How ‘Photograph’ Sent Def Leppard Into the Stratosphere
Def Leppard was primed for stardom following the release of their 1981 sophomore album High 'n' Dry, which earned the Sheffield quintet its first RIAA gold certification the following year. With the January 1983 release of their third album Pyromania and lead single "Photograph," they harnessed their momentum and rocketed into the stratosphere.
As the second consecutive Def Leppard album produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Pyromania slightly softened the group's hard-rock edges with soaring pop hooks and meticulous, multilayered production. It also marked a personnel shift, as the band sacked guitarist Pete Willis and recruited Phil Collen during the recording process. After cutting a one-take solo for the song "Stagefright" as his audition, Collen was tasked with writing a solo for "Photograph." "Mutt said, 'Do a solo that's really melodic. Don't mess the song up. Let go and do a bit of shredding as well, but it's gotta be in the groove, it's gotta have the melody,'" Collen later told Metal Edge.
"What Mutt was having me do, it was an amazing lesson to learn. And it's one that has carried over to now, really. He was having me keep it very fiery and all that stuff, while also respecting the songs. I still try to do that on my solos."
Def Leppard had been kicking around "Photograph" since 1981, with singer Joe Elliott, guitarist Steve Clark, bassist Rick Savage and Willis struggling to whittle the deceptively simple lead riff and stadium-sized choruses to a razor-sharp point. After years of trial and error, it finally clicked.
"I remember being in the common room [with] a couple crew guys, a couple band guys, watching cricket – a game I cannot stand," Elliott recalled in a Leppard Vault interview. "But we were watching cricket, and hearing through the wall this riff from 1981 over and over again. Between Mutt, Sav, Steve and Pete, they were trying to come up with something to make it work.
"Then there was a bit of silence, and then all of a sudden, we heard the intro that is the intro now – which I'm guessing Steve or somebody said, 'I don't know. We're looking at this the wrong way. I've got this thing that might work [in the] same key,'" Elliott continued. "But all I remember is that the guys who were watching cricket, we all sat up and we looked at each other like, 'What the fuck is that?'"
Watch Def Leppard's 'Photograph' Video
The lyrics to "Photograph" were partially inspired by Elliott's apartment in Isleworth, London, which had "a hole in the bathroom wall that resembled the one in Shawshank Redemption," which he covered with a poster of Marilyn Monroe. "I used to see this thing on a daily basis — this beautiful woman — and I used that analogy, that 'die young, stay pretty' sort of thing," Elliott explained. "And I brought that to the table. Like, what about somebody that's the ultimate 'you can't have,' because they're not here anymore? Not because they've run off with your neighbor or your brother or your mate — they're not here."
The flashy "Photograph" video, directed by David Mallet, also features Monroe impersonator Kay Kent as the victim of a "passion killer," interspersed with footage of the band performing. The video was a hit on MTV and helped propel "Photograph" to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, their highest-charting single to date. Follow-up singles "Rock of Ages" and "Foolin'" reached Nos. 16 and 28, respectively, pushing Pyromania to eventual diamond status in the United States for sales exceeding 10 million.
With its call-and-response vocals and supersized hooks, "Photograph" has been a set list staple for decades and become a reliable set closer in recent years. For Elliott, it all comes back to the melody.
"We've always tied our songs into the melody and the power that comes from it as opposed to just bludgeoning people over their head with sound, which a lot of bands do," he told Vulture. "The arena is just flying whenever we do the melodies in 'Photograph.' I'm the answer line; the in-between guy. I think they're very infectious."