How NYC's Rock Scene Influenced Def Leppard: 'We Sound Like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Don’t We?'
Photo by Maryanne Bilham-Knight
“We were the sore thumb stuck between Michael and Janet Jackson in the Top 10,” chuckles Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott. Indeed, in the late Eighties — the band’s sales heyday, thanks to still-omnipresent hard-rock singalongs like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Rock of Ages” — Def Leppard were on a path that led to more than 100 million albums sold worldwide. “A lot of people thought, ‘Sellout, sellout,’ " Elliott notes of their chart success. But the articulate and fast-talking frontman, 55, knows exactly where his band stands. “We’ve got nothing to do with the music industry. We were our own bubble inside the business.”
As for “sellout”? Well, it’s not like the quintet — Rick Allen on drums, Rick Savage on bass, and Vivian Campbell and Phil Collen on guitars — turned from the Sex Pistols into Boston. Calling from Birmingham, Michigan, on an off-day on tour, Elliott explains that he gets a little tired of explaining their tendency to shy away from industry pressure. “There seems to be this thing: ‘Oh, now go do something else, like some reggae record.’ No! When you’ve got a certain sound, when it’s rock, there is no need to change it all the time,” he firmly states. “When most bands change their sound, it gets worse. To me, the ones that maintain a coolness are the ones who come through that crap and come out the other side. Like AC/DC, you know what you’re going to get. And to a point, Aerosmith. [They've] got a style, that mixture of the Yardbirds and the Shangri-Las; that’s what they do. Steven Tyler’s nod to the Fifties, Joe Perry’s love of Jimmy Page — that’s what you get. I don’t want to hear Aerosmith sound like Dave Matthews just to try to win over a rep from Rolling Stone for a good review. We are what we are, and we enjoy what we are. No excuses. The people who don’t like it have already tuned out years ago.”
There are plenty who remain tuned to the band’s arena-worthy songs, solid stage show, and likable persona. Still, insiders know that Elliott — who also hosts a radio show on Planet Rock in the U.K. — has the Down 'n' Outz, a side band honoring his heroes Mott the Hoople. He's a rabid audiophile, especially a champion and fan of punk, glam, and the lesser-known rock gems. In other words, a lot of bands not quite like his own. That said, Elliott observes that “people want to rewrite their own history because it’s cool." "The biggest-selling record in England in 1979 was [Supertramp’s] Breakfast in America. All the front covers of magazines had Sid Vicious, but it was Supertramp and Abba, let’s not forget, who ruled the airwaves.”
It wouldn't be off to extrapolate that Def Leppard were the Supertramp of the Eighties, thanks to a sheeny sound and hits that spent dozens of weeks on the charts. Despite his pop-rock proclivities, the New York scene of the Seventies was nonetheless a big influence on the teenage Elliott and ultimately Def Leppard. “If you listen to us, we really sound like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, don’t we?” He laughs. “[The States] didn’t really have a weekly magazine. You had Circus and Creem, Rolling Stone, but we had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, Disk, Record Mirror…every week we’d be reading about Tom Verlaine, Blondie, Wayne County. And it was either Max’s Kansas City or CBGB. I’ve got a bootleg from Max’s, and at first I thought it was a place in Kansas City.” He chuckles at his youthful folly. “Iggy was out of the Stooges, and he seemed more Bowery. The Dolls had split by then, but their shadow hung over. I bought [Television’s] Marquee Moon, and I remember buying a seven-inch sampler single, called Live at the CBGB, featuring a band I really liked called the Tuff Darts. If you listen now, it’s tragically not punk; it sounds like Sha Na Na. But as a sixteen-year-old kid I thought it was brilliant. But it wasn’t like Boston or Skynyrd or Foreigner, any of those bands. It was New York doing what England had done.”
Elliott’s amazing memory goes back, in detail, to those early days of the band, when he celebrated his 21st birthday in New York City in 1980, opening for AC/DC at the now-defunct Palladium on East 14th Street. It was the last gig of their American tour, and Elliott, along with his then-teenage bandmate Allen (who would lose his left arm in a car accident a few years hence) spent a week in the city, “just doing things you do as a kid who grew up reading about New York."
"Trash & Vaudeville replenished my wardrobe,” Elliott recalls. “I went down to CBGB, just to say that I had. Sam Ash Music — I bought my first Les Paul in 1983.”
At that point in Lep’s career, Elliott recalls, the band were so poor they were “four straws into one pint — we had no money.” That’s clearly changed, but the band hasn’t. They have a new record due later this year. And while he won’t reveal song titles — “We’re from that generation where we still think the element of surprise is important” — he will talk somewhat cryptically about the fourteen-song record. The album will be called, quite simply, Def Leppard. “If people don’t know who we are by now, they never will. It does sum up what we are, who we are at this point in our career,” says Elliott. “It’s got echoes of everything we’ve done and echoes of everything we’ve ever listened to.”
It’s their first record of all-new material in seven years, and the band feels they have their “mojo back,” even without super-producer and sound architect Mutt Lange at the helm. Instead, they produced Def Leppard alongside Ronan McHugh, whom Elliott refers to as the studio engineer and sound guy who “knows how to referee a Def Leppard record.” Even more importantly, McHugh can translate “musician-speak” into English. “He knows how to interpret our non-technical terms,” explains Elliott, whose own Sheffield accent sometimes defies clarity. “When we were in the studio in Holland doing Hysteria, Mick Jagger was there in another studio for a solo record,” he recalls. “And you could hear him saying, ‘It wants a bit of this, it wants a bit of that.’ And that always resonated, like, the engineer having to interpret what the hell that means. That’s what it’s like for us with Ronan. We say, ‘It needs a bit more oomph,’ and he’ll look at you like you’ve got three heads, and go, ‘OK,’ and he’ll start twiddling the knobs and go, ‘Yeah, there you go.’ As Mutt said, if you guys haven’t learned now, you’re never going to.”
While other, younger stadium bands like Mötley Crüe are retiring, not so for Lep. “Privately, we’ve all probably gone, ‘I’m done,’ but it’s normally done in a low moment,” he concedes. “Then you wake up and go, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ I’ve considered, 'Do we really need to go on the road as much?'…Since my kid hit five he’s less reliant, and my wife’s happy enough to shove me out the door,” he muses. “I couldn’t do this [big of a tour] every year. We’re getting on great, Viv’s back [he’s currently being treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma] and I’m singing as good as I’ve ever sung, if not better.”
Elliott waxes philosophical about the future and what he can do to control it, which he realizes is not much. “Everything we do we hang on by the skin or our teeth, let’s be honest,” he says. “That’s what makes it an exciting ride. When people get on a plane, I think they feel a certain amount of mortality, for a couple seconds, then they settle down. Being in a band is kinda like that. But all the time.”
Def Leppard play Nikon at Jones Beach Theater on July 23 with Tesla and Styx. For ticket information, click here.
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