Q&A: Joe Elliott

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After almost two-and-a-half years of procrastination, conjecture and internet flame wars, Def Leppard’s covers album is finally available. Titled Yeah!, it contains 14 cover versions of songs from a diverse range of artists including The Kinks, Blondie, Roxy Music and the Electric Light Orchestra, along with more obvious choices from singer Joe Elliott’s beloved glam rock heroes Mott The Hoople, David Bowie, The Sweet and T. Rex. In his review of Yeah! in this issue of Classic Rock, Philip Wilding wasn’t exactly kind to the record, but Elliott is outspoken in his defence of it.

Why the delay in the album being released, when it has been finished for ages?

We’ve been discussing this [doing a covers album] for 20 years, and decided to go ahead with it at the end of the last tour. 2004 was a gap year for Def Leppard, the first summer we hadn’t worked since 1989. I got married, Phil [Collen, guitarist] spent some with his dying father. I did the vocals whenever I felt like it. It was pencilled in for 2005, but there was an American tour [with Bryan Adams], then departures at the record company, and we went through the stress of changing management companies. Eventually we decided it was strong enough to tour, so it went onto the back burner until now.

How did you choose the songs to cover for the record? Did each member of the band just pick a handful of favourites, or was there an agenda of some kind?

The record company were in on this from day one, and they presented us with a wish list of 75. This’ll sound odd, but the 25 we would have picked were all on there. We narrowed that down to a shortlist of 17, 15 of which got recorded. There are also some bonus tracks, including [Bowie’s] Space Oddity, American Girl [by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] and Queen’s Dear Friends.

Our only rules were that they had to be hits by British bands – which we didn’t exactly stick to in the end – and recorded before we signed our record deal [in 1979]. We wanted to show the world our true roots. Unquestionably we come from Sabbath, Purple and Zeppelin, but there’s more to us than that. We’re laying our souls on the line.

In most cases you’ve been faithful to the originals, Blondie’s Hanging On The Telephone [actually, the Blondie version is a cover of The Nerves’ orginal] being a prime example.

Yes, some are complete forgeries. And others we altered slightly. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

The Sweet’s Hellraiser is another that you’ve treated with due reverence

Absolutely. That’s why we got Justin [Hawkins, of The Darkness] in for the Steve Priest [high-pitched vocal] lines. And Ian Hunter also does the spoken-word intro to [Mott The Hoople’s] The Golden Age Of Rock ’N’ Roll. Conversely, David Essex’s Rock On has definitely been Leppard-ised. We took that one to pieces and re-wrote it. From an English perspective, David Essex has probably now become an end-of-pier has-been, but American radio still plays Rock On every day, sandwiched between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Zeppelin.

The way some of the songs bleed together and their general flow makes the album feel a bit like listening to a jukebox, especially with The Faces’ Stay With Me winding things up

That was the intention. Phil sang Stay With Me. It’s his best Rod Stewart impression. I played the Fender Rhodes [electric piano], he got to sing. There was a lot of instrument swapping going on. Vivian [Campbell, guitarist] played some great Ronnie Wood slide guitar.

Which of the songs were especially difficult or easy to nail?

Funnily enough, the one I expected to be hard was the Paul Rodgers vocal on [Free’s] A Little Bit Of Love, but I got through it okay. The one I assumed I’d breeze through was The Golden Age Of Rock ’N’ Roll, which I know backwards, inside out and in foreign languages. We had to take that one down a key because I just couldn’t do it.

Putting yourself in Bowie’s shoes one minute and Bryan Ferry’s the next, did it sometimes feel a bit Stars In Your Eyes?

Nah, it was never that naff. It never felt like platinum-coated karaoke. We wanted to take it as seriously as Bowie did with Pin-Ups [his 1973 covers album].

Have you received any feedback from any of the original artists? The Sweet’s guitarist Andy Scott, for example?

Andy said that our version of Action [on 1993’s Retro Active] was the best cover of a Sweet song he’d ever heard. But he won’t have heard Hellraiser yet. I’ve heard second-hand that Bowie really digs what we did with Drive In Saturday. I played our Little Bit Of Love to Paul Rodgers when he was in Dublin with Queen, and he loved it. And my friend Ricky Warwick [frontman with the Black Star Riders] met David Essex at a TV station in Belfast. David almost swallowed his tongue when he heard we’d done Rock On. That was funny.

You launched a furious attack on a website that previewed the album in early 2004

It was reviewed from an unfinished, unmastered CD. The guy lives in Tasmania and is no threat to me – I don’t even care what he thinks. He was trying to be clever by being first, and that’s the side of journalism I detest.

It’s fitting that Leppard tour with Journey in America this summer, as they collected a Diamond Award to celebrate 10,000,000 sales of their Greatest Hits at the same ceremony as you did for Hysteria. Isn’t that a great combination?

It’s a marked contrast with the 1990s, in what some people might call our wilderness years. Back then it was hard to be in Def Leppard. We held our own and pulled good crowds, but nobody would come out with us. And if nobody who was considered cred would tour with us, then fuck ’em, we ended up doing it alone.

Def Leppard are also playing two UK shows in June. Presumably you chose the supports: Cheap Trick and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band?

Oh God, yes. I’ve said for years that Cheap Trick and us would be a marriage made in Heaven, and suddenly they were available. Last year I saw the Alex Harvey Band in Sheffield, and got up for Boston Tea Party with them. They were fantastic. I’ve even heard that Zal [Cleminson, guitarist] is back in the make-up again. These shows will be a real event.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 94