Def Leppard is one of those rare bands where everybody on the planet seems to know every lyric to all their songs and yet nobody has any goddamn idea what any of it means. And I’m not just talking about that “gunter glieben glauchen globen” hokum that kicks off “Rock of Ages.” Their lyrics are littered with nonsensical gibberish. There is no good explanation for why “Are you gettin’ it?” should ever be answered with “Armageddon it!” “Animal” contains at least a dozen mixed metaphors, with singer/co-lyricist Joe Elliott comparing himself to the drivin’ rain, a circus, a heartbeat, a river, a shadow, rust, and a wolf capable of giving CPR. But nothing the band has ever recorded comes close to the lyrical chaos of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Even if you could ignore lines like “Livin’ like a lover with a radar phone” and “Television lover, baby, go all night,” there’s still that brilliantly obtuse chorus, so easy to sing along with and so utterly devoid of meaning. If you think you know what sexual act is being described, you’re very, very confused about what actually happens during sex.
But even when it feels like their songs were written by somebody having a stroke, it’s still infectious good fun. Hating Def Leppard is like hating birthdays or parades or hotdogs and beer at a ballgame. How can you not have affection for a band that found a way to use “rock” as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb, sometimes all in the same song? When you hear Elliott declare “Let’s get the rock out of here” and your first instinct isn’t to respond with a fist salute, you officially have no soul. It’s a testament to the power of Def Leppard that their songs can be sung by a shirtless Tom Cruise dressed in a devil skull codpiece —as they are in the new movie musical Rock of Ages—and still not lose their capacity to make you smile.
I called Elliott to talk about the band he’s lead for almost 25 years. During our conversation, I unconsciously scribbled “Def Leppard” repeatedly on my notebook, in that iconic Pyrite font that’s been burned into my brain, just like I did in high school while pretending to pay attention in algebra class. It was like muscle memory.
You’re going on tour this summer with Poison and Lita Ford. Who’ll leave the biggest mess backstage?
I don’t know. There are five of us and only four guys in Poison, so chances are it’ll be us.
Who’s more likely to get into a fight rather than get laid at a party on Saturday night?
[Laughs.] That’s a trick question. You’re talking about Lita Ford.
You shouldn’t confuse the songs with the singer. If you actually hung out with us, you’d go, “Wow, these guys are dead normal.” We rock on stage. We rock in our heads when we write. We absolutely apply the science of rock in the recording studio to make our records sound massive and bombastic. But when we’re done and we get on the bus or plane afterwards, it’s a glass of wine and a book. We’re not there with needles and hookers. It’s just never been our way.
Do you at least have a ridiculous contract rider? What’s the Def Leppard version of Van Halen’s no brown M&M’s rule?
We have nothing like that. Our contract is pretty standard. We have a strict rider when it comes to food, but no more than any vegetarian touring act would.
Like Morrissey strict, or normal person strict?
Normal person strict. We have two and a half vegetarians in this band.
What’s a half vegetarian?
Actually, two vegans and a lacto vegetarian, which means (guitarist) Vivian Campbell eats fish but not meat. [Drummer] Rick Allen and [guitarist] Phil Collen are total vegans. Phil hasn’t drank alcohol for almost 30 years, and he works out seven days a week, eight hours a day.
So backstage, it’s all about hummus wraps and cardio?
Yeah. Rock and roll, right? [Laughs.] We’re born to be mild.
You recently re-recorded “Rock of Ages” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Did you not get it right the first time?
It was, well, let’s just say a sensible business decision on our part. How can I put this politely? We were having a major disagreement with our ex-record label about the digital rights for our back catalog. We couldn’t come to a mutual understanding that seemed fair for both sides. So we finally just decided to re-record all our hits. We started with “Sugar” and “Rock of Ages,” and I think we did a pretty good job. It’s hard work trying to recreate something you did 30 years ago.
Were you tempted to tinker with any of them? Maybe change a few lyrics or mess with the chord progressions?
None of that. I’ve heard re-recordings by people who’ve done that, and I wanted to throw the iPod through the window. There’s nothing worse than being let down by an artist you love. Here’s a great example. Bless him because he passed away, but there’s a guy called Andrew Gold. Back in the ’70s he had a song called “Lonely Boy” that’s just wonderful. When we were out on tour, it just popped into my head for no reason. I was probably in Boise, Idaho at the time. So I went to download what I thought was the original, and I ended up getting a re-recording. It was like a crappy karaoke version!
“We rock on stage. We rock in our heads when we write. We absolutely apply the science of rock in the recording studio to make our records sound massive and bombastic. But when we’re done and we get on the bus or plane afterwards, it’s a glass of wine and a book.”
But you can’t recreate that ’80s magic exactly, can you?
We tried to do it as closely as we could. We got the same sounds, the same key, the same tempo. It was a 100% forgery. That was the idea, anyway. It’s not like a live version, where everything’s a bit looser and you’ve got the ad-libs and the slightly longer guitar solos and the crowd screaming in the background. We were very conscious of the fact that when people download our songs from iTunes, they want it to sound like they remember it.
Any plans to re-do the videos as well?
No! I think that would be pretty sad.
It’s easy to reproduce the sound and get it to match. But we can’t go in a time machine and get rid of the wrinkles. We are what we are. I’m 52, I’ll be 53 in a few months. It would be ridiculous. There’s no point. If anything, we’d shoot a different version that has nothing to do with the original.
If you did a new and improved “Rock of Ages” video, would you keep the bit with the sword?
Absolutely not! Three months after we did the video, I was already regretting that part.
What was that anyway? I watched it again recently, and it looked like a huge phallic light saber.
[Laughs.] I don’t even know. That whole walking down the drawbridge with a sword crap, none of it was my idea. [Director] David Mallet was such an easy-going guy, and he was all, “Come on, darling, it’ll look fine.” And we just got lured in. “Well okay, whatever.” This was in the early days of video. When “Rock of Ages” came out, MTV was barely two years old. We were young and naive and none of us realized yet that we could say, “No, no, no, no, no!”
Are there any videos from the ’80s that you’re proud of in hindsight?
I liked the “Photograph” video. It’s way better in every respect.
I’m pretty sure it had at least one glowing sword in it too.
Did it? I don’t remember. [Laughs.] We couldn’t get away from the swords.
When you look back at that decade and the photographic and video evidence of your fashion mistakes, what still makes you cringe?
There were one or two photo shoots that were staged and I wish we’d never done them. But otherwise, I’m not embarrassed by much of it. We didn’t have big shoulder pads or jackets with zippers in them. For us, it was torn t-shirts, torn jeans, and ripped up basketball shoes. We were a very sweat-driven band.
Def Leppard’s usually lumped into the hair band genre. Is that how you think of your band?
Not at all. Close your eyes for a second and think of Def Leppard and how you remember us.
Okay. [Long pause.] I can’t get that huge sword out of my head.
[Laughs.] Please think of something else.
Okay, give me a second. [Long pause.] You guys are pale and you’ve got some skinny British arms, but you’re right, I’m not thinking about hair.
Now think of Led Zeppelin. Hair band? Absolutely. They had hair.
They had insane hair. Robert Plant was all hair and skinny jeans.
He had hair down to his ass, and so did Jimmy Page. But nobody would ever describe them as a hair band. It’s a ridiculous, awful tag.
For you maybe, but what about bands like Poison, Mötley Crüe, Cinderella? If the shoe fits…
That was the Sunset Strip era, with the Ratts, the Wingers, the Warrants, the very, very early lineup of Guns N’ Roses. But all of those bands literally lived on the Sunset Strip. We lived in South Yorkshire. We weren’t part of that lifestyle. To me, it’s lazy journalism. In America, we get described as hair metal. In Great Britain, we’re called New Wave British heavy metal. Which is just absurd.
You don’t think of yourself as heavy metal?
I don’t. Talk to Glenn Tipton from Judas Priest or Scott Ian from Anthrax and ask them if Def Leppard is a heavy metal band, they’ll laugh at you. And rightfully so. They’ll say no, they’re a good rock band, but they’re not heavy metal.
So what are you?
We’re rock. It’s a vast difference. AC/DC are metal, Van Halen aren’t metal. And neither are they a hair band, but they’ve got hair. If it’s the difference between being a hair band and a bald band, yes, we’re a hair band. But musically, we’re a British rock band, end of story.
How does Def Leppard survive for three decades with more or less the same lineup and Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen can’t be civil with each other? What’s the secret to making a relationship with your bandmates last?
It’s about all being on the same page and respecting each other. We all came from Sheffield, England, which is a very industrial working class town. It’s steel and coal, basically. The only thing that came from Sheffield before us, other than maybe some cutlery that you have at home, was Joe Cocker and the Human League. When you get the opportunity to do what we do for a living, you’re always grateful. As tough as it can sometimes be to record and tour with a band, it’s better than working down in the coal mine.
Axl Rose wasn’t born a rock star. He was Midwestern white trash. But he turned into an egotistical asshole who ruined Guns N’ Roses. You’ve sold way more records than Axl. Why aren’t you an egotistical asshole?
I have an ego. Don’t get me wrong, we all have egos. But it’s a collective ego. And that’s what keeps Def Leppard going. We all stand together as a team and go, “Nobody’s better than us!” That’s how you survive as a band.
Your songs aren’t particularly autobiographical.
You’ve written some great rock anthems, but never one about growing up in a coal-mining working class town in England.
That sounds awful.
Really? Springsteen wrote anthems about growing up in working class New Jersey, and they were the opposite of awful. If you put your mind to it, couldn’t you be the British Springsteen?
“Listening to a Springsteen song, it sounds so romantic and cool. But the reality, I’m sure, is just terrible. You know how the grass is always greener on the other side? I remember being a 17-year-old kid trying to escape the slippery slope of the coal-mining life.”
If I tried doing that, I would be laughing my head off at how preposterous it is. Listening to a Springsteen song, it sounds so romantic and cool. But the reality, I’m sure, is just terrible. You know how the grass is always greener on the other side? I remember being a 17-year-old kid trying to escape the slippery slope of the coal-mining life. There was nothing fun about it. When people came to our shows in the beginning, they didn’t want to hear us sing about the death and gloom and misery of our home town. As a music fan, I was always more interested in KISS than Dylan. With all due respect to Dylan, I just didn’t get it. “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind?” That sounds great … for an adult. We were kids. We were listening to “hubcap diamondstar halo.”
You’re built like a car, oh yeah.
[Laughs.] Right, right, you get me. Who knows what that means? It’s like “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!” What does it mean? Who cares! Nobody knows. Even Little Richard doesn’t know what it means.
Just hypothetically, what would Def Leppard’s “Thunder Road” be like?
I honestly don’t know. [Long pause.] We never tried to reflect our audience like that. Initially our audience was us. Our audience was other kids like us who were like, “I can’t do it, but you’re doing it for us. Give me something that takes my mind off my nine to five.” And that’s what we were. If somebody digs deep enough on our albums, you get “Gods of War” and “White Lighting” and “From the Inside,” which is about heroin addiction. We’ve got loads of songs where we talk about human emotions. But the only songs that people remember are “Let’s get rocked.”
What’s the formula for a memorable rock n’ roll anthem? Walk us through it.
Most people would say you have to avoid cliches at all cost. But I would say absolutely not. Embrace cliches like they’re your dying breathe. Look at a song like “We Are the Champions” by Queen. It’s one big meaty cliche. “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” is one of the greatest songs ever written and it’s a cliche, but it’s a cool cliche. Don’t avoid cliches, embrace the bloody things.
A good anthem has to be all about positivity, right? You can’t build an anthem around a lyric like “I think I need to lay off the carbs for awhile!”
No, I wouldn’t try that. It needs to be upbeat and positive and relatable. The other lyrical trick is to swap another word out for the word “love.” How many times in your life have you said, “What’s that got to do with it?” You change “that” to “love” and you’ve got a Tina Turner hit.
That is goddamn genius. I’m getting dollar signs in my eyes. What else?
If you’re looking for a quick lesson on songwriting, here’s the best thing I could tell you. Drop the guitar out when the voice comes in on the verse. So you’re only singing over drums. That gives you way more dynamic, and you can bring back the guitars with an enormous amount of power.
Let’s talk about “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” I know it’s a sexual metaphor. But I don’t really understand what the metaphor is supposed to be.
It’s certainly not from the Corn Flakes point of view. [Laughs.]
That still doesn’t help me.
We wanted to come up with a song that was as iconic as, say, “Honky Tonk Woman.” You walk into a bar and “Honky Tonk Woman” comes on and the girls put their drinks down and they go straight to the dance floor. And all you can think is, “Giddy-up Mick Jagger. Thank you for that.” We wanted to create a song that had the same vibe. We’d been trying all our lives, and then all of a sudden it came along. It slapped us in the face. We finished that song and we knew we had something.
But what did you have exactly? What did it mean?
It means exactly what you think it means.
I have no idea what I think it means. I understand some of the metaphors going on in that song. “You got the peaches, I got the cream.” I get it, I know what you’re trying to say. “Hey, you’ve got breasts and I’ve got … cream.”
[Laughs.] Right, right. Well done.
But I have no idea what “pour some sugar on me” is supposed to be about. What’s being poured exactly?
Love! Emotion! Sex! You name it.
What sexual act is being described?
Whatever you want it to be.
I don’t want it to be anything, I just want to understand what you mean.
It’s like in a movie where the guy goes, “You want a little sugar, honey?” She comes up to his place and he makes her some coffee, but we all know what it really means.
We do? What does it mean?
Use your imagination.
Forget the sugar, let’s just focus on the pouring part. What does a woman pour on you? Even metaphorically?
It’s not for me to tell you, it’s there for you to interpret.
I’m begging you. Give me a hint.
That ruins the fun of it. It’s like playing hide and seek and telling them where you’re hiding. It’s pointless.
You have no idea what “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is about, do you?
[Long pause.] Not a clue. [Laughs.]