Joe Elliott | Down ’n’ Outz, but Never Down and Out

prof Joe-Elliott_75I told my family, “I’m gonna be a rock ’n’ roll star,” and I’m sure it sounded crazy. It’s like saying, “I’m gonna be an astronaut.”

 

 

 

prof def-leppard_500

Gunter glieben glauten globen. With those four magic, inarguably nonsensical pieces of German gibberish, a love affair was rekindled between American rock fans and their British metal brethren. The song was “Rock of Ages,” side two, track two of Pyromania, an album that would go on to sell an astonishing 10 million copies and help usher in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to the doorstep of the MTV generation. The video featured the band’s leader, singer Joe Elliott, brandishing a giant sword that would make Excalibur crumple to the hilt in utter embarrassment. He was also fighting some evil demon witch or something. Look, videos were weird as hell back then, OK? The point is that album’s success would eventually lead to an even more massive mega-seller with Hysteria—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast-forward to the here and now. Elliott is still leading Def Leppard all over the world, bringing their distinctive blend of Queen-like harmonies and crunching guitars to Lep-Heads everywhere. While the band’s newer work has eschewed the raw hard rock for a more streamlined sound, the quintet will be putting a fresh coat of paint on the old tunes this summer on a co-headlining tour with fellow legends KISS. How does the once Union Jack–clad front man decide what tunes should be in the set list with a miles-deep discography? “I always hate when bands don’t want to play their popular tunes” he says. “Why not give people value for their money? Give me the hits. It’s like asking the Rolling Stones to play songs off of A Bigger Bang. It ain’t gonna happen. If I see them, I want to hear “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction,” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” Hits are a responsibility, and it’s a wonderful responsibly to have, really. On the KISS tour, both bands are playing about an hour and a half, so you really have to cherrypick the music.”

Even though the Def Leppard/KISS team-up seems like such an obvious combination, with Leppard a classic U.K. rock band and KISS devoted musical anglophiles, it’s somewhat surprising that it took this long to happen. I asked Elliott what led to the tour becoming a hitting-the-road done deal. “Like anything of this nature, it’s the managers who get together and hammer out the details and make it go forward. However, the sexy answer,” he says, laughing, “is I did a tour with Gene Simmons in 2012.” The touring band, dubbed the Rock ’n’ Roll Allstars, not only featured Simmons and Elliott, but also included Duff McKagan (Guns N Roses), Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), and Sebastian Bach (Skid Row). “We were touring South America and Central America, and sometimes there would be quite a few hours between tour stops. We got to talking about how much fun it would be, and it just took a few years for the suits to get it going, like it does.”

Though Def Leppard still occupies the lion’s share of his schedule, Elliott has been busy once again paying tribute to his boyhood heroes Mott the Hoople, with his critically acclaimed side project, The Down ’n’ Outz. The band’s third album, The Further Adventures Of… (Bludgeon Riffola), was released on April, following their debut long-player and a live concert DVD. According to Elliott, “The idea is to expose these great songs to a new generation. We play lots of Mott stuff, of course, but also tracks from the various members’ side projects.” Though there aren’t any plans to tour stateside, Elliott says that he “can’t imagine going to my deathbed without ever bringing the Down ’n’ Outz to America.” Of course, this isn’t the first opportunity for Elliott to pay homage to his musical heroes. With his Leppard bandmate, guitarist Phil Collen, Elliott put together Cybernauts, a David Bowie cover band that honored late Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson. “Phil and I were invited to play a tribute to Mick at the Hammersmith Odeon, organized by his sister Maggie. Trev [Trevor Bolder] and Woody [Mick “Woody” Woodmansey] from the Spiders were there, too, and we all did a song. Then we played the Yorkshire Memorial Stage, which was being christened the Mick Ronson Memorial Stage, and the organizers wanted us to play that, as well. That’s really where the Cybernauts were born. We did five more gigs, and did some recording in Dublin. Years later, Phil was talking about it, and said ‘We have to dig it out and put it out there for people to listen to.’”

Speaking of Collen, I mention that I interviewed the longtime Lep guitarist last year, and he struck me as being excited and engaged about Def Leppard, even after decades of rigorous touring and recording. According to Elliott, Collen is a big reason that the band functions as well as it does after all these years. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted him in the band,” he says. “I had known Phil for a couple of years before he was in Def Leppard, and he was one of those guys where you think, ‘I’d like to be in a band with that guy.’ He’s always been that way, very positive and energetic, which works great for us. Because if someone isn’t firing on all cylinders, we always have someone who can help their mate along. Before that, we were stuck with Pete Willis, and it became a loyalty thing with him, until he made it impossible for us to continue.”

Once the band hooked up with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange for the High ’n’ Dry album, they were well on their way to achieving the dream they had wanted for so long. Back then, though, did the scruffy, shaggy-haired rockers ever give any thought to how long it would last? “There’s no right or wrong answer to that, really,” he replies. “We all came from working-class families, and the expectation was that we would end up working in the manufacturing industry, working in factories.” Indeed, the Sheffield of the late 1970s was not only an industrial town, but a breeding ground for electronic synth pioneers such as The Human League, Heaven 17, and ABC. If the young musicians were looking for kindred spirits in forging their way to rockstardom, they wouldn’t be finding it there. “I told my family, ‘I’m gonna be a rock ’n’ roll star,’ and I’m sure it sounded crazy,” he remembers. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m gonna be an astronaut.’ Of course, there are a lot more rock ’n’ rollers out there than astronauts, but to be a really successful one is just so rare.”

After having survived more peaks and valleys than most veteran big-timers, the band’s ongoing mission is “still to have fun and jam with your friends,” says Elliott. “There’s nothing like going into a roomful of your mates and saying, ‘I have a great idea for a song,’ and actually be able to work on it and create something together. It’s so much fun; it’s like being a kid every day.” Since the band members were practically kids when they first came to St. Louis, I ask him if he has any fond memories of our fair city. “I do, but it has nothing to do with music! I remember a long time ago,” he says, reminiscing, “I met a young lady there. We were under the Arch, and what happened next, I don’t think you’d be able to print.” | Jim Ousley

 

Catch Joe Elliott and the rest of Def Leppard with KISS in Denver on June 25 at the Pepsi Center, and in St. Louis on August 28 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. You can view all of the American tour dates and buy tickets on the band’s website.

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