“People always used to ask why we sound like Americans,” says Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen from a shed tour stop along the outskirts of the country’s northern border in Walker, Minnesota. “Because that is how we learned to be musicians,” he answers.
“I wish they all could be California girls,” Collen sings through the phone as he polishes off a rendition of a Beach Boys’ benchmark. “It is an American accent before you know it. We learned it that way because the stuff happening in England wasn’t really homegrown. The pop music was American based blues and R&B. It had a hook to it, it was sexy, and it was the whole Elvis thing.”
With Leppard’s origins stemming from a prep school ensemble in the South Yorkshire embedment of Sheffield in 1977, Phil Collen, a London based guitarist, joined the fold in 1982 after the departure of Pete Willis for habits excessive to the creative foundation of venture stability.
“London is a major city, and because of that, you get exposed to enormous amounts of different things,” explains Collen. “The scene in London was sort of something out of New York. There was a lot going on, so you sort of bump into these other bands. The punk thing was happening when I was coming of age, and you would hear on the radio all of this music with social commentary that was being made by musical forces which were unlike anything that had come before it.
“England was going through another musical explosion,” Collen explains. “I don’t want to say movement, because it really wasn’t a movement when punk happened in England in 1975. That year there was a garbage strike, so there was trash all over the streets during the hottest summer on record and all of this shit. You had this vicious and extreme rock that wasn’t boring or safe. It was unbelievable when it came out.
“It really touched me. There were only a few bands, like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Dammed, but they were bands that the world could latch on to, and their impact was huge. They took the influence of Iggy Pop and the rest of the American bands to another level.
“With Def Leppard we were striving to create a musical hybrid. Whether you were into Marvin Gaye or Led Zeppelin, we wanted to combine it all—take all of the good elements and combine them. We found ourselves listening to The Police and Prince pretty religiously. We were never scared to express our influences,” offers Collen. “We were always looking to raise the bar and that is what kept it fun. We really don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks about us. If we did, we could never go on stage.
“Some journalists have approached us over the years with agendas. There are journalists who are driven by trends, and they write what they ‘think’ people want to read. It is the same with musicians; some bands think they have to act or sound a certain way. In the grand scheme of things if you can get past that, then you will continue to be relevant years after. Whether it is journalism or music, if you can take a step back and draw from other places, then that is really the coolest thing in the world.”
With Collen in the brotherhood, Def Leppard released Pyromania in 1983 and Hysteria in 1987 which stood as ’80s benchmarks and resulted in unthinkable sales figures. With the band struggling to overcome internal tribulations, their success soared.
“In the ’80s we had no conflictions with the creative drive of the band and the record company,” Collen explains. “Those issues came in the ’90s when we were not selling as many records.
“You would have people coming down to the studio and suggesting things like, ‘you really need this, or you should do that.’ I was speaking with Mutt Lang not too long ago and we were reminiscing. He said to me, ‘Do you remember when we would never let those people in the building?’”
Collen laughs as he refers to Lang’s tension-filled encounters with A&R representatives. “It is so often these guys who are working for labels are just not informed. It is kind of rare that you find one that has spirit and actually knows what they are talking about. A lot of these people used to sit it in front of us trying to justify their position, and it used to draw so much energy. We would sit there like, ‘Oh my god!’ Mutt would say to just not come down, or that we were too busy. There was a lot of pressure, but we really didn’t feel it in the ’80s because Mutt wouldn’t allow that.”
With Def Leppard surviving the early ’90s backlash, thanks to Seattle’s grunge movement, the simple question is posed to Collen on how he feels they managed to outlast the droves of ’80s bands left by the wayside.
“I think we had a lot more substance. You know how people today say they want to go on ‘American Idol’ and become a star? Well, we were never thinking that. All we wanted to do was make music that combined elements. We wanted to take rock music and morph it a bit. That was our agenda as far as that went. People would say we were pussies because we were not a metal band, but as far as we were concerned we didn’t give a shit. We feel secure about what we do. We wanted to develop an identity through our sound. That was the difference. We put so much into the songs and the production. Mutt Lang wouldn’t allow us to let up. He had a vision for those records.
“We can still do the live thing, and that is instant gratification. That is why you get in a band. You can walk on a stage and get a direct response. With us we had these songs that people knew the words to, and it never ceases to amaze me how it feels to watch people enjoy the songs. It is just really cool, if you want to call it stroking the ego or what have you, but the fact that you can write a song, then perform it, and watch somebody give it back to you is just amazing.”
Def Leppard will be playing the PNC Bank Arts Center on Aug. 15. For more information including additional tour dates, discography, and complete biography, their homepage can be visited at defleppard.com