Rock till you drop

No spring chicken, they, but the Lep can still get reasonably Def

At a time when critics are fawning over cutting-edge acts like Arctic Monkeys and Tapes ’N Tapes, one refugee from the golden age of ’80s pop metal (whose name is not Bon Jovi) has been selling out venues around the country. And while Def Leppard always managed to pull in big numbers on the touring circuit throughout its career, record sales were not as kind during the lean ’90s, when music trends veered toward grunge, bubblegum pop, and agro-rock, and acts like the Leps, Warrant, and Poison fell out of favor. But unlike the latter groups, the UK quintet continued releasing albums — like 1996’s experimental Slang and 1999’s return-to-form Euphoria — albeit it to an indifferent fan base more inclined to hear Def Leppard dip into fare from its ’80s heyday.

These Def Leppards don’t need hearing aids. Yet.

With the release of Yeah!, an all-covers album of material by artists (mostly from the UK) who influenced the band, Def Leppard is enjoying a critical and commercial renaissance. The mix of songs by artists like T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Badfinger, and Roxy Music are a reflection of the band’s hard-rock-and-glitter roots that brings back lots of good memories for guitarist Phil Collen.

“I think when you look back to when we first heard these songs, when we were 12 or 14, it was that much more special for us because it was a discovery period,” Collen recalled over the phone from Atlanta. “It’s an interesting thing to have been in England at that particular point `in` time and obviously no one else is going to share all these things with us.”

That said, one has to wonder if European audiences have been more open to songs by the likes of The Sweet and Thin Lizzy, given that the commercial success for these bands was more pronounced over there than in America.

Def leppard

7:30pm Fri, Jul 28

Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
16765 Lookout Rd., Selma

“It’s funny, because some of these songs, like ‘Hellraiser’ by The Sweet, were huge in England and Germany,” explained Collen. “We played it in both places and no one even knew it. All of that didn’t make a difference at all, to be quite honest ... It was more about whether it sounded like it integrated into a Def Leppard set or not. I think, out of all of them, ‘Rock On,’ the old Dave Essex song, seems to go down great, as does ‘No Matter What,’ by Badfinger. Everything else is pretty much like a brand-new song.”

Sure enough, at a recent show at New York’s Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre, fans reacted positively to the Essex and Badfinger covers, as well as to “Hanging On the Telephone,” patterned after Blondie’s better-known version. Of course, the most rabid reactions were generated by tried-and-true hits like “Rock of Ages” and “Love Bites,” which served as the bulk of the band’s set. And, while instances like the instant segue between the end of “Photograph” and “Armageddon It” suggested singer Joe Elliott’s upper register might not be able to hit the high vocal outro normally heard on the former, all of the band’s other trademark nuances were intact — layered harmonies, hard-edged hooks, and the kind of catchy riffing you’d expect to hear from Collen and bandmate Vivian Campbell.

As one of the more melodic acts to come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the Sheffield natives had accrued quite an impressive canon of hard-rocking ear candy by the time grunge hit. And thanks to songs like the unofficial exotic-dancer anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and the über-power-ballad “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” Def Leppard kept themselves in play, whether it was in semi-regular rotation on VH-1 Classic or in the ever-shrinking rotations of classic-rock-radio formats. All these factors and more kept diehards coming back, while simultaneously serving to attract a younger demographic.

“You have to take what you can get,” Collen said. “You never really know where you’re going to have an arena. Some fans get it via music from a TV show or a movie ... Some of this stuff really stands the test of time and keeps popping its head up. Perceptions change because 16- and 17-year-old kids are going to our shows now.”

When pressed, though, Collen readily admits that a commitment to playing live is what enabled Def Leppard to survive during the last decade, when record sales were far below the heights of Pyromania and Hysteria. “`Our sales numbers` took a dive, obviously,” said the guitarist. “There was a different kind of music that was popular at the time. The whole alternative thing and grunge, and it was really tough because I thought we put some really good stuff out ... `But` there are not a lot of bands with balls and integrity that don’t use tapes who can actually play a full set of songs that people know `well`. Coming out of the ’90s, we’ve actually proved that.”

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