Def Leppard: Rock of Ages—“It Doesn’t Mean Anything Without the Audiences”

Before Def Leppard released their 1980 debut album, On Through the Night, the songs were written while the band members were working day jobs and rehearsing at night. 

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“We would get together at night, and one of us had got this idea—and it would be ‘Wasted’ or ‘Hello America’ or ‘Rock Brigade’—all while we had other things to do all day long,” singer Joe Elliott tells American Songwriter. “Then we would work again from 7 to 11 at night in a rehearsal room and make an album.”

This system began formulating from the moment the band assembled in 1976 and continued fine-tuning over time, coming full circle when Def Leppard began working on their 12th album, Diamond Star Halos, released in 2022. Written and recorded remotely during the pandemic, the band was located in different parts of the world—Elliott in Ireland, Rick Savage in England, Phil Collen and Rick Allen in Los Angeles, and Vivian Campbell in New Hampshire. Pulling from several older and some mostly completed songs, the album fleshed out without the band ever seeing one another (not even through Zoom), instead relying on emails, phone calls, and the back-and-forth passage of digital files. 

“We did it between shifts and areas of our life,” says Elliott. “It all ties in with the experience that we’ve had over 45 years of making records, and touring. It’s using that energy in the most efficient way that you can. It’s not a chore. It’s a joy, and songwriting should be a joy.”

He adds, “The best part of my job, if you want to call it a job, is the day you wake up with the seed of an idea and the hairs on your arms pick up and you go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got something here,’ and from that moment onward it’s a journey.”

Never a band of big breakups or blowouts, Def Leppard’s collective work ethic resulted only in the band’s steady stream of releases from 1980 through the 2020s. Growing up in the working-class town of Sheffield, England embedded a different kind of tenacity and resolve to always put in nothing less than 100 percent.

“We grew up in the English equivalent of Pittsburgh, a town that is very industrial with steel works on the inside and coal mines on the periphery and maybe a few jobs in between that were just faceless, boring,” says Elliott. “When you grow up in that environment, and your escape every evening as a kid is to go down to the city to watch whatever band is in town—whether you have to climb up a drain pipe and get into the bathroom window or you saved your pocket money for a ticket—it’s an escapism from life. When you actually get an opportunity to do that, the day that you forget why you got involved in the first place, there’s the reality that you could slip back into that life.” 

Elliott laughs, “We’re scared shitless of going back to that.”

Def Leppard (Courtesy Def Leppard)

Founding bassist Savage, who has written across most of the band’s catalog of albums, recently penning Diamond Star Halos tracks “From Here to Eternity” on his own and “Take What You Want” with Elliott, says the power of the band is that their core principles and adoration for music always remained intact. 

“We’re all in a band because we wanted to get on stage and play our music, but it doesn’t mean anything without the audiences,” says Savage. “They’re the ones that inspire you to want to improve and to want to still be around in five years’ time, 10 years’ time. We’re just slaves to them, and that’s how it should be.”

The way things have fallen into place for the band has been mostly kismet, even down to the way songs arrive. For drummer Allen, one of the band’s biggest albums, Hysteria, followed one of the most catastrophic times in his life. Three years after losing his arm in a car accident in 1984, he wondered how, or if, he would play again. Following the accident, Allen was living in a Dublin apartment with Collen and the band’s late guitarist Steve Clark while working on the album, and the title track, in particular, is a song that has stuck with him the most over the past 35 years.

“I remember Phil asking me how things were going one morning,” recalls Allen. “I was in sort of this recovery mode, coming out of the hospital and just trying to get my head around what had happened to me, and I said, ‘It feels like hysteria. Sometimes I don’t know which way is up or down,’ and he said, ‘That’s a great title.’ It just so happens that we were looking for titles at that moment for the record.”

The song is one Allen also credits with helping him get back on track. “When you listen to that song in a certain way, it’s not necessarily related to a girl,” shares Allen. “When you listen to it related to say, a higher power, then the song takes on a whole different personality.”

How Def Leppard came together over time was also some divine intervention, believes Elliott, or “God playing chess.” Allen was working as a roadie when his mother answered an advertisement for a band looking for a drummer and joined Def Leppard when he was just 15 years old, replacing original drummer Tony Kenning in 1978. When founding guitarist Pete Willis was dismissed from the band in 1982, following the band’s second album High ’N’ Dry, Elliott already knew Collen would join them. 

Joining Def Leppard pre-Pyromania, Elliot says Collen, who has also become a key songwriter in the band, co-writing their 1987 hit album Hysteria and more across the band’s catalog, really helped transition the sound of the band. “The first day I met Phil, I was thinking ‘I wish that guy was in our band,’” says Elliott. “We all got manipulated towards each other by accident, or by design. It’s not a coincidence really.”

Another wave of serendipity occurred when former Dio guitarist Campbell was visiting friends in Ireland, where Elliott lives, and immediately clicked with the singer over a game of pool. “When Steve sadly passed away, we were finishing the album [Adrenalize, 1992] and were looking for somebody to come in and be the fifth member, the new Ronnie Wood of Def Leppard as we always call him,” says Elliott. “Vivian was perfect because we all knew he could play guitar, that wasn’t a problem, but it’s the other 22 hours you’re not on stage. We love what we do, and 45 years in it helps if you can look each other in the eye. I think the fact that we all just love music is one just massive happy coincidence.”

Clark, who died in 1991 at the age of 30 from alcohol poisoning remains a very present part of Def Leppard. “I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I don’t think of him or I’ll hear something that he’s done,” shares Allen. “The whole thing was just so tragic, so sad. If he’d gotten over that time period, he would be having the best time, right now, because we’re all in a place where we’re enjoying the past success. We’re just savoring it. We’re all older and hopefully wiser.” 

Allen adds, “It would have been really special for him to have been around physically, but he’s an indelible part of our music and our success, and he’ll always be with us in some shape or form.”

Now more than 30 years in with the band, Campbell—who has also co-written a number of tracks off the band’s albums Slang in 1996, X in 2002, Songs from the Sparkle Loungein 2008, and “Blind Faith” and “Wings of an Angel” from their 2015 self-titled album—says he’s witnessing a rebirth of Def Leppard, particularly after the success of the band’s performances during the stadium headlining tour with Mötley Crüe, Joan Jett, and Poison in 2022.

“I feel like we’ve entered that phase of being the elder statesman, in terms of our audience, which has grown,” says Campbell. “This has been happening for the last 20 years where it’s multigenerational. It used to be we were just playing to people of our own generation, who grew up with us but with the popularity of Spotify and other streaming, it really brought our music to a whole different generation.”

Because of this extended reach more than 45 years later, Def Leppard is nowhere near finished. Another album will happen in time, and the band even has songs recorded during their Halos sessions and other half-finished songs. But moving ahead, Elliott says they’ll continue to work remotely. 

“Lyrically, Bernie Taupin is so brilliant, and he’s never been in the same room with Elton [John] when he’s written the lyrics,” says Elliott. “We were doing the same thing [with Diamond Star Halos], but we just recorded that way as well. I don’t see why we would change, because we had so much fun and when we tour we’re away from family a lot and when we record we’ve always been away, sometimes six or seven months. This way, everybody can stay at home in a more relaxed environment and get things done.”

As for how much longer Def Leppard will go, Elliott doesn’t rule out another decade or two. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he says. “I’m 63, so that would take me to 83. That’s pushing it, but Ian Hunter [Mott the Hoople] is 83, and he’s still doing it.”

Keeping the momentum is also about pulling from different feeds of inspiration, says Collen. “I find so much inspiration even when the world is going pear-shaped—especially then,” he says. “I’ve always been really open-minded to music. I grew up in London, and there were a lot of immigrants coming from places like the West Indies, India, and Pakistan, so you had this blend of music, smells of different cuisine and this was in the ’60s, so you also had dub and reggae blasting everywhere. All these things were blending in, and that’s inspirational to me.”

Collen adds, “There’s a song on the new album, ‘U Rok Mi,’ and it sounds pretty standard, but it’s actually about pure inspiration. That’s what it’s about. It’s about being affected by this thing that takes you over.”

Now 35 years after the release of Hysteria, another 30 from Adrenalize, and nearly 40 years after the release of Pyromania, and the ebb and flow of more anniversaries coming and going, the band maintains themselves by putting in the hard work.  

“We rehearse really hard and we’re pretty good at what we do because we practice a lot,” says Elliott. “I think a lot of bands just get bored and they don’t want to do it anymore. Anybody in this band will tell you that doing ‘Sugar’ [‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’] and ‘Photograph’ and ‘Rock of Ages’ in a rehearsal room is a little tedious, but you just have to balance it out. We can’t do it as well in front of an audience unless we can actually do it within these bare four walls. So suck it up and think about Pete Townshend who still has to do ‘My Generation.’”

It’s about performing with the same enthusiasm as bands like the Rolling Stones or The Who, who still perform songs that are now 50 or 60 years old, says Elliott. “They know how to play the game,” he says. “They know that to the public out there, that’s why they’re coming in the thousands, to hear those songs. We’ve gone past nostalgia now. It’s legacy. There’s actually more value in watching [Paul] McCartney than watching somebody that’s only been around for seven or eight years because you’re looking at history. There’s also always that danger of, ‘Maybe it’s the last time I ever see them.’” Elliott jokes, “I mean I’ve been saying that about the [Rolling] Stones.”

Savage adds, “Obviously, when you go on stage, it’s always great to play new songs, but you’re always aware that people want to hear ‘Armageddon It’ or ‘Rocket’ or the obvious hits. When you’re actually writing a new song, that’s what kind of keeps you alive and keeps you interested. It’s something we do all the time because we don’t really have writing sessions. It’s an ongoing 24-hour-a-day sort of thing.” 

The work continues, even when the band is off the road, with everyone nearly training like athletes, says Collen. “We have to sing every day,” he says, “and I’m always practicing when I’m not on tour.”

Def Leppard won’t pull away from expanding their legacy. In fact, they’re still building on it, pushing themselves further each time, and still embracing their influences, including their aspiration to be just as big as Queen one day.

“People say, ‘You’ve done it all,’” says Collen. “And we’re like, ‘No, we haven’t.’” 

The Rolling Stones are another target goal for Def Leppard. “We want to be like them, as far as touring goes,” admits Collen. “Mick Jagger’s a genius, and they all collectively go along with that plan, and I think it’s amazing. The songs that they wrote, him and Keith, it’s amazing that it’s still out there and it still has a platform. 

“Obviously, we want to be like the Stones and Queen,” adds Collen. “We’re nowhere near it yet, but we’re getting there.”

Rock legends unite! Secure your tickets now for the Journey and Def Leppard 2024 Tour and experience an epic night of iconic hits.

Main photo by Ross Halfin

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