“Nobody could have foreseen the world we live in, with everyone walking around with every recording ever made literally in their pockets. Nobody,” insists Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott when I ask him why it took so long for his band to enter the streaming world, which it did in January.
“Our position was that our contract didn’t account for the world we now live in, and how could it. So now that that’s cleared up, I’m happy that our fans – and a whole generation of new fans – can find us, at the touch of a button.”
Borne on the rough streets of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher-era Sheffield, Def Leppard took the glam records they’d grown up with – Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Queen – and infused them with more than a dash of the spirit of the Sex Pistols, not to mention early 70s heavy metal, to concoct a sound that was an almost instant success. They became radio mainstays, MTV icons and arena gods over the course of their turbulent career. But even though Def Leppard were surely pop stars to millions of fans around the world during MTVs 1980s heyday, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a quintessential hard rock band from that decade. Long holdouts from streaming, the band’s catalog is now available online, and it’s testament to the band’s hard work, all those years ago.
“When I joined the band, there’s no way I thought I’d still be talking about the music we were making,” says guitarist Phil Collen, who joined Def Leppard in 1982, on the cusp of the release of the band’s breakout, and the years of MTV-stoked stardom and arena-killing tours that followed. “I mean, we were trying to make the best music we could, so I guess it makes sense, but it still amazes me, every day.”
Elliott, for his part, doesn’t seem quite as surprised, saying that over the years he’s come to admire the top-notch performances and production, as well as the deceptively adventurous songwriting, on display throughout Def Leppard’s catalog.
“We were trying to make music that would stand the test of time,” he says. “Our producer, Mutt Lange, would say all the time, ‘Try harder. You want this to be around in ten or twenty years.’ Rock and roll was already almost thirty years old, so we knew songs – and bands – could last. He was intent on making music that hit that bar. He pushed us hard to break the rules in the way we approached our writing and to meet that expectation.”
A devotee of David Bowie, T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, Free, Queen and Led Zeppelin, not to mention the burgeoning U.K. punk scene of the moment, the teenage Elliott joined bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Pete Willis in 1977 to form Def Leppard. They began like most bands do, playing grubby, empty clubs in their native Sheffield, England. Soon they’d added guitarist Steve Clark to the lineup, and by 1978, while still in their teens, Def Leppard had self-released an EP, Getcha Rocks Off, and added drummer Rick Allen.
Through hustle and determination, they scored BBC airplay and coverage in the fabled British music weeklies of the day, and soon caught the attention of AC/DC’s manager Peter Mensch. With Mensch guiding the ship, they soon signed a major label deal, and released On Through the Night, touring relentlessly, supporting hard rock megastars like Ozzy Osourne and Judas Priest, among others. 1981s High ‘n’ Dry, featuring the smash “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” became the first of many Def Leppard platinum albums.
“That was the first moment that it seemed as though it might happen,” Elliott says, with an almost wistful sound in his still-powerful voice. “To be young and have a hit single is heady stuff, let me tell you. But I do remember thinking, ‘I might have a career, here.”
Crucially, the band caught the attention of superstar producer Mutt Lange, who agreed to produce the band’s next album. But chaos was never too far away, and in the midst of sessions for the follow-up to High ‘n’ Dry, guitarist Phil Collen was brought in to replace Pete Willis, a victim of too many nights on the road, and a resulting alcohol addiction.
While Collen and his new bandmates shared similar influences, he also had a love for big pop songs, and brought a crucial, fresh perspective to Def Leppard’s recording sessions.
“I liked The Beatles as much as I did Queen,” Collen confesses. “I mean, I loved glam, but the Sex Pistols were a breath of fresh air, and by the time I joined there was great pop music – people like Prince, whom I was really just knocked out by – setting a really high bar. Plus, you had Duran Duran out there, who were really great looking, and the Police, who are my favorite all-time band. So that’s what I saw as the competition, and I think the rest of the band did, too.”
Pyromania, Def Leppard’s 1983 blockbuster that followed, would sell more than ten million copies worldwide. Featuring the pop-infused metal that would become the band’s trademark, and a staple of the 1980s, and deftly promoted with videos for the songs “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages” that received near-constant airplay from MTV, which had grown into a colossus, Def Leppard set off on yet another world tour.
“We worked and worked and worked,” Elliott recalls. “There was no time off – not that we wanted it, because we were having the time of our lives — but it’s amazing we survived.”
“What I remember was not just the touring, but constantly looking for new sounds and working on new material,” says Collen. “We knew we had to deliver, because, once you’ve had a big record, your audience, and of course the record company, simply want more. It was a lot of pressure, but it was a great time, to be sure.”
Hot on the heels of the massive success of the tour supporting Pyromania, but with Lange unavailable, the band convened with Jim Steinman, the famed hitmaker who’d produced Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.
“I’m not sure why, but it just didn’t work,” says Elliott with a chuckle, seemingly at his faded memory.
“Mutt Lange spoke our language,” says Collen. “He pushed us in just the right way. He wanted us to try new things, no matter how off the wall our ideas were, and that inspired us to really go for it.”
Hysteria, the band’s fourth album, finally released in early 1987, was a massive success. But not before still more turmoil had engulfed Def Leppard.
In a tragic New Year’s Eve car accident, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm, leaving the band in a state of shock. But Allen made it clear to his bandmates that he was determined to bounce back. He commissioned Simmons to make him a custom, electronic drum kit, and with Mutt Lange behind the board, the band soon resumed recording.
The single “Animal” became Def Leppard’s first Top 40 hit in the U.K., and launched a string of six straight Top 20 hits in the U.S. from Hysteria over the next two years, including the title track, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Love Bites,” “Armageddon It,” and “Rocket.” With videos for the songs in heavy rotation on MTV, the band seemed omnipresent, even as harder rocking bands like Guns N’ Roses began to capture the attention America’s teenagers.
More touring, and yet another tragedy followed. Guitarist Steve Clark died from an overdose of alcohol and drugs during the sessions for Hysteria’s follow-up, but the band, now a quartet, soldiered on. Adrenalize, released in early 1992 debuted at #1 on the charts and contained the Top 20 hits “Let’s Get Rocked” and “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad.” While it could hardly match the heights of Pyromania or Hysteria, Collen says he barely noticed.
“I knew it would be almost impossible to sell more records than the previous two,” he says. “But we were touring so much, it didn’t seem important, I don’t think.”
1993’s Retro Active, a rarities collection, yielded the Top 20 hit “Two Steps Behind,” an acoustic ballad, and in 1995 the greatest hits collection Vault introduced Def Leppard to a new generation of fans, while reminding their core followers of what they’d loved so much about Def Leppard back in the day.
“Of course the crowds weren’t as big, but we somehow always maintained a really rabid core audience and we just kept working,” recalls Elliott. “I remember those shows as very exciting, and the band was sounding great. I think it was around then that we realized we could keep doing this for a long, long time.”
Slang followed in 1996, and Euphoria, released in 1999, featuring the hit “Promises,” and 2002’s X, marked a return to the pop-metal formula that Def Leppard had made its name on. The best of, Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection, followed in 2005, but it was a collection of covers, 2006s Yeah!, that Elliott credits for giving the band a new lease on life.
“I’d always wanted to record those songs,” Elliott says of the album, which featured a diverse array of material, by everyone from the obvious – T.Rex and Mott the Hoople – to the unexpected – David Essex and the Faces. “In England most of our fans knew those songs, and so that drew them back to us. In the States, a lot of the material was unknown, so to our fans there it was like a new album, and kind of a new direction. We’d only intended to record one song, but we had so much fun, pretty soon we found we had an album’s worth of material recorded, and the happy accident was that it did really well for us.”
2008’s Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, Def Leppard’s ninth album, found the band a hot commodity again, a result of nostalgia for the 1980s, and a massive tour and live albums