter Word” on the X tour, yet without radio support to help drive awareness (and album sales), it wasn’t going anywhere and soon disappeared from the band’s setlist.
What a shame.
A last-ditch effort (best described as a Hail Mary) was attempted long after X debuted and disappeared from the album charts, when the band’s moody ballad (and video) “Long, Long Way To Go” was finally released…nine months after X hit the streets.
Similar to Euphoria, X debuted outside of the Top 10 (#11) on Billboard’s Album charts. And whereas an album is expected to have its typical peaks and valleys on the charts, driven by radio, marketing, and tour support, the lack of all those essential pieces cohesively working together is encapsulated by X‘s lifespan on the album charts: 8 weeks.
Hard to believe that X‘s album chart positions can be summed up in one short sentence: #11 (debut), #36, #73, #88, #122, #129, #147, #167, and then gone. Poof. Done.
X never even reached gold certification status.
X Could Have Marked The Spot
What’s most disappointing about Def Leppard’s X album performance is that it didn’t have to be that way — it could have had a much more effective launch and long-term promotional push.
As the band has stated, the album showcased the “many flavors” of the band; unfortunately, that message never came across or reached the masses.
A simultaneous, multi-format radio campaign could have been much more effective — hitting different types of radio stations with different tracks off the album:
- “Unbelievable” (even though the band didn’t write it, it’s an excellent track) was radio-ready, be it Top 40 or Adult Contemporary;
- “Everyday” is one of Def Leppard’s best album tracks (to this day) and was ready-made for conquering album rock stations;
- “Torn to Shreds” features some of the best hooks and harmonies the band ever recorded, right up there with any of their catchiest choruses, and it deserved a single release;
- “Four Letter Word” harkens back to the band’s High ‘n’ Dry days and would have had a much greater impact on rock stations if timed properly with an overall radio promotion strategy.
There’s no reason why various radio station formats couldn’t have been targeted simultaneously with different X tracks. (It’s not a new idea.)
That type of approach would have effectively provided coverage on radio stations across the country, raised awareness, and, more importantly, providing sustainable momentum for the X album.
Then at that point, a power ballad like “Long, Long Way To Go” could best be timed as a single.
In simplest terms, have a plan; a 1-2 punch.
Alas, none of that was to be.
(By the way, if you would like to read a more in-depth look at X‘s individual tracks, check out the Def Leppard Report Song Ranking section.)
X Could Have Been… X-ier
In case you weren’t aware, the X album produced a really good, yet mostly overlooked, b-side gem titled “10X Bigger Than Love.”
The track brings to mind the days of Hysteria, when Def Leppard b-sides were worthy of inclusion on an album, sometimes even better than other tracks that made the final cut.
That being said, this hard-rocking song would have added more heft to X, and would have been a good rocking counterpart to “Four Letter Word.”
That’s not to say X doesn’t have its shortfalls:
- “Let Me Be The One” would have worked better if the band went with their original piano-driven, more melodic demo version;
- “Perfect Girl” (the original — and superior — version to album track “Gravity”) would’ve been a much better, memorable fit.
- “You’re So Beautiful” has potential but becomes too hooky for its own good, layering hook upon hook….upon hook, which works against it. (The hook overcompensation fits the narrative of outside pressure and involvement to assure that the album contained some “hit songs.”)
All that said, there was still a lot to work with on X, yet so many potentially rewarding avenues weren’t pursued.
As a result, the band and the album’s commercial success suffered.
It’s no coincidence the band ended up breaking away from their record company years later, after fulfilling their contractual album obligations.
Def Leppard’s X Is Worth Revisiting
It’s easy to dismiss the X album’s poor performance and blame its pop-lite offerings as the cause, but that would require overlooking some gems that actually reside on the album.
The album wasn’t given a chance — a proper chance — to shine, or at least garner the attention it deserved. And the same can be said about Def Leppard at this point in their career.
Fortunately for them, they began taking more control over their creative (and marketing) direction, no longer letting outside influences guide (or, better yet, misguide) them.
And the success the band now enjoys — sellout tours and all — is a testament to them being in control of the proverbial Def Leppard reins.
Def Leppard’s X (Final Thoughts)
Was X destined to achieve the same commercial heights as Def Leppard’s biggest albums? No.
Were there many missed opportunities with how X was positioned and promoted to audiences? Absolutely!
In recent years, Joe Elliott summed up the X album like this:
“It’s not a standout album. I don’t think it’s a complete duffer [slang for ineffectual, worthless], and it’s certainly not ‘Hysteria.’ But there is some cool stuff on it.”
There certainly is, Joe.
If only more people had the chance to discover that cool stuff when it was released…