Yeah! Label: Mercury/Universal
It has often been said – by this writer, if no one else – that covers albums are the last refuge of the scoundrel. Even good songwriters get seduced by the idea of covering someone else’s stuff. Bryan Ferry has covered almost as many songs as he’s written (ahem, “Sympathy for the Devil”?), and only one of them, Roxy Music’s stunning version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” is worth a second listen. And then there’s the album that Q Magazine recently declared the worst album of all time: Duran Duran’s dismal covers album Thank You. Punch lines for rock critics practically wrote themselves, but the most popular was undoubtedly “No thank you.” (It should be noted that I am a big fan of Duran Duran, but not too googly-eyed to admit that Q is dead on the money here.)
And so it was with great reservation that a covers album from Sheffield’s favorite sons Def Leppard, titled Yeah!, took its first spin in the ol’ iTunes. The Lep, after all, hadn’t had a hit record in the States in nearly 15 years, and while a certain BE staffer swears by their more pop-oriented Euphoria (or at least the song “Paper Sun”), their post-Adrenalize material has gone mostly unheard by these ears. A few tracks in, a stunning realization hits me: holy schnikes, this album kicks ass, absolutely miles above and beyond what anyone should reasonably expect from Def Leppard at this stage in their career.
The songs the band selected are generally from the UK glam scene of the early ‘70s – T. Rex, Sweet, Roxy, Mott the Hoople – but the most pleasant surprises come in the most unexpected places. The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” may seem like an odd choice at first, but once the soaring three-part harmonies launch the chorus, the song actually goes a long way to explain the origin of songs like “Animal” and “Hysteria.” Likewise, the band gets mega-super bonus points for picking “Drive-In Saturday,” the sci-fi ‘50s ballad from David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, over his better known work. Bowie’s always been a better songwriter than a singer, and even with the upper range of his voice mostly depleted, Joe Elliott nails “Drive-In” in a way that Bowie never could. And, perhaps aware that they’re treading on all-too-familiar territory, their spin on David Essex’s oft-covered “Rock On” has a little “Vegas Two Times” from the Stereophonics thrown in for good measure.
There are some more traditional remakes here as well, like Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” the Faces’ “Stay with Me” and T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” but caution is definitely the better play over radical reinterpretation. Indeed, more often than not, the band remains faithful to the songs while pumping a little extra muscle into them (Roxy Music’s “Street Life,” for example). The version of Sweet’s “Hell Raiser” – note to self: so that’s where the riff to Motley Crue’s "Kickstart My Heart" came from – makes the original sound like a basement band, and for those who only know the Happy Mondays melon-twistin’ version of John Kongos’ “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” (second note to self: so that’s where the drum beat to Adam & the Ants’ “Dog Eat Dog” came from), the version here will be a shock, but like the Roxy cover, it’s faithful while packing considerably more punch. The album ends with the cover of “Stay with Me,” which must be sung by guitarist Phil Collen, since Elliott doesn’t sing a note anywhere near that range at any point on the album. It’s decent enough, but it’s also the one that lacks the band’s personality the most. It is also proof that while Rick Allen can still play drums with one arm, he probably should resist the urge to do a solo again anytime soon.
The really great thing about Yeah! is that it sounds both like Def Leppard and the artists they’re covering, rather than some mess in between (see: Duran Duran’s cover of “Watching the Detectives”). Even if you’ve never heard “The Golden Age of Rock & Roll,” you can tell that it’s a Mott the Hoople song. “Don’t Believe a Word”? Dude, that has to be Thin Lizzy. You get the idea. Def Leppard should be finished by now, shouldn’t they? They were certainly headed in that direction, but Yeah! recharges the batteries in a big, big way. The age of irony will likely deny us a true successor to Hysteria, and while that is a crime against humanity, this goes a long ways toward rectifying that injustice.