Interview: Def Leppard's Joe Elliot – 'The power of AC/DC mixed with the variety of Queen, the perfect blueprint for a rock band'

Rockers return for a UK tour with Whitesnake and Black Star Riders

Def Leppard ruled the 80s. The Sheffield rockers had a canny knack with a pop hook that took them into the stratosphere Stateside. In 1983 they really hit their stride with third album Pyromania featuring the immortal ode to rock'n'roll 'Rock of Ages' and power ballad 'Photograph'. It sold over 10 million copies.

Then tragedy struck in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a serious car accident. But the Leppard rolled on and after designing a new drum kit Allen re-joined the band for a triumphant return at Donnington's Monsters of Rock festival in 1986.

1987's Hysteria, was an even bigger monster as 'Rocket', 'Animal' and 'Pour Some Sugar on Me' helped DL shift over 25 million units. Even 1992's Adrenalize topped the US and UK charts when the Lep's old-fashioned brand of heavy rock had been branded 'dead and buried' by the music press in the wake of grunge.

Def Leppard were never exactly destitute but cultural shifts saw their popularity waver. Albums still sold but nothing like the heady days of the 80s. As time passed people realised how much they missed these good time rock'n'roll forefathers and Def Leppard were a surprise announcement as a headliner at the Download festival in 2009. And they've never looked back.

Lead singer Joe Elliot explains all …

Def Leppard seem to be in high demand again how's the tour going?
Amazing really. You turn up in Birmingham, Alabama, and there's 18,000 people or 22,000 in Salt Lake City, 20,000 in Indianapolis. We've sold out so many shows, probably the most tickets we've sold since the Hysteria tour. And that's without the new album even being out. I think there's a survival of the fittest which already adds onto you tag as an iconic rock band or whatever people think we are. We've had the same line up for 23 years, it's the real deal and I think that makes a big difference.

How did you first get together?
I kinda started it I suppose. Rick Savage [bass] brought Pete Willis [guitar] and Tony Kenning [drums] round to my mum and dad's house. They wanted to be a band but couldn't find a singer. I bumped into Pete one day by accident, if I'd have caught the bus I was supposed to catch I wouldn't have seen him, sliding doors moment big time. I bumped into Pete: 'do you wanna get a band together Pete?'; 'We've already got one, we're looking for a singer'; 'I'll do it!' And they're round at my house two days later and I got the gig because I had a fantastic record collection. It was that organic. When you look back on it it's ridiculous but it worked.

And what attracted you to rock in the first place?
It was always going to be along the lines of what I grew up listening to, when they all came round and say my record collection they all saw we listened to the same stuff. The harder edged stuff was Queen, AC/DC, Zeppelin but also the pop stuff: Slade, The Sweet, Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, David Bowie. The first song we ever learned to play was 'Suffragette City' it wasn't 'Paranoid'. We were always Sabbath fans but never wanted to be Black Sabbath. We never wanted to be that heavy. We wanted the power of AC/DC mixed with the variety of Queen – that was the perfect blueprint for a rock band.

What can you tell us about the new album?
In a nutshell it's an album by default rather than design, which makes it the most honest record we'll probably ever make. We thought it was time to write again, maybe an EP because everyone was saying the album is dead, we got together to write two or three songs and by the end of that month we had 12 songs. So we were all looking at each other thinking: how are we got to ween this down to three? And someone said something along the lines of 'why do we have to?' There was no record label, no nothing, we're were doing it all ourselves, self-financing, doing it leisurely when we want, how we want, just seeing where it took us.

There's everything on there, classic typical Def Leppard to, like, 'wow that is unusual for them but it works.' Everything is diverse, it jumps from one thing to another but it all has that Def Leppard sound, that seal of approval. It's a good honest record, it's big and it's brash and it's commercial and it's fun and it makes you bop your head.

How do you approach the setlist when you have new material but also so many hits the fans want to hear?
With a sense of humour. I think it was Elton john who said about three or four years ago: 'I'm about to say those dreaded words that no one wants to hear "here's a song from my new album".' It's a tough one because when it comes to live – if you're us, U2, Duran Duran, Iron Maiden – you play three or four five new songs you'll see people heading off to the bar. How brave are you? Take the Rolling Stones as a yard stick, a new song every half hour, don't shove them down people's throats and I think you can get away with it. Be aware that any band like us, who've been around, that when people buy tickets they're not coming to hear the new album they're coming to hear the history, to celebrate your back catalogue. But every band needs new stuff to breathe new life into them otherwise you become a nostalgia act, as much as that's becoming more acceptable, if you've got a head full of songs you want to get them out.

Looking forward to your UK shows with Black Star Riders and Whitesnake?
We love doing the big package thing we do it in the States all the time we've just been out with Tesla, Styx, Foreigner, Heart, Journey, Cheap Trick, you gotta make it an event. The ticket sales have been insane. It's huge. I'm really looking forward to it, there seems to be a lot of heat on the tour and having a new album out makes it doubly exciting.

Def Leppard and Whitesnake tour the UK from Mon 7 Dec-Sat 19 Dec. New album, Def Leppard, is out now.

Join our newsletter