Before they became one of the biggest pop bands of the '80s, Def Leppard were one of the linchpins of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, even though their influences ranged further afield than most groups on the scene. Taking cues from glam rock, AC/DC, and Queen, the dual guitar attack, tight rhythm section, and the yowlingly melodic vocals of Joe Elliott combined into a powerful, hooky, and totally fun hard rock juggernaut. The Early Years 79-81 set captures Def Leppard as they burst onto the scene and quickly refined their sound into something millions of people couldn't get enough of. Along with new remasters of their first two albums, 1980's On Through the Night and 1981's High 'n' Dry, there's a disc of rarities and single mixes, a previously unreleased live set from 1980, and a collection of radio recordings, both from sessions and live shows. Anyone checking out this box already knows how good the first two albums are: On Through the Night is a little raw and unformed, while also showing off the band's skill at rocking really hard without skimping on super-catchy melodies, and High 'n' Dry kicks off their term with Mutt Lange behind the desk with a selection of tight-as-wire, hard-as-concrete, catchier-than-a-pandemic songs that might actually be the purest distillation of what makes them so good.
The live set is rough around the edges, but it's still remarkably high-quality for something that's been in a vault for so long. It's worth it to hear Def Leppard play "When the Rain Falls," a pre-lyric-change version of High 'n' Dry highlight "Let It Go." The disc of rarities is a little less exciting to anyone who bought the recent reissue of the band's '80s album since many of them, including their three-song debut EP from 1979, were included. The single edits aren't too revelatory either; the two unreleased songs -- an early version of "Rock Brigade" and the vaulted "Glad I'm Alive" -- are fun though. The big selling point for fanatics is the pair of radio sessions from 1979 that find Def Leppard charging through songs with all the energy of a live set but none of the sonic clutter of a live show. The difference in skill and attack from the first session to the second is fascinating, and the takes on "Wasted" and "Rock Brigade" rival those put on wax. The songs recorded at the Reading Festival in 1980 are a nice treat, too; they're less sonically pure but a nice snapshot of what the group sounded like on a big stage at the time. One might question the need for another reissue of the first two albums so soon, but the package put together around them is interesting enough historically, and it's definitely worth it to true Def Lep devotees.