Joe Elliott has big plans for Def Leppard in the next three years but he's not letting on

Joe Elliott portrait
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

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This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The anniversary issue is available to purchase online (opens in new tab), and also features interviews with Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Justin Hawkins, Rick Nielsen, Slash and many more.

Since Classic Rock began in 1998, Joe Elliott has been busy leading Def Leppard’s renaissance and fronting another group – Mott The Hoople tribute-turned-‘actual band’ Down ‘N’ Outz – on the side. 

It’s been a busy 24 years. But his biggest challenge was becoming a dad in his fifties. The Leppard singer looks back on his two bands, his musical family, and the genius of David Bowie. 

In Classic Rock’s lifetime, Def Leppard have been through good times and bad. How would you sum it all up? 

For the first ten or fifteen years of this century we were fighting a losing battle, but we weren’t prepared to give up. We weren’t down and out, but we knew we weren’t thought of in the same way as in the eighties, and we needed to do something about it. The business model changed – it became all about touring. Selling ten million records was an eighties thing. Apart from Taylor Swift or Adele, nobody’s going to sell ten million records again. So we toured and toured… and it worked!

Diamond Star Halos is Leppard’s fifth studio record since 1998. Is it also the best from this period? 

It’s such a cliché to say that, but I do love this new one. It’s a feelgood album. It’s escapism. In hindsight, Euphoria [1999] was a decent attempt, but the polite word for it would be ‘patchy’. We made a pop record with X[2002]. We recorded some of it in ABBA’s studio, dancing around to Waterloo, and maybe that rubbed off. Songs From The Sparkle Lounge [2008] had some great stuff, like Love

But we really got our mojo back with the Def Leppard album [2015] and songs like Man Enough – which sounded like Another One Bites The Dust, but so what? We’ve always sounded like Queen! And with the new one, we’ve made a great album in bizarre circumstances. We ended up recording it completely remotely. And we’ve been sitting on it for a year! 

You formed Down ‘N’ Outz in 2009 as a tribute act, covering songs by your heroes. Is that the definition of a labour of love? 

It is – and especially so with the last album [2019’s This Is How We Roll], because it wasn’t a covers record. I wrote those songs on the piano in the spirit of the seventies. It’s not at all like Leppard, more like Elton and Bowie. And it was nice to have the freedom outside of the mothership.

That album had Goodnight Mr. Jones, a song in memory of Bowie. 

I’ll never forget the moment I heard Bowie had died. My phone was bouncing around like crazy. I had all these messages saying “Have you heard?” When you read that, you know somebody’s died. So I put on the TV and – boom! – there it was. Lemmy had died at the end of 2015, and Bowie went just a few days later, so that whole time had a big impact on me. 

Ian Hunter is my biggest hero, but Bowie is right up there. When he did Starman on Top Of The Pops in 1972 I was twelve years old, hitting puberty, becoming more than just a kid, discovering my own music. And with Bowie I thought: “This is mine!” It was a pivotal moment for me, as it was for so many people. The man really was a genius. 

In these past twenty-four years, the darkest days for Leppard were when guitarist Vivian Campbell was being treated for cancer

We were doing a Vegas residency, and the first day of rehearsals was when Viv said: “It’s cancer.” We were all in shock. But Viv was positive that he’d beat it, and, well, he’s still here!

You’ve got two kids now. Has fatherhood changed you? 

It changes everything – and it comes at you like a fucking express train! It’s not about me any more. I was fifty when I had my first kid. While everybody else was having kids I was having a jolly old time. My son Finlay loves music and has a weird sense of humour like me, and my daughter Lyla is five. She plays guitar now. She’s starting to write her own songs. I wrote my first song when I was eight, so apples don’t fall far from the tree.

Without your father, Joe Snr, the Def Leppard story might have turned out very differently. 

My dad was a working-class guy and my mum was a nurse, so we didn’t have much money. We had an outside toilet till I was eight, no telly till I was ten. But in 1978, dad cleared out his bank account to lend me a hundred and fifty quid to make our first record [The Def Leppard E.P.]. And was the start of it all. 

It was your mother Cynthia who inspired you to pick up a guitar. 

I watched her play, singing all these Pete Seeger songs, and I said: “I want a guitar!” My dad said: “You can have one when you’ve learned to play your mum’s.” So I learned a few chords, just enough to accompany my voice. Even then I was being moulded to be a singer. I had a nice present for my mum on her ninetieth birthday: I’d found a tape, recorded in 1968, of her singing ten songs, including the one I wrote when I was eight. So I put these songs on a CD. Because she doesn’t need any more scarves. 

And this year is Def Leppard’s forty-fifth anniversary. 

There is a wow factor when you say that. Fuck, really? When we got together in 1977, Zeppelin had been going for around ten years. You thought that’s how long you’d get. And here we are forty-five years later. And we’ve got big plans for the future. You’ve no idea what’s coming in the next three years. How’s that for a tease?

Def Leppard's new album Diamond Star Halos is released on May 27.

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!”