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‘We Weren’t Cool Anymore’: The Highs and Lows of Being Def Leppard

Evergreen guitarist Phil Collen discusses the band's history, which is lovingly captured in a new authorised autobiography

If you were looking for a word to sum up the mood backstage at a Def Leppard show, you could do worse than ‘calm’. 

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early November, Sydney’s Olympic Park may be teeming with thousands of black-clad revellers eagerly looking to get rocked – to appropriate a Def Leppard song title – but behind the scenes the atmosphere is almost tranquil.

The large hangar-like structure that serves as the backstage area for this evening’s show at the 25,000-capacity Giants Stadium has been converted into something of a tiny city, with makeshift rooms constructed and sectioned off with black drapes. Walk through one such dimly-lit area, past empty couches, plants, and a handsomely stacked snack bar, and you arrive at a portable cabin dubbed the ‘Quiet Room’.

Stepping inside is like walking into a sanctuary. Red sheer material covers the pulled blinds, adding colour to the otherwise stark white walls; two small lamps and a vanilla scented candle provide a hint of light; calming, nondescript and barely audible music is piped into the room via invisible speakers. Bottles of Fiji water have been placed strategically on small tables in each corner of the room, while a guitar is perched on a stand nearby.

Into this oasis of serenity strolls Phil Collen, Def Leppard’s 65-year-old guitarist who, thanks to a strict fitness regime, vegan diet, and decades-long devotion to sobriety, boasts the body of a man half his age. Dressed in a black sleeveless T-shirt and black jeans, he’s spent the day taking it easy, devouring an acai bowl for breakfast and wandering around some of Sydney’s landmarks, such as the Queen Victoria Building.

In 90 minutes he will walk onstage in front of thousands of rowdy fans, but right now his demeanour is simply that of a relaxed, friendly tourist. Having joined Def Leppard in 1982, just in time to contribute to their legend-making 1983 album Pyromania, the prospect of performing to tens of thousands of people is now all in a day’s work for Collen.

“This is the god’s honest truth,” he smiles, taking a seat on one of three small couches in the cabin. “I never get slightly nervous. I checked my pulse when we did Rock In Rio once – nothing. It was really interesting.”

Collen could be here to talk about a number of things: Diamond Star Halos, the band’s 12th studio album of original material, which came out in 2022; their globe-straddling stadium tour with co-headliners Mötley Crüe; their 2019 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this year’s Drastic Symphonies LP, which sees them reinterpret songs from their back catalogue with the aid of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Today’s conversation, however, will focus on Definitely: The Official Story of Def Leppard, a lovingly crafted authorised autobiography featuring hundreds of photos and images of memorabilia. Rather than weave their quotes around a narrative constructed by an author, the entire story is told via interviews with each member and pieced together to chart their career from their formation in Sheffield in 1977 to current day.

Over the course of 30 minutes Collen discusses the idea behind the book, while delving into myriad different eras of the band’s history, including the stellar commercial highs of albums such as Pyromania and Hysteria, and the harrowing lows of the substance-related death of guitarist, and Collen’s best friend, Steve Clark in 1991.

Definitely: The Official Story of Def Leppard is out now.

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: What did you want to achieve with Definitely?  

Phil Collen: You know, [publishers] Genesis Books are really kind of high end, so it’s not going to be cheap and sleazy. And it’s beautifully done in pictures and interviews – they interviewed everyone. So, it’s like a Def Leppard encyclopedia. It’s great.

Were there any revelations for you as you went through the process of being interviewed?

I’ve actually learned a bunch of stuff from early on – Joe [Elliott, vocals], and the stuff with him sticking the labels on the first single. I mean, I knew they did that, but I didn’t realise Joe’s dad had gone into debt, lent them [money]. It was a really great thing. 

And you know we’ve always said our parents, the value system [they instilled in us]… They survived in World War II, raids and the Nazis coming in and blowing up London, Sheffield, Coventry – we were a product of this community. So, you notice things like that in the book, especially when it talks about our parents.

Do you think that upbringing has helped ground you over the years?

Still does, to this day. We’re very down to earth. You’ve got to take all this with a pinch of salt because it can really run away with you. We’ve lost people. People have lost their grip on reality. It’s just music. 

In the book you tell the story about recording the solo for Pyromania’s “Stage Fright”, and not even really knowing that you were potentially auditioning for the band. What can you remember of that day?

The reason I came in was Joe called and said, “It’s not going well with [original guitarist] Pete Willis. Mutt [Lange, producer] sent him home from the studio and we kicked him out. Could you come down and do some solos?” I said, “Yeah, why not,” just helping out and all that. 

Mutt goes, “What about this song? Think of a solo and come in tomorrow.” I went home to Walthamstow in East London, learned this thing, came in the next day, plugged my Ibanez Destroyer into my Marshall 50-watt head, and boom, one take. They were like, “Woah!” It was the first one take on the album, and the only one ever since, actually. So everyone was raving about that. 

So then it was like “Photograph” and then “Rock of Ages”, all the solos. We went on tour and I thought I was still helping out. And then it exploded. 

No one had actually asked me to join, and it went so massive so quick. We started at the Marquee Club in London, which was 400 people, and we finished nine months later in Jack Murphy Stadium, which is 55,000 people in San Diego. 

What did you learn during that ride?

All of a sudden you’re on TV and there’s girls, and everyone’s throwing everything at you, literally. I was the oldest one, I was 24 when I joined. So we were still kids, you know. And then you learn to calm down, you learn to take everything with a pinch of salt. You learn that if you have a limo, you pay for it, you learn if you get a record advance, you are borrowing it. And every time you take a flight or a piece of studio equipment, the studios themselves, we were famously going over budget all the time. 

So we learned all these things and that really boded well for now. 

You talk in the book about your relationship with Steve Clark. How would you describe the way you worked together as guitarists?

We tried to do this thing a little bit like [Queen’s] Brian May, or an orchestra, where you have all these different things playing at the same time, counter rhythms, counter melodies. And most rock bands would have a rhythm and lead guitar player and a lot of time they’d play exactly the same. It’s really boring. 

So that was really it. And then obviously with Mutt as well it didn’t stop there. It wasn’t just two parts. It’d be like, eight or 16 sometimes, counter rhythms and stuff that you wouldn’t really hear unless you played it back later and it was just like ear candy. 

By the time you came to do 1992’s Adrenalize you were a four-piece following Steve’s death in 1991 and the guitars all fell on your shoulders. Was there part of you trying to think, what would Steve do in this section?

Well, a lot of the songs we’d demoed already. 

So I would have to learn his parts, which was really weird, because there’s the ghost of Steve, and he was my best friend. And it was really weird, that whole experience. But it was really great to honour him as well. 

You make it sound quite straightforward. But emotionally, it must have been difficult.

You never really get over it. Time doesn’t heal it, but you think of the tragedy a bit less. With Steve it was awful, all the time. [You’d think] what could we have done? Or we should have done this, or he should have done this. 

But you get better with it because of the distance.

1996’s Slang took the band in a grittier direction – it’s the sound of a group trying to adapt to a music scene that had changed drastically thanks to the alternative and punk revolutions. But in the book you refer to the album as the most liberating record of the group’s career. In what way?

We’d done three albums – Pyromania, Hysteria and Adrenalize and music had changed, you had Nirvana and stuff like that. Someone had moved the goal posts and you had to go with it without sounding like you’re trying too hard; you have to keep the integrity. And so we just wrote songs, and we didn’t do what we normally do, which is like, this chorus could be better and these lyrics, what does this mean? We’ve got to simplify that.

[With Slang], some of it’s very vague. And it was just very different for us. Kind of cathartic in a way. 

Was it almost a bit of a reset for you? A palate cleanser?

Absolutely. Without a doubt. I love Slang. It’s really close to my heart because we discovered a lot about ourselves. Songs like “Pearl of Euphoria”, “Turn to Dust”, wow. Even the themes and subject matter – “Turn to Dust”, I was in India and I literally heard this sarangi, this instrument [played] by this guy Ram Naravan, who was this huge sarangi player in India. 

We got permission and sampled [him] and it made the song. I’ve been there a few times and I made it about the untouchables, about the lower caste that just get ignored. And that’s something we hadn’t really done. [Before] it was like, we have to make songs phonetically pleasing – it has to make sense, you have to be able to rock out to it, dance to it or get emotional about it. Whereas with this it was like, a bit of a story, a bit of something else.

In the book we get to learn more about less well-known albums like 2002’s X. It’s your poppiest LP, on which you worked with songwriters like Max Martin (Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC) and Andreas Carlsson (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears). Guitarist Vivian Campbell says of the three albums that he’d done up to that point, that was his favourite. But conversely, Joe says that he wasn’t quite sure where you belonged in the business. That’s a confusing position for the band to be in… 

Yeah, I mean, all of those kind of weird wilderness years, everything gets changed with the Nirvana thing. Music was resetting and moving forward and kind of advancing and all that stuff. So we were trying to fit in somewhere and we didn’t quite know [where]. 

You had the big pop sensation thing, Backstreet Boys, and you had Britney Spears and all of this stuff. So we go, okay, well, we can make a kind of a collage. I think we can fit in if we had a cross between, say, Backstreet Boys and Garbage, which is cool. So you’d go somewhere in there. And that was fun to do. 

That period around X, was it a case of just persevering and waiting for the tide to change back in your favour?

Yeah, but we were also doing that on Slang and Adrenalize even, as successful as that album was – we weren’t cool anymore. So you’re having to deal with that. We would play places and no one would show up. I remember we played kind of like a car park in Alabama, it was horrible, there was no one there. It was like, really? It’s come to this? But we were still playing. And then it obviously kicked in later and came back. 

One of the key decisions you made to reverse your fortunes was leaving Q Prime artist management to sign with Howard Kaufman in 2005. Do you consider that a turning point?

Absolutely. Q Prime broke us, but they didn’t know what to do with… I don’t want to say a failing live act or failing band, we just weren’t cool. But Howard said, “Look, there’s value in catalogue. You guys have had two albums that have gone 10x platinum [Pyromania and Hysteria]. I could get you out there. And I could make everything great. You’d be playing arenas. This amount first year, 8,000 there, 12,000 there, 16,000, and then we keep going.” And he was on the money. 

Def Leppard

Was there any part of you that was suspicious or cynical about Howard’s plans? Presumably you’d heard a lot of people promise things throughout your career. 

Not me, but I had to convince everyone. Everyone else was a little hesitant. I was like, look, we’re kind of going down the shitter here. This is not cool. And I said to Howard, “Tell them what you told me.” And he broke it all down and it seemed very obvious. And it worked to the letter. Honestly. 

And then he said, “You guys should tour with Journey.” We said, “That’s not a good pairing.” And he said, “Trust me.” The first gig we played, Camden, New Jersey – and don’t forget, we’d been playing maybe 6,000 seaters – first night us and Journey, 23,000 people and 3,000 outside couldn’t get in. Literally everything he said worked out that way.

You released Drastic Symphonies this year, and you’re wrapping up a two-year tour with Mötley Crüe that has taken you to stadiums around the world. Presumably there are more chapters to write in the book of Def Leppard’s career?

Absolutely. We’ve got enough stuff in our head for Drastic II. It’s a no brainer. I’m still waiting for someone to say, “Look, do a world tour, do Drastic Symphonies and use [local orchestras] like Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Philharmonic. Albert Hall with Royal Philharmonic, who did the album. And then Hollywood Bowl, LA Philharmonic. I mean, it would be amazing. 

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