Def Leppard's Joe Elliott on 'Hysteria': 'It Had to Be Sexy' - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Features

Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott Reflects on ‘Hysteria’: ‘It Had to Be Sexy’

As band releases 30th anniversary box set, singer explains how they fused rock with pop and made a modern masterpiece

Def Leppard's Joe Elliott Talks 'Hysteria'Def Leppard's Joe Elliott Talks 'Hysteria'

Steve Clark and Joe Elliott of Def Leppard perform on stage at Wembley Arena on April 12th, 1988 in London, England, on their 'Hysteria' world tour.

Peter Still/Getty

The story of Def Leppard’s Hysteria – the monolithic pop-metal record that defined the latter part of the Eighties – reads like Homeric odyssey. The four-year gap between their 1983 mainstream breakthrough Pyromania and the release of the album was marked by tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama – including the exit and return of production genius Mutt Lange – completely rewritten songs and coping with the aftermath of a car accident that severed drummer Rick Allen’s left arm. Ultimately, the band made one of the most expensive albums ever. Through it all, they persevered to create a record that transcended the rock of the time.

“It took a long time to make, and it shows you how quickly music moved in the Eighties,” singer Joe Elliott tells Rolling Stone. “As we were doing it, it was sounding out of date, because the Eighties were a weird time. There was always new technology or a new way of doing things – new sounds replacing old sounds – so much quicker than how it happened in the Seventies. In the Eighties, the Eurythmics came along two weeks after Dio. Then it was Frankie Goes to Hollywood and all these different forms of music coming out. We were listening to it all going, ‘If somebody put all this in a bucket and stirred it around, you’d get a hell of a sound.'”

The sound they came up with – a vision of hard rock reflected off a pop mirror – earned them the top spot on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and it fostered a series of an astounding seven mega singles that dominated radio and MTV for years. The ballad “Love Bites” made it to Number One in the U.S., while the indelible and purposely sexual “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and beat-crashing “Armageddon It” made it to Numbers Two and Three, respectively.

The album, which also topped out the chart, has since been certified 12-times platinum, and now it’s the subject of a deluxe box set to mark its 30th anniversary. The band has remastered the original album, which is also available in less ostentatious configurations, and packaged it with two discs of B sides and radio edits and 12-inch versions of the songs, as well as a live album culled from their Live: In the Round, In Your Face concert film, which was only previously available on VHS. They’ve also included a DVD of their music videos and Top of the Pops performances and another with the Classic Albums documentary about the film. Lastly, they’ve included a book of photos, a replica tour program and a book detailing the ups and downs of the making of Hysteria.

It’s a maximal reissue for a maximal album – and Elliott, who spoke with Rolling Stone about the album, contends that’s just the way the band perceives it. “When you look at the Sgt. Pepper that came out and the many versions of Dark Side of the Moon, it just made sense,” he says.

What stands out to you when you think about Hysteria now?
It’s the determination that shines through the most. It was an uphill struggle, like roller-skating on Mount Everest [laughs]. We started off with Mutt Lange saying he couldn’t do it and then going to [Meat Loaf songwriter] Jim [Steinman] as a producer, and that didn’t work out. Then we worked with Nigel Green, the engineer, which was going along well if you wanted Sides Three and Four to Pyromania. Then there was Rick’s accident. And then I got mumps for the second time in my life. And then Mutt came back. Somewhere there’s a photograph of Mutt in the hospital with a keyboard across his lap. It’s like that Monty Python bit where the knight gets his arms cut off and then both legs, and he’s like, “I’ll bite you to death.” Nothing was going to stop him.

Hysteria is more of a pop record overall. Why did you want to move away from hard rock and metal after Pyromania?
It wasn’t a case of moving away; it was a case of moving on. With the greatest respect to [Boston’s] Tom Scholz, we didn’t want to make Don’t Look Back, which to me is Side Three and Side Four of the first Boston album. And that’s exactly what we were doing until Mutt came along and kicked us off our ass, metaphorically speaking. We were like this rudderless ship without Mutt producing it. But once he came in, everybody’s focus went in and we started throwing new ideas in, and all the better songs came about.

When he came in, we came up with “Excitable” and “Sugar” and changing “Armageddon It” from sounding like the Russian Army marching through Red Square to sounding like “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex. We came up with all these new intros to things like “Shotgun,” which didn’t have the big a cappella thing at the front, and all these things like the middle part of “Rocket” that’s just completely insane technology-wise, messing around with [synthesizers] Synclaviers and Fairlights and stuff. It was a ball because the technology was there.

We never wanted to be the band that set up and played, which is what we were for High ‘n’ Dry – and that’s what we wanted to be for High ‘n’ Dry, because there was no technology then. But once we saw all this new stuff coming out, it was very similar to what the Beatles did. Once they went off the road and locked themselves in Abbey Road, they went, “What does this button do, George?” “Oh, well it plays it backwards.” “Oh, let’s have a go.” We were doing a lot of that. We weren’t just straightforward rockers.

You weren’t too concerned with genre.
The amount of times that we sat with the road crew for rock bands, and they’ve gone, “You’re listening to Lionel Richie?” If I admitted that I was listening to Lionel Richie, they’d fire me. I’d be like, why can’t you listen to Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits, Tori Amos – as well as UFO, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Queen and whatever else that rocks and has big guitars? Well, Queen aren’t standard by any means. We just wanted to be Queen. We saw what Queen did. They were a proggy rock band for the first two records then they did this insanely brilliant record called Sheer Heart Attack and went off on a tangent with Night at the Opera and the records that followed. We were like, “Wow. They are pushing the envelope so far past rock, yet it is still rock.” That was the band we wanted to be. We were not ashamed of Pyromania. We just didn’t want to do it again.

Speaking of technology, how hard was it to play these songs live with all the vocal layers?
It was insane. It’s a lot easier now, because we’re better at it and more confident. But with a song like “Hysteria,” there’s 11 guitar parts on that song. We had to do what Pink Floyd were doing, since they had only one guitar player. We had to go, “What’s the punter riff?” What’s the thing that people hear in the verse? What is the bridge? I’m sure Boston and Queen had that problem, too.

We were in rehearsals for a month. It wasn’t just for the playing; it was for the stamina. We were going out in the round. God, what were we thinking? You’ve got four front rows to play to, and you can’t do ’em all at once. So there’s a lot of athleticism necessary for this particular 227 shows that we were about to play. Lead-vocal–wise, I didn’t have to change too much; I just had to build stamina to do it. But it was incredibly hard.

You worked on the record a bit in Holland. What did you think of the music you heard in the clubs there?
We’d go out at night down to this classic gay bar, a disco. We’d burst in and go, “OK, it’s a gay bar. Doesn’t matter.” They’d be playing that “State of Shock” song by Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson [credited to the Jacksons]. It had a rock format to it – it sounded like a rock song with Mick Jagger obviously giving it a bit of rock and Michael Jackson doing his best to be a rocker. It may not have had guitars on it, but neither did Aerosmith’s Armageddon song but it still sounded like a rock song.

So we were hearing this and thinking, “It’s not clearing the dance floor. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a song that was obviously a guitar song but didn’t clear the dance floor?” They were also playing all this stuff that was rock-ish stuff like the Police or “Radar Love” by Golden Earring and it’s like, “There’s a party killer right there.” Everyone would by a drink. So we wanted to do our version of “State of Shock,” and that became “Excitable.”

“Rocket” has some interesting rhythms. How did that come together?
We wrote that with Mutt halfway through the album. I came out of a sauna – we were staying in a village about half an hour from Amsterdam. It was a little hamlet in Holland – a windmill, a pool bar and a bread shop and then nothing for five miles except for this sauna. There was music in the background and it was this Burundi Black track. It was this real hypnotic, African-style drumming with probably 100 drummers. In a sense, it was like an organic version of an early Gary Glitter song or Adam and the Ants. And I was thinking, “Christ, this is awesome.” I got out a little tape recorder and held it to the speaker. And it was before the Internet, so I had to ask people to find out that it was this mini hit in 1971. So I tracked it down and made a loop of that drum thing and did and did a demo over it and played it for Mutt and Phil [Collen, guitar]. They were like, “Well done.” I had the chorus as well, so we built the whole song around that.

You’d recorded a version of “Animal” that was more of a rock song and then you dismantled it. How did that come together?
We wrote “Animal in the spring of ’84, just before we moved to Dublin. If you watch the Classic Albums show, you can hear the original backing track. The original riff was this weird thing, but it was the same melody for the vocal, which I’d recorded in Paris.

It was the vocal being as good as it was that prompted Mutt to say, “It’s better than the song. It deserves a better song.” So when we reconvened in Holland, he put the drums up in the vocal and just had Steve and Phil, “Just go on, do something. Just keep playing around until we’re ready to stop.” That’s how we would do it. We ended up with a backing track that was a lot more current. That’s how things happened on this record. It was completely against the grain of the way you make records.

That explains a bit why the album took as long as it did to make.
We were fighting our own artistic limitations. Sometimes, somebody like Steve might be too shy to go, “This sounds like shit to me.” As soon as somebody else said it, he’d go, “Yeah, I agree. I’ve been wanting to say that for three months.” [Laughs] That’s another reason it took so long. We weren’t in a rush to get it right; we just wanted to get it right.

Let’s talk about “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” There’s a well-known story that it started as an acoustic ditty you came up with, but how did it become the song we know?
Once Mutt heard me play it on the acoustic – it was just the chorus and background vocals with the title – he said, “I’m sorry but we’re doing that.” We’d already had the 11 songs we thought were going on the record chosen and were just finishing them off. I was doing the vocal on “Armageddon It” at the time.

What we did was he removed the tape and put a new piece of tape on and said, “OK, play it again.” And he just programmed the drum machine, which sounded similar to “We Will Rock You.” Then he put a bass to it – a robotic keyboard bass. Then we tried to figure out the key. He said, “Sing it higher.” At a certain point he goes, “OK, that’s a good register. Where does that leave the key?” We put the chorus in a great key; we put a verse in a really weird key for Phil, but that’s what made it unique.

I think between Phil and Mutt, they honed the guitar riff and what was happening in the verse. But the bridge just came naturally; Phil probably wrote it. Since we had the big hook in the chorus, we could work backwards. What we had was the candles that were already lit and we had the icing but we didn’t have the cake underneath. So we just worked backwards, which is a lot easier to do. It was a last-minute accident and it became arguably the most important song on the album.

The process you’re describing almost sounds like rap.
Well, it was right around the time that Run-DMC and Aerosmith did “Walk This Way.” We saw the video and thought, “Wow, this is fucking smoking.” That gave us the concept of the vocal line, because we were working “Sugar” more like “Come Together” for the Beatles. It had the beat [beat boxes] and we were singing [scats]. We were doing it slow like “Come Together.” So we said, “We need to double this up.” Mutt sped up the tempo, which made the song a bit faster.

There’s a section in the book that accompanies the box set that says “Joe had written ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ specifically for strippers to perform to.” What can you tell me about that?
That’s artistic license by the author right there. It wasn’t written for strippers. What really happened was when we wrote the song, we slowed it to a tempo where Mutt said, “It’s got to be sexy. You’ve got to imagine people on the pole to this.” So I suppose he encouraged us to do it in that tempo, but I never walked in and went, “We’re gonna write a song for strippers.” That’s probably somebody else’s territory more than mine.

But it made a difference for you.
Yes, when we went to rock radio with “Sugar,” it kind of died a death. Then over the next couple of months, it resurrected itself, we were told, through strip clubs. It was supposedly getting played all over Florida – probably something to do with spring break. Then what happens is someone starts shoving dollar bills down G-strings and the girls start requesting the song at radio. Then that gets played, more people hear it and it gets more spins at MTV. It went like wildfire across strip bars, from what I’m told – from Florida all the way over to the West Coast in a couple of weeks. It wasn’t specifically written for strippers, but it was written to be as sexy as possible. We’re not a sexy band, but we do like sexy songs occasionally. I didn’t write it for strippers, but I’m glad they took to it.

Finally, in 1987, you told Kerrang! that Hysteria was the best thing you’ve ever done. Do you still feel that way?
I think it’s the most iconic thing we’ll ever do, because it’s got a life of its own. I could stand here ’til I’m blue in the face and pretend to be, “Oh, I think our new album is much better.” I can try and justify everything we’ve done since. But I’m not an idiot. I know that it’s always gonna be the thing that people judge us by. Everything we ever do, post-Hysteria is judged against Hysteria, which proves how good the record is. It is our Deep Purple in Rock; it’s our Physical Graffiti; it’s our Sgt. Pepper. There are bits of Hysteria that I think could be way better, but that’s with every record that could be better. Every artist on the planet would tell you the same thing.

Is it my favorite Def Leppard record of all time? I don’t think so. It’s obviously in the top two or three. But I get that people will always think of us and Hysteria, because I always think of Dark Side of the Moon when somebody says Pink Floyd. That’s just the way it is. 

In This Article: Def Leppard, Joe Elliott


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.