Always a gentleman (I interviewed Joe for an earlier book of mine, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video), Elliott spoke with us about writing songs for Def Leppard, filling us in on their band philosophy and why certain tracks became runaway hits. He also explained how the group's outlandish success could be an "albatross" - something he's free from in his side project.
Joe Elliott: To be quite honest, songs percolate in your head first, and normally when you're too far away from an instrument to get to one. You're in an airplane or you're on the back of a bus, or you're in bed. "Never go to bed without pen and paper" is my motto, or these days an iPhone. Sometimes you get up in the morning and there's a melody going around annoying you like a bee in a jam jar.
Now, most people, Phil [Collen - Def Leppard guitarist], for example, would just pick up a guitar, because that's all he knows. He doesn't play the piano. Sometimes I just sit at a piano and I'll start trying something and go, "Well, this is a piano song." And I might try and do it on the guitar and go, "Hmm, could work both ways, but it sounds better as a piano song." And I will leave it that way.
"Two Steps Behind," for example, I wrote on a guitar. Obviously, because that's what it is. But other stuff that I've written, like "Undefeated" off the Mirrorball album, was all written on guitar. But the new Down 'n' Outz material for album three - God willing it gets made - was all pretty much written on piano. But there's going to loads of guitars all over it, as well.
It's horses for courses. It really is that varied. Angus Young you wouldn't need to ask that question to, because you know exactly how he writes all his songs. But with somebody that's a bit more varied, like a Bowie or a Freddie Mercury or Ian Hunter, will write on both. I like the idea of being able to do that because it gives you a broader scope.
Songfacts: One of my favorite Def Leppard songs is "Too Late for Love," and I was surprised that it was released as a single but never as a video, which I think prevented it from being a true hit in the US. (The song didn't chart on the American Hot 100 and made just #86 in the UK. A performance video - shown below - was compiled from footage shot when the band appeared on a TV special.)
It was in the middle of that year that I think we released "Rock of Ages," and then towards the end of the summer maybe I think "Foolin'" came out. And we'd shot the video for "Foolin'." I remember doing it - I think we did it in August of '83. So that kind of covered the end of the tour, which finished in September.
By the time we went back to Europe to do the end of the world tour, they decided they wanted to go to radio with "Too Late for Love," but we weren't really in any kind of a position to make a video for it. Plus, there was this feeling amongst us like, "It's a fourth single, but it's just being put out there for the sake of it. It's only being released because of the success of the first three."
It was never a game plan in January of that year. It was a on the spur-of-the-moment decision made maybe in August or September that we would go with a full single, to which we responded, "Well, okay, fine, whatever you want. But there won't be a video, because we're too busy touring." It was just the record company trying to prolong the length of the album and see if that song was going to fly.
But as great a song as it is, I believe that any success that it achieved was based on the fact that the first three did so well. It's a fantastic album track, but it's not a single. To me. You know what I mean? To me, it's like putting "Kashmir" out as a single. [Many of Led Zeppelin's most famous songs, "Kashmir" and "Stairway To Heaven" among them, were not released as singles.]
It's like, "Are you kidding me?" It's just a great album track. It's not a single. It doesn't have the hook. It's a brilliant piece of arrangement, it's a good bit of writing, it's a great lyric, it's a brilliant piece of music. But it's a rock track. It's never going to challenge "Thriller" or "Billie Jean." Whereas, "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages" were, because they were anthemic in a lyrical and a vocal way. They were a call to arms. And "Too Late for Love" is a bit more "lamentable," if you like.
After going glam, the band enjoyed their two highest-charting albums in their homeland of England, Mott and The Hoople, before Hunter exited. The group soldiered on with various other members coming and going, before calling it quits in 1980. But in recent years (2009 and 2013), the classic lineup of Hunter, Ralphs, Watts, Allen, and Griffin has reunited for concerts.
With the Down 'n' Outz, Joe has stuck exclusively to Mott the Hoople related covers. But as evidenced by this Elton John cover, they have traveled outside of Mott-land on at least one occasion.
Joe: It was never supposed to be a band that did anything more than one 45-minute slot opening for Hoople back in November 2009. But after we did the show we went into the auditorium bar and were just hanging out during the interval, and kids who just watched us finish the set were actually pinning us against the wall almost with tears in their eyes going, "I can't believe those songs that you just played. I never hear them live. You guys really need to make a record."
We all went for a pint afterwards, and it was like, "Well, maybe they've got a point. While these songs are still fresh in our DNA, why don't we record an album? Actually go in the studio and do them."
So we did. And that was My ReGeneration. And lo and behold, it did really, really well for us. In England we gave it away in Classic Rock magazine. 100,000 people ended up owning it. That got us onstage at the High Voltage Festival in London where we were in front of 30 odd thousand kids, and half the audience was singing all the songs. So we were looking at each other going, "Wow, job done." We've actually done what we set out to do, which is put these songs - which we thought had been criminally ignored - in front of a bunch of people where they'd never normally get the chance to hear them.
And then in America, the way that that radio is with the Mediabase rock chart thing [Joe is referring to the Mediabase airplay chart, which is monitored by many radio station professionals], strangely enough, right in the middle of the BP oil spill debacle, there's a song called "England Rocks" flying through the airwaves of America and reaching #4 on the chart [the original "England Rocks" became a hit for Ian Hunter when he re-worked it four years later as "Cleveland Rocks"]. And then "Overnight Angels" got to #1. So we're looking at this going, "This is actually bona fide, genuine stuff here." We were keeping Eric Clapton's new single off the top of the charts for the best part of two weeks. And I'm thinking, "But this is just a bit of a fun thing that we did for a laugh." Now it's taken a life of its own.
The beauty is that with them being already written, you're not scratching your head trying to rewrite a chorus to make sure it's strong enough. You're just going and playing them. We changed a few things around, but generally speaking, they are what they are.
So, long story short, the second album was just a natural follow on to the first, because this is something that I really do see myself wanting to do for as long as it's physically possible do it. We do already have a third album on the go, which is all self written - "in the spirit of," if you like.
I write a lot of songs all the time. I'm always writing. But sometimes I sit at the piano and write a song, and I'll just go, "This is a good song, but it's just not going to work for Def Leppard." And the same thing goes with the other guys. If it comes naturally, we're never going to force it and there'll be no rush to do it. Some of the songs I've got written I wrote last September. So they're all just back burner stuff.
But music's a funny beast these days. It's not like you've got to get them out now or they're going to be old and stale. Music really is old and stale by virtue of what it is, to a point. I made a comment when we released My ReGeneration in 2010: those songs were written closer to the end of World War II than the day that my album came out. And when you actually listen to it, they sound new. They sound like anything else that comes out these days, to a point. Same kind of format: drums, bass, guitar, piano, singing, harmonies. It's not really changed that much. Production changes, you get new genres, people push the envelope a bit further. I mean, I don't think you'd have had death metal in the '60s. It wouldn't have worked. But if you're talking rock & roll, it's really only the production quality that's changed since Little Richard, not much else. Unless you want to just go full-on prog rock and time signatures.
It breathes easily, this whole project, because we just get together for the fun of it. There isn't the pressure that you get when you're in a big band like Def Leppard, when the eyes are on you; where everything that you do is compared to what you did before and will be for the rest of our lives. So you go to shake the albatross off, which for me was going into the studio to make a debut album with 30 years of experience. It gave me a completely different album to record. I would never be able to step into those shoes doing a Def Leppard record.
But the experience that I got from doing the Down 'n' Outz I can take to a Def Leppard record, and the experience that I got from making Def Leppard records, I could put into the Down 'n' Outz, especially the production stuff, without the pressures. It's like stepping out of a soap opera to go into a movie, like a one-off project. But then you've got Die Hard, and then all of a sudden we're going to have Die Hard II, because The Further Adventures of... is our exciting - as far as we're concerned - second album. And I'm just really glad that we got the chance to do it, because I love music, man. It fuels my soul every day.
I was just born to do this. I wrote my first song when I was 8. It's just something I've always wanted to do. Some people are passionate about the stars or they're passionate about golf or whatever. Me, it's just music. I never really get sick of it. But what I would get sick of is doing the same thing over and over and over and over. So to be able to step out of whatever comfort zone Leppard is in to do something a little bit more organic, weird, and retro, is fun. It really just breathes a natural life. There's nothing forced. There are no arguments. You just get on with it and do it. And the guys are really on board and they're easy to work with and they trust my judgment when it comes to song choice and all that kind of stuff.
So it is a solo project in that respect, but I completely take on board everything they say, I suppose, similar to Tom Petty. Can't really say he's a solo artist, because it's a band. But somebody has to take charge. And that's pretty much how it is.
Songfacts: And how much of an influence on your own songwriting would you say that the music of Mott the Hoople and its offshoot bands were?
Joe: Not a lot, really. Because Def Leppard is a totally different beast. In many respects, I'm glad that it is, because I would hate for people to say I was just an Ian Hunter clone or something like that. I didn't even go in that direction. But that is more borne out the fact that when I got the chance to join a band, it just happened to be a band like Def Leppard that was going to be a bit more of a rock band. We were never going to have a keyboard player, so that was going to be a major factor. Two guitars. It was always going to be a bit more Queen, AC/DC, that kind of thing. Which is great, you know. I like all forms of music. I'm good with that.
Take a song like "Golden Age of Rock n' Roll": it's a call to arms, it's an us-to-you, singer-to-audience kind of song. In that respect, things like "Rock! Rock! (Til You Drop)" off Pyromania was very much based on that whole vibe lyrically. And I'd be lying if I said that the "whoa whoa whoas" on that song didn't come to mind when we were writing "Photograph" and "Foolin'." Because they did.
The thing that most people are scared to admit is that everything you do is based on what got you excited as a kid. You can't become a musician and say, "I'm a completely unique guy." Bullshit.
I was weaned on the UK music scene, like the Top of the Pops stuff and then Whistle Test. So for the pop songs it was Mott and Queen, Bowie, Slade, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, all that kind of stuff. There were hard guitars, big drums, huge choruses on a lot of these things. They were three minutes long and short and to the point. We are very much like that in Leppard, because that's the kind of music we grew up on. "Don't bore us, get to the chorus" is the motto, really, in the studio.
Everything I've ever listened to seeps in. So when it comes to Leppard, you might hear the odd little tiny bit of me that's leaked in from Mott, but it's more likely to have just leaked in from everything that I've listened to. And that's just 20 percent of what Leppard do. Because Phil will bring in his influences, which are more Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, and sound very much like Queen and Boston and stuff like that. And Vivian [Campbell - guitar] comes from a totally different area. And Rick [Allen - drums] is very much Slade, Deep Purple, because of the drumming and stuff like that.
So the influences are there, but they're not blatant. Some people sound exactly like Bob Dylan all the way through their career, and that's an accusation that could never be thrown at us.
April 22, 2014. For more Down 'n' Outz, visit facebook.com/DownNOutz, and for more Def Leppard, visit defleppard.com.
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