Def Leppard Virtual Nightmare in 'Let's Get Rocked' [March 29, 1992]
Plus: Soul II Soul, Prince, Manic Street Preachers, and Bruce Springsteen
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Welcome to the week of March 29, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stay’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘Let’s Get Rocked’ — Def Leppard (↑)
‘To Be With You’ — Mr. Big (=)
‘Deeply Dippy’ — Right Said Fred (=)
‘Finally’ — CeCe Peniston (↓)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 2: ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ — Def Leppard
In 1992, we had no idea that we were on the brink of a world-altering revolution.
That revolution was the internet. It has transformed every aspect of our life, bringing us good things (Cher’s Twitter feed) and bad things (everything else).
And yet, in 1992, no one suspected that any of this was coming. The popular imagination entertained vague ideas about cyberspace, much of which was influenced by the writing of Wiliam Gibson. But nobody knew that, very soon, we would all have a pocket-sized device that made it possible to instantly send anonymous death threats to feminists, game developers, and strangers who think that the latest Spider-Man movie was only okay.
Not that 1992 was a technology-free analogue wasteland. Home and office computing were already becoming integral to everyday life at this point. For me, much of my universe revolved around an Amstrad CPC464 with a green screen monitor and built-in tape deck.
I also had an Atari 2600 that was already quite retro by 1992, and occasionally I got to borrow my cousin’s extremely futuristic Sega Megadrive.
Like most kids, I felt that technology was my birthright. I found it cool, entertaining, and intuitive. I only had one small concern, which was the fear that the machines would rise up and kill us all. This particular scenario had been depicted in the 1991 summer blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Digital information networks existed in 1992. Anyone with a computer could connect to a Bulletin Board Service, allowing them to exchange messages with other geeks and square.
Only in the local area though. Connected to a BBS meant plugging your computer into the phone line, and then dialling the server’s phone number. Dialling up an international BBS would have meant paying for an international phone call.
A new system was emerging that made it easier to share data internationally. Tim Berners-Lee had created HTTP and the WorldWideWeb browser in 1990, and this technology was catching on in academic circles.
But real people did not care about any of this. A bunch of geeks and hobbyists sending dorky messages to each other? What could possibly be less important?
Instead, people were thinking about the terrors of about cyberspace and virtual reality, thanks to The Lawnmower Man.
The Lawnmower Man was released in the States at the start of March 1992. Loosely adapted from a Stephen King novel (very loosely—King sued to get his name taken off it), it tells the story of a guy who goes online, turns evil, and tries to destroy the world.
This is actually a pretty good prediction of how technology would turn out.
The Lawnmower Man bombed on release. Which is fair. It’s not a great film.
Many people admired the CGI sequences in the movie, which were quite groundbreaking at the time. But audiences didn’t actually want to pay money to see this stuff in a cinema, because it looked like hot vomit. They were happy to sit tight and wait for Toy Story to get made.
Bad news, then, for the rock band that released a CGI music video that looked even uglier than The Lawnmower Man.
Def Leppard were returning to action in 1992 after a very painful moment in their history.
Guitarist Steve Clark had long been struggling with an alcohol addiction that had spiralled out of control. The band sent him away to dry out before they started work on their follow-up to the blockbuster Hysteria.
But Clark kept drinking. At the start of 1991, he died due to a lethal mix of alcohol and painkillers.
The band paused for a while, and then made their comeback with their fifth album, Adrenalize. ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ was the lead single, and it is a song so profoundly mindless that it makes ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ sound like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
But that’s okay, no judgement here. After what Def Leppard had been through, you can’t begrudge them an upbeat party song.
For the video, the band drafted in Steve Barron, who had already changed the CGI game with his video for Dire Strait’s ‘Money For Nothing’.
There are two discrete parts to the ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ video. One part is a fully computer-generated 3D cartoon, featuring an animated character named Flynn, who is loosely based on Bart Simpson.
Everything about Flynn makes your blood turn cold. His dead eyes. His robotic movements. His creepy lip-syncing. He is a terrifying creation, proof that the digital world exists outside of God’s grace.
The Lawnmower Man and Flynn both offer a vision of our digital future as a garish, immersive, VR nightmare. A 360° nightmare that erodes humanity and severs our connection with the outside world.
This has always been the big question about cyberspace: will we eventually build a digital hell for ourselves. The Matrix, for instance, asked the terrifying question: what if we were trapped in a computer-generated world where everyone has a job and a nice apartment?
Right now, Mark Zuckerberg and various crypto hustlers are trying to sell us this idea, but in a good way. They promise that the Metaverse is coming soon, and we will live, love and work in this virtual realm.
The only problem is that the Metaverse looks about as appealing as the ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ video.
But wait, let’s step back a bit.
Remember when we said that there are two halves to the ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ video?
The other half is actually much more impressive than the weird nightmare cartoon. In this half, we actually caught a glimpse of what lay ahead.
I’m talking about this bit:
Throughout the video, Def Leppard appear to be playing on a vast stage with a Union Jack carpet.
But they are not. The band performed in a small set with a blue screen. Everything else was added digitally.
In other words, it’s shot using the same technique as almost every big-budget movie of the past 20 years. It’s not quite seamless, but it looks convincing enough at times.
And here is the high-tech future we failed to predict. We always imagined ourselves in conflict with technology. Computers will either destroy us, like Skynet, or swallow us whole, like The Matrix.
But the real story of technology is how it’s insinuated itself into our lives. The internet is now kind of like gut bacteria: a weird, ineffable parasite that came from who-knows-where, and we would probably die if it went away.
In 1992, we were all at the beginning of a journey. Over the next 30 years, the boundary between the physical and the digital would become increasingly blurred.
And one of the first steps in that journey was here, in a video for a dumb cars’n’girls rock song, as Joe Elliot bounced around on an imaginary stage that only existed as 1s and 0s on a hard drive. Our future had begun.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘Joy’ — Soul II Soul
Is it possible to shoehorn in a Will Smith reference and make this newsletter topical?
In the very first scene of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will is knocking on the door while waiting for Geoffry to let him in. He gets carried away by the beat and starts singing, and the song he sings is… ‘Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)’ by Soul II Soul featuring Caron Wheeler!
Woo! We did it!
Caron Wheeler left Soul II Soul after the first album, but she returned for ‘Joy’, which was their last Top 10 hit. It’s a very good song. You might even say…it slaps.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Morgue)’ — W.A.S.P.
You should never be ashamed of the things you like. You enjoy it, you find something worthwhile in it, and that’s awesome. Fuck anyone who tries to make you feel bad.
That said, I am mortified at the intense phase of W.A.S.P. fandom I went through when I was 12. The first half of 1990 was just The Headless Children on a loop.
Looking back now, I see that W.A.S.P. are not just terrible, they’re almost a caricature. You know when you watch a dodgy 80s movie and the protagonist goes to a club, and there’s a very unconvincing metal band on stage? That’s W.A.S.P.
Number 19 (↑ from 31): ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’ — Prince
The fifth single from Diamonds and Pearls, ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’, is one of the best thing Prince ever did.
Everything about this clicks so well, from the dramatic lyrics that start in medias res (“One more card and it’s 22/Unlucky for him again”) to the slow-burning funk of the verse, to the big gospel chorus. Sublime.
Number 24 (↓ from 20): ‘Slash ‘n’ Burn’ — Manic Street Preachers
Single #4 from Generation Terrorists, and probably the weakest of the six. ‘Slash ‘n’ Burn’ treads a lot of the same ground as ‘Stay Beautiful’, without having the latter’s vigour.
‘Motown Junk’ was the main B-side, and it is so vastly superior to the A-side that you really have to wonder why it didn’t make the album.
Number 25 (New Entry): ‘Free Your Body/Injected With a Poison’ — Praga Khan feat. Jade 4 U
Praga Khan appeared in lots of 90s movies, thanks to Paul Verhoven being a big fan. A Praga Khan song features in Basic Instinct, which contains one of the most shocking and infamous moments in movie history: the bit where Michael Douglas goes to a hip nightclub in a sweater.
Album of the Week
Human Touch/Lucky Town — Bruce Springsteen
One of the recurring themes in this newsletter is the transition from the 80s to the 90s. A lot of megastar rockers either had to reinvent themselves (like U2) or risk oblivion (like Guns N’ Roses).
But what about people who had been around longer?
In the early 80s, a lot of our finest talent found themselves commodified and processed for mainstream consumption. Stevie Wonder, for instance, had his biggest hit with the worst song he has ever written.
The Boss had an even weirder 80s, when his howl of working-class fury, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ somehow became the unofficial anthem of Reagan’s America (something that Springsteen was not happy about.)
He released one other record that decade, the excellent and moody Tunnel of Love, which documented the collapse of his marriage and his old life in general.
It was a long and tense wait for the next phase of Springsteen’s career. In the intervening years, he remarried, had kids, and moved to Los Angeles. He also formally parted ways with the E Street Band, raising big questions about what his new music would sound like.
Springsteen himself seemed to have doubts about this new direction. Human Touch was almost ready to ship, but The Boss decided to hold it back while he worked on another sequence of songs called Lucky Town. Eventually, it was decided that both albums would appear on the same day, kind of like Use Your Illusion I and II.
The moral of the story: double albums are always a bad idea.
Human Touch and Lucky Town both went platinum, of course. The appetite for new Springsteen music was ferocious. Plus, lead single ‘Human Touch’ is one of his best tracks, and seemed to promise a richer, more complex, more 90s sound.
But the rest of the duology is surprisingly bland. You can hear some of the problems early in Human Touch, like on the plodding ‘Cross My Heart’:
You can hear what he’s going for ‘Cross My Heart’—the slow build, the sense of atmosphere, the cathartic climax—but it never really takes off. It’s just lacking a spark to start the fire.
What it’s missing is the E Street Band, and that’s true of the whole record.
Lucky Town is probably the stronger of the two. It comes out all guns blazing on the scream-along ‘Better Days’:
But again, the album just kind of runs out of steam as it goes along.
In later years, Springsteen admitted that these records didn’t go according to plan, and he blamed it on writing too many happy songs. That’s an oversimplification—people mistook ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ for a happy song and they loved it.
The real problem is both records sound a little distracted, as if Springsteen would rather be somewhere other than the studio.
When Springsteen is at his best, he sings like the whole world is depending on him. That’s absent on these records. Nothing here sounds essential.
There is one song that perhaps deserves a reappraisal: ‘57 Channels And Nothing On’, the second single from Human Touch.
This droning story of consumerist boredom actually sounds more relevant today, especially if replace TV with endless doomscrolling. Like Def Leppard, Springsteen gave us an early glimpse of our dumb, online future.
Political humour from Mr. Bean. Plus, the debut record from a young singer-songwriter called Polly.
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Not for nothing, we had "green screens" into the 2000s at work. then we upgraded to yellow ones. Even today, a huge part of my job is typing in decades old string entries, while on the next monitor is a stream of state-of-the-art telemetry. Aviation is wild...
The Praga Khan track is like a medley of every rave tune ever recorded.