"We’re finally back on that trajectory again, and we feel we've achieved a lot, but there's still much more to achieve.”
Joe Elliott is a storyteller. By extension, so is his band, Def Leppard. Remarkably, they're going strong for their 47th year in music. You know their hits, from Pour Some Sugar On Me to Armageddon It, and they’ve stood the test of time: Def Leppard is a unit of spectacular songwriters.
On last year’s Diamond Star Halos, their 12th album, the legendary UK rockers offered some curveballs by collaborating with Alison Krauss and finding influences in Queen, T-Rex and David Bowie.
The album was very successful, peaking at #3 in Australia, #5 in the UK, and #2 on the US Top Rock Albums Billboard chart. Anchored by Elliott’s raspy, wide-ranging vocals, Def Leppard did it again. Last month, the band released Drastic Symphonies, a reworking of a number of their hits, including Hysteria’s title track, Pour Some Sugar On Me, Love Bites and Animal amongst Bringin’ On The Heartbreak, Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad, and many more.
Recorded like any rock-meets-orchestra album should be – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the iconic Abbey Road Studios – where on earth do Def Leppard continue mining energy and ideas from?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, Elliott was planning on inviting his bandmates – drummer Rick Allen, Rick Savage (bass, backing vocals), Phil Collen (guitar, backing vocals), and Vivian Campbell (guitar, backing vocals) to his Stepaside, Dublin, Ireland home (and studio) to record new music.
“And then they couldn’t travel come March 2020,” Elliott says over the phone, but the band knuckled down and decided to make a game plan. Def Leppard saw how things were going, restrictions began to roll on, and a summer stadium tour became a winter one, which isn’t viable in freezing British conditions.
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“So, that all of a sudden gave us the momentum we already had from day one. We had nine songs and the goal to keep going, and there was an excitement of doing something completely weird,” he laughs. How often does a band in its 47th-year show such a willingness and embrace of being thoroughly weird? Elliott explains, “In normal circumstances, who says, ‘Let's not get together in the studio, let's record a lot of parts at home, then send to our producer who glues it all together?'
“If you said that in 2019, you made a record in lockdown, it's just too far-fetched. Yet we made it a reality because there was an opportunity to do that, because there was no other way of doing it, and we were excited about making new music. We weren't going to let the pandemic stop us from doing it. Once we got that done, we were waiting around to release the album. We refused to put it out in a pandemic.”
Def Leppard is a live entity and a recording outfit, so they held Diamond Star Halos throughout 2021. Then, the opportunity to work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra arose. How could they say no? “We demoed a lot of songs and went, ‘Oh, God, no, that's not gonna work,” Elliott admits, so the group had to decide what to keep and what to cull.
“When the world did come out [of Covid-19] in winter 2022, we started doing promo for Diamond Star Halos while heading to Abbey Road. We got to see this incredible orchestra performing our songs, and they got to see the band rather than playing [the music created by] people who've been dead 200 years,” the Let’s Get Rocked singer adds with a laugh.
“Most of the time, when we think of an orchestra, they're in a tuxedo because they’re performing in a theatre or we’re watching them on TV. But these guys were in sweatpants, and a couple of them actually had t-shirts on, and we're up on the balcony watching them do it [laughs]."
"Beethoven can't do that because he's been dead for 200 years. You know, it was a really interesting scenario to do that. And we got that done so that we could drip-feed releases. We were recording this album as we were about to release Diamond Star Halos. That’s the energy within this band; we don't want to let opportunities slide by when we have the time and energy to actually perform them.”
One of the highlights on Diamond Star Halos is This Guitar featuring the mighty Alison Krauss. A song that was already 17 years old by the time Def Leppard recorded it – Collen wrote it in 2003; nobody outside the band or producer C.J. Vanston had heard it. “I’ve always had a thing for that song; even back then, I said it’s great,” Elliott says, revealing that This Guitar returned to him every few years despite “gathering cobwebs on a cassette somewhere.”
Luckily, Def Leppard’s manager ran into Krauss’ manager in Nashville and finally got the ball rolling. It helps that Alison Krauss is a huge Def Leppard fan. Elliott notes, “She's been a fan of us for a long time; she actually interviewed me for a long-gone English magazine called Q in 1996.” And despite Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant claiming that Krauss tutored him in singing, Elliott is her “favourite”. He adds, “She's such a beautiful spirit. It's just insane; it's just brilliant.
“Of course, I was texting with Robert as well. And he was like, ‘Annoyingly, you’re her favourite [laughs]. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. But you know, your football team is better than mine.’” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss are far from Joe Elliott’s only mates in rock and roll. One of the friends he’s known the longest is the man he affectionately calls “Johner”: AC/DC’s Brian Johnson.
“I’ve known Johner for a long time. We hung out early on because we were doing a gig close by, and it was a day off. He’s been to mine when AC/DC played Dublin on the Black Ice tour. He came on the day off before the gig and had lunch and stuff, so I first met Brian in 1980. It was the weirdest thing. I didn't remember this, but during that show that we did in Dublin, he said to me, ‘Do you remember when Def Leppard opened for AC/DC with Bon Scott on a British tour of Highway To Hell?’”
Elliott couldn’t recall this happening, but Johnson assured him that Def Leppard opened for his first-ever show with AC/DC in America at the New York Palladium. It was Elliott’s 21st birthday. “This is him telling me this story,” Elliott exclaims, before getting into a pitch-perfect, hilarious Brian Johnson impersonation, Geordie accent and all. “And he says, ‘I came out the hotel, had a cigarette, and I said, Joe! Have you got any advice for me?’ I’m like, me?!
“I knew John long before he joined AC/DC. And then all of a sudden, just because I've done three months around the space as third on the bill, for the most part, he's asking me, ‘What do I do? I don't remember what I said to him, but he says that I said, just be yourself.” Eternally great advice. “It's rare that we deal with two people like me and Johner. Two vastly different career paths, yet we both do the same thing.
“I’m a huge fan. We’re very different in that [music] respect, but also very similar. He's a lovely guy. He's got to be one of my favourite people in music because he's so good.”
Joe Elliott also looks up to classic rock superstars Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. They all influence Elliott's performance when he’s on massive stages around the globe, including in Australia alongside Mötley Crüe this November. “We put on a very exciting show; we've been doing that since we first got together.
“There was that youthful exuberance when we first started, and then what you’re supposed to do becomes a bit clearer,” Elliott explains. Like his idols and other rock and roll mainstays, which he refuses to gossip about, “Some bands get better, and some don't. I feel that for us, as a live entity, we have gotten so much better over the last 10 to 15 years. I think we just wanted more than some bands I’ve seen. They just lost interest instead of going through the motions – it's one thing this band has never done.
“Even when we went through what we might call ‘The Wilderness Years’, we tried so hard to get back to where we thought we belonged. We’re finally back on that trajectory again, and we feel we've achieved a lot, but there's still much more to achieve.”
About the “going through the motions” bands, Elliott maintains that “You have to put the effort in”. Of course, everyone remembers the energy bands like Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe had in the 70s and 80s; the challenge is keeping up that motivation and consistently putting on a show that people remember in 2023. Aging, of course, is inevitable: “People may lose their hair, they put on weight, they don't look as good as they used to do, but you have to try and avoid your music doing those things,” Elliott says.
“We’re really fortunate that we've got five guys in this band that really make an effort,” he adds. A hype-man for Def Leppard and beyond, he says that from performance to visuals to feeling the part, it’s more than possible to keep up strong live shows. “We watch the masters whose coattails we need to ride on – you know when you see Jagger, and you think ‘, The guy's nearly 80 years old, and he's running around the stage for two and a half hours, which is crazy’.
“Or McCartney gracefully stands singing all the Beatles tunes, and the guy is 80. Ringo is 82, still playing, and they look good – Ringo looks amazing for somebody his age! He looks after himself,” Elliott notes, clearly inspired by his fellow music icons. “You watch these people and know you can keep up the good work, as it were. And that's everything from performing the old songs as best you can because that's how people remember you to putting out new music as we did less than a year ago with Diamond Star Halos and now with Drastic Symphonies.”
DEF LEPPARD AND MÖTLEY CRÜE
THE WORLD TOUR – AUSTRALIA 2023
Presented by Triple M
SUNCORP STADIUM, BRISBANE WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 8
GIANTS STADIUM, SYDNEY SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 11
MARVEL STADIUM, MELBOURNE TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 14