The second track on Hysteria, “Rocket,” was eventually released as a single in 1989 and hit #12 in the US and #15 in the UK. According to a quote ascribed to a “band message” on the Canadian EP release, the song and video are about or concern their childhood.

“Rocket” is a melange of aeronautic imagery, rock history and the usual sexual subtext. It fits well in the sub-cannon of self-referential rock songs about, well, rockin’. See any number of great rock songs, but as examples “Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll” (Rolling Stones), “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” (AC/DC), or “Rock of Ages” (Def Leppard). As an oedipal genre born and raised in rebellion to the parental generation, Rock has a chip on its shoulder about its place in the world, loudly proclaiming that it will never die, and always offers suggestions on how to rock, when to rock, and why to rock. “Rocket” adds to this collection by comparing a good rockin’ time to space rockets (the ultimate phallic image) and serves notice that we are still on familiar ground even as we lift off.

Yet like “Women,” “Rocket” manages to go a lot deeper than one might initially expect. The lyric is impressionistic, combining a list of popular rock acts and songs ranging from The Beatles to T.Rex to (a lot of) David Bowie with references in the video to the US space program and artificial satellites. The song is a pointillistic nexus of music, rocket science engineering, and fist-pumping stadium bliss. One good question with which we can approach the lyric is to ask which “Rocket” is in reference? There are a multiplicity of answers. The music itself rockets us into another space. We see the Saturn V rockets lifting astronauts into space in the video. The music of the 1970s was a launch pad for Def Leppard in the 1980s. In the thought world of this song, Def Leppard themselves are the rocket. As is often the case with rock songs, if we hear the “I” in the singular there are obvious overtones to romantic love. If instead we choose to hear the “I” as plural (the band) brings another field of meaning into view:

We just gotta fly
(I can take you through the center of the dark)
We’re gonna fly
(On a collision course to crash into my heart)
I will be your, I will be your, I’ll be your
(Rocket yeah satellite of love)

Guitar, drums, load up!
We’re gonna fly

The Def Leppard “plural I” bring us to the center of the band’s experience rockin’ with the songs and artists listed in the song. We crash into the heart of the band: a pulsating, beating love of music clearly on display in both the lyric and the video.

If we choose to hear this song not on the first level, the rock/rocket/rockin’ nexus, but on the level where the “plural I” invites us into the world of the band’s shared musical history, we avoid cheap romance (seemingly always the first level of most of these songs) and delve deeply into their collective soul. Beneath all the bombast and production, and after we chase down all the references, we find the beating heart of a band who are genuinely in love with music, who feel the power of rock music in their bones and then spread the gospel. In this way “Rocket” is a foreshadowing of the Yeah! album on which Def Lep cover songs from 70s glam acts, including T. Rex, David Bowie, and Thin Lizzy. When these guys tip their hats to their fore-parents in rock they are genuine in a way which reveals their spirit not only as rockers but fans of music. Fandom is a difficult quality to fake, but Def Lep reveals it well both on this song and on Yeah!.

As a way of exploring this rocket-trip ride I compiled a playlist of all the references listed on the Wikipedia page, which was the most comprehensive I could find. As I am at the mercy of the author of that page and what few 1970s British culture references I could glean from the video, I trust that the references are accurate. As a student of music history who none the less takes a long time to warm up to new music, and who daily bemoans the state of classic rock on the radio, this playlist, as well as the one I’ve constructed of all the tunes on Yeah!, is eye opening. T.Rex and David Bowie are largely new experiences for me, not to mention Ram Jam, Sweet, and Lou Reed. These playlists are a joy because they locate overly familiar music in the context of their contemporaries. It is a change of pace to hear “Rocket Man” along with “Laser Love” and “Blockbuster.” In this way it is (almost) possible to hear what “Rocket Man” sounded like in-context, before it was over-played and way beyond trite. Does anyone still actually listen to that song when it plays on the radio?

“Rocket,” like “Women,” offers new vistas as we interact with it past the adrenaline-rush chorus. Choosing to spend some time with these songs outside of the chorus is an instructive exercise. The categories of “nostalgia” or “ironic” are not enough to hold Hysteria. No matter what brings us to music, be it a desire to relive the glory days, or to seem more ironic than our friends, this music deserves to be heard in its own right and explored and evaluated on its own merits. While the can of Aqua-Net might be waiting for me before I hit the show next week, thinking through and attempting to understand these songs makes me that much more excited to sing along with Joe and the guys.


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