Def Leppard flying high in the USA

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Sure, man, Def Leppard: British royalty; bloodied but unbowed rock’n’roll survivors; the heroes of the hour – any hour. But hanging out backstage ina cavernous arena in St Paul, Minnesota with the band’s affable Irish guitarist of 23 years, former Dio axe-slinger Vivian Campbell, I finally dig up some dirt on the squeaky-clean firestarters: turns out Def Lep broke up Thin Lizzy. True story.

“I remember being in a club in 1983 when Pyromania had just come out,” says Campbell, “and Phil Lynott was in the club. He was really down. I asked him what was wrong and he said: ‘Have you heard that new Def Leppard record, Pyromania?’ I said: ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ And he says: ‘I’m thinking of breaking up Thin Lizzy.’ And I was a huge Thin Lizzy fan. And I said: ‘No! Why would you do that?’ He said: ‘That album is a game-changer. It makes us sound old-fashioned.’”

And then he broke up Thin Lizzy.

“Yeah,” Campbell says, laughing. “And then he fuckin’ broke up Thin Lizzy.”

That’s really as dark as the night gets. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the wrong place. Thirty-eight years into their sometimes rocky career, and Def Leppard happen to be sailing through something of a surprise resurgence. They’re currently barrelling through the middle of the USA on a package tour with electricity fetishists Tesla and jukebox heroes Foreigner, and raking in record numbers. And this is all before they release their new record, the gleefully eclectic, self-titled Def Leppard. Aside from Joe Elliott’s nagging cough, things appear to be thrumming along nicely. The singer is currently suffering some viral bronchitis which he got in the coolest way possible.

“They think it may have been brought on by dust and gasoline at Sturgis, the biker-fest,” he tells me at the Xcel Energy Centre in Saint Paul. “See, the thing about Sturgis is, they all sit on their bikes down in front, revving their engines. And it hasn’t rained there in 15 years, so all that dust and fumes just blow right up onto the stage.”

And then he launches into a lengthy explanation of how your throat is like the tube from a roll of paper towels, which soon segues into how great The Struts are, and his favourite shows on Netflix.

That’s the odd thing about hanging out with Def Leppard. Let us not forget that in their early-80s prime they were one of the biggest bands in the whole world, the literal poster-boys for pop-metal, perennial chart-toppers, MTV’s proudest sons. The songs and subsequent music videos they created in that era – Rock Of Ages, Foolin’, Bringin’ On The Heartbreak, Photograph, Pour Some Sugar On Me… – are so indelibly stamped into our DNA that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without them. And yet here they are, pushing 60, the same line-up since the early 1990s, talking about their favourite T.Rex songs like mere mortals.

“It’s just cool being in a room together with these guys, man,” says bassist Rick Savage, his trademark curls grey but still intact. “The humour, the storytelling, the way that we view things, it’s the same as it was in the eighties. It’s not changed.”

Indeed, despite the wealth and fame, everyone in the band seems remarkably grounded. Rick – or Sav, as his bandmates call him – reckon it’s because they never forgot where they came from.

“It’s not hard for us to be loyal to each other. It’s just fucking natural. First and foremost, when we first started out we were a bunch of mates, and we had the same goals and the same vision. And that’s really the same now.”

“We were these working-class kids, and we saw a chance of making things a little better than what the expectations of our parents were,” explains Elliott. “Working in the mine, in factories, whatever. Thank God for Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten. We’d hear them and go: ‘Fuck, I could do that!’ Even though we never went down that musical path, we were huge fans of it because of the fucking balls that they had to take on Rick Wakeman, to stand there and chew gum and go: ‘No future!’ I mean, fuck yeah. It was also far enough away from World War II that even my dad had long hair. So they were very encouraging. My mother even taught me how to play the guitar. They knew I was obsessed with music from the minute I could crawl. I crawled right to the radio. I’m still doing it, really.”

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Indeed he is. And while it may feel like nothing’s changed, things certainly have. Def Leppard’s ascent in the eighties was followed by a slow grind into irrelevance in the next decade, culminating in their ill-advised 1996 ‘grunge’ album, Slang. Having weathered those storms, they were next hit with Vivian Campbell’s battle with cancer. Luckily, grunge is dead. And Campbell is on the mend. And so are Leppard. While they are unsure exactly why the winds of fortune are blowing their way again, they’re happy they are.

“I actually think it’s integrity on our part,” says muscle-bound guitarist Phil Collen. “We’ve stuck around and we really sing. We’re real. You look out at music these days and there’s not many bands left that can say that. It’s a like a banner: ‘Come out and see this, man. It’s the real shit.’”

“This has been one of the best tours we’ve ever done. And that’s saying something,” Sav says, laughing. “There’s more people coming than we ever thought. The interaction between the other bands has been great, the vibe backstage has been great; everybody’s nice and ultra-cool. The fans have just been coming out in droves.”

“With all due respect, we never wanted to be Nazareth,” says Elliott. “We never wanted to be one of those bands that had their three hits twenty-five years ago and then they’re done forever. So there’s definitely a resurgence. There’s something in the air. We can all feel it.”

You can. But what you can’t feel is the terror and titillation of 80s-style backstage heavy metal mayhem. The truth is, there is very little going on here to suggest anything other than a big ol’ rock’n’roll show. If there are groupies in this increasingly tender day and age, they are not backstage tonight. There is a meet-and-greet event with fans, but it’s pretty orderly, all things considered, and when it’s over they file back to their seats. Classic Rock’s photographer actually has to hunt around a bit to find a bottle of beer to sip. We weren’t expecting Sodom and Gomorrah, but we came a long way to get here, and it would be nice to witness the goddamn perils of rock’n’roll decadence.

I mean, you remember those videos, right? With all the girls, booze and parties? I issue my gripes to an amused Vivian Campbell.

“There’s two bottles of whisky right there, Ken,” he grins.

I point out that they’re not even open.

“They will be,” he assures me. “We have a compulsory capful before the show. It started a few years ago. Our then tour manager, halfway through the show he takes a Jameson’s and gives out a capful to the crew. Now we do it too, except for Phil. But yeah, it’s not like we’re gonna be chugging it down tonight.”

Jesus fucking Christ, man. A capful?

“People mix us up with the Mötley Crües and the Faster Pussycats, but we had nothing to do with them. The West Coast American glam-metal bands wanted to live up to an image. Like a guy like Nikki Sixx, he had to be photographed with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, had to talk about how much blow he’d done the night before and how many chicks he’d banged. Whereas we just have a more British sensibility about that kind of stuff,” Campbell explains. “We’re a lot more modest about it. And the music really did come first.”

“I don’t know how anybody could confuse us with that lot,” Elliott says, laughing. “We weren’t even around when all those so-called glam bands came up. We were in fuckin’ Holland making Hysteria. While they were out banging chicks or whatever, we were looking at windmills and playing pool on a table without any pockets. We were as far away from LA as any band could be.”

“One thing I can say about being in Def Leppard is that this band has always had a strong work ethic,” says Campbell. “We’ve always had fun – and during the Adrenalize tour things got a bit crazy – but there’s always been that sensibility about us. People in that scene thought they needed excess to get success, whereas I’ve never been that way. I’ve never done cocaine in my life. I’m fond of a drink, but I’ve always wanted to be a musician more than I wanted to be a rock star. I still feel that way.”

It’s true. Time and again, the band bring the conversation back to the music, to their enduring love for rock’n’roll, and how honoured they feel to be a part of it.

Which leads us, neatly, to their new record. Def Leppard is their most diverse, eclectic collection of songs ever. Lead-off single *Let’s Go *is prime, arena-baiting Leppard, a towering heap of hooks and endless choruses sure to please the diehards. But the deeper you dig, the more interesting this album gets. And that’s by design.

“To me, this record is about not being afraid to tip my hat to the music that inspired me – to The Beatles and to Queen or the Rolling Stones,” says drummer Rick Allen. “I tried to do my best John Bonham impersonations on this record, which I’ve never really done before. So there was a real sense of freedom that we could come up with songs that paid homage to that part of our youth.”

“I loved making this new record,” Collen says. “Most liberating thing we’ve ever done. Because we didn’t have to worry about dealing with a record label, it just flowed. That’s why it’s so diverse. And at this point we’re better producers, arrangers and songwriters than ever.”

Leppard’s last studio record was 2008’s Songs From The Sparkle Lounge. And if the music industry was on its last legs then, it’s rotting in a casket now. Many veteran rock bands have since made the eye-rolling claim that the album format is dead. Leppard themselves even felt that way at the beginning of this project.

“Originally we were just going to do a single, maybe three songs,” Elliott explains. “But it was the emperor’s new clothes. Everybody was saying the album was dead, and there were lots of people just putting out one song. And we were kinda dying inside, man. You’re telling me there’s no place to put a bunch of new songs? I’ve got a whole headful of ’em. I’ll go crazy if I can’t get them out. So we all got together just to see what everybody had, and two days later we had twelve songs – skeletal versions – and by the end of the month we had an album. So we said: ‘Fuck them, fuck all these naysayers, we’re gonna make a record.’”

And not just any record, either. Def Leppard is the record they’ve always wanted to make.

“This is the first record we ever made without a record contract,” Elliott points out. “We paid for it ourselves, and when we finished it we said: ‘Okay, who wants it?’ It’s a luxury to be able to do that. But from an artistic point of view it was fantastic, because there was no clock, no cheque-book, just art. Absolute artistic freedom to do what we want. We’ve touched on our past with this new record, but we’ve also gone places we’ve never gone before. In the past we’d do stuff and go: ‘That sounds a bit too much like Led Zeppelin III.’ This time we were like: ‘So fucking what?’ We were name-checking every band and album we could think of when we were making this one.”

Of course, the band are realistic about the album’s chances.

“If we’re what you’d call a non-chart botherer, then we’re in great company,” Elliott shrugs. “Think about it. Bowie, McCartney, the Stones, The Who… when was the last time they bothered the charts? Thirty years ago? I don’t know if anybody’s gonna care about this record or not. But we’re doing it for us. As selfish as that might sound, that’s the most important thing.”

“It was for the artistic expression, the love of making music,” Collen adds. “If you don’t do it for that reason, then you shouldn’t even be in a band.”

Minutes later, the band hit the stage. They do not play Let’s Go or anything else from the new album, although they do promise to next time out. Instead they dig into their formidable arsenal of super-hits, culminating in a near-delirious encore of Photograph/Rock of Ages. Not a moment of their stage time is wasted. It’s pure spectacle, from start to finish. And aside from the tender throats and stiff knees, the band are no worse for wear after thoroughly and utterly decimating the 12,000-strong audience. No one went unrocked in that arena, and Leppard barely worked up a sweat. If you didn’t know any better, if you weren’t close up enough to see the make-up caking in the lines around their eyes, you’d think this band was still in the prime of their career, with many miles left to roam and many hearts still to conquer. And for some, it still feels that way.

“I still get keyed-up before we go on,” says Savage. “That’s the reason we started this band: for the buzz. We wanted to show off for ninety minutes. It’s a little bit more natural when you’re twenty-one, but to be in your fifties…
I mean, it still kinda feels like you’re twenty-one. And not in a sad way, either. It just feels cool.”

“Joe said something very astute just last week,” Campbell says. “He said that even though physically it’s hard, it’s much cooler to be in your mid-fifties doing this than it was in your forties. That was a transitional period, when you’re just old and over the hill. But if you’re doing it in your fifties, you’re a survivor. When young kids come to our shows now, they see us the way we saw Led Zeppelin when we were younger. It’s very flattering, and it’s very invigorating. It gives us the will to keep going, and makes us feel like we’re not just playing to diminishing returns; that we’re still growing our audience, even after all these years.”

Of course, even with all this optimism there is some scary arithmetic to consider. Thirty-eight years since they formed is a mind-boggler. But if they want to shoot for 50 years’ existence, that’s gonna be a gruesome spectacle.

“This definitely doesn’t feel like the end,” says Elliott. “It feels more like we’re in the middle. I know it’s not. We’d be pretty fucking ugly at the end if we were in the middle. But unless something catastrophic happens, I don’t see the end any time soon.”

That sentiment is echoed by the rest of the band. There is no finale in sight. There’s only the next gig, the next record, the next knee-buckling encore.

“We just don’t talk about it,” says Allen. “It’s the elephant in the room, but we ignore it. I think it’ll be so obvious at that point that we won’t even need to say anything.”

“We enjoy what we’re doing, and we manage things properly so we’re not away from friends and family for too long,” says Elliott. “From an artistic point of view, I know we’ve got more songs in us. Will we ever do another album that will do as well as Hysteria? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that some of the songs on this new album aren’t as good, or even better. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have many more shows in us.”

And with that it’s over. The whole show is packed up and shipped off to the next town. Collen leaves with his family, the rest mingle with the crew before slinking off for a few quiet hours on the bus. And rock’n’roll can sleep easy tonight, knowing that Def Leppard are still out there, roaming the earth with their flashy pop-metal guitars, keeping the heart of Saturday night beating loud and strong. Maybe not forever, but certainly for as long as we need them to.

“If we’re the last men standing, that’s great,” Rick Allen says with a wink. “Happy to do it.”

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FLASH METAL SUICIDE, DEF LEPPARD EDITION

Pearl Leppard? Def Garden? When the Sheffield rockers went ghastly grunge.

Give a band enough time, and they’ll create their own Music From The Elder or Hot Space; that one dreadful, wrong-headed disaster of an album. Case in point: Def Leppard’s 1996 descent into the muck of Seattle grunge, Slang. Lep? Grunge? Jesus, fellas.

“We didn’t know what we were gonna do with Slang but we knew we couldn’t make a typical Def Leppard album in the mid 1990s,” explains Vivian Campbell. “Grunge was very much happening and our stuff was anathema at the time. We were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.

“Even for me, I feel like we went a little too far left-field,” he says. “I knew we had to, but it’s a question of how far do you take it? Personally I think we could’ve bolstered the songs with a little more of that Def Lep fairy dust we usually sprinkle on to records but instead we went: ‘No, let’s keep it raw; no backing vocals; let’s not do that part because it’s too melodic, let’s be more monotone.’

“We were listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam just like everybody else, and especially to Soundgarden – the Superunknown record. That was the record that we referenced in terms of the sonics and the mood of it when making Slang. At least it gave us the chance to grow up a little. We live in a state of arrested development in this band, singing songs like Let’s Get Rocked. So we did get to write some grown-up lyrics. And we were going through a lot of shit at that time – Sav’s dad died on the eve of the first recording day, both Joe and Phil were going through divorces… So it gave us an opportunity to write lyrics that reflected the reality of our lives.”

Incidentally, Slang isn’t a bad grunge record, it’s just a really bad Def Leppard record.

Classic Rock 217: Features