“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” isn’t simply the best power ballad of the 1980s; it’s also the savviest. The second single from Def Leppard’s sophomore album High ‘N’ Dry ushered power ballads squarely into the pop mainstream, demonstrating that ostensibly earnest love songs burnished with the sound and spirit of hard rock could dominate commercial airwaves — a formula for success proven time and again throughout the decade, and beyond.
Def Leppard entered London’s Battery Studios in the spring of 1981 to record High ‘N’ Dry, close to a year removed from a grueling U.S. tour in support of established arena acts like Ted Nugent, the Pat Travers Band and Judas Priest. The Sheffield, England-forged heavy metal quintet’s debut album, 1980’s On Through the Night, reached the Top 15 in the U.K. but attracted scant notice elsewhere; when a Sounds cover story titled “Has the Leppard changed its spots?” accused Def Leppard of dulling its edge to curry favor with the American listening audience, fans expressed their outrage throughout the group’s set at August 1980’s Reading Festival, pelting the stage with beer cans and bottles filled with urine.
The High ‘N’ Dry sessions were guided by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, one of the era’s most successful hard rock producers thanks to his work on the AC/DC classics Highway to Hell and Back in Black (as of this writing, the second-best-selling album of all time) as well as the project he worked on immediately before High ‘N’ Dry, Foreigner’s 4, which vaulted the New York City band from FM radio mainstays to global pop superstardom on the strength of crossover hits like “Urgent” (featuring Motown sax legend Junior Walker, of “Shotgun” fame) and “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” And while the sculpted, slow-burning “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” wasn’t the first power ballad — prototypes include Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” and April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me” — Def Leppard was the first hard rock band to ride a power ballad to superstardom, and to leave the door open for its contemporaries.
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” written by Def Leppard’s lead singer Joe Elliott with guitarists Steve Clark and Pete Willis, employs signature techniques that were not yet genre clichés, most prominent among them its use of alternating quiet and loud passages — the element that more than any other defines the power ballad in its purest, most impassioned form. Its lyrics tell of a beautiful but unknowable woman — a femme fatale, “a broken rose with laughin’ eyes” destined to bring only misery — and its sound is both melancholy and majestic, from the intricately woven guitars that light the song’s fuse to its anthemic chorus to Clark’s anguished guitar solo, all topped off by Elliott’s gloriously gritty vocals and massively multi-tracked harmonies (the defining characteristics of Def Leppard records across the decades).
High ‘n’ Dry hit stores in July 1981, followed a month later by the album’s lead single, “Let It Go.” Mercury Records, Def Leppard’s U.S. label, released ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” in mid-November, accompanied by a music video culled from live footage shot at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre for talent manager and producer Don Kirshner’s syndicated television show Rock Concert. The video arrived three months after the launch of MTV, the American cable network that would rapidly become the most powerful entity in the music industry; MTV, dedicated to airing music videos around the clock, invariably needed new clips to program, and Def Leppard was in the right place at the right time.
“The funny thing is, Mutt kept saying to us, ‘This is the one.’ And as it happens, it wasn’t the one! Not at radio, at least,” Elliott told Rolling Stone in 2016. “But we had the foresight to shoot a kind of a video for it, which was just a live performance. And the fledgling MTV, having nothing to play, liked the idea of this young U.K. rock band, so they picked it up. So six months, maybe a year after High ‘n’ Dry came out, we were making Pyromania [Def Leppard’s third LP, released in January 1983] and we started getting these Telexes from the States saying ’Your album is selling 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 copies a week.’ Then it was 10, 15, 20,000 copies a week. It was heading toward platinum by the time we had Pyromania in the bag. Because of MTV, by 1982 the whole country was playing ‘Heartbreak.’”
The story does not end there. Lange sought to capitalize on the multi-platinum success of Pyromania (which he also produced) by remixing “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” complete with keyboard overdubs added by Thomas Dolby, who in early 1983 reached the U.S. Top Ten with the New Wave perennial “She Blinded Me with Science.” History has not been kind to this remix: the synthesizer sounds are embarrassingly dated, and mixed so prominently that they engulf the chorus. But while Lange’s remix may seem like a hamfisted cash grab, a close listen to the original 1981 version of “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” here in KORD reveals the keyboard was always there, doubling the guitars note for note, but almost impossible to discern in the final mix; Dolby’s overdubs are in fact quite faithful to the original performance (uncredited, but likely the handiwork of bassist Rick Savage), only much more robust and prominent.
Re-releasing an earlier single to capitalize on an artist’s subsequent success is not a unique strategy, but what was unique, if not unprecedented, is that Mercury produced a new, alternate music video to go with the remixed “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” — and just like last time, MTV pounced. Shot in Dublin, Ireland in February 1984 by David Mallet, one of the most prolific music video directors of the period, this second version of “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” helped the remixed single do what the original failed to do in 1981: reach the Billboard Top 100 charts, climbing to number 61.
The true legacy of “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” is the songs that followed in its wake as hair metal and glam metal asserted control over rock radio airplay, album sales and concert attendance throughout the mid-to-late 1980s and into the early 1990s. The biggest songs from the biggest bands inevitably were power ballads: Guns N’ Roses scored its greatest chart success with the epic “November Rain,” Poison notched its only number one single with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and Mötley Crüe topped MTV’s daily request chart for over three months with “Home Sweet Home,” forcing the network to implement the so-called “Crüe Rule” dropping videos from its request line 30 days after their MTV premiere. Even bands who came before Def Leppard — acts with unimpeachable hard rock bona fides, like Aerosmith and Van Halen — reached new commercial heights with bombastic ballads of their own.
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” also was crucial in making real the Sounds cover story’s prophecy: its radio-friendly approach laid the groundwork for Pyromania, which sold more than 10 million copies in America and achieved diamond certification, but only reached the top 20 at home in the U.K. With 1987’s pop-oriented Hysteria — Def Leppard’s third consecutive collaboration with Mutt Lange — the band went supernova, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide and scoring no fewer than six Top 20 U.S. singles, including “Love Bites” (their biggest power ballad, and sole No. 1 hit in the U.S.), “Animal” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Def Leppard is now one of the most commercially successful acts of all time, and is in fact one of only five bands with more than one diamond-certified album in the U.S., rare air they occupy alongside the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Van Halen.
“We treat every song the same. We couldn’t distinguish the ugly from the beautiful,” Elliott told Rolling Stone. “But Mutt — being more of a passive observer, if you like — he was the one who realized if we had a shot at radio, it was with [‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’]. So when we were recording the album, it was the one that got the most attention. I’d say for every hour we spent working on another song, we spent three or four on this one. And Mutt put me through the fucking mill singing the thing, because he wanted me to be accepted in the same league as a Paul Rodgers or a Lou Gramm or whoever. Meanwhile, I was just a young kid who was happy enough to be Ian Hunter!”
Bringin’ on the Heartbreak (KORD-0018)