Singer Joe Elliott discusses the band’s biggest album
It’s been 30 years since Hysteria hit the shelves and launched Def Leppard into super stardom. It wasn’t an immediate hit however, it took 49 weeks for the album to reach number one on the charts. Nonetheless, it made it there and left such an impression on the music community that it’s celebrated seemingly almost every 10 years.
There’s good reason for that. Hysteria tracklist reads like a greatest hits record, with “Love Bites” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” lying right next to one another. The creation of the LP wasn’t an easy one either. Drummer Rick Allen lost his arm, Mutt Lange dropped out then came back in, and it took almost three years in total for the record to be made. Sometimes though, it’s the hardest things that end up being the most worthwhile.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with lead singer Joe Elliott to discuss the album’s 30th anniversary, find out the tale behind some of the decade’s biggest hit songs, and learn about the moments that still ground a band that has been to the top of the mountain.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you are about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hysteria with a remastered reissue. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Joe Elliott: We haven’t really thought too much about the anniversary release, collectively. It gets mentioned because basically I kind of took it by the reigns when they needed to start putting this thing into motion, which was quite a long time ago now. I’m the archivist if you like, I’m the one with the library and the tapes and the studio and all that kind of stuff, so I was the one who had to go through it all and start piecing it all together with Steve Hammonds, a guy at Uni in the UK who is my contact guy there. Of course I had just been relaying information back and forth to the guys, so everyone is aware of it, but I think they are going to be more aware of it probably two days before it drops, when they go, “Wow, 30 years holy crap!”
I’ve kind of been living it for nine months, so for me it’s just another day of something that is monumental in our life, and maybe in a few fans’ eyes too. But for us, it is something we are meant to be proud of and occasionally I refer to it as an albatross, but generally speaking when you step back and look at it and you go, “I’d rather have an album like that than not one at all.” There is always that danger, doesn’t matter what it is, I dare say Townsend went through this when he was recording Quadrophenia, Zeppelin with Zeppelin IV, and Hotel California, it’s like everything you do from that moment onwards is going to be compared to it. You are kind of hiding the sausage, but as I’ve always said, if you actually step back from that scenario and go, “What would you rather have, a bland okay career, or would you have a highlight that’s like going to have a 30 anniversary release that’s being celebrated?” And it’s like of course you would.
The mood in the camp on tour was fantastic, but it was really nothing to do with this, it was just down to the fact that ticket sales were just insane and the audiences were great. We were just really getting on with it. We’ve reached another level that we keep talking year by year, and people say, “the band were as good as they’ve ever been,” and all that kind of stuff, and you have to agree with them. Other than an illness here and there, generally speaking we are on fire when we’re playing and that’s just because we enjoy what we do.
CF: Hysteria was hugely successful, but it wasn’t an easy recording period for the band. Looking back, how did all of those struggles help to create the enduring legacy of the record?
JE: I think it’s a classic example of a lot of great things in life are accidental. You don’t plan them, just right place, right time, star alignment, all that kind of stuff, as much luck as judgement, and probably more perspiration than inspiration. You look back at it and you think the trials and tribulations we went through making the record and the fact that when it did come out, it wasn’t an instant success. You get things like say the first Boston album, the first Van Halen album, Hotel California, Rumors bang! They were out of the box and off like a greyhound.
Hysteria came out and it was, “Eh, okay. It’s a good record, but we’ve been waiting five years for this and the first thing they put on the radio, against our advice, is “Women”. And well, that’s not gonna get played. It’s a good album track, but it’s certainly not like, “Hey, we’ve been away for five years, bang.” It was more like a whimper. But with hindsight, if you look what happened after that, maybe that made people work harder. It made people reassess decisions that had been made and go, “Ok, we gotta try harder to get this thing going,” and then boom! I say “boom,” 49 weeks later it finally hit number one, but it was top ten all but one week for all 49 weeks, so it was a steady pulse. It had a steady pulse then all of a sudden it just got an adrenaline kick and from what I’m lead to believe was strip clubs in Florida when “Sugar” was doing the rounds, and all of a sudden it went through the roof.
The making of the record was as odd because it certainly wasn’t… it started out fine. February 1984 we all gathered in Dublin to start recording it. We were working with Mutt as we had done on Pyromania, which was all six of us sitting around campfire-ing songs and stuff and everybody’s ideas were as valid as each others, so we always invited Mutt in if he had a suggestion for taking sections out, putting sections in, rewriting it, speeding up, slowing down, changing key, all that kind of stuff because he knows what he’s doing, and that’s why you want a producer like Mutt Lange on your side. It enhances what you’ve got and improves what you have as well. And that was all going swimmingly till he dropped the bomb that he was like, “Guys I kinda need a break. I can’t really make the record,” so we’d spent the better part of six months piecing this thing together and then all of a sudden we’re rudderless. We don’t have a producer.
Hastily meetings were put together, which by the way in 1984, it wasn’t easy. It was all done by telex or landlines that didn’t work very often. We finally had a meeting about who was going to do it and perplexed at the thought that it was suggested that we use Steinman, and we’re all going, “Why? He’s not even a producer. He wrote “Bat Out of Hell”, Todd Rundgren produced it, what’s going on?” But young, naive, tired after a long year on the road and confused and like I said rudderless, we kind of looked at each other and thought, “Well let’s give it a go. What do we have to lose? If it doesn’t work, we’ll scrap it,” which is exactly what we did [laughs].
We gave it a go, but it didn’t feel right from day one, but we did the honorable thing and let it try and blossom, but it was never gonna work. It was oil and water, we were just completely on different planets when it came to the direction of the band, direction of the songwriting, direction of the production, what we wanted to do. Some producers come in and they just see a band, six million sales before, and they go, “Oh paycheck that’ll pay my mortgage off,” and they’ve got no real emotional connection to the record or the music, they just see it as a paycheck, and I’m not suggesting for a minute that’s what Steinman was, but he certainly wasn’t emotionally connected like Mutt Lange was and still is, even though we don’t work with him anymore.
He’s constantly on the phone with Phil or talking to us about soccer or anything. It’s a relationship like an uncle. It was never like that with Jim, so we had to just do the honorable thing and say, “This is not working,” and even Neil Dorfsman, his engineer, was like, “Yeah, I can see this is not going to work.” We actually kept Neil around for a couple of weeks until Nigel Green came in, who was Mutt’s assistant engineer and at Mutt’s suggestion, he says, “Just get on with something with Nigel and we’ll see what happens.” We did that with Nigel and it was sounding pretty good. It was kinda Pyromania 2 is what it really was, without wanting to be disrespectful to Boston, Don’t Look Down is just like side three and four of Boston one, which is where we were going, which for us was not really showing any progress.
Come 1985, Mutt was like, “Alright, I’ve had my time off. Let’s get cracking on this,” and we pretty much started again. But he was very smart. He didn’t throw the tapes in the bin. He listened to what we had and went, “Okay, let’s just replace that bit there and do this,” and eventually we realized that we’d kind of bit by bit replaced certain things, but still maintained the integrity of the song. It’s like, “How did you do that?” And he goes, “Well it would have been heartbreaking to say let’s just start from scratch.”
That created a dynamic on the record that would have been unplannable. You couldn’t make it up. It is one of the reasons U2 records are so exceptional from that period as well because they were kind of feeling in the dark, but in new things, and we were totally taking advantage of the technology. We’ve all read these brilliant books about The Beatles once they got into the studio and shut down the touring thing and going, “What does that button do?” and turning tapes upside down and editing in three versions of a song together at different speeds and somehow making them work.
We were kind of doing that, but it was obviously ‘85 by then and there was digital stuff. If you wanted reverse echo on something, in the old days you would have to take the tape off, turn it upside down, run it backwards onto a machine, and turn that back around, record it back on to it, and that’s how you get the echo before the vocal on “Way Down Inside” at the end of “Whole Lotta Love”, and stuff like that. We could just do that by pushing a button, boom done.
We played with so many toys and went down so many dead ends, just to see what would happen, we probably spent more time not recording than we did record, just to see what there was available and sometimes we came up with something magical like the middle part of “Rocket” or the stuff in “Gods of War” where we were sampling all the political speech stuff. We were having fun with it. Eventually we started to have fun once we established the fact that we thought we had the songs, even though some of the more important songs didn’t come till the very very end. We knew we had something going, but it took a long time for that to actually establish.
CF: Is there a moment from the studio that still stands out to you that sums up Hysteria’s entire recording process?
JE: Well yeah, I’ve told this story a trillion times, but it’s totally true. We were doing this bit by bit. If I was doing the vocals, the rest of the guys would go home because they knew I wasn’t going to pull this vocal off in three minutes. Everything was meticulously recorded and so the vocals, like any album made in that period, you lock yourself in with a producer and you turn the lights down and focus on what you’re doing. You don’t want four guys fighting for control of the couch staring at you while you’re doing it, so they’d go off. Sometimes they’d even leave the country.
We were working on the vocals for I believe it was “Armageddon” when Mutt disappeared to get coffee or whatever, and I just picked up this acoustic guitar in the corner of the control room and started playing these three chords around in a circle and singing this hook over the top, and he came back in unbeknownst to me. You kind of feel the eyes burning in the back of your head after a while and you turn around, “What are you doing?” And he’s like, “What are you playing?” I honestly think to this day he thought I was just playing some Stone or Kinks song or something, I said, “It’s just an idea I had, it doesn’t matter, we’ve got 11 songs on this record, two years into it, I know we’re done,” and he goes, “Oh no, we’re not. That’s the best hook I’ve heard in over five years. Play it again.” So I played it and he literally stopped the tape and he took the tape off and put a brand new piece of tape on and said, “Right, we’re going to do this,” and between me and him, we just mapped out what turned into “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.
When the rest of the guys came back in, I believe it was a weekend, and they all came back in around Monday lunchtime and we’ve got the guts of this thing done in rough form, drum machine, bass, some bad guitar playing by him or me or both, banged out rough vocals on chorus and stuff like that, and said, “Guys, we’ve got an idea for a song,” and they kind of went, “Oh God,” everybody’s eyes are rolling. We said, “No, wait, wait, listen,” and literally about a minute in, they’re all going, “Holy crap, yeah!” And it was the fastest thing we did. We banged the whole thing out in 2 days, really. By comparison to the record, that was nanoseconds. That was because it took us that long to get comfortable.
We were changing studios, changing environments. It’s like changing teachers halfway through a term or something, you’ve got to get comfortable. We had to take the bull by the horns, but without Mutt around, it was a bit hard. Once he was there, everybody’s confidence came flying back. He was very open-minded as well. He wasn’t all him, he was like, “Does anybody have any ideas for this beat?” He wasn’t a dictator. He just knew how to make it shiny, once the ideas were in place.
CF: You just finished a tour, but you guys are heading back out on the road in September to tour Latin America. How does the South American crowd differ from shows in Europe or the U.S.?
JE: For the majority of them, they wouldn’t be a lyrically connected to any artist that is American or English because of the language barrier. You can’t see Bob Dylan being a massive hit down there by the virtue of the fact that to translate his stuff into Spanish and it wouldn’t have the same wordiness, same when we go to Japan. The things that go [singing] “Woah, Woah, Woah” kind of mean the most [laughs]. But they are a bit more red-blooded I suppose is the best way to put it, in that they listen, but they listen to the bass drum and the music and guitars and they’re leaping about and going bonkers and all that kind of stuff.
I did some shows with the Rock n’ Roll All Stars about five years ago down there, which is kind of a gallery of everything, Gene Simmons, myself, Duff, Matt Sorum, Gilby Clarke from Guns N’ Roses, Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple, and we went down there and the audiences just went nuts, but it was a very interesting point that Duff McKagan made, he went, “Dude, when we play our songs they just go ballistic and bounce up and down, but you can’t hear anything. When we do your songs they just sing their heads off.” It all depends what band it is. If it’s Guns N’ Roses, they’re gonna mosh. If it’s Def Leppard, they’re gonna sing, and that’s the major difference between those two bands I guess.
The Latin audiences are definitely enthusiastic. They are definitely not arms-folded, “so impress me,” like you can get in a lot of capital cities around the world. They come to have a good time. We, collectively as Def Leppard, haven’t been there in 20 years, which is why we are going down now, just to kind of reintroduce ourselves to everybody. It’s a great place to play. We go to Mexico all the time, but we haven’t been south of Mexico since ‘97, so it’ll be interesting to see if anything has changed, but it certainly hasn’t as of five years ago, when I was there with the All Stars.
CF: This reissue boasts some unheard b-sides and outtakes. Why did you decide to include them and how did you dig these up, being the archivist?
JE: There’s been the 20th anniversary, it’s an actual fact, they were so impatient, it was the 19th anniversary of the album re-release that came out in 2006, I think it was. We were like, “Can’t we wait a year and actually put 20 on this?” So there has been a reissue that has had a lot of the extra tracks, but back in the ’70s, if it was a Blind Faith re-release, you may find a couple rarities like the electric version of “Can’t Find My Way Home”, but come the ’80s everybody wanted 12-inch remixes of everything and b-sides for the CDs so that you’d have three tracks.
So you’d finish an album, and if you were going to put out seven singles like we did, we need 21 extra songs, it was like, “Where are we going to get them from? We just spent two years giving you 12,” so there is going to be a lack of quality in most of the things that you do, but what we try and do is dress them up as best you can. Some of the b-sides that we had were pretty strong. I mean “Tear It Down” ended up going on the next album. I think things like “I Wanna Be Your Hero”, which was one of the first songs that we wrote, which was originally called “Love Bites”, we just nicked the title and shoved it onto a slower song.
There were historical pieces. They ended up on an album called Retro Active, but they were remixed for that, so what we’ve done here is we’ve gone back to the original tapes and put the original b-side versions on, which keeps it historically accurate, which is what we wanted to do. It was just a case of going through your brain and going through your shelves and making sure you don’t leave anything out, and literally picking up the 7-inch singles and flipping them over to see what was what because you do move on. There are certain things in life that you’ll never forget, but what was the actual b-side of “Hysteria”, I would have been clueless. I just thought it was one of four or five songs that were b-sides. I didn’t know which ones were which because I’m not that anally retentive.
It was a case of pulling everything significant from that time period together to make this thing value for money, plus the fact that there’s the book and there’s the box set, all the original artwork, Steve Hammonds, he researched this like like Indiana Jones. He was just insane. You’ve got the b-sides, the 12-inch remixes, the radio edit, the live soundtrack from Live: In the Round, in Your Face, which has never been available legally on CD. It was on a VHS tape. It becomes six discs I believe.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
JE: It was probably while we were making Hysteria, Rick’s accident. That was a major contributing factor to the overall vibe of the band. We were, I don’t want to sound like a cliche, but it was a band of brothers and kind of still is. To us, it was an escape from factory life and a great opportunity to be like our heroes like Zeppelin and Queen and AC/DC, T-Rex, Bowie, all this kind of stuff. It’s like we can do this, but let’s not go back the way we came from. Let’s be a gang, let’s work this out. We don’t have to be the greatest musicians and singers in the world, but as long as we mean it, people will recognize that.
And there was a good amount of talent in the band and a good eye for melody and stuff like that, but I think when Rick lost his arm, the main focus became on the humanity not the music. We didn’t know how to react, early 20s. Most of us get a phone call going, “Your grandma died,” that happens. Whoever gets a phone call saying, “Your drummer has just lost his arm.” Process that the way you’d process anything normal. And, of course, your instant reaction is, “How is he gonna cope mentally? What’s he going to do?” We weren’t even thinking, “What are we going to do?” We were thinking, “What is he going to do?” We really did care, this is just out of control, it’s ridiculous. It’s something we don’t know how to deal with.
Once all that shock became accepted in the short-term, by the time we went up to Sheffield to meet him and all that kind of stuff, the first time I met him, he was still unconscious. He didn’t really meet me, I just saw him with his arm back on and then the next day, it was gone again. It was horrible. It just kind of brought home the reality of, reality, life, and what can happen in a split second that can change the trajectory of anybody’s life.
What it did to us was a week or two later when he woke up, and Mutt had been up to see him, and they had gotten to talking about stuff, and then Rick called the studio and said, “I got this idea.” We just thought, “It’s the drugs talking.” He said, “Nah, I think I can play the drums by utilizing my left foot,” which kind of just doesn’t do much. So he says, “I’ll just play a pedal snare, and whack away at the high hat,” and we go, “Hey, it’s up to you. We ain’t firing you. If you leave, you leave, but you’re in the band till you say you’re not.”
Luckily, we had the tapes where he played drums on songs, so we were just getting on with overdubs while he was recuperating. He was supposed to be in the hospital for six months, he checked himself out after six weeks, got bored s***less at his mom’s house, so he came back over to the studio to just sit and listen and immerse himself back into the band, and we couldn’t have welcomed him any better than we did.
Then, his mate in Sheffield built him this electronic kit and he locked himself away in his room for four months and the rest is history. After he came out after four months of he didn’t want anyone to hear him or see him, he went, “I want you to come hear something,” and he invited us in to listen to him play and I believe it was “When the Levee Breaks” or something like that, and it was emotional. That was a very grounding moment. It’s something you never forget.