Phil Collen: The Leppard Changing His Spots

“Let’s be honest,” says Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, smiling out of The Blues’ laptop via Skype from his house in Orange County, California. “The blues was born out of agony and pain. I see guys these days copying the blues style and it makes my skin crawl, because it isn’t based on real suffering. Kurt Cobain was like a blues artist, without actually being a blues artist, because he genuinely suffered.”

Hold on a tick. Here we have a member of a massive-selling stadium rock band defining the blues by invoking the name of a grunge musician. Explain yourself, Collen! Fortunately, he has a convincing argument to back up this assertion, explaining: “Truly expressive artists are people like Kurt, who had this agony in them. It’s very much like rap. The original rap was a social commentary, an expression of pain.”

Warming to his theme, Collen adds: “Punk music was similar to blues in that sense, too. When the Sex Pistols came out, Johnny Rotten’s lyrics were so grim for a young man, because they mirrored the social angst of the time. That feeling was let out through that medium, and I think that’s really what the blues is about. It’s about suffering, pain and agony and frustration – and letting those things out the only way you know how.”

Before anyone points it out, Collen knows perfectly well that – as a middle-aged white dude with the benefit of 100 million album sales behind him – he’s hardly authentic blues material, by his own definition. However, talk to him and listen to his new album, and it becomes rapidly clear that he clearly understands the basic impetus behind the music. “I’m a privileged white guy who lives in a really nice house,” he says, “but I remember when I picked up a guitar for the first time. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a musician. I did suffer from teenage angst, although I haven’t had the same pain as John Lee Hooker or Howlin’ Wolf had, of course – but I was still able to use music as an outlet.”

Why all this chatter about blues from a man better known for crunching out heavy metal riffs? Simply because Collen has formed a blues band, Delta Deep, who are about to release a debut album. The self-titled collection pulls together a wide cast of musicians, from Whitesnake singer David Coverdale and Collen’s Leppard colleague Joe Elliott, through to bassist Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots, keyboard player CJ Vanston and session drummer extraordinaire Forrest Robinson. Collen shares vocals with Debbi Blackwell-Cook, his wife Helen’s godmother, whose rich, soulful voice points directly to her history as a backing singer for jazz and soul artists such as Michael Bublé and Luther Vandross.

“We had our first rehearsal yesterday, right here in my front room. It was electric!” says Collen. “Robert came down, having just finished some Stone Temple Pilots dates, and Debbi and Forrest were here too. It was mind-blowing – real goosebump time!”

Asked how the Delta Deep project first began, he explains: “We started it about two years ago. I was raising money for a cancer charity called the Gerson Institute down in San Diego, so we went down there, auctioned off a guitar and played some Motown covers and a couple of bluesy things. Afterwards, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, where can we buy this?’ So Debbi, my wife Helen and I started writing original songs.”

Blackwell-Cook is Delta Deep’s secret weapon, bringing a lifetime of blues and soul experience to the songs. “Debbi is a great lyricist,” Collen tells us. “She’s 62 years old, and she has such power, because she was brought up in the church and has been singing since she was two years old. As we wrote the album, the music started to sound a bit like Led Zeppelin, or Van Halen’s first album, but with Tina Turner singing over it – it was so exciting. One minute it sounded like James Brown, the next minute it sounded like Zeppelin, but with Debbi’s voice on it. We didn’t plan it that way, it just turned out like that.”

Delta Deep is a terrific album. Rather than being merely a stopgap bunch of songs assembled by a rock star between tours, it emits relentless energy, sounding completely fresh. Highlights include a version of Deep Purple’s classic blues anthem Mistreated, originally released in 1974 on the Mark III Purple line-up’s album Burn. Joe Elliott delivers a truly remarkable vocal performance, hitting notes at bat-like frequencies, while Collen takes the place of Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore with a fast-fingered solo.

“It was Blackmore who got me into the guitar in the first place,” remembers Collen. “I saw the classic line-up of Deep Purple play live and it was great: it made me want to pick up a guitar. I got the vibe of blues, and I understood it, from being into Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I also remember getting an LP called The Guitar on my 16th birthday, along with my first actual guitar. It had Shuggie Otis, BB King and Albert King on it, so I got into them as well.”

Talking of Mistreated, the final song on the new album, Collen had first asked the song’s original singer David Coverdale if he’d care to perform it for Delta Deep. However, the mighty Cov – in the middle of re-recording a host of Deep Purple classics for Whitesnake’s The Purple Album, released in May this year – requested another title instead. “I asked Coverdale to come and sing Mistreated,” recalls Collen, “but he said, ‘I can’t, because I’m re-recording all these Purple songs, but I’d love to do something else for you.’ So I said, ‘What would you like to sing?’ and without hesitation he said Private Number by William Bell.

I said okay and we learned it: obviously our version is very different to the original, with more of a Hendrix sound.” He adds that Coverdale fully approved Elliott’s attempt at his electric blues classic. “I said, ‘I’d love to hear Joe sing Mistreated,’ and Coverdale said ‘Me too!’. Joe was absolutely up for Mistreated. It’s one of the best vocal performances of his career.”

The first song (and single) from Delta Deep, a ferocious stomp laced with slide guitars, is Bang The Lid – a song with a much darker message than its good-time musical vibe would seem to indicate. “That song is actually about killing a slave master, using sex to lure him and then kill him,” explains Collen. “It’s great to be able to sing songs like that. Due to the fact that two of us in the band are black and two of us are white, we can touch taboo subjects that other bands couldn’t.”

On the same subject, Collen continues: “When I was a kid I heard singers like Tina Turner, who went through all this terrible stuff, getting the shit beaten out of her by her husband – she had no escape. And Aretha Franklin used to give me goosebumps. Her voice was as bluesy as some of those guitar lines. I had all of those influences – and my wife is black, and my three daughters are half black, which definitely makes a difference, especially in America, where slavery started.”

Elsewhere on the album, Whiskey is much subtler, a workout for Collen’s Wes Montgomery influences. The clean enunciation and expert phrasing of his guitar lines is the polar opposite of the platinum-selling overdriven shredding that made Def Leppard so famous. The blues was always in Collen’s background, he explains – but indirectly, via musicians who had themselves absorbed the genre as an influence.

“The blueprint for Def Leppard was really AC/DC and Queen. Somewhere in between those, we made it work,” he says. “All my lead guitar lines were totally influenced by Hendrix, Blackmore and Mick Ronson. BB King’s lead playing has always been a part of me, too. I’ve never been able to play the guitar with my teeth, though: I tried that years ago and nearly knocked my teeth out!”

Delta Deep rocks pretty hard, teeth-assisted playing or not. Fans of Collen’s mothership band won’t be disappointed in any way with Delta Deep, which is as heavy at certain points as even the most riff-laden Leppard songs. For example, at Whiskey’s midpoint he shifts gears into a lightning-fast solo of decidedly metallic nature, like the opening riffs of the song which follows it, Down In The Delta. Here Robert DeLeo makes his presence known with a thunderous bass part that underpins the emotive vocal interplay between Collen and Blackwell-Cook. There’s even a shouted chorus which will put headbangers in mind of Leppard classics such as Pour Some Sugar On Me. Honestly – go and listen to it and tell us if you’re not reminded of spandex and pointy-headed guitars…

Produced by Collen at his home studio, the album is slick, energetic and restless – a long way from the phoned-in efforts of more than a few blues albums we could mention. Is Collen a taskmaster producer, and if so did he demand multiple takes from David Coverdale and Delta Deep’s other guests? “There was no need for that, fortunately!” he laughs. “David had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and he did it: it was a lot of fun working with him. He and Joe sent me their vocal files over the internet – the band didn’t actually need to come over here, which is why we’ve just had our first rehearsal even though the album was recorded a while back.”

A mighty cover of Black Coffee, originally released by Ike & Tina Turner in 1972 but a better-known hit for Humble Pie a year later, powers along courtesy of bass and drums from Simon Laffy – of Collen’s old band Girl – and Sex Pistol Paul Cook, respectively. Delta Deep’s version steers fairly close to the Humble Pie recording: as such, was it daunting to cover the song? “It was!” chuckles Collen. “I’m a big Stevie Marriott fan, and I didn’t realise that the Small Faces’ first meeting was just down the road from where I grew up in Walthamstow. They were from East Ham and Leytonstone, and all that area. In fact, Itchycoo Park is about a park right near where my dad is buried. Full circle. It was great to pay tribute to them, actually. I did the vocal on that song two days after we finished a leg of a Def Leppard tour: my voice was fucked up, totally shot! But I think that added to it. I liked the rawness that your voice gets from being in bad shape. It worked out well, you know.”

That’s putting it mildly. The album has to be one of the blues releases of the year, as you’ll no doubt agree when you’ve heard it and are trying your damnedest to get its incredibly infectious choruses out of your head. “I’m so thrilled to get this record out,” says Collen. “Delta Deep is definitely a long-term project: we’ve already got half of the second album written. We’re slotting some live dates in between the Def Leppard and Stone Temple Pilots tours – it’s a really exciting time for us.”

Leppard will be out on tour with fellow rockers Styx and Tesla from June to October this year, and they also have a new as-yet-untitled album on the way. As if that weren’t enough commitments for Collen, he also has an autobiography called Adrenalized: My Life With Def Leppard out towards the end of the year. How on earth Delta Deep will find time to play live with all that going on is a mystery, but the answer may well lie in Collen’s near-legendary energy levels, the result of a tough fitness and dietary regime that has seen him appear in many a men’s health magazine in recent years.

“I can go non-stop,” he admits. “I do have a lot of energy and I put it to good use. We came back from tour and I was literally rehearsing the next day. I never really have downtime. Occasionally we’ll watch The Walking Dead in the evenings just to relax, but mostly I’m working out or making music. The thing about Delta Deep is that it covers so much ground. You can go from real, Otis Redding-style R&B soul to Van Halen, from one minute to the next. You really can do that with this kind of thing: it’s all-encompassing, and what’s cool about it is that we didn’t know the album was going to sound like this. We just followed it naturally.”

A final thought on the blues, Phil?

“Music and art are great. When you can’t really communicate and it’s frustrating and you’ve got anger issues or whatever, you can let all that flow out. Poetry, painting, music, whatever – these are tools for expression. And that’s what the blues is all about.”

Delta Deep is out now via Mailboat Records. See for more info.

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is a British author. The best-known of his 25 books to date is the bestselling Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, first published in 2004 and appearing in nine languages since then. McIver's other works include biographies of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Ice Cube and Queens Of The Stone Age. His writing also appears in newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Rolling Stone, and he is a regular guest on music-related BBC and commercial radio.