35 Years Ago: ‘Love Bites’ Catches Def Leppard ‘With Their Trousers Down’
Def Leppard solidified their place in the rock-legend pantheon with Hysteria, a diamond-selling behemoth that functioned as a veritable greatest-hits set. The album spun off Top 10 hit after Top 10 hit, finally yielding the British rockers their sole stateside No. 1 with its sixth single, "Love Bites," released in July 1988.
The band's longtime producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange presented the song as an evocative, country-tinged acoustic ballad. "Lyrically, it kind of painted a picture, and in a song you always want to do that, paint a picture," guitarist Phil Collen told Songfacts in 2016. "'On a dark desert highway,' the first line of 'Hotel California' — great song, it just paints an image for you straight off the bat, and that's the sign of a really good song. It takes you right there. 'Love Bites' did that as well."
Def Leppard went to work adding futuristic percussion and oodles of guitar layers to Lange's acoustic shell. "We changed it around a little bit, me and Steve [Clark], and made the guitars slightly different, but the song was just beautiful," Collen added. "I played my mum the first draft where we had started doing vocals and stuff over it, and she started crying."
Even compared to the rest of Hysteria's skyscraping hooks and sonic innovations, it was clear that "Love Bites" was taking Def Leppard into uncharted territory. "We went over the top with it, with tons of guitars and melodies and countermelodies and different grooves," Collen said. "It wasn't just a rock groove, it was almost like R&B grooves and different things going off, and that's what makes it, I think. If you get too genre-specific, stay in a box, then you remain in a box. The important thing is to kind of mix it all up."
The song proved a tall order for singer Joe Elliott as well. "It was possibly, for me, the hardest vocal I've ever sung," he told the BBC in 1990. "It's just a little bit too high for my lower register and it's a bit too low for my higher register. So it's like my midrange doesn't exist."
Watch Def Leppard's 'Love Bites' Video
Committing "Love Bites" to tape was one thing. But when the song raced up the charts in the second half of 1988, Def Leppard faced a new hurdle: They had to learn how to play it live.
"We were on tour when 'Love Bites' went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and we'd never played it as a band," Collen said in 2023's Definitely: The Official Story of Def Leppard. "We had to get a rehearsal room in Vancouver for two days and work it all out. I had to learn how to sing the chorus while I was playing the guitar part, which I didn’t think I’d be able to do. I practiced it over and over and over again until I got it right. That particular song caught us with our trousers down.”
Def Leppard members have recounted this story several times over the years, though they may be taking a bit of creative liberty with their timelines. "Love Bites" was released as a single in July 1988 and topped the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1988. According to setlist.fm, the band played it live for the first time on Dec. 4, 1987, and began performing it regularly in June 1988 while touring Canada. Nevertheless, they didn't play it on the first 80-odd dates of the Hysteria tour in 1987, which supports the notion that it was a formidable challenge to perform live.
Since topping the chart, "Love Bites" has become a set-list staple for Def Leppard, appearing in 1,600 concerts and counting. What used to be a daunting task has now become second nature for the band, particularly since the addition of guitarist Vivian Campbell, who replaced the late Clark in 1992. "I have to say that since Vivian's been in this band, that song has been a lot easier to do, because Vivian is a fantastic singer in the high register, and he takes the parts that I used to have to do as well as the lead vocal," Elliott said in a Leppard Vault interview. "So thank God for Vivian Campbell in that respect."
For a band hellbent on perfection, "Love Bites" allowed Def Leppard to showcase their humanity. "A recording is immortal. You can get away with doing a live gig and making a few mistakes or whatever," Collen said. "You're at a concert, you don't hear a perfect thing. You want to hear an interpretation of it."