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Star Wars For The Ears: Def Leppard's Phil Collen On 'Hysteria' and Beyond

Friday, 30 November 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

For the last five years Def Leppard fans, those without money to burn, may have feared the old saying ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ would prove depressingly true for them. After all, it was 2013 when the Sheffield quintet performed their 1987 masterpiece ‘Hysteria’ in its entirety during a residency at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Nevada.

This winter, however, Christmas will definitely come early for anyone who’s been longing to see the rock ‘n’ roll giants run through that game-changing record a little closer to home, with a wide-ranging UK and Ireland arena tour in the diary before a headline outing at next summer’s Download festival at Donington Park.

Courtesy of two hugely influential albums that were made in cahoots with producer—and unofficial sixth member—Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, Def Leppard were one of the biggest, most imitated bands in the world during the ‘80s. Not only did 1983’s ‘Pyromania’ move upwards of 10 million units in the USA, they followed that four years later with ‘Hysteria’, an LP that spawned seven hit singles and went on to set some mind-bending sales records, with over 25 million copies shifted worldwide.

It was to be their last release with original guitarist Steve Clark, who died in 1991 at the age of 30 following a long struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, and although they fought back from that devastating loss with former Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell in tow, they were swimming against the current in the ‘90s and early part of this century after grunge, and then nu-metal, changed the hard rock landscape.  

Many of the old guard called it quits during that time, but Def Leppard stuck to their guns and have been rewarded with a spectacular latter-day resurgence that’s not only seen them playing major venues again, but also landed them a nomination for next year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We spoke to the band’s long-time guitar hero Phil Collen about the good times and bad, their trend-defying resurrection and why the force has—and always will be—strong with the 12-track colossus that is ‘Hysteria’.

I’ve seen shows where bands play a beloved album in full and sometimes they’re fantastic, other times everything else in the set feels anticlimactic and lacking in cohesion. How challenging was it to make everything work?

Actually, really easy. We’d done it in Vegas with ‘Viva Hysteria’. That was sweet because we were the opening act as well. We went on and did a 40 minute set of other songs, went off stage, had a shower, came back and did ‘Hysteria’. It was theatrical, so we thought we’ll try a version of it.

We were in Hawaii rehearsing and had two shows there. The first night we tried that approach and it sucked. It was like ‘Oh my god, this just does not feel right.’ So very un-Def Leppard. We changed the whole thing for the next night. We went on with ‘Hysteria’ then did five songs as an encore and it seemed to work great. It was night and day. Same building, same kind of audience, but a drastically different response.

Was there ever any talk of doing these ‘Hysteria’ shows in the round to replicate what you did back in the day?

Absolutely, but if I showed you the cost, that’s why we’re not. If everything was sold out and you knew that going into it, it would be a different thing. I remember us losing money on that tour in certain parts of the world and that was with selling out shows. It was so much fun playing in the round but, like I said, you’ve got to do a lot of full nights or be earning ridiculous money to make it work.

‘Hysteria’ is a very produced album with lots of layered vocals and guitars.  Was there a moment where you all looked at each other and thought ‘how on earth are we going to pull this off live?’

No. You never ever worry about if you can do it live. You have to create something and then worry about all the other shit later on. We did have that situation happen.  Love Bites went to number one in the States and we’d never played it as a band. It was a complete studio song. We attempted playing it and it was awful because there’s four guitar parts going off at the same time.

We had to condense it down, like a composite, of four parts into two. Then you had to sing over the top of that complicated guitar part. The first time we played it, it was ‘Oh my god this is a disaster. It’s never gonna happen. It’s gonna be embarrassing. They’re gonna laugh us off the stage.’ We scraped through the first show and after that it got easier. Now we do it in our sleep.  

It’s just coming to terms with that. Even when we started rehearsing these songs.  There’s three that are really demanding vocally. Not because they’re hard to sing, but hard to sing consistently—Don’t Shoot Shotgun, Run Riot and Excitable. There’s a lot of vocals in them and they’re pretty high and aggressive.  

At first, I was singing too aggressively and if I do that for too long I lose my voice. So you use all these little tricks, like middle voice, which is somewhere in-between a falsetto—which is high up there—or a chest throat voice, and there’s a thing in the middle called middle voice.  Certain lines you have to learn a certain way. When we were rehearsing we just had to do it over and over again. You have to find the key to unlock what you do to make it work.

'Hysteria’ still sounds timeless whereas many ‘80s rock records are dated. Why do you think it’s aged so well?

Mutt Lange. In a nutshell. When we were recording ‘Hysteria’ I remember someone said to Mutt ‘Why do you take so long to record? Why are you doing this?’ And he said ‘So you’ll be talking about it in 20 years.’ Here we are, it’s been 31 years, and we’re still talking about it. He was right. When we made the record he’d say ‘Push harder, this isn’t good enough. It’s average for a chorus. It may work as a bridge but you’ve got to work harder with that.’ He would demand excellence from us. It wasn’t an ego thing and we wouldn’t get upset, we’d just try and please him and get something better.  

He was always the best singer in the room. He’s got great ideas. He was the best songwriter in the room. He can play any instrument. Apart from just wanting to make the record better he’d be on to an idea and you’d go ‘Wow, this is kind of magical’ and you want to see it through. There was a presence he had that wasn’t just a producer or songwriter. There was something else. We wanted to get something very special and different, not because we were obliged to make something better or it was stacks of vocals just for the sake of it. It was trying to create something we thought was amazing and he knew what he was doing.

You’ve begun kicking ideas around for a new album. Fans would be overjoyed if you announced you were making another record with Mutt. Realistically speaking, could that ever happen?

There’s a level of excellence Mutt has that no one else has. It takes time and people are not prepared to pay for that. If we said ‘We’re gonna do an album with Mutt but it’s gonna cost a hundred quid per album’, you know what I mean? I think we could do the odd song with Mutt but if we did a whole album, because of his level of excellence, it would take more time. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, there’s a mystery, a thing that unfolds that you have to navigate through, a journey.

I know it sounds weird but that’s how he works. You begin with a starting point and then follow a muse and away you go. His level of excellence isn’t just given away, it’s earned and worked for.  You can do an ordinary version of that but for the stuff you’re talking about, what fans would really want to hear, would take a lot of time. I don’t think he’d be prepared to do that, or us or the label. We couldn’t take that much time off.

You’ve talked about the ‘80s hair metal thing that ‘Pyromania’ unwittingly spawned as being very superficial. Is it frustrating that people lump you in with all those bands when you were pushing boundaries on that record and ‘Hysteria’?  

It is frustrating but I do think, now, the test of time is on our side. The fact we’re actually doing this, for example, speaks volumes. A lot of the other bands have disappeared and we just got that Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination. I would never have believed that I’d be 61 years old running around the stage half naked and playing and singing this way on these songs. I think that’s the difference, that’s what separates us. People couldn’t see it early on, they absolutely can now.

But has that specious assumption harmed your reputation and stopped you getting the respect your achievements deserve?

We’re not U2 and, singing songs like ‘let’s get, let’s get, let’s get rocked’, it’s hard to be taken seriously when you weigh it up like that. We’re a rock band and there’s a fun element to a lot of that stuff that we think is valid. It’s cool, it’s escapism, it’s meant to be a certain way. Like when we first saw T-Rex or Bowie. I do believe it got lost and we got lumped in with all that banal stuff where that was [seen as] a serious lyric.  

When we do lyrics like that it’s for a reason, an effect, we’re creating a song and environment for having a laugh and, also, making music that, sonically, sounds spectacular. We always said Mutt was making Star Wars for the ears. That was the approach. A lot of people didn’t do that and that’s why we got lumped in with all those awful bands. The fact this album is still doing its thing, it’s testament to the fact that it was very different to a lot of stuff that was out there.

Rick Savage said when you were making 92s ‘Adrenalize’ you were all in a trance after Steve’s death and sleepwalking through it, which is why it wasn’t as groundbreaking. But even if Steve had lived, and had Mutt been there the whole time instead of working with Bryan Adams, could you have realistically done anything to top ‘Hysteria’?

If we’d have followed up ‘Hysteria’ with ‘Slang’ or an album like that I think it would have been better. It should have been raw. Mutt said ‘Make it more like Guns N’ Roses, just kind of live in the studio’ and we didn’t. We started doing that thing and, before you know it, it just sounded like a poor cousin or stepchild to ‘Hysteria’. In hindsight, yes, it would have been better if we’d followed up with something that was nothing like it, that was actually raw, a different approach. That would have been a better way to go.  

You released a single titled Make Love Like A Man from ‘Adrenalize’ at the height of grunge. Did that indicate you hadn’t realised what was happening and were out of touch?

No. If that had come out two years after ‘Hysteria’ it would have been a different story. It would have been OK, but it wasn’t. We took too long on it, three and a half years, and everything changed in the meantime. The whole grunge thing took everyone by surprise and it was a really good thing to happen. The goal posts had been moved and we were stuck with this album that was dated.

Lyrically, everything about it, was something that should have happened three years prior. You can’t totally jump ship on something you’ve just spent three years on so we released it and it was number one for five weeks during the L.A. riots in the US and did really well.  But it would have been better had we done something a bit more aggressive. ‘Adrenalize’ was too sweet and poppy and wasn’t serious enough. Even the sound of it, sonically, should have been more of a ‘Slang’ thing.

‘Euphoria’ was a great return to a more vintage Leppard aesthetic. Was there a consensus in the band to go back to the classic sound or did any of you want to continue down the ‘Slang’ path?  

So, here’s what happens with bands who have very successful albums and then do something that’s less of a big deal. We put ‘Slang’ out and everyone hated it. I loved it, and there’s the odd fan who goes ‘this is great,’ but the label hated it because it didn’t do very well. It stung a little bit. People going ‘Oh god this sucks.’ When you hear your own fans saying that you take note.

When we did ‘Euphoria’ it was as a result of doing ‘Slang’ beforehand. It’s a tonic. I really like Promises and some stuff on there, like Paper Sun, is awesome. Actually, that would have been a better album to follow ‘Hysteria’. But you do an album a certain way and it has a certain amount of success, or doesn’t, and then you do something different. That’s what being an artist is all about and it’s hard to do that if you’re successful because you get painted in a corner.

How hard was it to deal with the ‘90s? Were you bitter? Did you have to grieve the loss of what you’d had?

No, we’re bloody English, come on! We’ve Yorkshiremen in the band. We did that British thing and have this value system. It’s a really hard-working thing we inherited from our parents, from World War Two survivors. They were getting blown up. My mum and Joe’s [Elliott] mum were running down the air raid shelters. It’s hard to believe. They did pass on a certain thing that you just work through it. And it’s pop music. Rock music. Getting your house blown up because some Nazis invaded your front room is a different story.  

If someone doesn’t like your music it’s not a big deal. It’s like ‘Fucking cheer up and straighten up and get on with it.’ So that’s exactly what we did. We’d go ‘OK, this isn’t working right now but we have faith in what we do, we’re really good, we’ll keep working at it and hopefully it will come around.’ And voila, it did.

Was there a specific moment when you realised things were changing and your resurgence was underway?

No, it’s been a really gradual thing and we take everything with a pinch of salt. Even the success. People are really fickle. Look at where we are with Facebook and Instagram and likes on YouTube. It’s a really tragic, fickle society we live in and you’ve got to bear that in mind. So, when you put anything out you’ve not got to get upset if people don’t like it and say you suck because in a year’s time they may go ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing.’  

That happened with us a bunch of times. I remember me and Steve sitting in some bar and this girl came in and insulted us. We were recording ‘Hysteria’ and she goes ‘Yeah you guys, it’s not really good, you’ve kind of lost the plot and there’s all this new stuff coming out now.’ And we released ‘Hysteria’ and it completely changed again. So, we don’t take anything too seriously. It’s just music.

You mentioned you’ve been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but what do you hope Def Leppard’s legacy will be?

Martin Luther King’s got a legacy, we’re just musicians. I think the main thing is the survival and the fact we’ve never given up. There’s a perseverance, a success, and we actually keep improving. I think that’s something we’ve got other bands don’t have.  I see a lot of other artists and, as they get old, their playing and singing starts suffering, and their writing and enthusiasm. Our enthusiasm has never waned and that’s a really inspiring thing from anyone, but especially a rock band, to keep that burning and keep inspiring people. That’s pretty cool.

'Hysteria: The Singles’ and 'The Story So Far - The Best Of' are out now.

Def Leppard Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat December 01 2018 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Sun December 02 2018 - BELFAST SSE Arena Belfast
Tue December 04 2018 - CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena
Thu December 06 2018 - LONDON O2 Arena
Sat December 08 2018 - NOTTINGHAM Motorpoint Arena 
Sun December 09 2018 - NEWCASTLE Metro Radio Arena
Tue December 11 2018 - GLASGOW SSE Hydro
Wed December 12 2018 - MANCHESTER Arena
Fri December 14 2018 - SHEFFIELD FlyDSA Arena 
Sat December 15 2018 - LIVERPOOL Echo Arena
Mon December 17 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Arena Birmingham
Tue December 18 2018 - LONDON SSE Arena

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