40 Years Ago: How a Church Choir Influenced Def Leppard’s ‘Rock of Ages’
It was the count-off heard 'round the world: "Gunter, gleiben, glauchen, globen."
There was no deep, hidden meaning to the beginning of Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages," the second single off the star-making Pyromania. Producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange had simply grown tired of cueing the band with a regular four-count and decided to inject a little silliness into the proceedings.
Humor was a constant throughout the making of "Rock of Ages." Lange added several backmasked phrases during the guitar solo; when played forward, frontman Joe Elliott can be heard shouting, "Fuck the Russians!" and "Brezhnev's got herpes!" — a dig at Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who died in November 1982, two months before Pyromania's release.
The band also called in a favor from synth-pop savant Thomas Dolby, who contributed keyboard to "Rock of Ages" and several other album tracks under the pseudonym Booker T. Boffin so as to not confuse fans of his solo work. "My 15-year-old son has a quadruple-platinum album on the wall above him credited for keyboards on Pyromania for Booker T. Boffin," he told SongFacts in 2011.
Dolby's keyboards fleshed out the verses to "Rock of Ages" in lieu of guitars, which presented a unique challenge for the band. "There's hardly any guitars in the verses," guitarist Phil Collen told Metal Edge. "And the big deal with that was when the vocals and guitar come in on the chorus you get that 'super-rock' sound, you know?
"Instead of just being a bunch of guys playing the same old riff and everything, and losing the dynamic, you have no guitars on the verse, or very little — mainly keyboards — and then it just goes bang!" Collen added. "It blows up in the chorus. Then you have all these vocals — the whole thing just turns into an orchestra."
Watch Def Leppard's 'Rock of Ages' Video
The song was shaping up to be a monstrous stomp-clapping anthem, a la Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" or Queen's "We Will Rock You." Yet as Def Leppard painstakingly connected the many pieces of their sonic puzzle, they ran into a dilemma: They still didn't have a chorus.
The solution came from on high — or, more literally, from a local church that borrowed the band's studio one night to record some choir vocals.
"We came in the next day, and there was a couple of hymn books left behind, and one of them was in the control room — and it was open to the hymn 'Rock of Ages,'" Elliott said in a Leppard Vault interview. "I remember picking it up and looking at it, and Mutt must have been playing the chorus. It went past and I looked at this thing, and I went, 'How about this?' I started singing 'Rock of Ages,' and he spins around in his chair, and whoever else was in the room went, 'Fuck yeah! That's great!' So that's how the chorus was born."
Released as a single in June 1983, "Rock of Ages" followed lead Pyromania single "Photograph" into the Top 20, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helping to propel the album to eventual diamond status. "Rock of Ages" became a concert staple and provided the title for the popular Broadway musical and 2012 film adaptation, which starred Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among others.
"I think the play and the movie, all of that, helps cement a band and gives them iconic status, especially if you're still out there on tour," Collen told SongFacts. "And I think the longer you are around, especially if you've got songs that are really cool and everything, something like that happens and it makes you worth more as a band, more important. And the fact that it's not even a song at that point, it's a play based on a song that we did, and then it's a movie based on that, it's like, 'Wow, it's really cool.'"
Top 25 New Wave of British Heavy Metal Albums
Why Don't More People Love This Def Leppard Album?