By Brian Ives
Joe Elliott, like many other “legacy” artists, is stuck in the middle of artistry and commerce. The lead singer and guitarist with Def Leppard, Elliott still writes songs that are important to him, but knows that the fans who grew up on multiplatinum albums like 1983’s Pyromania, 1987’s Hysteria and 1992’s Adrenalize attend Def Leppard shows to hear the hits from those records.
During my hour-long conversation with Elliott, though, he turned out to be refreshingly honesty and, frankly, far more blunt than most of his peers typically are when discussing the issues faced by bands with lengthy histories.
“I’m not ready to become somebody who just tours and [plays] old songs and never [makes] another record again,” Elliott tells me. We all have too many ideas in our heads [for] songs that need to be written. Whether or not people buy them, it’s irrelevant. I have to get them out of my head, or I’ll go mad.”
It’s immediately clear speaking with Elliott that his passion for music hasn’t abated. And that’s not just a cliche. For instance, in addition to his work with Def Leppard, he’s also spent time traveling in a van doing club tours with his Mott the Hoople tribute band the Down N Outz. He was previously in a David Bowie tribute band as well…and he’s a big fan of Thin Lizzy.
Elliott spoke about all of this while promoting Def Leppard’s North American summer tour, which kicks off today (June 23) in Tampa, Florida (and which also features Styx and Tesla). He also threw in some free advice for Taylor Swift, an artist for whom he has a lot of respect (“she’s moving with the times, she’s growing up”).
Radio.com: So, before we get to the tour, tell me about the Down N Outz. Mott the Hoople are obviously much more of a legendary band in the U.K. than here in the U.S.
Joe Elliott: Mott the Hoople were a bigger band in the U.K. than they were in the States, but there was a time, ’72 or ’73, and “All the Way from Memphis” got a lot of airplay, and “All the Young Dudes” was a hit, and they were playing decent-sized theaters, so they weren’t completely unknown here. But they regularly had Top 5 hits and sold-out tours in the U.K.
So, what inspired you to start the Down N Outz?
It was a complete accident. It’s a well known fact that Mott the Hoople is my favorite band. When they were getting back together for the first time in 40-odd years in 2009, I’d gotten to know most of them by then. Specifically [frontman] Ian Hunter. And his wife sent me an email, she said they wanted me to be involved in the show. I’m thinking, they’re going to want me to introduce them. Then she says, “They’re going to want you to open for them on the last of the five shows.” Def Leppard couldn’t do it, it would be inappropriate. But the promoter also works with a band called the [London] Quireboys, who volunteered to lend their services to be my band. So I picked my ten favorite post-Mott the Hoople songs from everyone in Mott. It was like if the Beatles reunited and they got Jeff Lynne to open for them and play their solo hits.
It was going to be this one-off, 45-minute performance. We didn’t even have a name! We weren’t on the advertisements. It was totally under the radar. So I just picked the name out of a newspaper article, about a guy who was ‘down and out.’ I thought, “Stick a zed [the letter “z”] on the end, that’s a very British ‘70s glam thing, and then we would have a name. It went incredibly well. I asked the band if they wanted to record the songs while they were fresh in our DNA, and they went, “Yeah!” So that was the My Re-Generation album, which came out in 2010. We gave it away in a magazine in England, which led to us getting booked on a festival. All the kids at the festival were singing every word to the songs. I thought, “My God, it worked!” All I wanted to do was shine a new light on these classic songs that had been so tragically ignored for thirty-some-odd years. Then we did a second album, and we went into the Mott the Hoople catalog. Now we’re writing a third album of new songs, but in the style of Mott the Hoople.
You also had a Bowie tribute band [the Cybernauts] at one point.
The Bowie tribute started because Maggie Ronson, [former Bowie guitarist] Mick Ronson’s sister, was putting together a tribute show for Mick. It was me and Phil Collen, Ian Hunter, Roger Daltrey of the Who, Roger Taylor of Queen—[we] all got up and did Mott the Hoople songs. Phil and I were asked to stand in for Bowie and Mick with [Spiders from Mars bassist] Trevor Bolder and [drummer Mick] “Woody” Woodmansey. I mean, you can’t turn that down! We had such a good time doing that, and three years later, we were asked to reform for a Mick Ronson memorial in his hometown of Hull. So we did three or four gigs and I recorded the Dublin show. That sat on the shelf for four years, and one day I took the tape, thinking it would be terrible, and it was like, “Whoa, this is really good!” So that also became an album and then a tour.
It’s fun to dip into your youth. There’s a lot of aloofness in rock and roll, and a lot of musicians think “I’m above all that.” I want to get knee deep into this stuff that I grew up with: T. Rex, Bowie, all this kind of stuff. So if someone asks, “Do you want to sing T. Rex’s ‘Metal Guru’ on a tribute record?” Yeah, I do! I’m such a music fan, that it’s fun to do. I think that to step out of your soap opera and star in an indie film doesn’t do you any harm. You grow as a musician when you step outside of your comfort zone.
Your wear your fandom on your sleeve; you certainly don’t need to be doing these smallish shows and touring in vans.
I get that a lot: “Why do you do this?” Because I can. A lot of musicians spend six months on tour and then spend $30,000 for equipment to help them climb the Himalayas. This is my Himalayas. I don’t care if it makes money, this is a holiday to me. I’m obsessed with music.
Let’s talk about the tour with Styx and Tesla. What makes a good package tour?
We don’t really get involved too much, to be honest. The promoters or management will just ask, are you guys OK with Styx and Tesla? But everyone knows that’s the kind of thing we like to do. We don’t like to bring out bands that nobody’s heard of. It used to work in the ’70s, that’s how new bands broke, but the business has changed. Our job is not to further the music industry, they’ve screwed that up themselves. Now it’s a self-preservation society for us, I’m afraid. What we’re after is making sure we make our evening in your town as good as it can possibly be.
Tell me about Def Leppard’s next album.
We’ve been on the road so much that we haven’t had time [to work on new music]. The guys were coming in with songs [over the years]. We decided we’d do an EP, because people were telling us that the album format is dead. Last February we got together to record three songs. We couldn’t pick three, because there were 12 of them. So we had an album! We completed four songs and the other eight were still cooking and then we got back together in May of last year and we ended up writing three more.
Your fans are probably still plenty familiar with the album format.
Someone said, “There are still people who want to hear albums from you guys.” There are people who don’t care about albums. The younger generation don’t care. But they probably wouldn’t like a band like us anyway. And they’re happy enough to just download one song from a band that they like. But I draw a comparison to me when I was 12; I was buying singles. There were lots of bands that I liked, and I had two or three singles. So I really liked the band, as far as I knew, but I never bought their albums. Some artists weren’t “album artists” to me. I have everything Bowie ever did. I’ve never heard any Jo Jo Gunne songs other than “Run Run Run,” which I absolutely adore. But I couldn’t tell you the names of any of their other songs. I like Jo Jo Gunne, but based on about three minutes of material. I like Bowie based on about 33 hours.
And yes, things are changing: I’ve seen artists as iconic as Elton John saying something like, “OK guys, time to hit the bar: I’m going to play a song from my new album.” He jokes about the fact that nobody cares about the new music, they just want “Rocket Man!” We constantly struggle with that. When you’re from a certain era, or you’re of a certain age, it’s really hard to let go of why you got into this in the first place. And we got into it to make albums. Whole pieces of music. I’m not ready to become somebody who just tours and does the Wayne Newton thing, just playing old songs and you never make another record again. We all have too many ideas in our heads, of songs that need to be written. Whether or not people buy them, it’s irrelevant. I have to get them out of my head, or I’ll go mad.
So, for me, its very important that we empty our heads of these songs, so we can write newer ones. There may be a time where we don’t care, but right now, we’re still passionate about new music. We can only hope that our passion rubs off on a few people, who will read an interview like this. Or who hears our new song on the radio and think, “Wow, they’ve still got it!”
I saw Elton do that in concert—preface a new song with a caveat—and I thought, “You don’t need to do that!” I think that may have happened around 2001, when he put out what I would consider to be a classic album, Songs From the West Coast.
It’s humorous defeatism, but he’s not the first person to do it. Elton John has made some fantastic music over the last ten years or so, but I can see why he would say things like that. He’s English, and we’ve got this Python-esque humor problem!
I saw David Bowie in 1995 on the Outside tour, and he had Nine Inch Nails opening, when they were about the hottest band in America. Nine Inch Nails leveled the stage, and Bowie comes out and plays all of Outside, which had come out only a week earlier. I gave him credit, but the audience didn’t love it.
This is the problem that we as artists deal with. The guy from Rolling Stone probably gave it a great review, ignoring the fact that 20,000 people sat there going, “Where’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Moonage Daydream” and ‘Changes?’” Sometimes, certain artists are more happy to please the critics than to please the 20,000 people who spent $50 to see the show. I’m not saying Bowie did that, but some people do. It’s a terrible juxtaposition to be in. I like what the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney do: they go out and they play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Eleanor Rigby” because that’s what people want in a stadium. No one goes to a stadium to go to class: “You’re gonna be educated on my new music for the next 45 mintues, and you’re gonna like it!” “No, I’m not: I’m gonna drink a beer, and I’m gonna punch the air along to ‘Paperback Writer!’ That’s what I’m gonna do. That’s what I want to do!” If you want to play your new record, go to a club, get your hardcore 800 fans, and they’ll love it. But if you’re gonna play Madison Square Garden, play the hits, because that’s what put you in Madison Square Garden!
I saw the Rolling Stones two summers ago, and they played one new song, “Gloom and Doom,” which I think is a classic. But a lot of the fans weren’t into it.
It is! I think it’s one of their best songs ever. We used to judge our setlists by looking at a Stones bootleg. “OK, they opened with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and then they played ‘Happy,’ then they played a new song, ‘Sad Sad Sad,’ then 40 minutes of older stuff and then they play another new one.” Four songs in two hours: that’s all you need. Until they become hits, and then they can remain in the setlist. But what you’ll find with all these “legacy artists” is that the core songs remain in the set, and the four new ones are replaced by four newer new ones on the next tour. The new ones never remain. It’s been that way for them since “Start Me Up.”
But, as you say, you’re working on a new album. How do you write songs in your 50s that are about being in your 50s, and still have them be as exciting as your older stuff?
The new album has songs that are classic Def Leppard, but it’s a bit more classy. When we were young, we got away with certain lyrics, because we had youthful exuberance. You can’t get away with that when you’re 55, you have to be more clever. I don’t like using the phrase, “It’s the most honest album we’ve ever done,” because that makes it sound like our other albums weren’t honest. We’re not trying to disguise anything. If there’s a riff that sounds like a Beatles song or a Led Zeppelin song, we’re fine with it now. In the past we’d try and hide it. Zeppelin did stuff that sounded like Muddy Waters, they didn’t care. We didn’t try to disguise our influences this time. If we sound like Queen on one song and Zeppelin on another, so be it!
When it comes to evolving, do you think that solo artists have it easier than bands?
I absolutely do. The one thing about a solo artist, they can’t split up. They can come and go as they please. No one cares who is playing bass for Bowie. As good as [Bowie bassist] Gail Ann Dorsey is, people are coming to see him. David Bowie is a classic example of someone who could do a 360 album to album, following up The Man Who Sold The World with Hunky Dory. He put the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane thing to bed with Diamond Dogs, and then all of the sudden, he’s a white soul boy. A band couldn’t do that. The Beatles made fantastic transitions album to album. But music has changed: people seem to expect that bands sound the same album to album. I think there’s a psychological acceptance of a solo artist changing.
Do you feel that you were fortunate to have started your career pre-social media? Like, what would the metalheads have tweeted when you started doing ballads on Hysteria?
I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with that.
You’ve worked with Taylor Swift before, and arguably, she’s the biggest artist in the world. Do you have any advice for her?
I think she could give us advice. She’s been doing this for ten years, she’s released way more music than we released in our first ten years. She is tapped into her generation and she’s grown with them. Her new album doesn’t sound like her older albums. She’s moving with the times, she’s growing up. She’s now at the period we were at during Hysteria. But yeah, sooner or later, it does come down, it doesn’t matter who you are. You have to be able to take it with a grain of salt and have a sense of humor about it.
Def Leppard’s North American summer tour with Styx and Tesla kicks off today (June 23) in Tampa, Florida. Tickets are available via the band’s website. If you’d rather do your rocking on a boat, Def Leppard’s Hysteria on the High Seas cruise takes place Jan. 21-25, 2016.