The Meaning Behind Def Leppard’s Desperate “Photograph”

If you’re looking for the song that acted as the primary catalyst for the massive success Def Leppard would enjoy throughout the rest of their career, you’d have to look right at “Photograph.” It was a big hit single by a band that came from a genre that, to that point, hadn’t typically impacted the singles charts. 

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Many people who have loved the song for years might not have given a second thought to what it means. What exactly is “Photograph” about? How did Def Leppard use it to break out into a new stratosphere of success? And what does Marilyn Monroe have to do with it (if anything at all)? Let’s take an in-depth look at this killer ‘80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal track.

Mutt’s Musings

Def Leppard formed in Sheffield, England, in 1976 as a heavy metal-influenced outfit, and their 1980 debut album, On Through the Night, was very much in that vein. For their second record, High ‘n’ Dry (1981), the band hired producer Mutt Lange, who had just made his first big statement on the rock scene with his production work on AC/DC’s mega-hit Back in Black.

Lange began to push Def Leppard toward a more streamlined, commercial sound, as evidenced by the song “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” The relative success of that single helped the band and Lange decide to push further in that more radio-friendly direction for the entirety of their third album, which would be released in 1983 on its way to changing the game for hard rock as pop music.

[RELATED: On This Day in Music History: Def Leppard’s Rick Allen Loses Arm in Car Accident]

As the band looked for a first single for Pyromania, their focus was drawn to a track they’d already been working on a few years. It had been such a long process, in fact, that Pete Willis, the guitarist who’d left the band just as the sessions had begun and was replaced by Phil Collen, can still be heard on “Photograph.”

A thriller of an opening riff by Steve “Steamin'” Clark gave the song some bite, but it still needed lyrics. That’s when Lange came up with an idea, as recalled by Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott in a 2013 interview with VH1.com. “One day Mutt had the line, All I’ve got is a photograph. I said, ‘That’s a Ringo Starr song.’ He went, ‘Nobody will ever notice.’ I said, ‘It’s a photograph of something you can’t ever get your hands on, somebody that’s not here anymore.’”

One other key element to the song was the guitar solo, which Collen nailed after getting some coaching from Lange. Musically, “Photograph” definitely rocks, but there’s also an attention to melodic hooks that made the song catnip for radio—and the video captured the photogenic band and made them MTV darlings. But there’s been a common, and seemingly misguided, interpretation of the lyrics.

How Much Did Marilyn Inspire “Photograph?”

Here’s where the interpretation of “Photograph” gets a bit tricky, if only because Elliott’s own quotes throughout the years have created some confusion. The video features a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, which led many to believe that the legendary sex symbol inspired the song’s lyrics. Elliott seemed to put the kibosh on that idea in that same VH1.com interview:

“Over the years it’s become exaggerated to Biblical proportions that ‘Photograph’ was written about Marilyn Monroe, because she was in the video. I don’t want to break anybody’s heart, here, but Marilyn Monroe was just another average actress to me. The song was about somebody that’s out of the picture. All I’ve got is a photograph, but it’s not enough.”

But Elliott also told Ultimate Classic Rock that a poster of Monroe did factor into the song. “I used to see this thing on a daily basis—this beautiful woman—and I used that analogy, that ‘die young, stay pretty’ sort of thing. And I brought that to the table. Like, what about somebody that’s the ultimate ‘you can’t have,’ because they’re not here anymore? Not because they’ve run off with your neighbor or your brother or your mate—they’re not here.”

Chances are that both back stories are true—that Elliott might have remembered that poster to get him started, but didn’t have Monroe specifically in mind as he composed the lyrics. In any case, the key to understanding “Photograph” is that this girl is unreachable (So wild and free, so far from me) and that she’s essentially undoing him even though they’ve never met (Oh, look what you’ve done to this rock ‘n’ roll clown). The ultimate result is futility: It’s not enough, Elliott complains.

Played to the hilt by the band (and Thomas Dolby, of “She Blinded Me with Science” fame, who guests on keyboard), and buffed to rock-radio perfection by Lange, “Photograph” was, and still is, irresistible. It essentially started the Def Leppard juggernaut that has barely slowed in all the years since. Not too shabby for a song that sat around for a few years and borrowed its refrain from another hit.

Photo by Rogers/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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