At the start of Def Leppard’s single “Rock of Ages,” front man Joe Elliott intones that it’s “better to burn out than fade away.” These days, the band, which has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, can bask in the knowledge that they have done neither in the (almost) three decades since. This month, Def Leppard revisits its 1983 hit in two new ways: embarking on a same-named tour with Poison and Lita Ford, and celebrating the release of Rock of Ages, the Broadway show turned feature-film musical. (The band does not appear in the comedy, starring Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin, but fully endorses it.) Vulture rang up the good-natured Elliott to ask him about the secrets to Def Leppard’s longevity and what it was like getting serenaded by Cruise to the strains of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” And so as not to let you down, we also squeezed in some questions about Spinal Tap and mullets.
What did you think when Tom Cruise sang “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for you?
Well, he didn’t specifically perform it for us. He was, coincidentally, filming when we were in Florida last year. It was a day off for us, so we went to Fort Lauderdale. They’d rented this little basement club. Within ten minutes of walking in, Tom starts shooting [the] “Pour Some Sugar on Me” [scene].
What was your knee-jerk reaction to that?
I don’t remember. But he’s been documented over the past couple of weeks replying to what I supposedly said. I jokingly pointed out, “That’s my spot over there.” It was all in good humor. It was surreal because we are watching this absolutely iconic actor, who once slid in his socks across the floor to Bob Seger, singing one of our most iconic songs. Between takes, he would jump down off the stage and talk to us. He’d be like, “What do you think? I just want to do this justice.” He was pretty adamant about the point that he wasn’t making fun, but wanted to pay homage [to us]. That was really sweet of him.
What exactly inspired “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?
We were in the studio in ’86 in Holland, as far away from the Sunset Strip as you can get. Our producer Mutt Lange had nicked out for coffee, and I picked up an acoustic guitar and started playing the chords. He walks into the room and says, “What is that?” The reason I didn’t suggest using it was because we’d been working on this album [Hysteria] for nearly two years. We just wanted it out of our lives and in the shops. Mutt said that it was best hook he’d heard in five years. It ended up being the quickest song we recorded.
But lyrically …
I don’t really know, to be honest. The chorus itself was probably subconsciously borrowed from “Sugar, Sugar” from the Archies. Once we got it in place, the double entendre was pretty obvious. We also started making jamming lyrics, and the first thing that Mutt said sounded like, “Love is like a bomb.” And we both said, “What a great opening line!” Rock and roll has always been a phonetic thing. Initially, we were listening to Little Richard singing, “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bom bom.” Then Marc Bolan came out with great lines, like on “Bang a Gong,” where he’d sing she’s got a “hubcap diamond star halo.” Now, none of us, including [the late] Bolan, probably knows what that means. But who cares? It just sounds great.
Do you think rock is much safer now than back in the eighties?
It’s funny you should say that, ’cause most people thought we were the safest rock band on the planet. GNR were always more dangerous — heroin, addictions, fights, parties to 5 a.m. We never did any of that stuff. We were too busy making songs. Any extracurricular activities were accidental or just, like, once a year. We were five kids originally from Sheffield, England, which is the equivalent of Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Detroit. It was coal mines and steelworks, where I was from. We were like, “You don’t get a chance to do something like this every day — don’t blow it.” To me, a real rock band is a band that shows up on time and plays people what they expect them to play, which is sometimes all the hits and a few new songs. The majority of all this time, we’ve all been on the same page. The Stones don’t talk to each other. Their people talk to each other.
Did you read Keith Richards’s autobiography?
Bits and bobs. I think of it like, when you pick up the bible, you don’t necessarily open at page one. To be quite honest, I’m a bit precious with it. I don’t really want to finish it, because then there’s nothing left to learn.
Some have suggested This Is Spinal Tap was somewhat based on Def Leppard. Is this true?
I wouldn’t know. But I’ve seen that film more times than I care to remember. It gets funnier each time I see it. The “Hello, Cleveland” bit is always funny because there’s always a time you get sent down the wrong corridor to the stage. And I love when they’re discussing the album Smell the Glove with [cover art depicting] a girl in a dog collar on all fours. And the guy goes, “Do you think it’s sexy?” And she’s like, “No. Sex-IST.” [Giggling.] The English guy can’t differentiate between the two! The fact that these are American actors is outstanding.
How would you say Rock of Ages stacks up to Spinal Tap?
I don’t think it’s fair to make that comparison, because Rock of Ages needs to sink into the DNA. We’ve all seen Spinal Tap since 1984. Is Rock of Ages a good film? Yes, it’s a great film. Is it going to last as long as Spinal Tap? Well, for the start, it’ll make more in the first week than a cult movie like Spinal Tap has so far.
You’re also a bit of a fashion pioneer, popularizing the Union Jack–as-T-shirt.
The shirt itself was an accident. We had a video to shoot [for 1983’s “Photograph”]. We had just finished our album and were told we were going to make a video the next day for this video channel that just started in America. “Okay, no problem … crap! What are we going to wear?” When we made that record, we were living on $50 a week — and you gotta pay your rent and buy your food out of that. So I was wandering up and down Kings Road wondering what to do. Those pleather trousers I wore were so short, I had to buy legwarmers because they didn’t reach the bottom of my leg … and I looked stupid! I then had 8 pounds in my pocket, and the Union Jack shirt was in a pawnshop for £7.99.
And your hair back in the day! You’ve previously denied you had a mullet — would you care to revise that sentiment?
I don’t know. If I had party in the back, office in the front — it wasn’t really that set in its ways, I don’t think. And when it comes to mullets, nobody’s beat Bono’s.