When Rolling Stone catches up with Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott, he’s enjoying a short break in Los Angeles between dates on his band’s extensive summer arena tour with Styx and Tesla. “We have a couple days off out here,” the 56-year-old frontman says, before quickly correcting himself. “Well, not days off, just days with no gigs. Instead, I’m doing a lot of talking.”
What Elliott is doing all that talking about is his band’s new album, simply titled Def Leppard and due out October 30th. The veteran British hard-rockers’ 10th studio effort of new material, it’s also their first in a full seven years — an unusually large span, even on Def Leppard time, where three- or four-year breaks between albums are common, if not the norm.
And yet, the album demonstrates that, even while the Leps — who also include guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, bassist Rick Savage, and drummer Rick Allen — are far removed from their Eighties heyday, when videos for songs like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” ruled MTV, and albums like 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria moved ridiculous numbers of units (they’re currently at 10 and 12 times platinum, respectively — and that’s just in the U.S.), they’re still able to whip up some first-rate melodic pop-metal. Def Leppard tracks like “Let’s Go” (the first single, premiering here), “All Time High” and “Broke ‘n’ Brokenhearted” exude the band’s classic mix of Seventies pomp-glam riffing, Eighties electro-shock rhythms and patented, tremendously stacked chorus vocal harmonies in a manner that’s strikingly redolent of their past. But the album also finds the band moving beyond well-trod territory, as evidenced by the slinky pop-funk strut of “Man Enough,” the downtuned, acoustic psych-blues of “Battle of My Own” and the sleek New Wave–isms of “Invincible.”
Even with these occasional stylistic dalliances, in the end Def Leppard sounds like nothing so much as, well, Def Leppard. Which explains why the album is self-titled. “All the time we were working on the songs, we would be having these neighborly types of conversations with friends and colleagues, and everyone would ask, ‘What does it sound like?'” Elliott says. “And we found ourselves answering, ‘Well, it sounds like Def Leppard!’ I think after that kept happening over and over, it was Phil [Collen] who finally said, ‘Why don’t we just call the thing Def Leppard?’ We were umm-ing and ahh-ing about titles, none of which I remember anymore, and so we just went, ‘Fine.’ Thirty-five years as a recording band and we’ve never had a self-titled album. Maybe now’s the time.'”
On a warm Los Angeles morning, Elliott talked to Rolling Stone about Def Leppard, recording “forgeries” of his own band’s greatest hits and why he believes the Eighties were a “golden age” for music. He also discussed going up against Michael Jackson, performing with Taylor Swift and whether or not he thinks Def Leppard has a fan in one Donald Trump.
How has the summer tour been going?
Very good, thank you. Ticket sales have been insane. We’ve been doing some really outrageous numbers. Birmingham, Alabama, was 18,000 people. Dallas was 20,000. So it’s been a great tour. But it’s also been a hot one — it was 122 in the shade in Austin. When you’re onstage under the lights and in full regalia, and there’s audience members passing out just from watching you, it makes you wonder how you get through. Fortunately, we love playing.
“Let’s Go,” the lead track on Def Leppard as well as the first single, is clearly about that love for playing. You sing, “Welcome to the party/Welcome to the edge of your seat.”
It’s a call to arms, you know? Rick Savage wrote 80 percent of the song. I wrote the verses, he wrote all the music and the choruses. He came in with it, and we knew it was a classic Def Leppard song. It’s that three-minute pop-rock stuff with big chunky guitars and a big chorus. And it has that swaggering, mid-tempo rhythm, like “Sugar,” and “Rock of Ages.” The idea was, we wanted something familiar. I mean, when AC/DC comes back after years away, you’re not going to get “Bohemian Rhapsody” from ’em, you know? And you don’t want it, either — you want “Back in Black,” or something like it. For us, this is what we do. And it’s something we enjoy doing.
That said, there’s also a lot of variety on the album.
It’s got everything from Bowie to Queen to Zeppelin to, well, Def Leppard. And, yeah, “Let’s Go” could be the long-lost cousin of “Sugar.” And “Dangerous” sounds a little like “Photograph.” We know that. We’re aware of it. But that’s only part of the picture. There’s 14 tracks, and there are things like “Invincible,” which kind of sounds like a cross between Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs. We don’t shy away from an idea because it’s not in our typical bandwidth.
The thing is, we’ve never been a straight-ahead metal band that’s gonna sound like Megadeth or Metallica or something like that. We’ve just got too much melody in our heads. We like too much variety. We like the acoustic guitar. We like the keyboard. We like the Mellotron. We like the Beatles and the Stones. We like Slade and Sweet and T. Rex. We didn’t just grow up on Black Sabbath.
“We like the Beatles and the Stones. We like Slade and Sweet and T. Rex. We didn’t just grow up on Black Sabbath.”
But there is a distinct Def Leppard sound — the one solidified on Pyromania and especially Hysteria — that you will forever be associated with. Did you ever feel you wanted to get far away from that?Well, we only really ever tried to get away from it once, and that was on the Slang album [in 1996]. It wasn’t like we were embarrassed by our sound — it was just boredom. And even then, there were still melodies on things like “Breathe a Sigh,” that were back to sounding like the Bee Gees–meets–Fleetwood Mac–meets–the Beach Boys. But on that record we mostly went to standard two-part harmonies and just bashed our way through loads of guitars. It was an expression of, you know, we had done three massively-produced records with Pyromania, Hysteria and [1992’s] Adrenalize. At that point, we as a band felt the need to do something else. It’s like, does the world need four Wish You Were Here‘s or Dark Side of the Moon‘s? But, you know, come ’99, when we were doing Euphoria, we were back to the big harmonies and the big choruses and we’ve stuck with that through most of the things we’ve done since. Because it’s what we like to do.
There’s a story about how when Mutt Lange was producing Hysteria, he made a comment early on in the recording process that he wanted to create something that could have the same type of crossover appeal as, and also the broad success of, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Do you recall that?
I didn’t have the actual conversation, but, yeah, the guys were talking about the fact that Mutt did say, “I see no reason why a white rock band can’t do what Michael Jackson did.” And we probably looked at him like he had three heads!
You guys more or less achieved it.
Mutt knew we had the chops and the ambition to do it. But we needed a map. He was our map. And he was very encouraging in that respect. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and that was great because he pulled us along. And with his amazing talents as a producer and our collective ability to write these memorable riffs and hooks and lyrics or whatever, we felt it could work. Now, did we feel it could work to the standard and level that he set? We weren’t so sure. Because you know, it’s a bit difficult to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna go climb Mount Everest and not fall off!” You have to practice, and it has to be in your DNA to want to do that kind of thing. For us, we wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but we weren’t aware that we could climb such an enormous mountain and actually feel comfortable doing it until Mutt came and said, “Well, why not?” It was that simple, really.
“We wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but we weren’t aware that we could climb such an enormous mountain and actually feel comfortable doing it until Mutt came and said, ‘Well, why not?'”
A few years ago you re-recorded two of the biggest songs from that album, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Hysteria,” as well as “Rock of Ages,” from Pyromania.
There was rhyme and reason for doing that. Initially we redid “Rock of Ages” and “Sugar” because they were part of that movie [2012’s Rock of Ages]. At the time, we were — and we still are — at loggerheads with our ex-label [Universal Music Group] over the digital rights to our music. So we weren’t going to let them use the songs. But they were happy enough with re-recordings. And then when we did Viva! Hysteria [Def Leppard’s 2013 residency at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas that focused on the Hysteria album], we re-recorded the title track to tie in with that whole thing.
You’ve taken to calling the new versions “forgeries.”
Yes. Because the whole intention was to get them to sound as close as possible to the originals. So if you’re at a bar and it comes on the jukebox, it doesn’t stick out, like, “That’s one of those crappy re-recordings you buy at the petrol station!” We wanted them to be authentic. And we may do more down the road if we can’t sort out this ridiculous situation [with Universal].
It’s these new versions, rather than the originals, that are available on services like Spotify. What are your feelings on streaming?
Mixed. I really empathized with Taylor Swift’s letter to Apple, where she basically said, “I don’t need the money, but the young artists do.” Now, the amount of money you’re going to get from those services wouldn’t buy you dog food, but they should at least pay it. The main thing is, music has been devalued so much, and it’s really hard to see how it could ever climb back up to its old pinnacle. In the past, music became a part of you. You spent time with a song or a record. Now you can hit a button and delete it and it’s gone. It never gets into your DNA.
On the other hand, if I check into a hotel room and I want to sit back and listen to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or something, and then I realize I left my iPod on the bus, which is six miles away, I can just say, “Ah, I’ll stream it.” And that’s an amazing thing. You can listen to just about anything that’s ever been recorded, and for just a few dollars a month. So it’s a spectacular system. I get it. I just wish they’d pay the artist a bit more.
Do you feel fortunate that Def Leppard came up in a different era?
I’m so glad we were who we were, when we were. The Eighties are mocked by everyone in the media, mostly for mullets and stupid shell suits and that kind of stuff. But there was more to the decade than meets the eye. And maybe in time, people will look at it the way they look at the Sixties and Seventies.
The fact is, it was the golden age. We had MTV. If you had a decent song, everybody knew it within five minutes, all over the country. And whether it was me leaping off the drum riser in slow motion wearing the Union Jack, or ZZ Top’s cars and furry, spinning guitars, or Simon Le Bon sitting on the front of that yacht, you just don’t forget those things. For that generation, it’s burned into the DNA. I don’t see the same thing in the next generation, with bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. And it dissipates even more the further along you go. And, sure, artists are still doing those things, but now everything’s insular. People are watching on their laptop with their headphones on. There’s no commonality.
You mentioned Taylor Swift earlier. A few years back she and Def Leppard performed together for an episode of CMT Crossroads. How was that?
It was great, because it was so not expected. When somebody like Taylor Swift does an interview, and the interviewer mentions Crossroads and she says, “There’s only one artist I would ever do it with — Def Leppard,” what can you say? After that happened, somebody walked into our dressing room with a laptop open and said, “Have you heard about this?” And we went, “No.” But then we listened to what she said and it was, “Holy shit!” But we figured, “Taylor will contact us if she really means it.” And, well, she did. Because she was born to our music. She was born in ’89, and her mom was a huge fan. So she was listening in her mother’s stomach all through ’88. And I just love the fact that doing something like that knocks noses out of joint. People go, “Def Leppard and Taylor Swift? What are they thinking?” Well, that’s exactly what we’re thinking. The Four Tops don’t need to make a single with the Temptations, you know what I mean? Now, the Four Tops doing a single with Motörhead…
More recently, you were connected to another name that’s constantly in the news — Donald Trump. Earlier in the summer, CNN reported that he was slated to introduce Def Leppard before the band’s performance at the Iowa State Fair.
That was one of those things where we had no idea where it came from, and it went away the next day. It just appeared on CNN.com or something, and I don’t go on that website ever, but people started asking, “Have you seen this?” And I read it: “Donald Trump is going to introduce Def Leppard.” We said, “Who decided that? No, he’s not!” And anyway, the way our set works, nobody could introduce us, because we use this taped intro thing. Somebody talking through it would ruin the effect. So it was just a non-story.
Do you have any idea whether or not the Donald is a Def Leppard fan?
I wouldn’t think so. I could imagine him listening to some country stuff, maybe. Perhaps being a fan of Merle Haggard, you know? But Donald Trump beating his head against the wall to us or Motörhead? No, I don’t see it.