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Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott: My Life in 15 Songs

U.K. hitmakers’ singer on “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Photograph” and other glammy gems

Def Leppard; Joe Elliot; 15 songs that changed my life

Def Leppard, circa 1985. Steve Clark, Phil Collen, Joe Elliott, Rick Savage, Rick Allen (from left).

Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was close to 40 years ago that the five lads in Def Leppard, then just teenagers, came roaring out of the gloomy industrial environs of Sheffield, England. But for singer Joe Elliott, it seems like not quite so long ago. "I feel like it's been half that amount of time," he says. "Because when you don't like what you're doing, time drags. But when you enjoy something, it goes too quick. And we've never stopped enjoying it."

Now 56, Elliott is having a very good time indeed. The singer is speaking with Rolling Stone from an undisclosed, but quite tropical-sounding, vacation spot, where he's "chilling with friends and family. We're having a barbecue in about an hour," he says. "It's just good to be in a nice, warm place instead of wet, overcast Dublin where I live."

Career-wise, things aren't too bad, either. Last year, Def Leppard released their 11th studio album, simply titled Def Leppard, and they're currently gearing up for another massive U.S. tour, during which the band will spend six months on the road, from May through October, hitting arenas across the country. Earlier this year, Def Leppard had to cancel some dates after Elliott had a bit of a vocal scare, but he says he's currently on the mend. "You've gotta think about what happened to me this past January as what would happen to Peyton Manning if he pulled a muscle in his arm," Elliott explains. "You just take four, five, six weeks off to let it heal, then you get into some training and you're back again. Now I can walk and run and sing and … do interviews! And I'm working with a vocal coach and getting mentally prepared for the upcoming blitz on the U.S."

As for what people can expect to hear on this next round of dates, Elliott reports that the band will be adding in more music from Def Leppard alongside mega-hits like "Photograph" and "Pour Some Sugar on Me." "When we were out last summer, the new album was just a rumor," he says. "So the people in maybe the first 20 rows knew of it and everyone else was just there to hear, I imagine, what they've already heard for the last 10, 20, 30 years. This time, we'll do more new material, but we're also aware that you can overdo it with that if you're a classic band. Your Elton Johns, your Paul McCartneys, they know why everyone's coming to the gigs, you know what I mean? The Rolling Stones know everyone's there to hear 'Jumpin' Jack Flash.' So it's a very fine line. But we're OK with that. At least we have that luxury of having a catalog."

The always affable — and very chatty — Elliott took time out of not one but two of his vacation days to walk Rolling Stone through 15 songs from that catalog. And while every tune may not have come off an album as big as, say, the more than 20-million-selling Hysteria, each has something unique to offer. Says Elliott, "I don't care if you're McCartney or Dylan or Springsteen — whenever you go into the studio, from Day One until the day you come out, you don't try any less on any one song or record. Some of 'em just don't connect. And then some of 'em do."

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Switch 625” (1981)

I think it's the most interesting song on High 'n' Dry — and I'm not even on it! It has this very strange, angular melody that came straight out of [former guitarist] Steve Clark's brain. To cover that with my voice didn't make any sense to me. So I fought tooth and nail with Mutt to not add lyrics to it. I said, "It doesn't need singing!" It kind of led in from "Heartbreak," and I said, "This has got to be treated the same way as the extended version of 'Layla,' with the piano and the slide guitar. Or the end of 'Free Bird.'" To me, this and "Heartbreak" were just one long song that we gave two titles. And when I say Mutt and I fought, I mean we probably argued for 10 or 15 minutes about it. But I won, if you like!

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” (1981)

I became quite a macho character on High 'n' Dry, compared to the first album. With things like "Let It Go" and this one, I'm this kind of beer-swilling bastard. Which I really wasn't. But that was Mutt trying to push me out front, the same way Bowie tried to push Ian Hunter out front in Mott. Because that band was actually more like the Beatles — [Mott bassist] Mick Ralphs was singing as much as Ian. Bowie saw this and was like, "You've got the shades, you've got the hair — you should be up front!" And that's kind of what Mutt was doing to me. We didn't have the second singer but he said, "None of these wishy-washy things — you need to get out there!" And at the time there were also guys like David Lee Roth and David Coverdale, these frontmen who were central figures that could command attention. He wanted me to at least be given the opportunity to be in that kind of spotlight. It's not something I would have done myself, but I was okay with it. I was all of 21 years old — I was just happy to not be working in a factory anymore.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Photograph” (1983)

It was a leftover from High 'n' Dry that never got finished. By 1982 we had gotten back together to do Pyromania and we said, "Remember that thing we were doing …" Originally, it had more of a twin-guitar thing at the beginning, but it sounded too much like Thin Lizzy. So Steve came up with the new intro part. He started playing it, and we all looked at each other in the control room, like, "What the fuck is that?"

When it came time for the lyrics, Mutt said, "Well, what d'ya got?" And I told him, "I don't have any words, but I have an idea that's been percolating in my head." I used to live in a little basement apartment on the outskirts of London, toward Heathrow. It was a real dump — there was a hole in the wall with a poster covering it up, kind of like in The Shawshank Redemption. It wasn't an escape hatch, but it looked like one! And the poster that was over this hole was Marilyn Monroe. So I said to Mutt, "Wouldn't it be great to write a song about a woman who's the ultimate woman, but also a woman you could never have?" He said, "What do you mean, never?" And I said, "Because she's fucking dead!"

For the video, we stuck with the Marilyn Monroe theme all the way through. But the fact is, the song wasn't actually about her. It wasn't a "Candle in the Wind" type of thing. It just happened to be her on the poster. It could have just as easily been Jayne Mansfield. It could have been any iconic, tragic female.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Rock of Ages” (1983)

For the longest time, we were making the backing track without any lyrics. Then when it came time to add vocals, we had no idea where anything came in because there are no musical cues. Once the guitar drops out, it's just drums and some bass. There's no indication for where the guitar comes back in for what turned into the "What do you want?" section. So everything had to be done with counts: "1, 2, 3, 4 … go!" Eventually, Mutt got bored of "1, 2, 3, 4," and so he started saying all these mad things — "Gunter, Glieben, Glauten, Globen" was just one of them. And between cabin fever, stupidity, rock & roll, whatever you want to call it, it became the joke. By the time we got the song finished, we stuck it on the front because it was just part of our DNA by then. And people got the humor. Over the last 30 years, everyone asks, "Dude, what the hell is that thing you say?" And then the Offspring stole it for "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" … Well, they didn't steal it; they asked permission. But it connected.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Women” (1987)

After all the success of Pyromania in the U.S., this was released as the first single from Hysteria — and it didn't do anything! But we didn't choose it. What you have to realize is that, as a British band still living in England, we had yet to see any real success in our home country. And in June or July of 1987, before Hysteria came out, we released "Animal" as a single in the U.K. and had a Number Six hit in the British Top 40. And we were like, "This is amazing!" But our management convinced us to not go with "Animal" in America. They wanted the more hardcore "Women," to keep our cred factor. We said, "Are you out of your fucking minds?" And it bombed. I'm not going to say they made a mistake, because maybe the fact that this song came out when it did set the stage for "Pour Some Sugar on Me" to come out when it did. So I'll just say we totally disagreed. And at the end of the day, it didn't do any harm!

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Pour Some Sugar on Me” (1987)

It was the last thing we did for Hysteria. And nobody wanted to do it because we felt we were done — we had been working on the thing for two years at that point. But we were in the studio, and everyone else had left for the weekend. Mutt and I were doing vocals for a different song on the album, and he went to take a pee break or whatever. So I picked up an acoustic and started playing the chorus. He walked in behind me and was staring at me. He said, "What the hell is that?" I honestly think to this day he probably thought I was playing some old Kinks song or something. I played it again and he said, "All right, new reel of tape!" And I told him, "The guys are going to fucking go mental because they thought we were finished." We worked on it for 12, 15 hours a day for two days. And when everybody came back we said, "You guys … we've kind of got another song." And we saw the eyes start rolling. But by the time we were a minute and a half into it, they were all grinning, going, "Fuck, yeah!"

The interesting thing is, early on we tested it at rock radio, and it flopped magnificently. But then some guy requested it at a strip bar in Florida, and from there, it went to other strip bars, and then it spread like the walking dead all the way across America. It went from the strip bars to radio to MTV — boom! And we sold something like 4 million albums in three months. We always knew it was a good song, but to us it was no more and no less than any of the other songs on the record. Eventually, though, it did become the most important song on the album.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Rocket” (1987)

I'd been hanging out with somebody in Holland who had been playing me "Burundi Black," which has this immensely hypnotic African drum pattern. It really got under my skin and sucked me in. It reminded me of when I was 12 and I went to this children's disco and "Rock and Roll Part 2" came on. The "Burundi Black" thing was just a much more rustic, urban, natural version of that. So I borrowed it off that friend and made a loop of the actual drum pattern. I started putting chords on top of it, and that turned into what is now the chorus of this song. Then we all bashed it into shape as a piece of music.

When it came to the lyrics, we started singing "rocket" because it was a simplistic phrase that fit the sort of space-age sound that had developed over this African drum loop. But I felt like Bowie had done the space thing to death. So I remember thinking, "Why don't we just use the rocket thing as a metaphor, and make the song a vehicle to talk about our childhoods?" Like, the Easybeats took the easy way out with "Friday on My Mind" — they turned it into a genius thing by just naming the days of the week. I said, "Why don't we do a similar thing to that? Let's just name-check as many artists that influenced us as we possibly can." And obviously there's artistic license with a few people who weren't part of our musical DNA but are there for rhyming reasons, like Jet Black [drummer for the Stranglers] and whoever. But things like "Bennie and the Jets" and "Killer Queen," all that kind of stuff, it just fit the whole vibe of what we were doing.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“White Lightning” (1992)

It's about Steve [Clark, who passed away in 1991 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs], but not in the same as, say, "Hurricane" by Dylan, which literally walks you through a guy's life. Ours is a lot more shadowy. We wanted it to be about Steve, but we also wanted anybody who was listening to it and had been in a similar situation to be able to relate to it. So we never mention him by name. But the situations he found himself in, and the situations he put us in, are all kind of referenced, without getting overly specific.

As for the title, I've seen it written down since then that Steve's nickname was "White Lightning." The truth is, I can't remember! I can't answer that with any accuracy. It's quite possible. To be honest, it's just become a blur. It's 25 years gone since Steve died. Twenty-seven years since I shared a stage with him. That's more than most people's lifetimes as musicians. And it's all gone. But the name "White Lightning" could have something to do with the fact that he used to zoom across the stage wearing these white outfits. Or is it just one of these biblical stories — like, you know, did 5,000 people really get fed from one piece of fish?

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Tie Your Mother Down” (1992)

We did this at the tribute show [The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness], and it was great to be a part of it. I've been friends with Brian May for years — in '83 he got up onstage with Def Leppard at the L.A. Forum, and six months after that, I ended buying a house 20 minutes from his. We hung out all the time throughout the Eighties. Brian was also the first person to ring me when Steve Clark passed away. And, apparently, I was the first person to call him when Freddie died. When they were putting together this tribute, Brian phoned me and said, "Will you perform, please?" And I said, "Of course. You guys are one of the reasons we're a band."

The performance itself was a little kind of deer-in-the-headlights. To be quite honest, when you get up there, you don't really even know what's happening. It's like three minutes and that's it. This was the first song of the set, and they didn't want to start with a guest, so Brian took the first verse. Then I took the second verse and Slash took the solo. Done. No soundcheck, 90,000 people in the stadium and a billion-and-a-half more watching on the telly. No pressure, then! Then you spend your time backstage talking to anybody from Elton John to Elizabeth Taylor to Robert Plant. It was surreal. We were celebrating, but celebrating a very sad situation. We all would have rather had no reason to be there. So you had these mad juxtapositions of emotions. A very enjoyable day, but for the wrong reasons.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Move With Me Slowly” (1996)

The Slang album didn't sell at all. We knew that would happen before we even recorded it. But there are a few songs on it I really love. This one is probably my favorite, and, to be truthful, it's not actually on Slang — it was added onto the re-release. It's one of [guitarist] Phil [Collen]'s songs, and it's very Stones-y. There's some lovely guitar work on it, and I think it had a lot to do with the way the current album turned out. Unfortunately not that many people have heard it though.

It's funny — at the time Slang was deemed "not good enough." But we couldn't have made another like [1992's] Adrenalize. It would have killed us. We had already done the big trilogy of albums with massive productions, and we had to go back and start again from zero. And I think this is the most honest record we've ever made. By the time we got to the studio to do it, we collectively started getting married, we started getting divorced, parents started passing away, kids were being born. … All of a sudden, we woke up into reality. And we decided to write about it. People weren't ready for that. But to churn out a batch of insignificant rock songs in 1996 would have been an even bigger mistake.

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Promotional portrait of the British rock band Def Leppard, circa 1985. L-R: Steve Clark, Rick Savage, Joe Elliott, Pete Willis, Rick Allen. (Photo by Mercury Records/Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

“We Belong” (2015)

Def Leppard is the first album we've put out where I can honestly say we did not give a hoot about the Hysteria record. We didn't try to sound like it; we didn't try to not sound like it. We didn't think about it at all. There are a lot of songs I really love on the album, but "We Belong" is one of my favorites because it has all five of us singing lead. It was something I was quite insistent we do, just because people always talk about how great the BV's are in this band. So I thought, "Well, wouldn't it be nice to have every guy sing separately, and let people hear how good the voices are au naturel?" We were just taking advantage of the fact that everybody in this band can sing, just like everyone in the Beatles could sing — even Ringo! Once we coaxed [drummer] Rick Allen into doing the first line of the second verse, we were off. We knew it was gonna be a good one.

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