Our Interview with Joe Elliott

Looking at the chart success of the new album, “Songs From the Sparkle Lounge,” it seems that there are still a lot of people out there listening to Def Leppard.

Joe Elliott: It’s the best chart position, I’m told, since Adrenalize, which was in ’92. We’ve been very fortunate in that every album we’ve released has gone top 20 in the States, including the covers album [Yeah!]. … There’s always been a healthy following, which is good. I think it’s because we always try to put a bit of quality into what we’ve got — a bit of humor, a bit of fun, a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, a bit of good musicianship, nice tight harmony signing. It’s what we grew up listening to. It’s what we’ve extended into our career and it’s like a continuum of what rock ‘n’ roll always was from the days when it was born out of the Bill Haleys and the Chuck Berrys and the Little Richards and the Jerry Lee Lewises of this world. They all had a sense of humor with what they were doing, as well as a solid rock basis to it.

The band still sounds great these days. There aren’t many bands that last as long as Def Leppard has, but for the material you’re putting out to be as strong as it is, is sort of amazing.

In fairness, I’ve got to be honest, I can’t put my finger on why we get better as we get older when a lot of the bands we grew up listening to as kids split or kind of got bad. There are certain bands we grew up listening to, and you could hear maybe four or five, six years into their career — you know, you read about the in-fighting, you listen to the records and they lost their spark, they don’t seem to got what they had. I think with us it’s been the other way around. We were a slow burner. I think about our first album [On Through the Night], and I don’t listen to it with horror but I have to be in an extremely strange mood to put it on and be able to go, “Yeah, it’s good.” What it was, it was a fantastic start. It showed a potential. We weren’t like Boston or Van Halen, where we came blazing out with a first album and it was unbeatable. … It did have its moments. It showed you a bunch of kids who were still in their teens really fighting to become everything that we listened to. Then the next album we got better, the next album we got better and the next album we got better.

It’s funny to hear you talk about the early records like that, because I still listen to “On Through the Night” and “High ‘N’ Dry” regularly, and I love them. But if you listen to them back-to-back with, say, “Songs From the Sparkle Lounge,” you can definitely see a progression.

Don’t get me wrong. The On Through the Night record is a fantastic album for somebody that was a 15-year-old drummer, two 17- and 18-year-old guitarists, an 18-year-old bass player and a 19- or 20-year-old singer. We really were just kids in a candy store. We had such a good time making it that we really didn’t have much control. And God bless Tom Allom, the producer — I guess his whole thing was just to capture the energy of this band and not to try and burn us out by making us do everything over and over again to get it perfect. We did spend way too long doing ridiculous overdubs on it, and we just weren’t as good physically as we were mentally. We could think of all these great harmonies and great parts, but we just weren’t the best singers in the world at that time in our career. But we were in our heads. We had the ideas. I suppose it’s a little bit like Bob Dylan. You know, “All Along the Watchtower” is a great song — it just sounds a lot better when Jimi Hendrix does it. We had the chops later in our career but we had song structure and we had great ideas with On Though the Night.

Def Leppard and Taylor Swift are not artists I would have thought of putting together. How did you get involved in this episode of “CMT Crossroads”?

Well, it’s great that you think that because that’s exactly what these shows are. If I was putting these together, as much as I know I’d get kicked back on a lot of it, I would be the one saying, “Right, we’ve got to get Motoerhead together with Elvis Costello. We need to put Bunny Wailer with Slayer.” … Get two people from two opposite extremes and see what you get. Johnny Rotten and Journey. The fact is, it’s really not got that much to do with the Tim McGraw connection, which a lot of people seem to think it has because she’s got a song called “Tim McGraw.” … It was simply a case of somebody forwarding us an interview that she did on some Internet site. It just got brought up with her, that she said, “I’d love to [do] a Crossroads, but there’s only one band I would ever do it with, and it’s Def Leppard. I love those guys.” Somebody forwarded it to us and we read it and were like, “Who the hell is Taylor Swift?” because we’ve been trapped in our little cocoon, not listening to CMT or country music channels very often — not really sure who she was. And then we learned — “What do you mean her first album sold 3 million copies already?” It’s like, “Wow, you’ve got to be kidding me.” So we just basically said, “Why don’t we get in touch with her and see if she wants to do it?” So we did, and she very kindly said, “Yeah, cool.”

Is it too early to know which songs you’ll be doing?

Yeah, it is, because I’d be a fool to blow the mist right now … but I will tell you this — it’s going to be spectacular. She actually does part of one of our songs in the middle of one of hers, so we’re going to amalgamate that and expand it somewhat. I will tell you this much — there’s going to be five Taylor songs, five Leppard songs and one cover.

This isn’t your first crossover into country territory. You did the song “Nine Lives” with Tim McGraw. Whose idea was that and what has the response been like from your fans?

Well, in fairness, my take on the reaction by the fans is probably a weakened-down one, because I don’t go into the chat rooms to see the warts-and-all discussions. They’re too painful. … It makes you wonder what the world would have done with an Internet back in 1971 when Led Zeppelin did a song [“The Battle of Evermore”] with Sandy Denny. … It wasn’t done out of any kind of desperation or A&R man’s suggestion. It was literally Tim — we found out through Robert Allen, Rick’s brother, who was tour managing [for McGraw] at the time — is a big Def Leppard fan, as is Faith [Hill], his wife. We’d seen pictures of Faith with a Def Leppard shirt on, we’d been hearing stories for a couple of years that Tim was a big fan and he loved the last album. You know, this, that and the other. I think it was the Hollywood Bowl in 2006. He was making a movie, I guess, in L.A. and he came down to the show, came backstage and we got to talking. He came out and did “Sugar” with us and the crowd went mental. And I found this pretty sweet really because, OK, we’ve got this rock crowd out there that’s come to see Def Leppard and Journey, but half of them are going crazy because Tim McGraw’s there and the other half are clapping along and going, “Wow, that’s who that is.” But there was no, like, big negative “What the hell is he doing up there?” vibe.

Back when you started this band more than 30 years ago, did you ever think that in 2008 you’d still being this and would have reached this level of success?

Not at all. When I’m asked this question, I always use this example that I remember seeing of an old bit of footage of [Mick] Jagger being interviewed in about 1965. … And somebody said to him, “How long do you think you can do this for, Mr. Jagger?” They didn’t even call him Mick. He says, “I don’t know. Probably another 18 months.” So I’m figuring that takes them to about the middle of 1966. And here we are, it’s 2008 and they’re still out there in one form or another. So, no, when we formed in 1977, I did see that we could get 10 years out of it because by then, by ’77, there were a few bands that were still knocking around that were there in ’67 — and that was people like The Who, who were just about to release “Who Are You?” which would be a big hit a year later. Back then, The Who would appear to be older than they are now, because now it’s acceptable to be old. Then, if you were 32, it was like Logan’s Run — you were over and you were gone. … But, no, there’s no way on earth that if somebody had said to me, “You’re still going to be in this band in 2008 and you’ll have had a Top 5 album.” … I would have just looked at them the same way as if somebody came to you know and said, “In 30 years time, you’re going to be living in a glass bubble on the moon.”