It started as a gig. Last fall, Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott opened for his favorite band, British hard-rock legends Mott The Hoople, at one of their reunion shows in London. Backed by members of the English band the Quireboys, Elliott covered deep tracks from the weird period after Mott The Hoople broke up in 1975: singer Ian Hunter's early solo albums; records by the spinoff bands Mott and British Lions. "I wanted people to go, 'I never thought I'd hear that song live again ever!'" Elliott recalls.
That set list is now a studio album, My ReGeneration Vol. 1 (Mailboat), cut with the Quireboys and credited to Joe Elliott's Down 'N' Outz. Elliott excavates the ironic bombast of Hunter's "Golden Opportunity" and the title track from his neglected 1977 album, Overnight Angels; pulls three explosive obscurites from 1976's Shouting and Pointing by Mott, a band made up of the original group's rhythm section with a new singer and guitarist; and does "One More Chance to Run, the opening number from the 1978 British Lions album, made by those Mott remnants with yet another singer. To fill out My ReGeneration, Elliott also recorded two solo acoustic numbers, the short Mott ballad "Apologies" and a Hunter song, "3000 Miles From Here," that Elliott used to sing and play on guitar, with his mom, when he was a teenager.
"We all have stuff like that in our record collections – 'I can't understand why nobody else bought this,'" Elliott says. "In my little clique of Mott fans, in Sheffield, England, we couldn't understand what was wrong with everybody." That passion is more than a record now. "I'm on a mission," Elliott, 51, declares. "It's a mantra: There's more to life, people, than 'Free Bird' and 'Stairway to Heaven.' If you're going to listen to classic rock, dig a little further. You'll find some amazing songs."
Birth of a Fan
For as long as I've known Elliott – it is 30 years since we met on Def Leppard's first major headlining tour of Britain – the conversation always turns, at some point, to the metallic ferocity and glam flair of Mott The Hoople's late Sixties and early Seventies studio albums and live shows. I remember an evening in 1987, during the Hysteria sessions in Holland, when Elliott played for me two cassettes packed with Mott rarities, passed to him by that band's bassist Overend Watts. Elliott kindly made copies for me later.
His ardor goes back even further. When Mott The Hoople's cover of David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes" became a career-saving smash in 1972, "I was the one in the playground," he recalls, "jumping up and down, saying, 'I told you so!'" After the group split in 1975, Elliott avidly followed Hunter's solo career and bought all of the Mott and British Lions records. Elliott covers Hunter's 1977 U.K. single "England Rocks" on My ReGeneration for a very simple reason: That spangled charging anthem "was our song that summer, for my Hot Mott crowd in Sheffield. We would sit in the park – drinking beer, watching girls go by, listening to this thing on cassette over and over." Elliott says it drives him nuts when interviewers ask him, "So why did you rewrite 'Cleveland Rocks?'" He didn't; Hunter did, swapping Britain for Ohio in a remake for his 1979 album, You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic.
Mott's "Shouting and Pointing," a frenzied rocker with an off-center rhythm, is another of Elliott's teenage-memory hits. "I remember the first time I heard it," he says, "Andy and Ian, my Mott buddies, and I used to go down to the boating lake, in Weston Park in Sheffield, and listen to Alan Freeman's show on Saturday afternoons on the BBC. He was the heavy-rock John Peel. When he played 'Shouting and Pointing,' we all got up, ran to the bus stop, got on the number 51 bus downtown to Bradley's Records and bought the album." While Elliott was redoing the song with the Quireboys, he contacted Mott keyboardist Morgan Fisher. "I said, 'We can't get the keyboard to sound as big as yours.' He said, 'That's because there's three pianos on there.' We ended up using six," Elliott notes with glee.
His Day Job
Elliott describes the current state of his regular gig, Def Leppard, which announced a sabbatical from the road last year, this way: "It's a very graceful swan on top, but kicking its legs underneath." The band is combing through live recordings from its 2009 U.S. tour for a concert album and DVD; Elliott says the band members are all writing material for a new studio record; and discussions about a boxed-set anthology are underway. "We said we were taking a year off," Elliott says. "I must be insane. This is some year off. I keep getting questions: 'Have Leppard split?'" He points out that guitarists Vivian Campbell and Phil Collen both recently issued side-project albums. "Nobody said a word. The singer puts out a record, and the whole world is coming to an end." It isn't. Elliott promises "some grand announcement in February or March" about touring and recording plans.
The Vol. 1 reference on My ReGeneration is no joke either. Elliott already has three more Down 'N' Outz records lined up in his head. "The game plan is to do a second album of actual Mott The Hoople songs," he says. But instead of the hits, Elliott is looking at songs such as "Thunderbuck Ram" on 1970's Mad Shadows and "Crash Street Kids" from 1974's The Hoople. "The third album would be other stuff from the era, like 10 CC and Fanny. The fourth, we would write new songs that sound like what Mott might have done. To me, the latest Cheap Trick album" – actually called The Latest – "sounds like the album the Beatles might have made in 1971, after Let It Be. That's what we'll do – songs that sound a bit Mott-ish.
"The truth is, this was never supposed to happen," Elliott admits. "We did this 45-minute show – and felt short-changed afterwards: 'We need to record this.' Now it's one of those things that has just snowballed, by its own energy."