Seven Questions for Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott

The frontman on his band’s Vegas residency, the joys of penning a stripper anthem and why Elvis remains The King


After surviving more than three decades in the cutthroat music business—selling in excess of 60 million albums worldwide—Def Leppard has reached the stage where they’re bulletproof. Like an old man who says and does whatever he wants, the British quintet no longer has to worry about consequences—and they’re taking full advantage of that freedom. “We are essentially working for ourselves, not ‘the man,’” lead singer Joe Elliott says. “Anything we do now, we’re selling the brand. … We’ve come to the point where we realize that we are an iconic name—we are Heinz 57 varieties in a musical sense. It’s up to us how far we want to take it.”

For now, they’re ready to take it to The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, where Def Leppard on March 22 will launch Viva Hysteria!, a three-week, 11-show residency in which the group will perform its 12-song epic Hysteria in its entirety, among other hits. But while Elliott admits his band is firmly in control of its destiny—for instance, the Hard Rock shows will be recorded for a future live album—he doesn’t want anyone to mistake contentment for complacency. “The one thing this band has never been is lazy. What’s the old cliché, the harder I work, the luckier I get? If our eyes are open, we’re working.”

If someone had told you in the mid-1980s that, 25 years later, Def Leppard would have a three-week gig in Vegas performing Hysteria, how would you have reacted?

I would’ve giggled my head off. Because Vegas was still the territory of Wayne Newton. I would’ve been like, “Will I have to wear a purple shirt and bow tie?” In those days, Vegas was absolutely a one-off visit for a rock band. You played Vegas on the circuit, like you played Chicago, or New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle. And you saw the usual suspects on the Strip; seriously, back in ’87, there was still Sinatra and Sammy and Dino.

When we played there in 1983, and I remember this very well, I checked into our hotel and there were two tickets left [to see] Dean Martin—it was a day off for us—and I said, “I’m just going to go and get my wallet.” And when I came back, the tickets were gone.

You’re the third rock band in 13 months to have a Vegas residency. What do you make of this new phenomenon?

Let’s be honest, [entertainment in] Vegas was due for a face-lift—sooner or later, there was going to come a time when the blue-rinse brigade died off. Now Vegas is infiltrated by baby boomers who are moneyed-up, and … they don’t want to see Wayne Newton. They want to see Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, The Who, Cheap Trick, [which] did their Sgt. Pepper residency in 2009. Vegas has had this injection of rock ’n’ roll, which it desperately needed.

In a few years you’re going to see residencies by [bands] like Slipknot and Foo Fighters, because there’s going to be a market for it. It’s not just going to be Elton and Celine; it’s going to be hard-core [rock]. We’re somewhere in the middle; we’re not really hard core—but compared to Celine we are!

What’s going to be different about your gig at The Joint?

We’re actually going to be our own opening act. We’re going to come out and play—I can’t even tell you what, because if I did, I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say the opening-act set [will feature everything] from the obvious to the completely obscure. And it’s going to be a different [opening] set every night. So we’ll do a set, have a short intermission, come back out and blast through Hysteria, and then we’ll see what happens after that.

The challenge is that three of the Hysteria songs, we haven’t played for 25 years. So that will be like us reintroducing ourselves to an old relative.

Speaking of Hysteria, do you ever catch yourself thinking, “Holy shit, our band made one of the most iconic albums of all time!”?

Not really. When I’m prompted, yeah—I’m thinking of it right now, because you just mentioned it. But it’s not like I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Holy shit, we made an iconic album!” There are people out there, no doubt, who say, “You made an album that’s the equivalent of Quadrophenia or Tommy.” But there are Who fans going, “Yeah, don’t think so!” It all depends what generation you’re from. … I don’t sit around thinking about the past, as much as I accept the fact that our past is our future.

When’s the last time a stripper thanked you for “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?

It’s never happened—not privately, anyway. I’ve seen the odd interview on TV and heard the shows on VH1 where they have the “100 Sexiest Songs,” and “Sugar” is in the top five, which is flattering, to be up there with a Prince song or Michael Jackson. But I’ve never actually had [a stripper] come up to me in an elevator, kiss me on the cheek and go, “Thank you.” I’m still waiting for that moment.

Does it put a smile on your face that your band is responsible for one of the most popular stripper anthems of all time?

Of course it does! Because rock ’n’ roll and sex are glued together at the hip. As much as some people grow up a little too quickly—“Oh, I don’t want my kids to think I’m a lecherous old man”—no, it’s not like that at all. You look at Mick Jagger, he might be a bit old and wrinkly now, but he’s still pretty sexy for a 69-year-old guy. “Honky Tonk Women” is one of the sexiest songs of all time. I’m glad [the Rolling Stones] still do it, and I’m glad the song exists.

This being Vegas, and you being a singer: Elvis or Sinatra?

Oooh, that’s a tough one, because I’ve got massive respect for both. But the truth is, Frankie-boy was my dad’s music, and I totally respect it—you know, we all do “My Way” on the karaoke machine; well, I certainly do. … But when you hear Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds,” never mind “Jailhouse Rock,” you realize the domino effect. You take Elvis out of the equation, we don’t exist. There’s definitely that six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

I know some people might go, “What are you talking about? You don’t sound like Elvis!” Doesn’t matter. Somebody that influenced us was influenced by Elvis. Take Elvis out, we don’t get the influence. So if you were asking me, [if] they were both at their peak and playing places simultaneously, who would I go see? The nod would go to Elvis.

You guys sank so much money into making Hysteria, which encountered several delays, that you had to sell an ungodly amount of copies just to break even. What were your realistic expectations when it was finally released in August 1987?

When [Hysteria] initially came out, it was a bit of a ripple rather than a splash. See, we thought we were being clever by releasing “Women” as the first single instead of “Animal,” which had been a smash hit in Britain. All that really meant was the album, it wasn’t stillborn by any means, but it didn’t come out with the bang it would have had we released “Animal” first. But what did happen was “Animal” gave the album a rebirth. And when “Animal” was released, there was a realization that this album was a bit deeper than just two or three songs.

Pyromania was essentially three songs deep, [in terms of] classics; the ones you’re singing on the radio are “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’.” There are seven other great songs on [Pyromania], but they didn’t get the radio play that the other three did. But with Hysteria, by the time we got to the summer of ’88, we were on our fifth single—and there would be a total of seven in all—and the album just went through the roof. And I don’t believe it would’ve done that if it had come out in ’85.

The expectations were that it would match [Pyromania] at least, but by Christmas of ’87, it had only sold half as many. But by Christmas of ’88, it had sold twice as many.

Legend has it that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” almost didn’t make the album. True?

What really happened was we were done—we had 11 songs written. It was the CD age, and most people used to do five [songs] on each side, because you were limited to vinyl. But as we were making Hysteria, we were getting reports back that people were putting albums out that were lasting an hour. One of the first bands to do it was Tesla—they had an album called Mechanical Resonance, which ran about 61 minutes. We saw this as an opportunity to go, “Well, there is no ‘Side Two’ anymore; it’s just one long ‘Side One’.” So we had the 11 songs, which took us to about 57, 58 minutes, which we thought was good. And I specifically remember, I was singing “Armageddon It” in the studio with [producer] Mutt Lange—the rest of the guys were off for the weekend, so it was just me and him—and he went out to get a coffee, and I picked up this acoustic guitar and started playing the chorus of “Sugar” with my back to the door. He walked in and just stood there—never said a word. Then when I kind of realized there was an elephant in the room, I turned around, and he went, “What is that?” And I kind of sheepishly said, “Eh, it’s kind of a new idea I’ve got.” And he slapped his hand down, nearly spilled his coffee on the floor, and said, “That’s the best hook I’ve heard in five years. We’ve got to do that.”

So we stopped working on “Armageddon It,” put a fresh reel of tape on and he said, “Look, I get it—the rest of the guys are not going to be happy with this,” because when you’ve spent the better part of 21Ž2 years working on an album, you just want it done and out of your life. So hurriedly we threw down a drum machine and a bass machine, put some chunky guitar chords down and sang the chorus and started la-la-ing melodies, just to get it into at least a skeleton shape so you could play it for people who could imagine what it could be like if it was further down the road. And I’ll never forget Steve [Clark, the band’s late guitarist] rolling his eyes when he walked in and we said, “Guys, we think we’ve got another song.” It was like, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding!” But when Mutt hit the play button and they heard it, they’re all like, “Holy shit! OK, all right.” And he says, “I’m pretty sure we can turn this around quick,” and we did—because we had to! … We had the thing done in about 10 days—which for us, on that record, was rapid-fire.

So it wasn’t so much that it almost didn’t make it; it’s just that it was a last-minute addition that became the saving grace. Because essentially Hysteria did very well, but when “Sugar” [was released as a single], it went through the roof.

Your drummer, Rick Allen, has been playing with one arm for nearly 30 years, so obviously it’s an afterthought by now. Still, does he remain an inspiration, and do you ever turn around during a show and think, “Our freaking drummer has one arm and isn’t missing a beat!”?

No, we don’t, because he doesn’t want to be treated as an invalid. So we [don’t] think of him as a drummer with one arm. We think of him as Rick. How many times do we see interviews with disabled people—or whatever the current politically correct phrase is—say, “Don’t look at my disability; look at my ability.” In respect to that, he’s an equal, so he’ll get his head bitten off for doing something wrong as much as I will. No sympathy there. My biggest compliment I can pay him is, he’s behind me all night, and I just hear it and go, “Sounds like drums to me.”

There is a point in the set most nights where I introduce him, and I turn around and I bow and I clap. And that little moment there is when you hear the roar of the crowd—that, for a few seconds, you go, “Wow!”

We made a conscious decision at the time [Allen lost his arm in a car accident] that if he wasn’t going to be in the band, it was going to be his choice not ours. And he’s managed to pull it off. It’s been astonishing, really.

If you could trade pipes with any singer—rock or otherwise—who would it be?

I would probably have to say Paul Rodgers. I’m an enormous fan. I had the great pleasure in 2011 to have my side band, the Down ’n’ Outz, be the opening act for a British tour with Paul Rodgers. We did 12 shows together, so I got to see him every night. And that’s when you realize there’s no studio tricks with Paul Rodgers’ [vocals]. That guy is just blessed—he’s absolutely got the gift. For me it’s hard work, it’s always been hard work, it always will be hard work. But for me to play on the big-boy stage, that’s what I have to do. He was gifted. He was dropped onto that stage and has never left it. I had to scramble up it from the bottom, but that’s my lot in life and I’m OK with it.

What’s the one song you truly enjoy singing night after night, and conversely, if your fans allowed you to retire one hit forever, what would it be?

I never get sick of singing “Sugar.” A lot of artists feel that need to ditch something because we do it so often, and I get it. Even in rehearsals, it gets tedious—we call it the Pete Townsend Syndrome. I’ve never talked to him about it, but I can only imagine what he does in a rehearsal room when somebody says, “Hey, let’s play ‘My Generation’!” That’s an eye-roller at best. But I bet when he plays it in Madison Square Garden and everybody goes ballistic, he’s loving it. So if you can get away with a song you never have to rehearse, “Sugar” is awesome to do, because it’s in a great range for me and it’s just such a fan favorite. It’s a great song, and we got it right—we absolutely nailed it.

If there was one hit that I could retire it would be “Photograph,” purely because it’s just a physically difficult song to sing. If you ever get time, listen to it and listen to the amount of times I get to take a breath and listen to how high it is consistently. The only breath I get is a couple of seconds before the second verse and the guitar solo. For the rest of it, it’s just like an atomic bomb going off in my throat every night. If I’m not on top of my game, I’m going to fall over on it. … Sometimes I don’t get it right, sometimes I do. But I will always make the effort, and I think that’s an endearing quality that the fans see—that even if you don’t necessarily get it right every time, you are actually making an effort.

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