Joe Elliott of Def Leppard
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: As the frontman for the British pop-metal band Def Leppard, Joe Elliott was one of the biggest rock stars of the ’80s, as his band rode a massive wave of worldwide popularity carried by the multi-platinum sales of 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria. Thanks to MTV, Def Leppard was also one of the era’s most visible bands, with Elliott’s Union Jack T-shirt (from the video for “Photograph”) and his ripped jeans (from “Pour Some Sugar On Me”) becoming iconic images of the time. Def Leppard’s greatest triumphs were often accompanied by devastating tragedies, including the car accident in 1984 that caused drummer Rick Allen to lose his left arm, and the alcohol-related death of founding guitarist Steve Clark in 1991. But Def Leppard remains one of the most successful and enduring bands of its generation. Even after Def Leppard’s commercial fortunes cooled with the onset of grunge in the ’90s, the band has remained a popular touring attraction, even managing a top five debut for 2008’s Songs From The Sparkle Lounge.
“Hello America” (from 1980’s On Through The Night)
Joe Elliott: You know, that first record, Tom Allom produced it, God bless him. Lovely guy and a good producer. But I think his instructions from the record label must have been something like, “Just capture the band’s energy, man.” We’d been playing most of those songs live for 18 months. So, if anybody came along and suggested we change them in any which way, we wouldn’t have been able to. We’d lived with them for so long. We just had to leave them as they were and record them as best we could. Because we knew the songs so well, we had the backing tracks down in a day. And then we spent three weeks ruining that record by doing way too many overdubs. That was the thing that we had a struggle with. It was us trying to find our way. You know, a lot of people got a great affection for that record, but as I always say, “Yeah, but it’s hardly the first Van Halen or Boston album, is it?”
The one good thing about it was it gave us a launch pad to get better from. And I believe that when we got to High ’N’ Dry and on to Pyromania and Hysteria, we started doing the record the first album should have been. We couldn’t get Mutt [Lange] to do the first album, he wasn’t available. It was fun working with Tom, but we spent most of the time drinking wine and having a good time as opposed to making a good record. I didn’t really always enjoy making albums with Mutt, but I certainly enjoyed listening to them afterwards. But it’s the other way around with On Through The Night.
It’s a bit naive and it could have been a better record. I would love the opportunity to take it in the studio and remix it. Sadly, the house where we recorded it, which used to be John Lennon’s place in Ascot, got bought by some billionaire Arab guy. He took all the master tapes—which would have been in one of the rooms of the studio—into their outdoor pool, and filled it in with earth and put a garden over the top of them. They’re lost forever.
The A.V. Club: When you finally were able to get to America, how did the reality match the fantasy that you had?
JE: “Hello America” was a song written by me when I was working in a windowless factory, just wondering. My view of America was from watching TV, watching Kojak and Hawaii Five-O. The palm trees up and down Sunset Boulevard looked exactly like they did in the movies. It was everything we expected it to be. It was bigger and brasher. It’s a great place to try and conquer. It’s what every British musician has tried to achieve since British musicians existed. What we read in all the British papers was “Stones Conquer America,” “Zeppelin Conquers America.” You think, “Oh God, it’s the next step for us. We’re gonna go there.” It’s like a Viking warrior stepping onto New York from a boat, you know? That’s how we viewed it, like, “If the Stones can do it, then so can I.”
AVC: Why do you think Def Leppard broke big in America before it did at home?
JE: Infrastructure. Every town in America had at least one, two, or maybe three radio stations that played rock 24 hours a day. In England, we had a rock specialist on for two hours a week. Our kind of music very rarely broke top 40. Songs like “Black Betty” and “Hold Your Head Up” and “Radar Love,” you could literally count them on one hand. There were incredibly few rock songs making it out to the airwaves until the ’80s came along. So it was a club, an elitist club. It was like jazz. You were cool if you liked rock. The Who used to sell all the alcohol, but they couldn’t sell a record. It was an odd situation, and then we got the States, with billboards all over the place the size of a house advertising the new Def Leppard album, or whatever that was out. It was nothing like where we were from. Everything was so much more underground.
“Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” (from 1981’s High ’N’ Dry)
JE: That song was originally called “Hurt And Heartache,” and it was Mutt who said, “That’s a bit of a wishy-washy title, isn’t it?” Steve wrote most of the music for that song. We had been inside a paper factory just outside Sheffield in the middle of winter, sitting on crates, freezing our butts off, just trying to come up with songs that were just, you know, stage two of our career. More of the same, if you like. The dynamics that got put into it during pre-production when we were working with Mutt lifted it to a different level. We rewrote the lyrics—we sat down with Mutt and rewrote the verses, stripped it apart and rebuilt it. That was the learning curve that we went through with Mutt, but we were just trying to write great songs. It wasn’t like we had this vision of, “Well, this is going to end up on the radio,” because when it came out, it didn’t end up on the radio. What happened is that we shot some promo videos—they weren’t like videos that you saw in the ’80s, they were like, 8 mm hand-cam shoots done at a venue in Liverpool in England that made it look like we were playing live, and full of fan club people bobbing their heads around for four hours.
When we toured that record, that song did get a little bit of airplay on the radio, there’s no doubt about it, but not like what is has become now. But in 1982, while we were making Pyromania, MTV started kicking in, and they didn’t have many promo videos to show. They started playing it and it started to get requested, and then it started to get requested on the radio. It was like tennis between the radio and MTV—the requests were just going over the fence, and then back again and over the net again, and more requests keep it on TV, and more requests keep it on radio. We’d be getting telexes—because that’s what you had back in 1982, it was a machine that would be spewing out paper—and it was someone from the label going, “High ’N’ Dry sold 20,000 copies this week,” and we had never sold 20,000 copies in any week when it was originally released.
People started picking up on this song, and by the time Pyromania was released, we’d sold 800,000 copies of High ’N’ Dry. “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” by the time we had played it again, which was on the Pyromania tour a year later, that song was going down the way “Stairway To Heaven” must’ve gone down, the tour after it came out for Zeppelin, because it had established itself. It was, “Wow! We’ve got a hit record on our hands.”
AVC: What did you think of that Mariah Carey cover?
JE: I hate being critical about anyone who covers one our songs, because there aren’t enough people to cover them for me to get blasé about it. I’m not Paul McCartney, where 5,000 versions of “Yesterday” exist. Very few covers of our song exist, and the fact that someone of her stature covered one of our songs is extremely flattering.
“Photograph” (from 1983’s Pyromania)
JE: We were actually more into doing videos than we were into making records. Because we grew up on TV and radio. When MTV started taking off, I can actually remember bands like Journey saying, “We’re not going to make videos. We didn’t have to make videos before, why would we have to make them now?” Us, Iron Maiden, and Duran Duran—we absolutely just jumped on board this whole new medium. Duran Duran, they reinvented how to make videos. Those guys would rent a yacht in the Bahamas and sit on the end of it and sing “Rio” and put all these pretty girls and stuff in it. You couldn’t take your eyes off their videos. You’re like, “Oh you lucky bastards.” We’re stuck in some old factory shooting videos; they’re on a boat. And Elton John with “I’m Still Standing”; Russell Mulcahy made some great videos. The kind of trilogy, or whatever it was, of videos that ZZ Top made with the car and the spinning furry guitars. These were the kind of things that left an impact on your brain. We were well aware that this was a fantastic way of getting new music across to people other than just radio. It wasn’t now just in the car, it was when they got home. We totally embraced the whole video thing. We were really, really lucky. Between ourselves and David Mallet, who directed the “Photograph” video, we had two different sides of it so willing to do whatever it took to get it right. It wasn’t the case where it’s like, “Oh, just film me, and I’m done with this.” No, we need to place you, sort of align, and all the messing around that you have to do to get it right.
It wore off. By the time we were doing videos for Adrenalize, it was like, “We’re not doing this anymore.” But when we were in our early 20s and late teens, to get the chance to do all this kind of stuff and put yourself in the same situation so you’re competing against Michael Jackson, it was like, “Are you kidding me?” We said all along there’s absolutely no doubt that MTV was as responsible, if not more, for our success than radio.
AVC: Video aside, “Photograph” is a great song.
JE: It sounds brilliant on the radio. At the time we made Pyromania, we were actually trying to create songs that would sound great on the radio. That was the whole point. By then we had vaulted to another gear. We got the High ’N’ Dry thing out of our system, which was kind of like the homage to AC/DC. Now we were starting to bring in the pop elements. We did them on High ’N’ Dry, but they didn’t get noticed. People picked up on the title track, they picked up on “Let It Go,” and things like “Another Hit And Run.” They didn’t pick up on things like “You Got Me Running” off side two, which is a total pop song—precursor to “Photograph,” maybe. But when we did “Photograph,” we just knew the way that that riff sounded, and the way that the drums sounded, and the melody, and the lyrical content, we knew that this was what it took to make a hit single. The rest is up to the people whether it’s a hit or not. There’s nothing else we can do. We can advertise it, which is what we did with the video. We can get it to radio and hope that they’ll play it, which they did.
It took on a life of its own, then, because all of a sudden we’re now in there with your Elton Johns and everybody else who’s established. They’re now peers, if you like, as opposed to heroes. They’re always heroes, but you know what I mean. All of a sudden, we’re on the same playing field and given the same opportunities. We used to go out and buy their albums, Queen, all that kind of stuff. We were there. It’s not that we’d made it, but we were at least now through the door, and it was a different battle that you were going to be fighting, trying to stay in there.
“Love Bites” (from 1987’s Hysteria)
JE: It was a play on words. When somebody chews on your neck, you get a bruise. We’re aware of the fact that in Britain, love bites, you guys call them hickeys. We call them love bites. The idea of it was that it’s like, love bites, love bleeds. It was a case of taking it and just showing how the English language is an awkward beast. Many words mean many different things.
AVC: “Love Bites,” as of now, is your only No. 1 hit in America. It was written with Lange, and it originally had more of a country sound to it. Def Leppard has been an unlikely influence on contemporary country music—you’ve worked with Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift, and Lange was very successful guiding Shania Twain’s career. Was country music an influence on Def Leppard at any point?
JE: I don’t listen to it at all, and it’s not because I don’t like it. I just don’t. I hear it if it comes on and I’m in an environment, like I’m in the back of somebody else’s car and they’ve got the country channel on. Occasionally we’re on the bus and one of the other guys has got CMT on, and you just happen to be down there making a cup of tea and you see three and a half minutes and you go, “That’s pretty cool.” Because it doesn’t necessarily sound like a country song for a start. We used to laugh at country like everybody else. We used to crack all the jokes: “What happens if you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, you get your wife back, you get your truck back.” All that kind of stuff. In England, rock music very rarely infiltrates the charts, but country music even less so. The only songs that we ever got to hear were things like, “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette, “Convoy,” by C.W. McCall, those kind of novelty songs. Occasionally Glen Campbell, but I don’t really think “Wichita Lineman” is a country song, it’s just a great song. Jimmy Webb, I think, wrote it. He was just a great songwriter.
That’s the way that we always looked at it. So when you’re actually talking about sitting down and owning a collection of Lyle Lovett albums, or Garth Brooks, no, I don’t. But I was fascinated when I first started seeing the country bands, when they first got their own MTV. Looking at their videos, they were looking like Poison or Van Halen videos, with the enormous lighting rigs and all that kind of stuff. You’re looking at it, and it’s just like late ’80s/early ’90s, but with a cowboy hat on. That was the big difference—the cowboy hat, or maybe the cowboy boots.
“Pour Some Sugar On Me” (from Hysteria)
AVC: I’m guessing for the last 25 years that you’ve sung this song every night that you’ve performed for Def Leppard.
JE: I don’t think there’s been a gig that we haven’t played it.
AVC: Is there a part of you that wishes that you wouldn’t have to sing this song ever again?
JE: Absolutely not. If you can’t handle the responsibility of a hit single, don’t write one. It stayed a hit, that’s the thing that’s great. We’ve had loads of hits that went top 10, but nobody remembers them. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” stayed a hit. It’s our “Brown Sugar,” or “Every Breath You Take.” It’s one of those songs that just remains a hit. It’s such a cool song, it actually never gets old. It can get a bit tiresome with rehearsals, at the beginning of the tour when you haven’t played for 18 months. The first time you play it, you go, “Cool.” The 10th time you play it, you go “Ugh.” But it never gets old in front of an audience.