Phil Collen of Def Leppard

by Leslie Michele Derrough

One hundred million records sold worldwide.

If in 1977, you would have told Joe Elliott and Rick Savage that 30 years after the formation of their little Sheffield, England group that Def Leppard would end up selling that many records, they would have probably laughed themselves silly. "It's gone so fast and you really don't realize it until you actually look back at something like that," guitarist Phil Collen told Glide magazine in 2012 in reference to a photo book put together by photographer Ross Halfin. "When presented with a bunch of pictures in chronological order, it kind of hits home. You remember where the photo was taken; you remember a lot of stuff about it and it's only then you go, Whoa, it's been 30 years."

Collen, born and bred in the East London borough of Hackney, didn't join Def Leppard until the summer of 1982 when the band was recording their follow-up to 1981's High 'n' Dry. He was first asked to lay down some guitar solos and then took on more work when original guitarist Pete Willis was unceremoniously booted. Collen added energy, stage charisma and well-developed chops, which served them well in the studio and especially during live performances. No ingénue, Collen had been a vital member of the British glam band Girl with future L.A. Guns frontman Phil Lewis, recording two records before departing to be in Leppard full time.

The years have been good to Collen, personally and musically. Def Leppard has sold an unfathomable number of records, toured all over the world, won countless awards, helped sell thousands of magazines, posters and T-shirts, and taken their first foray into the extremely popular music cruise business with their "Hysteria On The High Seas Cruise" this past February. Collen also published his memoir, Adrenalized, in 2015, sharing his stories of a childhood in London, life on the road and in the studio with Def Leppard, and his decision to stop drinking, get healthy and become a full-fledged vegan. On top of all that, Collen has formed not one but two side project bands: Manraze with ex Sex Pistol Paul Cook and his former Girl bandmate Simon Laffy; and a blues-inspired band appropriately called Delta Deep featuring singer Debbi Blackwell-Cook, drummer Forrest Robinson and Stone Temple Pilots bass player Robert DeLeo.

With Def Leppard preparing to spend the majority of 2016 on the road, Songfacts talked with Collen about some of those iconic Leppard songs that have become staples of rock radio since Pyromania and Hysteria caused a back-to-back musical frenzy in the 1980s.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): Def Leppard had to postpone some shows after the Leppard Cruise. How is Joe feeling now?

Phil Collen: He's great. He would have carried on but last year he had walking pneumonia and when it cleared up he got a really bad cough and it was like non-stop. It was about to burst, this thing called a hematoma. We all get them on the vocal cords, but if you give it too much wear and tear they just give out. So we'd done a show, the thing on the boat, and that was a bit weird because nothing was coming out of his throat. We got on dry land and did a show in Ft. Lauderdale in Florida, and the next day we did a soundcheck and it was just really quiet. It actually sounded painful and the doctor said, "Look, stop singing. You've been on tour for almost 10 months now. Give it a break, throw away any meds you've got and just give it a rest. That's what your throat needs and you'll be good to go within five weeks."

So we just literally moved the thing back. I've been emailing Joe and I've made a point of not making him talk because talking on the phone is one of the worst things you can do for your singing voice, for your throat. But he's totally fine. He just needed a break.

Songfacts: But it gave you a chance to do something with Delta Deep.

Collen: Yeah. You know, I've been with Jackson Guitars for 30 years and they're owned by Fender so a lot of the time I'm always up at Fender, at the factory, because it's about a half hour from where I live if I get the traffic right. But me, Debbi and Forrest, we went in and did four sets, about 20 minutes each time, for all the employees at Fender and Jackson, all the people at the custom shop and everything. It was really, really nice. The employees got to see what all their hard work sounds like.

And we're going to be doing an East Coast run. We did a West Coast run in January and we actually recorded it and we're going to put a live album out this summer called West Coast Live. So we thought if we're going to do West Coast live we at least have to play the East Coast live.

Songfacts: Is anything happening with your band Manraze?

Collen: Funny you should ask that. We're actually working on that now. I think we're working on getting a Best Of album out and then maybe some new stuff will follow.

Def Leppard has released 11 studio albums, two that went to #1 in America: Hysteria (1987) and Adrenalize (1992). Collen joined the band for their third release, Pyromania (1983), the one with "Rock Of Ages," "Foolin'," "Photograph" and "Too Late For Love." Videos for these songs went into heavy rotation on MTV, which launched two years earlier. By the time Hysteria was released, MTV was in full stride and once again gave the band top billing.

Success has been mixed with tragedy: In 1991 the group's other guitarist, Steve Clark, died at age 30 - he and Collen were best friends. Their drummer, Rick Allen, nearly lost his life in a 1984 car accident, but made a remarkable recovery, learning to play drums with one arm. The group has had the same lineup since 1992 when Vivian Campbell joined on guitar.
Songfacts: Def Leppard put out a new record last year [2015's Def Leppard]. What was the main difference in writing this album compared to others in the past?

Collen: Well, I think this was the best album we've done since Hysteria and I think one of the reasons we were so inspired doing this was because we didn't have to do an album. We were actually just going to do a single, so there was no pressure whatsoever and because of that I think it flowed. We didn't have an agenda: there was no business agenda, there were no record company executives saying we need this from you guys, or any of this stuff. So it was all for the right reasons, the artistic flow.

The songs are radically different from each other. Normally, this collection of songs wouldn't have made it onto a Def Leppard album together, but we had so many great ideas, which was the main thing. It was mainly me, Sav and Joe who wrote the album. Vivian [Campbell], I know he had to go away at one point and do some cancer treatment stuff, but for the most part, me, Joe and Sav were very inspired and it was like a nonstop flow. It was very weird but we loved it.

The process was brilliant. Normally, we sit in a room and we give ourselves a brief of what the album should be and then we try and come up with ideas that fit into that kind of plan, if you like. But we didn't with this one.

Me and Joe wrote the fastest Def Leppard song, "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted." We wrote it in 10 minutes. We were sitting, breaking all this stuff down from after the first session, and Joe said, "Oh, I've got this other idea." He sat down with a Telecaster and played me a verse and I said, "I've got a chorus that fits exactly with that." I played him that and we literally said, "Ronan [McHugh, producer], put the stuff back up. We need to do a demo." So we got a demo together, took about a half an hour. We had most of the song written and when we came back for the next session in May, it was pretty much done. It was amazing. That was one of the songs where we sat around in a room and kind of played it as a live band.

One of the other songs, "Energized," that was purely done in the studio. We got a drum program together and a bass program and played guitar over it. That was created that way but "Broke 'N' Brokenhearted" was very much a live approach. We just went in and started getting the right feel for it and it ended up being a bit more Sex Pistols-y, really.

Songfacts: Were any of the songs started when Leppard was doing the residency in Vegas in 2013?

Collen: No, we actually did one song, one of my songs, which ended up on the album. I had the idea for a song and I think it ended up being "Wings of an Angel," but it started off completely different in Vegas. We didn't really start the album until we went to Joe's to write a song, and we couldn't stop writing. All these amazing ideas kept flowing and were very diverse and different from one another. That's what kept it really exciting, and the fact that we didn't do it in one swoop as well.

We'd done some stuff in the first six weeks and the next time we came back we did four weeks and then we finished off another four weeks in the next year. That's how Zeppelin and The Stones and The Beatles and James Brown and Stevie Wonder, Bowie, that's how they used to write and record. They would get a great idea and get inspired and record it then as opposed to sitting in a room for a year and trying to come up with ideas. I think it's great if you just come up with whatever you've got and then go in and record that.

Songfacts: Since you brought up "Wings Of An Angel," how did that one get started?

Collen: I had this demo a few years ago and when we were doing the residency we were supposed to do a documentary as well and the guy said, "Go into a studio environment and write a song." We were like, "Uh, we haven't got anything." I said, "Well, I've got this idea. Let's try that." And that's literally how it started off.

We came back to it about a year later, or six months, and started goofing off. We actually had some other ideas that we thought were more exciting but we started that one and I think Vivian played a baritone guitar just to get this different vibe, and all of a sudden it just started writing itself. My original demo had certain amounts of it so that's where it started from and we just followed it, followed the muse, and it turned out like that. Then Rick Savage wrote some lyrics and that was the chorus and it was a very easy thing. It was amazing.

Songfacts: When did lyrics start meaning something to you?

Collen: They didn't, actually [Laughs]. Even after Hysteria - I was writing lyrics and doing all that stuff then but I didn't really pay attention to them. I was more interested in the performance, the vocal performance, the melody.

I love Sting's lyrics and I love Stevie Wonder's lyrics, but I really didn't start realizing what a great song was until much, much later. Weird considering I had been sitting next to Mutt Lange for many years, and he's a genius, you know. From him I got the groove and the melody and the mystique and the emotion and all that stuff and it was just a wonderful experience. But me personally, the lyric thing started happening later. I started writing lyrics and on certain songs they'd make me feel emotional one way or another and I thought, Wow, I think I'm on to something.

Songfacts: So it was like an epiphany almost.

Collen: It was, and you know I'm a really late starter in a lot of stuff so it was kind of cool and good in that respect. Better late than never, and I think you appreciate stuff when - I don't want to say older because it isn't older - but when you're more experienced. When you become more experienced you appreciate things more.

"I don't have a gambling problem. I'm winning, and winning is not a problem. That's like saying Michael Jordan has a basketball problem. Or Def Leppard has an awesomeness problem."
~Earl Hickey, My Name Is Earl
I was born in London, grew up there, didn't even notice any of the buildings or the architecture, and I literally came back one day and all of a sudden it nearly brought me to tears. I was in the National Gallery in the middle of London and it was like, wow. I just noticed it for the first time, which is crazy. So I do that on occasion and I certainly did that with lyrics and certain kinds of music. I wasn't really paying attention to those things until later. I was too caught up in another part of it.

Songfacts: What do you think is the biggest mistake someone can make as a songwriter?

Collen: I think they get carried away with like gratuitous harmonies and losing the point of the song. I think a great song sets a mood, makes you feel a certain emotional way, whether that's sad or happy or aggressive or whatever. If it does one of those things, it's doing the right things. A lot of people try to copy things - they do the karaoke thing - but the best songs are the ones that write themselves. They just come to you.

And there is always a different way of doing it. If you're a hack songwriter and you write for certain pop songs or a certain demographic, that's one way. But I love the approach where a song kind of lets you know that it's taking you on a journey. It could be a word, it could be a phrase, it could be a drum pattern, it could be a melody, it could be all of the above. It's like a jigsaw puzzle and when you've got one of them and it's powerful enough, it'll start taking you in a different direction. That's what I love about songwriting.

I've done the other stuff before and I've done the part where you get so inspired you get the first bit and it's all great and then you struggle with like Verse 2 or a bridge or some of the other lines in the song. You want them to sound a bit different and not be all clichéd or anything, so sometimes you have to put a little bit more effort into it. But in general, that's usually the way: You get this inspiration, you follow that and then, as they always say, it's 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Songfacts: How much of an influence was David Bowie on you?

Collen: Huge, actually. I was 14 when I saw my first concert. My cousin Dave had got me into Zeppelin, Hendrix, Purple, and he took me to my first show. But me and my buddies at school, and my cousin Dave, we discovered David Bowie. It was Bowie and T. Rex and later Queen and stuff like that, but the Bowie thing really changed it. I saw such confidence from this pale white guy, and we could kind of relate to being a pale white guy. It was so extreme, so confident. Even fashion-wise, he had a different thing and you couldn't tell if he was a girl or not. He had all these different kinds of angles to it but it all worked so well.

As a 14-year-old, you're like a sponge and all of this stuff is very influential. Plus, the songs were killer. The lyrics were amazing, the melodies were great. They were just killer songs and he put it all together.

It's really funny: I was playing Queen the other day and it was so amazing what they did. Every four bars is a major hook and they went really out their way to make this great, great music that you listen to now and it actually sounds better than it did then.

Songfacts: In regards to Def Leppard, which song was the hardest one to finish, to get right?

Collen: "Animal." We used the original one off of my original demo but it took three years before we actually completed it. I had done this demo and it was okay and there was a song in there we just couldn't quite get. We'd revisit it and I remember we were recording vocals in Paris for something and one day Joe had done this vocal and Mutt Lange had said, "Wow, this vocal's killer. Let's rewrite the song around that." So we did and it was our first English Top 10 single, so it was worth waiting.

It was something that was okay, and again going back to Mutt Lange, the genius of him, he said, "Yeah, this is okay but this can be great." That's always his thing. "Yeah, it can be alright and it can be an okay song but we want to make it great." And I think we achieved that. Certainly with the album, Hysteria. It had a different kind of response to it than if we had just sat there and released the first draft.

Songfacts: Which song, in your opinion, do you think should have gotten more attention than it did?

Collen: I think the Slang album [1996] in general should have. There was so much on there that had it came out at a different time, a different environment, it would have done amazing.

Having said that, there are a few things on the Euphoria album [1999], like "Promises" should have been a hit and "21st Century Sha La La La Girl," stuff like that. They were great and had they been done in a slightly different time or environment, I think they would have been bigger songs.

But a lot of it comes down to the business agenda of a label or whatever industry you're in. There is so much at play. We see the Oscars or the Grammys, and it's not necessarily the best movie that wins, and a lot of cases it is, but some amazing things don't even get a mention. Whether that's because an actor's black or someone's not trendy enough or all these other reasons, for some reason they don't quite make it to the finish lines. So it's stuff like that.

You often wonder, like with those songs, certainly on Euphoria and Slang, I'm sure there are a few more. But it's down to more than just a song, really. It's down to whether you're accepted, whether you're trendy, whether you're not in someone's good graces at that particular time. A lot depends on it.

Songfacts: What about "Women," because they hardly ever played it.

Collen: I think certainly when you figure MTV and radio, everything is based on ratings and ads and all of that stuff. It is a business after all, so a song like "Women," unless it's been in a movie or a commercial, is never going to be as commercially acceptable as say something like "Hysteria," "Animal" or "Pour Some Sugar On Me." So I think when you get deeper into the whole thing there is a whole psychology of a business plan that doesn't even involve the artist. It's like completely beyond the band, the producer, even the record company in some cases. It's just down to, "We notice when we play this song, the ratings go up so that's when we place our ads."

In 1983, Collen was hit in the eye Single White Female-style by a stiletto thrown onto the stage in Portland, Oregon, resulting in a cataract and surgery. "The worst part was when they stuck a needle in my eye. It's like one of the worst things you can imagine."
There's all that stuff that goes along with it, which has nothing to do with music or art or any of that stuff but it does play a serious role in all of that. If you look at the Grammys it's Kanye West, it's Taylor Swift, it's Beyoncé, Katy Perry. They obviously go, "Well, if we put Coldplay and Kanye West and Taylor Swift and Beyoncé on our ballots and they're the ones that are going to be the winners, people will tune in." So it is very much about the industry, the business, and less and less about the art.

I think they actually started changing in the '80s. You actually heard music change and art has always been that way. You know, William Blake died penniless in someone's spare room. Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, they had to commission painting. Caravaggio would put bits of his own work in there. There is a painting he did of a beheading and he put one of his peers, Michelangelo's face, on that chopped-off head. Just stuff like that so he could at least get his point across even though he's painting for someone else. So this has always been the case with art and I think you have to be aware of it. It's more corporate than it's ever been and some of the reasons why, when you've got a band and you go, "Why isn't this song popular?" That's why. It hasn't had the backing.

Songfacts: Who's idea was it to rearrange "Bringin' On The Heartbreak" to be primarily acoustic for the live shows?

Collen: That was me, actually. I think it was just because we were doing it over and over again and it was the same old, same old, so we thought it would be great if we started it acoustic and then went into Steve Clark's solo. It was halfway and he'd pick up his twin neck and off he goes.

So yeah, it was my idea originally. What was interesting, around that time Tesla was on tour with us and every time we did that acoustic thing it was a break in the set, and before you knew it, every other band was doing an acoustic set within their set: The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, all the stuff from the '80s, and Tesla who was on tour with us.

I am actually producing their new album, by the way. We've done one song already and we're actually doing it in segments, kind of like we did the Def Leppard album. When we've got some good songs, we'll record them, and we've got a few on the go already. So I'm real excited about that. Frank Hannon was on the cruise with us, the Def Leppard Cruise, and me and Debbi Blackwell-Cook did a Delta Deep set and Frank Hannon came up and played acoustic guitar with us. I was talking to him last night and he's got this great song that we're going to be doing on the album and it's fun.

Songfacts: Speaking of great songs, let's talk about a few Def Leppard has done, starting with "Hysteria."

Collen: It started off, we were in Dublin and Rick Savage started playing this tune, so I immediately started singing, "Out of touch, out of reach." That was literally the first thing that came out of my mouth. He said that was cool and he goes, [singing] "I got to know tonight," this whole other section. We glued it together and we got very excited and we actually went around and played it for our friends who were clothes designers in Dublin. We sat down and were playing acoustic guitar, singing over the demo, and we thought that was going to be the chorus. And Mutt Lange said, "Okay, that's a great verse, a great bridge. Now we need the chorus." Uh, okay. [Laughs] So we sat down and we kind of just goofed around. Steve had this idea and Joe came and sang this thing and before you knew it, the song was pretty much done.

The song really is about finding spiritual enlightenment. Not many people know that because it sounds like just getting hysterical, but it's actually about that. It's about finding this deeper thing, whether you believe it or not. It's just about finding that. So that was really interesting, what the song is actually about and where it came from.

Songfacts: "Photograph" off the Pyromania album.

Fun Facts About Phil

First Concert: Deep Purple at 14
First Guitar: red Gibson SG for his 16th birthday
First Time Onstage: At a nurses party at 17 with his band Lucy
First Ambition: play professional football (soccer)
Jobs Pre-Fame: burglar alarm factory, motorcycle dispatch rider
Collen: I joined the band and I thought they were just getting me in to play solos. I didn't realize that, here I am and we're going to go on tour. It happened very quickly. I literally went in one day and the next day we're playing the Marquee and then we're on tour in America and the album is blowing up.

I've always been into the thing where a solo has to represent the song melodically. It has to have a groove, and with that one, I still wanted to put a bit of me in this. There's a little bit of shredding in there, there's the vibrato. It isn't just me humming a tune. Me and Mutt sat down and worked that particular solo out. We really wanted it to make sense.

And I got the greatest compliment. I was stopped in the street in Paris and Leslie West, who I've never met before, pulled over and he said, "Man, that solo in 'Photograph' when you hit that note and you come in with the feedback, that's awesome." I was like, I can't believe it. That's the ultimate compliment. This is from a guy Jimi Hendrix thought was cool, so that was really cool.

Going back to guitar solos, I think they are very important. You can ruin a song by not listening to what the song is about. So with that one, I actually worked out the melodic thing and right at the end Mutt Lange said, "Just vibe out on the end. Play solos and licks and go around the vocal." Because it was such a melodic, amazing, beautiful melody it was so easy to weave in and out of Joe's vocals at the end. Then the chorus is so melodic that it was so easy just to play all those licks. It kind of played itself.

Songfacts: What about "Love Bites"?

Collen: You know, I played my mum the first draft where we had started doing vocals and stuff over it, and she started crying. Again, that was really a Mutt Lange song - he brought it to us and he played it on an acoustic guitar to me and Steve. It sounded more like the Eagles. He sounds like Don Henley. Mutt's got an amazing voice and most of the backing vocals on that song are actually Mutt singing. We are on there but you can't really hear us - that's all Mutt's vocals.

We changed it around a little bit, me and Steve, and made the guitars slightly different, but the song was just beautiful. It was just a standard rock ballad but it had something else going for it. Lyrically, it kind of painted a picture, and in a song you always want to do that, paint a picture. "On a dark desert highway," the first line of "Hotel California," great song, it just paints an image for you straight off the bat and that's the sign of a really good song. It takes you right there. "Love Bites" did that as well.

We went over the top with it, with tons of guitars and melodies and countermelodies and different grooves. It wasn't just a rock groove, it was almost like R&B grooves and different things going off and that's what makes it, I think. If you get too genre-specific, stay in a box, then you remain in a box. The important thing is to kind of mix it all up. I love all different types of music and I'm constantly making a hybrid of them and I think that is the way to go.

Songfacts: Why do you think "Rock Of Ages" has become such an iconic song?

Collen: Lots of reasons. I think the play and the movie, all of that, helps cement a band and gives them iconic status, especially if you're still out there on tour. I remember being in Australia, me and my wife Helen, and we were walking in Brisbane or somewhere and a bus went by with a massive Rock Of Ages logo. It just made us feel really proud. And I think the longer you are around, especially if you've got songs that are really cool and everything, something like that happens and it makes you worth more as a band, more important. And the fact that it's not even a song at that point, it's a play based on a song that we did, and then it's a movie based on that, it's like, Wow, it's really cool.

Songfacts: "Miss You in a Heartbeat" from Adrenalize is actually all your song. What inspired it?

Collen: Rory, my son, when he was a little baby, that's when I wrote that about missing the family and all that stuff. Paul Rodgers, who is one of my favorite rock singers of all time, actually covered that on one of his albums with his band called The Law. Then we did it as a B-side and what was really interesting, and we didn't know this, is it became a big hit in the Philippines and in Canada. Rick Savage said, "I was just looking at Billboard. This is Top 5 in Canada." And I think it may have even been Top 5 in the Philippines.

It's great when you're in a band and everyone writes songs and people in different countries like different songs. It means a lot. The more we do as a band, it's wonderful that people like even more and more and more. It's like having a resumé, like being an actor and you do a Shakespearean play here and a Michael Bay movie there and a Spielberg movie and before you know it your reputation precedes you. It's a little bit like that. I love the fact that it's something you really don't intend to do but it comes back and you get little things like that. Someone will say, "Look at Billboard, you're Top 5 in Canada."

Songfacts: What was the biggest thing you learned about yourself after writing your book?

Collen: Nothing I didn't know already. I constantly find out stuff about me but it wasn't from writing the book. All this stuff that is in there I've done interviews about at one time or another. I'm very open about stuff. There's a lot more deeper stuff and darker stuff and stuff I really don't want to put people in a funny position or situation so I just left that out. But for the most part, all of that stuff is very easy for me to talk about because it's just ordinary stuff. I didn't even know I was going to be doing a book, so there you go. But yeah, I didn't learn anything new about me, that's for sure [Laughs].

Songfacts: Who are your three wise men of songwriting – the three songwriters who have influenced you the most?

Collen: Mutt Lange, David Bowie and Sting.

Songfacts: There is not much bubblegum in their songs.

Collen: None at all [Laughs]. David Bowie, he has the odd bubblegum moment but so does Sting. He totally does. I mean, "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." [Laughs]

March 31, 2016
Def Leppard website
Delta Deep website
Manraze website
Photos: Vera Harder (1), Ash Newell (2), Leslie Michele Derrough (3)

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Comments: 1

  • Brad from NyI've heard and read lots of interviews with the Leps since the '80s and this is one of the best! Great in-depth questions and it the normal press high-level softballs.
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