Feature by Geoff Barton from Kerrang! Issue 2 – August 1981
“HEY MANNNN, how’re ya doin’? Def Lepperd singer Joe Elliott smiles widely, his teeth showing up Ultra Brite white against his golden tanned skin.
“Long time no see” he drawls, silver coke spoon dangling about his neck and glinting in the brilliant Santa Monica sun. Come on an’ sit by the pool. We got soooo much to talk about.”
We walk over to the kidney shaped creation, a sparkling, inviting oasis in the middle of a beautifully landscaped garden.
A ravishing Pam Ewing lookalike reclines on an airbed floating in the water. She looks up, adjusts her skimpy swimsuit and tosses a luxurious mane of hair out of her eyes.
‘Hey, Joe!” she calls “Are ye coming in for a dip? It’s just diviiiiiiine!”
‘Won’t be long honey”, replies Elliott, giving me a knowing wink. “I just gotta speak with this guy. Won’t take Ionger than about 10 minutes…..”
I cane believe it. So this is what they’ve come to. Def Leppard, the first New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, the group that inspired a whole new generation of sonic striplings, have become as sickening as their superstar superiors.
They’ve left their home, in Sheffield and have taken up permanent residence in the States. They’re hooked on the Yankie highlife and couldn’t care less about their homeland.
Goodbye and good riddance Great Britain, say hello America…..
WRONG! This, insects, is how it really is.
Switch scenes from a Los Angeles suburb to a grubby street In Willesden, London NW2. Whip off your shades and put up your umbrella. Notice that the only pools in the vicinity are the ones caused by rainwater further clogging the blocked-up drains.
Now peer through the murky window of a tenement house adjacent to Battery Studio – where Def Leppard are at last recording their second LP – and listen intently. You re about to hear something that’ll make you think again. Your assessment of the situation is suddenly going to seem incredibly ill conceived….
Joe Elliott is sitting on the edge of a bed in a plainly decorated room. He draws on a cigarette, his lips pursed tight and tense. A curly dark mop frames a scowling face. He’s picking his words slowly, carefully, deliberately.
‘I want to stress that Def Leppard have not ‘sold out to America’.” he says. ‘It’s ridiculous. Plain ridiculous. People seem to think that we spend all our time over there, but that’s simply not true. So far, in our entire career, we have only spent three months in the States. Three months! That’s all.’
Bass player Rick Savage is crouched in a corner, his legs tucked up tightly beneath him. He nods in agreement.
“It’s all very well being popular in America,” he reflects, “being great rock stars, earning a lost of money and everything that goes with it, but there’s no way you can put a price on being big in your own country.
“It’s just pride, which is something everyone reckons we haven’t got. People think we just don’t care about doing things for the English fan, the kid who got us started. And they couldn’t be more off the beam.”
TO PLACE these comments in contest, a short history lesson is in order methinks. Def Leppard first exploded on to the metal marketplace at the start of 1979. Taking the spiky-haired, bull-by-the-horns, New Wave initiative, they refused to stand idle and wait for that miraculous record contract to magically come their way.
Instead the five Steel City teenagers (Elliott and Savage along with guitarists Steve Clark and Pete Willis, plus drummer Rick Allen) issued a self financed EP called ‘Getcha Rocks Off’ and made things happen for themselves.
The record was superb and soon enough found itself firmly lodged in HM charts the length and breadth of the land. I promptly travelled up to SheffieId to watch the band play a small gig at Crookes Workingman’s Club.
A naively enthusiastic article appeared in Sounds dated Jun. 16. ‘High powered heavy rock played to a degree of tightness usually only achieved after a half dozen gruelling American tours,’ I drooled at the time.
It was the beginning of a frenzied fairytale. Eight months later the band had been snatched up by Phonogram, acquired hotshot American management, toured as support to the likes of Sammy Hagar, recorded a debut album ‘On Through The Night’, scooped not only the ‘Best New Band’ section but also (with ‘Rocks Off’) the ‘Best Single’ category in the 1980 Sounds readers’ poll….and it was time for another feature.
I saw a show at base camp again, only this time at the Sheffield Top Rank, arid th. group enjoyed front page prominence on the March 1 issue. However the cover line was something of a downer: ‘Has the Leppard changed it’s spots?’ we asked.
Inside on page 20, I expressed some severe doubts. Another quote: ‘Since signing a major deal, Def Leppard have begun to sink slowly into the rock industry quagmire….. They once had the power to penetrate but unfortunately their complete trust in the business has rendered them useless.’
POP! The bubble had burst and suddenly it was a case of (to use that well worn rock cliché) too much too soon.
BITTERLY, Elliott picks up the tale “Let’s take it from the end of ‘79, when we went into the studio to lay down ‘On Through The Night’. On January 5 1980 we finished the album, than we started on a tour of Marquee-sized clubs, 50-odd gigs, In March and April we played dates in bigger venues, we’d kind of graduated upwards and ridding the crest of a wave.
‘We went to America in mid-May and returned to Britain at the beginning of
August. Looking back. I guess It was during that period that the turnaround, whatever you want to call it, occurred.
We took two or three weeks off to rehearse and write some new songs, then we played the Reading Festival. We thought it’d be a highpoint in a great year for us…..but it didn’t work out that way. We came onstage after Slade – and nearly got canned off!”
Suddenly the once high-flying Leppards had crashlanded as gracelessly as a pigeon peppered with pistol pellets. They were forced to face a grim new reaIity.
After the Reading debacle, the band escaped to Europe and toured there throughout September. Returning to the UK in October to start recording their second album, they were dismayed to find the producer of their choice, Mutt Lange, still tied up with a Foreigner disc in New York. So the Def Ones, sat down and waited for Lange to finish the project. And waited. And waited.
Work on Foreigner’s LP was proceeding at a sloth like pace and by Christmas it was no nearer completion
“We were bored stiff,’ recalls Elliott, “so we set up a little low key tour by ourselves, just to keep our hands in.”
“Also to try and get back some ‘street credibility,” interjects Savage. “We thought people might warm to us again, if they saw us doing gigs at the Retford Portarhouse, or Chesterfield’s Aquarius, which is a real chicken-in-the-basket place.”
“But it didn’t work” says Elliott, ‘When we played the Nottingham Boat Club part of our small-hall tour at the beginning of the year, 400 people were turned away from the door, When we appeared there again in December, we attracted a grand total of 87 all told. We had to cancel Doncaster because they’d only done about three tickets in advance.
THE LEPS spent the first part of ‘81 licking their wounds and wondering what on earth to do next. Mutt Lange finally freed himself from Foreigners shackles in May and the band were at last able to begin laying down their follow-up long-player.
But the questions have to be asked:
Why did they wait so long for Lange? Couldn’t they have chosen another producer? Surely, the longer the delay, the lower their career slumped into the doldrums?
Elliott: “The point is, we just didn’t want to settle for second best. No bad reflection on Tom Allom (who sat at the boards for ‘On Through The Night) but we believe Mutt to be the best rock producer in the world. Admittedly, the longer we waited the worse it got for us, but at least we know that when our album comes out, it’s going to be a monster. We believe it will be.”
You reckon that maybe this self-enforced ‘retirement’ could have worked to your advantage?
Savage: “It could have. Mind you, it’s a bit of a bad situation when you get bands like, say, the Pink Floyd putting out records more frequently than Def Leppard! Basically, what it boils down to is what’s in the grooves of your disc. Stuff the politics, if it’s good enough people’lI buy it.”
Was the Foreigner LP delay due to what we printed in the first issue of Kerrang!? That is to say that band leader Mick Jones is only allowed to work from 9am to 5pm, under strict instructions from his trouble ‘n’ strife?
Savage: “I believe so, yes. We kept asking Mutt for the reasons why, and we got certain answers, but no-one except him and Foreigner knows for sure if Mick Jones was getting hassled by his wife.
Elliott: “The way I hear it, the Foreigner album went into pre-production, but the songs just weren’t coming together. Mick Jones had been listening too much to the other Mick Jones, the one who’s in the Clash. He’d written all Clash kind of songs. Apparently they were good tunes, but they were completely wrong for Foreigner. So they started again a couple of band members were sacked…..I don’t know. I doubt if we’ll ever learn the full story.”
TO WHAT do you attribute your abrupt downturn in popularity? One moment you were on top of the world, the next, in rock’n’roll terms, you were as down-and-out as a Soup Kitchen sponger..
Elliott: “The power of the pen. They say it’s mightier than the sword, and our case has proven that it can be.’
Bad reviews in the music press? Surely that can’t be the only reason?
Savage: “OK, what was written doesn’t account for all of it. Nonetheless, people believe what they read and if someone says in print that Del Leppard have abandoned Britain for America, the vast majority believe it and don’t bother to find out for themselves. That’s why we got the cans at Reading. It only needs one or two slag-offs in the music press and then everything just snowballs,”
Elliott: “It’s not our fault. I don’t think things were helped by the fact that, shortly after our album was released. Saxon brought out ‘Wheels Of Steel’, a pretty mammoth sort of heavy metal LP. I think that stole a lot of our thunder.”
Savage elaborates: “Before we signed ‘to a record company we were getting really over the top exposure. Us, Iron Maiden and Samson – we were all at the forefront of the so-called New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. The kids latched onto us because of all this, but I think many were disappointed when they came to hear our debut LP.
“Now we were really proud of it, we thought it was a killer album, but we’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t blatant heavy metal. It wasn’t one long strung-out version of ‘Getcha Rocks Off’….we didn’t want It to be.”
Elliott: “So people thought we’d produced it especially for the American market. They couldn’t have been more wrong. We basically did the album for ourselves – it was en accurate representation of what we were about at the time.”
Savage: “On Through The Night’ was really just an extension of our EP, which we had tried to make as varied as possible. You had three tracks: ‘Rocks Off’, straight metal, ‘Ride Into The Sun’, dead poppy, and ‘Overture’, a real epic Rush-style job.
“The new album is very much in the same sort of vein. The production’s heavier, but there’re still the subtleties that you wouldn’t be able to find on a Saxon or Motorhead LP. That’s just the way we are. We write songs with a bit more melody,”
AND THE platter – titled ‘High And Dry’ – is good, no kiddin’, While still far removed from mindless metal, Mutt Lange has nonetheless roughed up the Leps something rotten, and produced a redoubtable raucous-but-refined recipe.
Songs like ‘Let It Go’, ‘Lady Strange’, ‘No No No’ and ‘(Saturday Night) High And Dry’ are powerful enough to propel the band into the UFO-style HR big league, while ‘Bringing On The Heartbreak’ is a slow, strong ballad and a potential showstopper.
The band and myself have had our difference, in the past. But not even the most blinkered Philistine could deny that their second album REALLY brings the hammer down.