The Loudest and Wittiest of Def Leppard, According to Joe Elliott

“What are the key ingredients for somebody to fit in with this band? One of the things we said was having an encyclopedic knowledge of Monty Python, Blackadder, and Fawlty Towers.” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“That was a very interesting night. We were just giggling to ourselves.”

“I’m already lined up to see them in three cities, depending on where I am.”

“It’s a very moving piece of work and a recurring theme in my life.”

There comes a point when talking to Joe Elliott where you kind of forget what your initial question was. It’s terrific. He jokes, “I do tend to rabbit on a bit” — he’s being modest. I prefer to think of Elliott’s enthused digressions like the marbling in a good piece of steak, making him a far more tender Zoom presence than you may expect from the man who once loudly crooned, “I’m hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet, yeah!” (For curiosity’s sake: The above quotes are about 2019’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Roxy Music, and “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, respectively.) But yes, Def Leppard has a new album out on May 27 — their 12th, Diamond Star Halos, which Elliott says is a “quantum leap” on par with Rumours and Hotel California — and that’s why we’re here, chitchatting about the miscellanea of his career with the band.

As Def Leppard’s founding front man, Elliott’s sonorous vocals defined the heavy-metal, hard-rock, and new-wave hybrid that flourished on the airwaves in the ’80s: You were living under a very boring rock if you weren’t exposed to Pyromania or Hysteria in some form or ignorant to strip culture if the opening riff to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” didn’t materialize into your head when feeling a bit randy. But besides the carousel of smash hits — and there were plenty of them — the Def Leppard story is also one of endurance.

They persisted after their drummer, Rick Allen, overcame an arm amputation after a car crash in 1985; their original lead guitarist, Steve Clark, died from alcohol poisoning in 1991; and their replacement guitarist, Vivian Campbell, got diagnosed with cancer in 2013. If that trio of misfortune couldn’t kill the band, Elliott joked during their Rock Hall of Fame induction speech, “the ’90s had no fucking chance!” (Bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Phil Collen complete the current lineup.) Now, in the present and talking from his “basement dump room,” Elliott expounded on Def Leppard’s history, from their funniest lyrics to their riskiest endeavors.

Best song

It’s a loaded question because the honest answer is probably a song off the new album that you haven’t heard yet. So to be fair, I’m going to remove those 15 songs, and we’ll deal with that down the road. Our best one is “Gods of War,” because it was so different from anything else we’d ever done. From a musical point of view, the only note that isn’t in that song is an E-flat. It covers a lot of ground. It’s a great example of Steve Clark’s very angular and unique riff-writing. That whole intro is so … I’ve never heard anything like it, and yet it still had a semi-commercial aspect to it, even though it was almost like a jazz riff. Many musicians have come backstage and said hello to us over the years and have said, “Dude, that song, the way you construct your songs, how?” The chorus kicks in about three minutes into the song for the first time, and people were just blown away at the fact that we had two bridges in a song. It was really clever, I suppose. Not clever in the sense of doing it for the sake; it just became a very natural thing.

It wasn’t the most difficult song to write. All of the parts fell together quite quickly. It was inspired. It was the “serious song” on the album, but it’s more than just the lyrical content. It’s the melodies — the way it builds and the way my voice has to go from one octave up to a second octave, almost up to a third octave, and then with all of the backing vocals. There are really clever guitars, very orchestrated guitars. It’s a very mature piece of work, probably the first time we really got it right. I think “Die Hard the Hunter” and “Billy’s Got a Gun” off Pyromania were close, but they were a bit more comic book. “Gods of War” could’ve been from any artist that took themselves seriously from a political point of view, which we don’t, but we did on that one song. Because let’s be honest, we were still in the mood that we were always in — escapism. We wrote “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Excitable” after that, and a couple more of those “up” songs, shall we say. But “Gods of War” came together in Dublin in 1984, and it was one of those things where once everybody in the band heard it, it was just like, This is just brilliant. It came from somewhere other than your standard guitar riff, you know?

Most decibel-breaking song

If we’re taking everything into consideration, it’s probably “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” because when we play it live, we have a tendency to get louder and louder as the set goes on, and that’s the one song where the crowd will take it over the decibel limit. Even wearing in-ear monitors, which is what I do onstage, I can sometimes not hear us on the chorus because of the crowd. It means a great deal as part of our legacy. It was the last song written for Hysteria, almost by accident, yet it became the most important song of that album, if not our entire career. So when we play it, it gets the same response as Bruce Springsteen doing “Born to Run” or Paul McCartney doing “Let It Be.” It’s the song that gets the crowd going, Whoa, at last, we’re hearing it. So, yeah, that’s pretty loud. “Photograph” is pretty loud as well because it’s commonly been the last song we play. All bets are off by then; everything’s on ten by the time we do “Photograph.”

I have a strange story regarding the song. About ten years ago, I did a tour of South America as part of the Rock ’n’ Roll Allstars, which was all of Guns N’ Roses, except for Axl Rose, as well as Glenn Hughes, Sebastian Bach, Gene Simmons, Billy Duffy, and a few other people. Duff McKagan came up to me after we did a performance for about 30,000 people. I think it was in Chile. He said, “Dude, it’s the weirdest thing, people don’t sing at our gigs, they mosh. But when we did your song, all I could hear was the audience singing. They weren’t moshing to your song, they were singing it louder than I’ve ever heard anything in my life.” I think that sums up the kind of band we are. We’ve always been very strong on melody, and it’s always been a major influence on us. We think back to the bands that inspired us. If somebody put a gun to my head and said, “Name the ten musicians right now that you couldn’t have lived without,” it would be John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Ian Hunter, David Bowie, T. Rex, that kind of thing. It’s mostly very melodic rock.

Wittiest song

Humor has bonded Def Leppard beyond any other thing other than, maybe, soccer. We asked ourselves after Steve passed away and we finished Adrenalize as a four-piece, “What are the key ingredients for somebody to fit in with this band?” One of the things we said was having an encyclopedic knowledge of Monty Python, Blackadder, and Fawlty Towers. If they don’t have the same sense of humor as us, it’s not going to work. We were taking for granted that whoever applied could play, and we were hoping that they could sing, and we also said they needed to be British because that’s how we wanted to keep the identity of the band. That was why Vivian was such an obvious choice at the time to join us — he’s a great player, he’s a great singer, he’s just absolutely mental about Fawlty Towers, and he’s forever quoting Blackadder. If somebody says a certain word out of a line in Blackadder, we all look at each other to see which one of us is going to say the line before the other one does. So it has leaked into our songwriting in many different forms. “Rock of Ages” is quite humorous because it starts off on a humorous note with that ridiculous gibberish nonsense. It’s just a humorous anecdote or whatever you want to call it before the song starts.

People laugh at “Let’s Get Rocked,” but it wasn’t really written as a comedy song, as in, say, the way “The Laughing Gnome” was by David Bowie. It was supposed to be humorous. I think we possibly went a little overboard with the humor. I’m not the biggest fan of that song these days. It doesn’t really blow me away anymore. I don’t know what it is. There’s a barrier that’s come up between us for the last couple of years where I’m like, Really? There was great humor in “Bad Actress.” I love singing, “You can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t fit in your pants, you’re a bad actress.” It wasn’t challenging Bob Dylan for any of his glory work. [Laughs.] It was more a tip of the hat to David Lee Roth because David Lee Roth wrote some, or at least he performed, lyrics so humorously. He’d always put his hand between his legs and ease the seat back a little. You couldn’t help but roll your eyes and go, “Oh, David.” So, yeah, I guess I talked myself into going with “Let’s Get Rocked.”

Most infectious melodies

We’ve always tied our songs into the melody and the power that comes from it as opposed to just bludgeoning people over their head with sound, which a lot of bands do. I’ve always thought that melody wins the battle at the end of the day because most people think they can sing because they do it in the shower or whatever. They don’t sit in the shower trying to play the guitar. I think the most instinctive thing a human that’s not a musician links onto is melody, not even necessarily the words. I can tell you right now, take any one of us and shove us in a karaoke bar, and without the words on the screen, we wouldn’t know them. [Laughs.] We know the melody, and that’s the first thing we latch onto. I always think that the melody is the most important.

I think it’s the simplistic melodies that speak to me the most, and it normally ties in with something an audience can get their chops into. There’s no point in trying to come up with a melody that’s got aurora borealis or antidisestablishmentarianism in the chorus. Those are not great words to sing. The arena is just flying whenever we do the melodies in “Photograph.” I’m the answer line; the in-between guy. I think they’re very infectious. Sometimes when we’re doing a soundcheck, I’ll go out front for a couple of tunes just to hear the band without me. If they do “Armageddon It” and the three of them sing the “give me all of your loving,” section, I’m literally just blown away at how monstrously massive it sounds.

We don’t use tapes, it’s all real. It’s three guys singing. It’s the three guys who’ve worked so hard at getting their blend to work the way that Crosby, Stills & Nash did or the way that Queen did. We are in that category of quality. The backing vocals are hugely entertaining and melodic and memorable. It makes me really proud of the rest of the guys for putting in the effort. Because a lot of people, when they sing in bands, they really don’t want to. They think it’s the domain of the singer, and they’re reluctant to do backing vocals. I’ve lost count of the videos and live performances I’ve seen where the backing vocalist is singing away but he always drops away for the last word. They don’t follow through. Our guys hang on those microphones until they’ve sung their last breath, and then they back off — because they’re an integral part of that sound. There’s no cheating to be done, so I think “Armageddon It” is the greatest example of how good we sound live.

Most fulfilling album era

Hysteria was the most rewarding, but it wasn’t very fulfilling. It was a pain in the ass to record. It was not a fun ride. We’d already learned phrases from our own relationships with our parents or aunties and uncles that went like, “It’s hard work, but you enjoy it when it’s done” or “The best part of climbing Mount Everest is getting to the top and realizing you finally did it.” I think that’s what Hysteria represents to me. We went through hell with that album. The opening six months of writing were okay. We’d just come off the road and we were more interested in — well, we were living in the same house and not having to travel, so clothes came out of a wardrobe instead of a suitcase. We were having so much fun in Dublin, just being people. But then we got a few songs written and then started working in Holland in August of 1984 with Jim Steinman, which was a complete disaster.

Then we worked with Mutt’s engineer, Nigel Green, who was great, but we were essentially making Pyromania Two. It was pretty good, but it wasn’t what we wanted. Then Mutt surprised us and came back — because he said, “I need a break,” since he never stopped in ten years — a year after we’d started that record, and we essentially birthed it again with him. It became rewarding when we started hearing things the way that we heard them in our heads. He could also interpret the things that he heard in his head and drag it out of us. By the time the album was finished, we knew we had something really special, but I think every artist that’s ever made an album has said that. Hysteria started slowly in the States. It took almost an entire year to get to the top of the charts, but it went straight to No. 1 in the U.K. It was our first success in our home country, ten years into our career, which is two years longer than the Beatles were together.

We’ve blown it out of the park with this last album, Diamond Star Halos. We had three or four songs before lockdown started in 2020 and nobody was allowed to travel. Me and Phil got on the phone and said, “Well, what are we going to do now?” We both agreed, “Let’s just pour everything onto the table, it doesn’t matter what kind of song it is. Write one on the ukulele if you want, for God’s sake.” It ended up being liberating because we didn’t have to come and sit around our houses while waiting for everyone to work out their parts. Phil and I wrote five songs over the phone and the internet, by just sending MP3s back and forth to each other with an eight-hour time difference. It worked to our advantage because I’m working on the stuff he’s completed while he’s asleep and vice versa. So you wake up to this inbox of, Wait until you hear this! The songs turned out better this way. There wasn’t the peer pressure of people hovering over your shoulder and looking and saying, “Who’s got a bridge? Who’s got a middle eight?” You feel the eyes burning in the back of your head. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to Phil as much in my life as I have over the last two years.

The last two records, from an artistic point of view, we knew full well that they weren’t going to sell like our previous ones. Certain songs have streamed well, for sure, but the excitement of having a new record is palpable. I have to say, with all honesty, it’s an insanely inspirational time period for our band in an insanely awful time. We turned an hourglass being half empty into it being half full. As everything kept getting postponed and shifted and lockdown kept getting extended, we just kept on going — we came up with an entire album, which is almost a career-defining record. Seriously, it’s a quantum leap from most of the things we’ve done in the past.

Riskiest creative vision you had for the band

Slang — without a shadow of a doubt. We jokingly called the album Commercial Suicide while we were making it because we knew what we were doing was probably not going to be as accepted as easily as our previous work. We learned along the way that if you’re a solo artist, like David Bowie or Billy Idol or Seal — well, specifically Bowie — you can be Ziggy Stardust one minute and then Soul Boy the next. You really can’t do that if you’re a band. But we’d done a trilogy of massive, produced, big, harmonic records, and we felt the need to do something different. It was the first time in our lives that we’d suffered parental death, divorce, the birth of a child, that kind of thing. Real-life situations were popping up in front of us, which gave us a great excuse to write songs like “All I Want Is Everything.” We had the great party song with “Slang,” but the rest of the album is pretty dark and very different. The harmonies were stripped-back and recorded almost live. It’s exactly what we wanted. We needed to go back to ground zero so we could build ourselves back up again.

Legacy of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” becoming a stripper anthem

I couldn’t be happier. If the girls are happy to do it and nobody’s forcing them to do it, then this is the song for them. You see, the thing is, the reason that the song works so well is because when we constructed it, Mutt specifically said, “This needs to be at a pace that people can dance to.” He wasn’t talking about ballroom dancing, he was talking about pole dancing. Normally we would have probably played it a bit faster, but it had to have that sleaziness and slowness to it. Many people don’t know this, but that’s why “Pour Some Sugar On Me” took off. It was the strip bars in Florida where it first set off like wildfire, and then it started getting requested on the radio, and those requests spread across to the other states. The live video really kicked it over the top, too. It’s just so simple; it’s like what “Brown Sugar” was to the Rolling Stones. It’s one of those songs that just oozes a sexy vibe. Not necessarily from us, but in the actual construction of the song and the lyrics. It has double entendres all over the place, but our humor is still coming out. But, yeah, I couldn’t be prouder of the girls.

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As the lore famously goes, Elliott was noodling around on an acoustic guitar near the end of the Hysteria sessions when the riff for “Sugar” came to him. The longtime bassist for Guns N’ Roses. Steve Clark was the band’s principal songwriter and lead guitarist until his death in 1991 from alcohol poisoning. Guitarist Vivian Campbell joined the band as a permanent member in 1992. “Mutt” Lange, a prolific record producer and Shania Twain betrayer, was the brains behind four of the band’s albums: High ‘n’ Dry, Pyromania, Hysteria, and Adrenalize. Released in 1996, Slang charted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200.
The Loudest and Wittiest of Def Leppard, by Joe Elliott