Joe Elliott and Nikki Sixx interview: competition, chaos and car crashes

Joe Elliott and Nikki Sixx
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon / Future plc)

When Def Leppard and Motley Crue announced this summer's co-headline mega-tour – with Poison and Joan Jett filling out the lineup – it wasn't the first time Sheffield's finest had teamed up with with rock'n'roll's most notorious bad boys.

Back in 2011, with the movie of The Dirt still a distant twinkle in Hollywood's eye, Leppard and Crue joined forces on the UK leg of the former's Mirror Ball tour. And we spoke to Joe Elliott and Nikki Sixx before it all kicked off. 

“We’ve both been through so much shit and come out the other side,” said Elliott. “And we’re 10 times stronger than when we first started out. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Def Leppard and Motley Crue touring together – whose idea was it?

Joe: Nikki and I were the big players in that decision. We discussed the idea when I was a guest on Nikki’s radio show a year ago.

Nikki: It’s like actors. There are only so many A-list actors, and eventually we get to see great actors on screen together. And it was only a matter of time till Mötley and Def Leppard got together. I’m excited, because it’s been way too long coming.

Joe: If Nikki is comparing us to great actors, can I be Richard Burton please?

Nikki: I guess that makes me Elizabeth Taylor.

The two bands have shared a stage twice in the past. The first was on September 17, 1983 – the final show of Leppard’s Pyromania tour.

Joe: Yeah, that was at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. We were finishing up our first headlining tour of the States, where we’d gone from opening for Billy Squier to headlining Jack Murphy Stadium, which holds 55,000 people. The support acts were Uriah Heep and Eddie Money and this young band called Motley Crue. On that tour I bought my first ever video camera, and I filmed from the side of the stage when the Crue were playing Looks That Kill. I’ve transferred it to DVD now – I must give you a copy, Nikki.

Nikki: Oh, fuck yeah! I would love to see that.

You also played together at a US festival show in 1999.

Joe: That’s right, and I remember taking a friend of mine into Mötley’s dressing room so he could get their autographs on his arm and have them tattooed.

What kind of a friend would take someone into Mötley’s dressing room?

Nikki: Ha ha ha! Listen, for this guy to have our names tattooed on him – that’s serious commitment.

Have you socialised together over the years?

Joe: We’ve crossed paths in a nightclub now and again, but this will be our first real get-together.

Nikki: It’s actually your fault, because you guys should have moved to America a long time ago.

Joe: Well, three of us did. It’s just me and Sav [bassist Rick Savage] left, me in Dublin and Sav in England.

Nikki: Yeah, your drummer [Rick Allen] lives right down the street from me.

Was there ever a rivalry between the bands?

Nikki: No. I always loved Def Leppard. Back in the day before MTV, there wasn’t a cool rock station in LA for young bands, so we were out looking for vinyl all the time, and when I got Def Leppard’s first album [1980’s On Through The Night] it just jumped out at me. You know, I made a Def Leppard playlist the other day with three songs from the first record on there, and they really sound good. Joe, you really should go and listen to your first record again.

Joe: Yeah, people tell me that all the time. They’re always asking, “Are you guys playing Wasted tonight?” But we played Wasted at Download.

Did Leppard ever feel threatened by the Crue? 

Joe: It’s funny. When we played together at Jack Murphy Stadium in ’83 that was our last American gig till Hysteria came out in 87. And then we saw the Crue and Bon Jovi and all these other bands come up. We were watching MTV from Holland, where we were recording Hysteria, and I remember thinking, ‘Christ almighty, they’ve taken our crown and we’re never gonna get it back’. Of course, Bon Jovi came along and just blew everybody out of the water. And we saw Home Sweet Home, which was just a fucking brilliant video. We’d see you guys between Lionel Richie and Madonna…

Nikki: That’s a strange image for me – and kinda sexual too.

Joe: I didn’t mean it to come across that way. But that just shows how weird the 80s were.

There is one strange similarity between your bands. On December 8, 1984, Mötley Crüe’s singer Vince Neil crashed his car while drunk, killing his passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle. And 23 days later, on New Year’s Eve 1984, Leppard’s drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car crash. Looking back, how did you cope with such traumatic events?

Joe: I remember the phone call from our manager Peter Mensch. He said: “Are you sitting down?”. And having seen enough movies, I knew that you don’t say that unless somebody has died. But when he said: “Your drummer’s had a car crash and he’s lost his arm”, there’s no way for you to process that information. It doesn’t make any sense. I just burst into tears. I thought, for Rick, not being able to play the drums again was probably worse than death – he’s going to be this walking corpse that used to be a drummer. 

But within about eight or nine days, he started telling us: “I think I’ve figured out a way around it”. And of course, we all thought it was just the morphine talking. But he was back on a drum kit within three months. It was inspiring.

Nikki: To me, that’s one of the most amazing stories ever. The fact that Rick said: “I’ve lost my arm but this is my band and I’m gonna play drums again”. And the band did exactly what a family would do. They said: “We’re here, let’s do it”. I mean, how fucking insane is rock’n’roll when you have a one-armed drummer? That isn’t even possible. It’s a miracle, that’s what it is.

How did Vince cope after Razzle’s death?

Nikki: Vince changed that day. For us, it was kind of hard to grasp that somebody died in a car accident because Vince was drinking. We all drank and drove in the 80s. It’s just what we did. We got lit up at home, we jumped in the car, we went down to Hollywood, we drank more, we grabbed a bunch of chicks, we got kicked out of a bar at 2am, we went to a party and then we got ourselves home. 

But when Razzle was killed, that was the first time we realised there was consequence to this. And it wasn’t that you were gonna get in trouble – somebody died. Vince changed that day, and I don’t think he’s ever changed back. It’s something that’s embedded in his DNA. I haven’t had that experience, so I don’t know how to explain it – other than to say that I’ve seen a man change forever.

Motley Crue laid themselves bare in The Dirt. Why hasn’t there been a tell-all Def Leppard book?

Joe: I can’t speak for Nikki, but maybe for the Crue it was a case of self-therapy to tell the world what happened, whereas we’re the English guys that don’t wash their laundry in public. In the 80s, both bands did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but we were the ones that suffered a death through it. Not many people knew that Steve [Clark, guitarist who died in 1991] had the problem that he had until he actually passed away. And then it all came out. 

When we did our book in 1987 (Animal Instinct), we really focused on Rick’s recovery. We’ve never done a second book that covers Steve’s decline and eventual death and then us going through the whole grunge nightmare and coming out the other side with a big smile on our faces. We never thought that anybody would be interested in that story. I guess that’s why the Crue did The Dirt and we didn’t.

Nikki: The stuff in that book, none of it actually happened. We’re just good liars.

Joe: Ha ha ha, that’s good.

Nikki: I just figured we’ve got to do something exciting, because it’s pretty boring out here in Los Angeles. So we made it all up.

Joe: I did like the Bullwinkle reference to Tommy’s old girlfriend. I thought that hilarious.

Nikki: Well that was the only true part in the book. She was definitely a large lady.

Is it a miracle that no member of Motley Crue suffered a similar fate to Steve Clark?

Nikki: I don’t understand it. We’re the most dysfunctional band on the planet. I was talking to Joe recently about the friendship and the family bond in Def Leppard, and we’re the opposite. But in a weird way, it’s what makes us work. The anxiety and the stress and the drama is what makes the music click, for some fucking reason. There are many other things that I do that are drama-free, but Mötley just doesn’t seem to run on that kind of path. I don’t know why.

But it’s been that way from day one. It’s just a fucked-up machine, but that’s kind of what’s neat about it.

What has made Def Leppard and Motley Crue so successful?

Nikki: With Def Leppard it’s simple. It’s one word – songs. Nothing else matters. Those songs have great hooks, and that’s it. One thing that Joe and I have 100 per cent in common is the music we grew up with – and make no doubt about it, that music was the best.

Every song was a benchmark. If we wanted to be great songwriters and great musicians, we had to live up to David Bowie, we had to live up to the Rolling Stones and Slade and The Sweet. The bar was set fucking high for us.

Joe: I’m glad Nikki said that, because for us, there was nothing else but the songs. And I’ve got to say, with the Crue there’s some stellar songs there. But also, they visualised their songs better than we ever did. Their videos just kicked ass. I mean, I loved Bowie, but he was from outer space and we weren’t. We were from Sheffield. We grew up watching Bowie and Bolan covered in glitter, and the Crue took that image to the next level. We didn’t have the balls to do that.

Nikki: You guys had some pretty fucking cool videos, so I don’t know about that.

Joe: Yeah, they were OK. But you had that tribal gang look. And we weren’t from Hollywood, so we were avoiding that. If you were from England, that kind of image could never look right. I don’t know if you ever saw a band called Wrathchild, Nikki. They tried to take your look, but they took it a little too far.

Nikki: Yeah, it was embarrassing.

Hold on a minute – some of us loved Wrathchild…

Joe: Yeah, I’m sure you did – and that’s why I’m using them as an example.

Nikki: That’s your guilty pleasure. Everybody has one. And that’s OK.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, you both have songs that are strippers’ anthems – Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me and Mötley’s Girls, Girls, Girls.

Nikki: Well, let’s face it, strippers are people too.

Joe: They certainly are.

Did you write those songs with strippers in mind?

Joe: When we were putting …Sugar together, we said: “This needs to be a sexy pace that girls can dance to”.

I don’t know whether the world ‘pole’ was ever used in that conversation, and I wouldn’t say we strictly wrote it for strippers. But we were extremely happy when they adopted it.

And if guys saw chicks stripping to your song, you knew damn well that the next day they’d go out and buy it for their girlfriend. The strip bar was Tower Records, but sexier. That’s the way I looked at it.

Nikki: For me as a lyricist, if you break down any Motley record it’s just a narrative of what was happening at the time. And at the time of Girls, Girls, Girls, we were really just hanging out in strip clubs. So we said: “Oh, we should do the video in those clubs.” It wasn’t like a marketing campaign. We were just drinking a lot of whiskey and riding Harleys and fucking strippers.

Joe: The best stories are always accidents, Nikki.

And really, what’s wrong with being sexy?

Joe: You’re taking the piss, but it’s true. Growing up with songs like Get It On, they just oozed sex. And when you saw Marc Bolan on Top Of The Pops, he wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of guys who’d just come up from the pit – he was surrounded by blonde-haired girls in mini-skirts. And when you’re watching that on TV in Sheffield, you’re going: ‘Yep, I’ll take a little bit of that, thank you very much!’

Nikki: This is what I’m happy about. And I speak for Joe too here. Both of us are very happy that we can drive down the street and our neighbour – the MILF, the cougar with the nice new tit job – she wants to blow Joe or me just as bad as her 18-year-old daughter wants to. And that’s because of the songs. I’m proud of that. And you know, it’s not a lot to be proud of, but it is pretty fuckin’ cool.

Joe: Ha ha ha, that’s great. It may not have the substance that you’d get out of a Roger Waters quote, but fuck me, I’ll take it any day, man.

What did the 90s mean for Def Leppard and Motley Crue?

Joe: Our first 90s album was Adrenalize, which spent five or six weeks at No.1 in America, and was running parallel to Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the time. We didn’t release another album, Slang, until 96, and then we struggled. But as much as the 90s were deemed tough on our behalf by the media, internally we were fine. And just so you know, Nikki, I thought the album you made in the 90s with John Corabi was fucking fantastic.

That album with Corabi alienated many Crue fans with its grunge-influenced sound. Was that your biggest mistake?

Nikki: The only mistake was that we didn’t make that music under a different band name. But because Mötley has a deal where you’re getting $4m a record, you just keep the band name and the money. When the album came out I remember Rolling Stone saying, ‘This should be the album of the year – unfortunately it’s by Mötley Crüe.’ That was our experience of the 90s. 

There was some good music in the 90s, but I didn’t think the bands were very sexy. Soundgarden had some really cool riffs, and obviously Nirvana had a really iconic figurehead with Kurt Cobain. But nothing had that ‘let’s go in the bathroom and have a quickie’ feel to it. And that’s what we had with Leppard and Mötley.

Joe: I couldn’t agree more.

Nikki: That was the 80s. It was before HIV, man. It was OK to get a hummer [blowjob] in the back of a limo and not even know the girl’s name. And I think we should both be really grateful – not only for all the hummers, but the fact that we’re embedded in that lifestyle forever. 

Any kid that’s gonna go to a strip club is eventually gonna hear a Def Leppard and a Motley Crue song. He’s probably not gonna get the hummer, though.

Joe: No, not in the North.

So what kind of debauchery will you be getting up to when you’re on tour together?

Joe: I imagine it’s going to be much more tea and biscuits than Jack Daniel’s and heroin.

Nikki: I’m afraid so. We’ll probably be playing bingo. Joe has to play with me. And we have to find an old woman somewhere to call out the numbers.

Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Poison, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts tour
Jun 21: San Antonio Alamodome, TX
Jun 23: Kansas City Kauffman Stadium, MO
Jun 25: St. Louis Busch Stadium, MO
Jun 27: Minneapolis U.S. Bank Stadium, MN
Jun 29: Nashville Nissan Stadium, TN
Jul 02: Cincinnati Great American Ballpark, OH
Jul 03: Cleveland FirstEnergy Stadium, OH
Jul 07: Miami Hard Rock Stadium, FL
Jul 09: Orlando Camping World Stadium, FL
Jul 11: Charlotte Bank of America Stadium, NC
Jul 14: Arlington Globe Life Field, TX
Jul 15: Houston Minute Maid Park, TX
Jul 19: San Francisco Oracle Park, CA
Jul 23: San Diego Petco Park, CA
Jul 25: Phoenix State Farm Stadium, AZ
Aug 09: Atlanta SunTrust Park, GA
Aug 11: Hershey Hersheypark Stadium, PA
Aug 13: Buffalo New Era Field, NY
Aug 15: Philadelphia Citizens Bank Park, PA
Aug 16: Pittsburgh PNC Park, PA
Aug 18: Milwaukee Miller Park, WI
Aug 20: Detroit Comerica Park, MI
Aug 22: Washington Nationals Park, DC
Aug 23: Flushing Citi Field, NY
Aug 25: Boston Fenway Park, MA
Aug 26: Boston Fenway Park, MA
Aug 28: Chicago Wrigley Field, IL
Aug 30: Denver Coors Field, CO
Sep 02: Seattle T-Mobile Park, WA
Sep 05: Los Angeles SoFi Stadium, CA

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”