Def Leppard's Joe Elliott: 'We had this inner demon of pop wanting to come out'

The band’s frontman picks out his favourite songs from their back catalogue, and explains how they have remained positive through cancer, car crashes and alcoholism

Joe Elliott of Def Leppard has the look not so much of a rock star, but a character actor playing a rock star. The clothes are expensive, the hair carefully coloured, but the 58-year-old’s face – slightly downturned – could be that of a Yorkshire butcher fretting about his Barnsley chop supplier. His physique, reassuringly, is not that of a man who spends eight hours a day in the gym (“I’m not going to go out there wearing a union jack shirt and leather trousers and do a split-jump,” he says). He is also delightfully fannish still – we discover a mutual love of the Italian band Giuda, and sing their hit Roll the Balls to each other.

Def Leppard may have passed into the heritage rock business these days, but that business is big. They are on a massive tour of US arenas, then they will perform Hysteria, the 1987 album that became hard rock’s Thriller, in full across Australasia and the UK. Oh, and a box set of all their 80s recordings has been released. That’s a whole lot of Leppard to go round this year, and Elliott is in the mood to talk about it.

Photograph (1983)

“We always had this inner demon of pop wanting to come out,” he says of the single that turned Def Leppard from an up-and-coming metal band into stars of MTV and the biggest rock band of their era. “[Bassist] Rick Savage loved bands like Queen and T Rex; I loved T Rex and Bowie and Sweet and Slade. We were always aiming to do something like that, but we could never really pull it together until Photograph. I remember the first time I heard the riff through the studio wall: me and a couple of the crew went” – Elliott pulls an amazed face – “and when that happens collectively, you know somebody’s hit on something.”

Photograph’s parent album, Pyromania, went diamond in the US – platinum sales 15 times over – but to achieve that level of success meant putting the band before everything else, even friendship. Partway through the recording, they had to sack guitarist Pete Willis, who had founded the band, because of his drinking. “It was holding us back,” Elliott says. “We all drank, don’t get me wrong, but when we drank we just told dirtier jokes a little louder. Pete caused problems. He was disruptive and negative. The band had to come first.”

Animal (1987)

It took four years for Pyromania’s follow-up to emerge, during which time drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash (necessitating the building of a custom-made electronic kit with foot triggers for specific drum patterns), and the band tried recording with Jim Steinman: “Pretty grim. Has anyone actually read the small print? Bat Out of Hell was produced by Todd Rundgren; it was written by Jim Steinman.” When the producer-songwriter Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who had previously pleaded exhaustion, became available, Hysteria emerged and sounded less like a collection of songs than a carefully assembled machine to deliver hooks: a hard rock Meccano set. “That’s exactly what it was,” Elliott says. “Mutt always said: ‘Don’t come in with songs. Don’t be too precious. Come in with lots of bits and let’s see what we can glue together.”

Looking back … Joe Elliott in 1987.
Looking back … Joe Elliott in 1987. Photograph: Ross Halfin/Idols

Def Leppard were obsessed with staying ahead of the competition and Animal demonstrated how far they would go to achieve that. They had written and recorded the song in 1984, but no one was happy with it. Nearly three years later, Lange insisted on them taking another pass. “He took all the sliders down except for the drums and the vocal, and said to the band: ‘Play something.’ So they’ve got the rhythm and they’ve got the melody. ‘Come up with something that enhances this vocal.’ We’d always written melody and lyrics to a tune – most people do. But for us, this time round, it was backwards, which sums up the whole record.”

Two Steps Behind (1993)

Between Hysteria and the 1992 album Adrenalize, the hard rock landscape was changed by the emergence of grunge. “We were lucky, us and Bon Jovi,” Elliott says. “We were so big that even though some dropped off, we still had a vast number of fans. We were doing two sold out nights instead of three. We were doing 24,000 instead of 36,000. But it was still 24,000. When we put out Pyromania, a lot of the bands who were big at time rolled over and died. Whereas [in the early 90s], we said: ‘Knock me down, I will get back up again. We’ll go down to state fairs, we’ll play clubs, we’ll build our career back up.’”

And there were still hits. Two Steps Behind was originally a last-minute extra track for a single package (“You’d spend two years making an album with 10 tracks, and then you’ve got to come up with another 18, because there’s potentially six singles”). Then the US composer Michael Kamen asked if the band had an unreleased song for the Last Action Hero soundtrack. They didn’t, but they sent over what was at that point an obscure B-side. “He didn’t really hear anything,” Elliott says. “He goes off on the Friday night, and on the Monday his secretary is whistling Two Steps Behind. So he plays it, and now he gets it, through her. He puts a string section on it and we have a massive hit – with a B-side from a year before that took an hour to record.”

When Love and Hate Collide (1995)

Def Leppard’s biggest UK hit was an old power ballad that was recorded – and rejected – for Adrenalize, then revisited for the greatest hits album Vault. The original demo, from 1990, featured the last solo for the band by guitarist Steve Clark, who died as a result of alcohol abuse in January 1991. He was replaced by Vivian Campbell. “With Vivian you got the impression he wasn’t going to wake up dead the next morning,” Elliott says, matter-of-factly. “By coincidence or torture, I often got the room next to Steve. I could hear through the walls the pain he was in. I remember the night before one tour started, he was trying to smash his knuckles on the sink so he wouldn’t have to play, because he was scared to death of getting up on stage. And then we did the gig and he was like: ‘I’m fine.’ With bruises everywhere. It was fucking hard work to have to room next to him. We would never have kicked him out of the band because he was always apologising for being the way he was. He wasn’t an asshole by any means. He wasn’t angry or throwing things. He was always subdued or insular. So you always felt sorry for him.”

Rock On (2006)

In 2006, Def Leppard revisited their collective adolescence with Yeah!, an album of covers of old favourites, including this version of David Essex’s first hit. The music of Elliott’s youth remains hugely important to him (he gives me a 20-minute monologue on the glory of the New York Dolls). “The first record I remember loving was Even the Bad Times Are Good by the Tremeloes. I was in a car on my way to a holiday in Wales with my mum and dad, and it was on the radio. I remember thinking: ‘This sounds awesome!’ I’ve heard it since and it’s comical, really. Then I started getting into really good pop stuff. I could only afford ex-jukebox singles and I’d buy two or three a week. I built up a nice collection of three-minute songs, and then I started getting cool with T Rex and Bowie and Rod Stewart.”

Undefeated (2011)

What’s this, Joe Elliott? Are you trying to tell us something with this choice, about how Def Leppard, nearly 40 years on, will never bow down to the ravages of time? Elliott laughs. “I love positivity in lyrics, especially for a stadium rocker. I’m not going to deny it: I write songs like the Brill Building people. I want my songs to be massively anthemic, lighters up at Madison Square Garden. That’s where this song is coming from. It was us on the way back in, saying: ‘You’ve tried and you’ve failed. We have found you wanting.’”

Undefeated first appeared as one of the bonus tracks on the live album Mirror Ball – Live & More. Are Def Leppard now a live attraction more than a studio band? “Because of the generation we came from, we can’t give up on the record. I remember when we first signed to Howard Kaufman Management, he said: ‘I hope they don’t make any more records.’ His rebuilding structure was built around the way he did it with Fleetwood Mac [who have not made a new studio album since 2003, while remaining a huge live attraction in the midst of lineup changes]. That’s not going to work with us. We’ve got to do it. But we are in demand live, and that’s why we wanted to be in a band. To play in front of people. That’s what we saw. Little kids in polo-neck sweaters dancing like puppets around people on Top of the Pops with the drums at the front. It was all based around people watching you on stage. It’s in our DNA to do that, but we’re still going to make records. We’re just never going to do it every year.”

Man Enough (2015)

At this stage in life, Elliott says, he’s not fussed with trying to make something that sounds completely original. Man Enough began with a bass riff by guitarist Phil Collen that sounded enough like Queen for even Savage to raise an eyebrow. “But why not? They’re not making records anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. The rules have changed. It’s OK to sound like somebody else because your own identity will come through. Everybody sounds like someone else sometimes. Why did I pick up a guitar in the first place? Because I heard someone else playing it. And what was I gonna play? What they were playing, until I learn to write.”

We Belong (2015)

“This song has everybody in the band singing lead vocal, which is something we’ve never done before,” Elliott says. “Every line the guys sing can totally reflect their life. Vivian’s line – ‘Behind a painted smile’ – well, he was going through cancer. He was still turning up and being as positive as he could. At the same time, behind closed doors, he’s in hell.”

It is, by Elliott’s admission, a rare Def Leppard song whose lyrics have some personal meaning. “We’ve always been accused, and maybe rightly, of our lyrics not being important. And to a point, they’re not. The lyrics aren’t important in Marc Bolan songs, but they’re fantastic. For 30 years, I’ve willingly gone the ‘Hubcap diamond star halo’ route as opposed to ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’. We all know which one is the better lyric, but which one sounds better? In our record, the phonetics were important, as in Pour Some Sugar on Me. The lyrics have got to be percussive.”

How long, then, can Def Leppard keep demanding sugar be poured on them, insisting that they want and they need and they lust, and asking if a little rock’s out of the question? As long as they like, as long as they know their limitations. “It’s like being a footballer: if you’re a centre forward and you want to keep playing, move into midfield. You can still do a job. Just be aware. And you might only get a game for 70 minutes.”

• Def Leppard’s 12-date Hysteria tour of the UK and Ireland begins on 1 December in Dublin. Volume One, a box set of their first four studio albums, is out now.

* * *

Joe Elliott has curated a longer primer to Def Leppard’s work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across their career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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