“Ritchie Blackmore went into the pit with a box of tomatoes and started throwing them at the singer”: how Deep Purple changed Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott’s life

Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore
(Image credit: Ash Newell/Future/Fin Costello/Redferns)

Deep Purple were inescapable for any young rock fan growing up in the early 70s, and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott was one of them. In 2012, he teamed up with all-star supergroup Kings Of Chaos to record a version of 1972 deep cut Never Before for the tribute album Re-machined: A Tribute To Deep Purple’s Machine Head. Speaking to Classic Rock at the time, he revealed his love of Purple – and the time he saw Ritchie Blackmore pelt his own singer with tomatoes.

How did you end up covering Never Before with Kings Of Chaos and who are they?

The history of the cover is it was thrown to Def Leppard to do last year. But the problem was time. Once our tour was over, we all went our separate ways, so we had to politely decline. Then, the next thing I know [drummer] Matt Sorum phones me and says, ‘You’re the singer in our new band. We’re called Kings Of Chaos.’ And the band is Matt, [bassist] Duff McKagan and [guitarist] Steve Stevens. So I still get to sing it, but with different people playing behind me.

How did you go about recording it?

Matt sent me the backing track three weeks ago, just as Def Leppard were setting off on the road. I said, ‘Jesus, you couldn’t have sent it at a worse time. You expect me to go into the studio and become a singer-god.’ When I’m on tour and doing six hours a day of rehearsals, by the time I’ve finished I haven’t got any gas left in the tank. But I have found little spots here and there on days off. I did the vocal backstage at one of the gigs and it sounds great. As I speak to you, our sound guy is sat with his headphones on in his hotel room auditioning which vocal take is the best one to send over to Matt. So the band haven’t even heard me yet. 

What’s the appeal of Never Before?

It’s my favourite track on Machine Head. But it’s the one everybody forgets about. If you listen to it closely, compared to any other Deep Purple song, it sounds like the sort of thing Def Leppard could have written. It’s not riffy, like most Deep Purple. Although we have done our riffy stuff, Leppard went very chordal and jangly around the time of [1983’s] Pyromania. And then when you get to the chorus you have those harmonies. It’s just dead simple. It’s like The Kinks’ You Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night or those early Stones singles. It still sounds current and great on the radio. There’s not a song on Machine Head I don’t like, but if I was going to prioritise them, I would put Never Before at the top.

What’s at the bottom?

Smoke On The Water, but only because I don’t need to ever hear it again. We do Smoke On The Water  every day in soundcheck, but we do it over Let It Go. I have this knack of singing Smoke On The Water over every riff we do. I find it helps lighten the mood.

Deep Purple performing live onstage in 1972

(Image credit: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

When did you first discover Deep Purple?

My memories are all from TV. I saw them on Top Of The Pops probably doing Strange Kind Of Woman and backtracked from there. I think I heard Smoke On The Water coming out of some student’s smoke-infested bedroom window one afternoon. But it wasn’t on my record player at that time, and I didn’t have an older brother playing me Deep Purple. I was a real Top Of The Pops boy, so it was all Bowie, T.Rex, The Sweet and Slade. 

It was always a thrill to see a hard rock band on Top Of The Pops, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. You were always agog whenever any good stuff came on in between Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep and Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree. Anything like Mott The Hoople, Argent, Bowie. I discovered Thin Lizzy through Top Of The Pops. It was a case of all these bands that didn’t really belong there, but broke in for three minutes to wave at the cameras. We all liked that. Led Zeppelin didn’t do singles, so Deep Purple could corner that market. They were a cred rock band that went on Top Of The Pops to do Black Night and Strange Kind Of Woman, but didn’t lose their cred. It wasn’t a betrayal, it was an infiltration. It was like, they weren’t in the club, but they had broken into the club and now they were having a drink at the bar. 

What was your first Deep Purple album?

I got into them late having only known the singles. So it was [the 1975 compilation] 24 Carat Purple and it probably cost something like 50p. That had all the essential stuff on it. When I listen to Deep Purple these days, though, it’s either Deep Purple In Rock, Machine Head or Burn. Although I think of Mark III as a totally different band, a different entity that just happened to have the same name. 

Did you ever see them live in the 1970s?

No, because by the time I was going to concerts they were gone. And before that, they were off doing things like the [74] California Jam. They didn’t do Sheffield City Hall anymore. In fact, the first time I ever saw Deep Purple was in Dublin at The 02 about seven years ago. I remember it, because it was the first time they’d done Child In Time in 10 years and Gillan absolutely nailed it.

Are the rest of Def Leppard big Purple fans?

When I said, ‘Does anybody want to do Never Before for a Purple tribute album?’ [Leppard bassist] Rick Savage said, ‘It’s my favourite song on the album, I’m up for it.’ Ian Paice is the reason [drummer] Rick Allen started playing drums, and Phil [Collen, guitarist] is a huge Blackmore fan. I think Phil’s first ever gig was Deep Purple at some venue in the East End [It was actually the Brixton Sundown in 1972]. Phil reckons he’s in the crowd shot on Made In Japan. Apparently, you can see the back of his head. If you ever see a copy of The Stranglers’ single No More Heroes you can see the back of my head, as the picture was taken from the balcony of the Sheffield Top Rank.

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Have Def Leppard ever crossed paths with Deep Purple over the years?

Ian Gillan and I did a duet on his Gillan’s Inn album called I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. It’s a cover of the Dylan song, and it was great fun. For 20 years or more we swapped Christmas cards. We first met Ian Paice in 1983 when Def Leppard had just started to go ballistic in America. We were touring with Krokus and Jon Butcher Axis were supporting. Jon Butcher lasted a little while and then Gary Moore came out instead, and Gary had Ian Paice on drums. Here we were – 22 years old or something – and we had Ian Paice playing drums in the band that were third on the bill to us! We were all going up to him and saying, ‘Er… I’m really sorry…’ But he just burst out laughing and told us, ‘Don’t be so fucking daft.’ Then he started telling us stories about how when he goes into restaurants and can’t get a table, he says, ‘Don’t you know who I used to be?’ 

Have you had any experiences of The Man In Black?

Def Leppard opened for Rainbow in Europe in 1981. I remember Ritchie saying to me, ‘I want you to watch the audience tonight during Long Live Rock’N’Roll.’ So I stood at the side of the stage and he winked at me and then went down in to the pit with a box full of tomatoes and started throwing them at [Rainbow singer] Joe Lynn Turner. Of course, Joe couldn’t see Ritchie because of the spotlight and so he starts berating the crowd thinking they’re throwing them at him. People talk about the moody man in black, but I saw a different Ritchie Blackmore when we toured with him.

 What Def Leppard song would you like to hear Deep Purple cover?

Ha! Excuse me as I pick myself up from the floor holding my sides… Okay, well the devil on my left shoulder is saying, ‘Get them to do Pour Some Sugar On Me. Just for a laff…’ But, seriously, I think Gods Of War. It’s epic in the way that Knocking At Your Back Door on Perfect Strangers is. They could pull it off, and it would be funny to hear them do it.

Originally published in Classic Rock Presents Re-Machined: A Tribute To Deep Purple’s Machine Head

Mark Blake

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and the magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock, Music Week and Prog. He is the author of Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen, Magnifico! The A–Z Of Queen, Peter Grant, The Story Of Rock's Greatest Manager and Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.