The Awesome Secret Hiding in Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’ Singles
Def Leppard cover artist Andie Airfix knew CDs were about to kill vinyl records. Still, he was determined to go out with a big bang if 1987's Hysteria was going to be the last project he designed primarily for the 12" format.
"Hysteria was the first time I had to create artwork for CDs, and I realized the new format could be the death knell for vinyl," Airfix explained on his website. "It was a defining moment for me. I hated the CD format - its size, its limited packaging possibilities, and most of all I hated how it would destroy a medium I loved, vinyl. I knew for the singles I had to come up with something that had never been done before and would probably never be done again."
Knowing that Def Leppard would be releasing multiple singles from their much-anticipated and often-delayed follow-up to 1983's Pyromania, Airfix divided his Hysteria album cover into nine equal parts, and then designed single art based on each segment. If the band was somehow able to release nine 12" vinyl singles from the album, fans would be able to assemble them into a 3' by 3' mural.
Inspired by producer Mutt Lange's goal of surpassing the number of singles featured on Michael Jackson's Thriller, the band matched this near-impossible plan, releasing seven singles from Hysteria between July 1987 and January 1989. "Thriller was, like, the biggest thing on the planet," singer Joe Elliott explained to Music Aficionado. "So we would sit around talking, and somebody said, 'Man, [Jackson] had six singles off that album.' And Mutt would have been the one to say, "Well, why can't you guys do that?'" (Thriller actually contained seven hit singles.)
Still, with nine singles considered an impossibility, in July 1988, Def Leppard released a 12" of the album's fifth U.K. single, "Love Bites," complete with the four additional 12" panels needed to complete the three-foot mural. You can see the individual covers as well as the complete piece below.
Airfix had fulfilled his vision, but it wasn't easy. "Not only were the songs released in different territories in a different order and with different release dates – in different territories the single’s sleeve art was not even the same size," he explained. "You would think, wouldn’t you, that 12” and 7” singles formats would be consistent? But they weren’t. There wasn’t a huge difference, but enough to mean each division into nine sections had to be re-figured to suit each territory – to make sure they all fitted together perfectly."
By the end of it all, the designer began to feel a bit like the screaming head pictured on Hysteria's cover. "There were times I thought it was some kind of weird premonition of how I would actually feel, and look, during the project," Airfix later noted.
The compact disc's dominance proved to be somewhat short-lived. After a two-decade run, it was replaced by digital downloads and streaming, with vinyl also mounting a notable comeback.
In 2018, Def Leppard released The Hysteria Singles box set, featuring 7" versions of the seven original singles that came out 30 years earlier. The album tracks "Excitable" and "Love and Affection" were also assigned cover art to fill in the two missing panels.
Airfix - who also created album and DVD artwork for Metallica, Led Zeppelin and Guns N' Roses - died in October 2018. You can purchase a print of the Hysteria "Nine" singles mural at his web store.