- 11 Jan 23
Having wowed the Americas this year, Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe are looking forward to bringing their double act to Dublin next year. Leps mainman Joe Elliott talks to Stuart Clark about touring with the L.A. hair metallers; paying tribute to Taylor Hawkins with the Foos and Miley Cyrus; his Dublin love affair; the special guests on their Diamond Star Halos album; and his 2022 music essentials.
Some hard rock legends come across like the CEOs of Nasdaq-listed corporations (hi, Mr. Bongiovi) when you talk to them while others are still the same starry-eyed fans they were when they decided to follow in their heroes’ footsteps and formed their first bands.
Falling into the latter category is Joe Elliott, the Sheffield-born, Stepaside-residing Def Leppard singer who sounds almost embarrassed when I mention that their American ginormodome tour this year with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett grossed a whopping $173.5 million.
“The grown-ups told me that it looked like this was going to be a big deal, but selling-out every show in the current post-pandemic climate, which is really difficult for bands, is not something I was expecting,” Joe tells me over a cuppa. “1.3 million tickets – that’s just insane. What meant more to me than the numbers, though, was the fact that all the acts on the bill were on top of their game. I like to think we give it 100% every night, but when you’re keeping that sort of company there’s zero room for complacency!”
While still capable of kicking serious ass on stage, off it Mötley Crüe are a far tamer proposition than they were in the ‘80s when, like Def Leppard, they were conquering Planet Rock.
“Thank God for that!” Joe laughs. “My first time encountering Mötley in the ‘80s was in the Rainbow on Sunset Strip. It was quite comical, really – they had their arms draped around hot chicks with bits of pizza in one hand and a fag in the other and they were just off their face drunk. It wasn’t a particularly cohesive conversation we had – just, ‘Hey dude!’ The last gig on the Pyromania tour was in a San Diego barn called the Jack Murphy Stadium, which is sadly no longer there. It was the first stadium we ever headlined, 55,000 people were there and supporting us were Mötley Crüe, Eddie Money and Uriah Heep, which was quite the mixture! I’d just bought my first video camera, which was the size of a telephone box, and shot footage from the dressing-room of Mötley on stage that I still have. Then in 2011, they opened for us in the UK. It wasn’t that particular tour, but Tommy Lee used to do this mad thing where he played the drums upside down. The whole kit would flip over with Tommy harnessed in and he wouldn’t miss a beat. He’s a real showman – they all are.
“My favourite Mötley album is Dr. Feelgood. Bob Rock was the producer and it’s got some great riffage! They got the sound down better and really focused on the songwriting.”
Describing them as “four L.A. bad asses who used to drink a bottle of wine and want to kill each other”, Rock insisted on Messrs – and, indeed, messers – Sixx, Mars, Neil and Lee recording their parts separately to avoid fatalities.
“I watched The Dirt and Pammy & Tommy as well, which I thought was hilarious,” Joe says. “The Dirt has all the dark bits – their drug addictions, the alcohol, Razzle from Hanoi Rocks getting killed, Vincelosing his daughter. We’ve had the same real-life stuff that brings it all back down to earth – ‘Drummer lost his arm, Steve lost his life, Viv got cancer’ – but Mötley’s internal dysfunction is a bit more to the surface than ours!”
Was there much socialising between the Leppard and Mötley, er, crews on the tour?
“Me and Nikki were like two peas in a pod,” Joe enthuses. “He’s been sober now for 21 years after literally dying in the ‘80s – ‘Kickstart My Heart’ is autobiographical. We were in and out of each other’s dressing-rooms all day long, just talking about music and our kids. He couldn’t believe we all share a room because they’ve got one each. Nikki is such a cool guy.”
Having comprehensively done the business in the US and South America, Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe will next year be crossing the Atlantic for a run of dates that includes a July 4 show in Marlay Park, which as the crow flies is three miles from Joe’s gaff in the Dublin mountains. How long has he been in Ireland now?
“Well, we played the TV Club in Dublin in 1983 at the start of the Pyromania tour to 65 kids and a couple of dogs,” he recalls. “Then we moved to Ireland in ’84. We were avoiding the UK ‘til April for tax reasons but loved it so much we didn’t want to leave. Well, I didn’t! I moved out of the Young Ones-style house that we had in Booterstown and got a place on Mount Merrion Avenue. When I left there, I became Dave Fanning’s landlord for about six years because he rented it off me. By then I’d really fallen in love with Dublin.”
Why Dublin and not London, LA or Sheffield?
“I still have great mates in Sheffield and was fine there until things started getting silly because of jealously over the record deal,” he rues. “We’d go to the rock clubs where we’d always hung out and get pushed and gobbed on because, ‘You’re all hoity-toity now with your millions of dollars’, which we absolutely weren’t. I remember looking at Steve Clark and going, ‘Fuck this place!’ We buggered off and slept in a car for two or three days on Tottenham Court Road just to get out. So that tainted Sheffield for a long time for me.
“When I moved to London, I hated it because everybody was so distant. I wanted it to be great but, with ten million people, it felt far too big. Dublin’s a metropolis too, but it’s just a million people, all of whom you’ve probably had a drink with at some stage. Within weeks of us arriving, we were at a Simple Minds gig in The Point and this bloke comes up and goes, ‘I heard you guys were in town. Here’s my number, if there’s anything you need just give us a shout’. That was Bono. I remember thinking, ‘This did not happen in London!’ So, next thing we were having dinner with U2 and hanging out at the Pink Elephant with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Terence Trent D’Arby and all the local bands. We were Englishmen abroad and having the time of our lives in this incredibly artistic city, which has given us Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. We walked down the street and saw Donovan coming out of the pub. I was like, ‘This is great!’ and never left.”
Like the rest of us, Joe was devastated when news broke in March that Taylor Hawkins had died whilst on active Foo Fighters duty in Colombia. On his Planet Rock radio show – 9pm on Tuesdays, pop pickers – he likened it to the loss of the aforementioned Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark who died in 1991 from respiratory failure caused by a lethal mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs.
“When Steve died, it was a little bit like the Queen dying – sad but inevitable,” Joe reflects. “Steve was in such a bad place – he’d been in and out of rehab. It was a trigger waiting to be pulled. Dave Grohl, Pat Smear or any of the Foos would have a better idea of what Taylor’s personal situation was but I don’t think they’re ever going to go there because they’re such a private band. You don’t see them the way you see Travis Barker all the time on the red carpet because it’s not their thing. They’re like, ‘Let’s make music’, nothing else. From the outside, it seemed like Taylor had that same sort of vulnerability. It’s just so desperately sad.”
September 27 found Joe and Leps bandmate Phil Collen joining the likes of John Paul Jones, Pink, Mark Ronson, Joan Jett, Gene Simmons, Chad Smith, Stewart Copeland, Miley Cyrus, Geezer Butler, Josh Homme and Geddy Lee at the second Taylor Hawkins tribute gig in Los Angeles.
“We couldn’t do the London tribute because we were playing our own gig in Edmonton, Canada but we committed to the LA one the second Pat Smear phoned up and said, ‘We want you guys on’,” Joe explains. “We were honoured – and surprised. Your mind goes into rapid rewind: ‘You guys were in Nirvana. Let us not forget that you tried to trample on us in the ‘90s. We were the enemy!’ And it turns out that, no, it was the 99 Def Leppard copyists they wanted to stamp out.
“So, anyway, Phil and myself are rehearsing with Grohl and Smear in their 606 studio. There’s this cacophony of guitars, which me and Miley Cyrus are trying to sing over. It was the middle section of our song, ‘Rock Of Ages’, and Dave and Pat just start playing these Nirvana chords. Phil and me are looking at each other thinking, ‘This is weird…. but fucking great!’ I couldn’t have imagined a Nirvana-Leppard-Miley hybrid beforehand but it really worked. Any separatism we might have felt disappeared in that moment.”
What’s Miley like?
“She’s fantastic,” Joe shoots back, “really, really cool. It’s difficult for child stars to break out of that thing – Macauley Culkin never really did – but Miley has. I remember her dropping that video of her singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’. Fucking hell, wow! Everybody knows she’s a rocker at heart. She was very respectful of our stuff and really enthusiastic about doing it. We just worked out who was going to sing which lines. She was great.
“The whole thing was a spectacular night. As a music fan, I got to watch the James Gang who I never thought I’d see live. It was magnificent! Then you had Krist Novoselic playing bass on Soundgarden songs; Stewart Copeland and Dave Grohl doing The Police’s ‘Next To You’; and Dave playing bass with Wolfgang Van Halen and Justin Hawkins singing. We got to witness it all. Everyone was acutely aware of why we were there, but back-pocketed that sadness for a while and went, ‘Wow, I wish there were more gigs like this for better reasons!’”
I don’t mind admitting that I cried like a baby when Taylor’s 16-year-old son, Shane, closed out the show.
“Yeah, that was the lump in the throat moment that really got everybody,” Joe nods. “When he played ‘My Hero’, Tommy Lee said to me, ‘Dude, I don’t know where to look. Just watch him play – he’s amazing.’ And he was.”
Let us not forget the reason why Def Leppard spent a sizable chunk of 2022 on a tour bus, which is the release of studio album number twelve, Diamond Star Halos. Old duffers like me will know that the title is lifted from the 1971 T.Rex single, ‘Get It On’. Did Joe ever see Marc Bolan live?
“Yeah, T.Rex was my first gig,” he says proudly. “October 23rd 1971, I was just twelve. To push the porthole doors open and walk into Sheffield City Hall, which was like a bigger version of the Olympia, and see Bolan in the flesh was the most incredible eye-opening moment. Just standing there going, ‘Wow, this is the guy I saw on Top Of The Pops here in real life playing ‘Jeepster’’. That’s what started all this off. Years later when Def Leppard played City Hall for the first time, I took the 52 bus down to soundcheck because that’s how I used to get to gigs there. I walked out and stood on the exact same spot that Bolan had occupied. That was a really special moment.”
Not content with half-inching its title from Marc, the Leps brought long-time David Bowie band member Mike Garson in to play piano on Diamond Star Halos standouts ‘Goodbye For Good This Time’ and ‘Angels (Can’t Help You Now)’.
“I’ve known Mike since 1999 when Bowie played a warm up gig for the hours album in what is now the Dublin Academy,” Joe resumes. “After David died, Mike said, ‘I’m doing these tribute shows in the Brixton Academy and the Wilton Theater in LA, will you get up and sing?’ I was like, ‘Put my name on the poster and send me a ticket!’
“Throughout the demo stage it was me on those two songs but when it came to the album recording proper, the guys went, ‘Who are we going to get to play the real piano?’ At first, I was a bit peeved – ‘Oh, my piano-playing’s not good enough!’ – but then I thought, ‘Let’s get Garson!’ I rang him up, asked him and he said, ‘Really?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, really! Do me three passes – a conservative one, something kind of in the middle and an absolutely apeshit bonkers one, and then we can pick and choose which bits we want. So, Diamond Star Halos has two tracks on it featuring Mike Garson on piano and, just as mind-blowingly, two tracks sung by Alison Krauss.”
Whose participation was partly down to their mutual friend, Robert Plant.
“It was synchronicity from two different angles,” Joe grins. “Wolves and Sheffield United were drawn together in the FA Cup, so me and Robert were sending each other sarcastic texts about the game. At the same time, our manager, Mike, met Alison’s manager in Nashville. He said, ‘Tell Alison the boys are making a new record and would love to have her on it.’ She’d come to our gigs and interviewed us for Q magazine, so it wasn’t totally random. Robert had mentioned it to her as well, so her manager rings Mike and says, ‘Yeah, she’d love to hear those songs.’ Me and her started texting and calling each other. I sent her MP3s of ‘This Guitar’ and ‘Lifeless’. Not hearing anything back for three or four days, I assumed she didn’t like them. Finally she rang and said, ‘Those songs sound amazing! I’d love to do something but I don’t know which one I like most.’ I just blurted out, ‘Well, you can do them both!’ I don’t know why it is but the most vocal musicians to scream ‘Yeah!’ about Def Leppard are people like Alison, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Faith Hill. The only rock guy that talks us up is Brian May!”
And Billy Joel who invited Joe to guest with him this year in Detroit.
“To see Billy play ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and sing the chorus was something I’ll take to the grave with me!” Joe concludes. “My wife is like the biggest Billy Joel fan on the planet, so I got brownie points for that. Everybody seems to think I wake up in the morning and put ‘Ace Of Spades’ on. I don’t. And, in fairness, neither did Lemmy. I’d listen to Glen Campbell or Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel. You can like AC/DC, you can like Joy Division, it really doesn’t matter. I bought ‘Crazy Horses’ by The Osmonds because I thought it was a great song. I’m playing ‘Going For The One’ by Yes three times a day at the moment. It’s wormed its way into my brain and won’t leave.
“Two of my albums of the year are Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene and Demi Lovato’s Holy Fuck, which couldn’t be more polar opposites. As Miles Davis said, there’s only two types of music – good and bad. I just want to hear as much of the good stuff as possible.”
• Def Leppard’s Diamond Starred Halos is out now. The Leps and Mötley Crüe play Marlay Park, Dublin on July 4.
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