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Def Leppard

Interview by Anne Raso

Def Leppard, San Francisco
Photo © Chester Simpson/Artist Publications
digital effects © Joy Williams/Artist Publications

“Ninety-nine percent of the fans who approach us are wonderful—they compliment us or give us little handmade gifts or whatever. We love to get their input. But there's always your few 'Fatal Attraction' types...”

--Joe Elliott

Since the release of Hysteria in August of '87, Def Leppard has done nothing but roar. By February of '89, the LP made the record books when it passed the 10-million mark, sliding by Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet to become the biggest-selling hard-rock LP of all time. The last time we caught up to Def Leppard head howler, Joe Elliott, he was so exhausted from touring that he was joking about an early retirement, of being "sent to the glue factory." Poor guy! Even if you're not a Def Lep fan, you've got to appreciate the work they put into staying in the public eye, including endless tours. (The Hysteria tour lasted 18 months.)

Comments Joltin' Joe, "The tour ended around Halloween, but they (the record company and management) wanted us to go until Christmas. I could not sing one more note. We would've been cheating the fans if we'd stayed out any longer; it would've been a real second-rate show, at least from a vocal standpoint. I would've sounded like I was singing through a cheese grater!"

When the tour ended, Joe flew to Dublin to be with his girlfriend (a native Irish lass), and to pay a little on stage visit to Bon Jovi, who were just beginning their New Jersey tour. Joe and Jon sang a rollicking rendition of the Thin Lizzy classic, "The Boys Are Back in Town," and then hung out in pubs for a couple of days afterwards.

"I hope the rumors don't get started that me and Jon are going to start writing together or guesting on each other's albums. It's strictly a drinking relationship," Joe laughs. "We met a few years ago on a Monsters of Rock tour and hit it off famously, and have been friends ever since. Anytime we're in the same area of a country, we try to make a trip to see each other. Nope, and please don't ask, we DO NOT have the same hair colorist! I think that people think that rock musicians spend half their lives getting their hair done and the other half getting laid. I don't get much of either," he laughs again.

If, like most, you've only seen Joe on video, you probably think that he's as pompous as the next rock'n'roll "star," worried more about his mousse supply than his fans. Well, you'd be absolutely wrong! His working-class British charm sets him aside from the rest of the so-called metal singers. He takes tea at four, and can usually be found writing down song ideas or poring over fan mail during off-hours. His genuine enthusiasm for the fans is always apparent, although a few of them have scared him, too. Says Joe, "Ninety-nine percent of the fans who approach us are wonderful—they compliment us or give us little handmade gifts or whatever. We love to get their input. But there's always your few 'Fatal Attraction' types who write nasty letters to our girlfriends or who follow us from town to town and do all they can to get to us—to the point where we have to avoid them. After all, we are entitled to private lives even if we are public figures. Having people barricade you in your hotel room every morning while you're trying to go out for breakfast is no fun."

This is a typical morning for us: We wake up late and we have to get out of the hotel at 10:30 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. flight. So, it's a quarter to 10 and we want to get some breakfast, but we wind up signing autographs for 45 minutes, because if we say 'We haven't got the time to sign autographs,' when we walk away they'll go, 'Fuckin' assholes!' But, it's like, 'Well, excuse us, we want to eat breakfast.'"Rick chimes in, "That's an everyday occurrence that we don't even think about, really. When you come to New York, it's one thing, but when you check into a hotel in a small town, kids call up every hotel 'til they find out which one you're staying in."

"It's strange how when the kids come up to you," adds Sav, "they start pulling your hair out, but if you go up to them, they act a bit distant. You know, I think fans like it better if you distance yourself from them. They like people who are out of reach. If you go up to them, they get shocked and move back a little bit. They don't even ask for an autograph.""Unfortunately," Joe warms up to the subject, "you're always going to get some people who start taking liberties, but I wonder if these people are true fans anyway. They just want to meet you because you're in a band or because you're a rock personality. We get these girls who are so fanatical that they can't see reason anymore. They have this vision of 'I must get to the group; I must get there no matter who I step on.' And that means girlfriends and parents, the rest of the band, and other fans. It's a real 'Get out of my way!' kind of thing. I think they'll do anything to get to you. And once they finally step on all those people to get to you and meet you, they feel that they have the right to stay there.

"There was this one girl who was hounding me for a while. She sent 'I love Joe Elliot' written on a piece of paper 250,000 times—it took her three-and-a-half years to do that. I figured, 'Anyone who spent three-and-a-half years doing that deserves an autograph and a handshake at least.' You know, she must've been mad to do that, but I was thankful anyway. Two weeks after we met, she came up to me and chatted for a while. Then she came to a show again shortly thereafter and was pissed that I didn't have the time to talk to her. I said, 'I'm busy, I've got to go!' and she screamed, 'You should talk to me!' And I said, 'I don't have to talk to you at all. Go on. If you want to see the show, just pay to see it like anybody else. That's it.' It scares me that somebody could be that obsessed. But you're scared for them, because it's not exactly normal.

Joe Elliott/Def Leppard c Ruby Michael/Artist Publications

Joe Elliott
photo © Ruby Michael/Artist Publications

"The strange this is that you'll get a letter from them two weeks later saying, 'I hate the fact that your girlfriend was there,' and you worry that they'll get fanatical enough to throw a bottle of acid in your girlfriend's face. Not that that really frightens me. Somebody might be stupid enough to fuckin' do it. I went to this charity football gala with my old girlfriend once, and she was called 'you fucking bitch' by 12 different girls. I don't think that anybody deserves that. That, to me, is ludicrous.

"I have this one fanatical fan in Plymouth, England, and she's just mad. But I'd say that American fans are a little crazier; that's because in America you're doing bigger gigs and there's more prestige than if you're playing elsewhere. There is a smaller percentage of crazy fans in England, but to be honest, we get crazy fans everywhere. You even get 'em in Italy, where we've only put out three records."

Things are quite different in Japan, though, Rick explains. "In Japan we have really fanatic fans, but they are so polite that you don't mind. They follow you everywhere—they'll come into the toilet and sit next to you if they get the chance. There's only one way to travel in Japan, and that's by train—they know you're coming, and they get into the train station before you do. And everyone's got a fuckin' camera. But they're so polite you don't mind it. It's not the kind of 'Fatal Attraction' thing that Joe was describing before."

But before we get too carried away, Rick puts things into perspective. "We're taking extreme examples now. We're talking about 12 people—that's a very small percentage of the five or six million fans we have in America."

The guys are presently recording their as-yet-untitled new LP, slated for release in late August, and all is hush-hush in the studio. No one knows just what kind of material the Leps are recording. (Prior to going back into the studio, the band was tossing around the idea of reworking B-sides from as far back as eight years ago.) Joe comments, "At this point, your guess is as good as ours as to what this new album's going to be like. We don't go into the studio with an idea of exactly how we want the next record to sound. We go in with a general idea, and if certain things work, fine, and if they don't, then at least we've got a basic idea to go on. You don't get disappointed that way, because you haven't set your heart on a definite sound."

Even with all the pressure to top themselves this time out, the band isn't taking as much time to record this LP as they did the last. Hysteria was a nine-month recording monster. "We had to spend so much time on Hysteria," explains Joe, "because it was just something we had to do. We found that we got to a certain stage where we'd gone so far, we had to carry on the same trail. I think that next time we'll have a better starting point, we'll have a better idea, we'll know exactly what we're doing. We don't plan to spend three years doing a record. We like other aspects of being in a band a lot more—like doing tours, and playing in front of people. That's the enjoyable part."

Just don't expect Def Leppard to do a cover song, even if that is the current trend. Remarks Joe, "We don't think it would be legitimate for us to record any cover versions for our albums. You find that people start doing cover versions when they find they can't write anything for themselves. I'm not mocking it, I'm not making a criticism, but I've noticed that many, many bands have been doing covers lately—take a look at last year's Heart and Aerosmith albums. Their creative juices must've dried up or something."

"I'm not saying that 10 years down the road it couldn't happen to us, but I could only see doing a cover if somebody said, 'We have this film coming out and we'd like you to cover an old rock'n'roll tune. Pick one and do it.' If we all agreed it was a good idea, then maybe we could fight amongst ourselves and come up with one we'd all like. But somehow I don't think we would, because Rick would want to do one thing and Phil would want to do something else. Phil would want to do something outrageous!"

Stylistically, the Leps don't characterize themselves as a straight metal band, although that's the genre of rock the fans and media associate them with. Says Sav, "I see metal going in many different directions. I think the whole spectrum of the hard rock thing is so diverse now. At one end you have your pop metal bands—and we're probably part of that—and on the other side you have the thrash bands. And somewhere along the line are the blues bands, the Zeppelinesque bands. I think it's a good thing. I think it give people more of a choice within that type of music."

Joe Elliott/Def Leppard c Rick Brackett/Artist Publications

Joe Elliott
photo © Rick Brackett/Artist Publications
digital effects © Joy Williams/
Artist Publications

The wide range of musical styles puts special pressures on the singer, though, and Joe is candid about his limitations. "I'm what you would call a pop screamer. I was raised on Marc Bolan and David Bowie. I was at the very impressionable age of 12 or 13 when I first heard them, and simply put, it changed my life forever. But I couldn't sing the blues if my life depended on it, at least not the proper kind of blues, like B.B. King or John Lee Hooker. I don't got no soul, I'm afraid," he laughs. "I like listening to proper blues, real blues, like Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, but I hate these stupid white people trying to sing the blues. They have no rhythm. They're not quite there."

It was an era even before we were born. Groups like Zeppelin grew up listening to the blues, so they have a tinge of it in their music. We're only aware of Willie Dixon because Led Zeppelin recorded his songs. We become second generation to the blues in that sense. The blues are kind of boring, to be honest about it.

"I've always been a big fan of non-singers like Ian Hunter and Mick Jagger, and I'm well aware of people like Michael Bolton, who've got one-thousand times the voice as me. It's just unfortunate that people like him and Lou Gramm don't get much recognition. It's just that they sound the same, with no character. I'm lucky that nobody else sounds like me, and I don't sound like anybody else. There are a million people who sound like Lou Gramm and they're great, but so what?"

Joe thinks Def Leppard's vast appeal has something to do with his everyman image. "I probably just come across as this working class bloke in T-shirts and ripped jeans. Those jeans you see in the Armageddon It video were designed—if you want to call it that—by my girlfriend who slashed them with a razor about 25 times. She wore jeans like that around town in Dublin (where she's from) for at least a year before I picked up on the idea.

"I'm not into the L.A. glam thing and, while I can't say that I don't care about how I look on stage, I'm not one to primp. I just usually wear a bright-colored shirt so that it stands out on stage, and I wear running shoes because I'll die if I wear heels, especially running around the round stage, which is extra work."

But for a singer, the strain on his voice is the most persistent and vexing problem. Early on, Joe discovered that on the road he needs every fourth night off to rest his vocal cords (and on the Hysteria tour, that requirement was built into the tour schedule). But even so, traveling through an assortment of time and climate changes (both indoors and out) causes colds and other throat problems."

You can't help but get colds on the road, but you still have to go on. When I'm in bad shape (on tour], I'll go into a steam room for 45 minutes, or I'll hop into the shower and just warm up to the tape we have that's got no vocal tracks. The guys are just playing, and I sing over it. It gets my vocals in shape."Air conditioning in hotels is probably the worst culprit. I've never lost my voice singing, ever, but I've lost my voice traveling and staying in hotels. Some of these hotels have these high-tech air conditioning systems that you can't turn off. You have to get them to bring a mechanic up to the room. You can't even open the windows because these places have these suicide-proof windows that won't open. The atmosphere in airplanes is bad, too—you literally keep drinking all the time, there's no way around it."

There is no word yet as to when or where the band will be touring to support the new album, but band members have been hinting that they'd like to stick some surprise club dates in between their arena gigs. Comments 'Rickster,' "We never get tired of playing arenas, but what normally happens after a show or on a day off is that we'll go down to the local club and get on stage with whoever might happen to be playing there. It's always a kick to pick up somebody else's guitar and just play for a few minutes. It's great."

In fact, the various members of Def Leppard all love to stick their fingers in other pies. While recording Hysteria in Hilverstum, Holland, for instance, the group appeared on more than a dozen records, individually and collectively, including the latest offering from Mink DeVille.

Cracks Joe, "I swear, Phil became a full-fledged session musician for about a year. He played on everything that came through the studio! You probably haven't heard of half the artists we worked with—they were mainly Dutch and German—as well as faceless stuff that some producer was doing. Once, we were watching TV in a hotel room and these three girl singers came on some pop program—they were fronting some record this producer made—and we were going, 'Isn't that Phil's guitar solo?'"

But with the new offering scheduled for a late summer release, along with many others, isn't the band at all afraid that the market will be too glutted and their offering will be passed over? Joe doesn't think so, "You know, what I like about music the most is the fact that there's room for everybody. You can have Cinderella, Stryper, Motley Cruë and Bon Jovi all being successful at the same time, and there's a friendly kind of competition. Everyone's happy for everybody else."Keep in mind, too, that the Leps have outlasted 10 years of competition—friendly or otherwise. The group has a proven track record, and it's highly unlikely they'll be disappearing any time soon. Drummer Rick Allen, whom Joe describes as the "anchor" of the group—talks about his secret wishes for the future: "I'd like to see us go down in the rock history book in a big way. I want to be up there with The Beatles. I think the next album can really push us over the top into that realm of stardom."

With an album virtually guaranteed to ship platinum, and a full-length concert video to be released around Christmas, Rick's dream may not be so far fetched as it seems. To borrow a phrase from rapper LL Cool J, things can only get bigger and defer.


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