Widely regarded by hard rock musicians as perhaps the most perfect recording since the Boston album of ’77, Def Leppard’s Pyromania (1983) set awesome standards as well as expectations for the band. Leppard may have rewritten the Heavy Metal Rules book of ’83, opened the gateway to a slew of Bon Jovial bashers, but by ’85 or so the notoriously discerning fans of crunching guitars would know if they were real or just another flash in the pan.
While metal itself was reeling from assorted body blows in ’84 and ’84, a double right cross from MTV, a kidney chop from the PMRC, the boys of Def Leppard were getting their backs bounced to the canvas, mired in troubles of their own. When Mutt Lange, their guru for Pyromania, wasn’t available, they tried to work with Jim Steinman of Meatloaf fame. When that proved unsuccessful, they tried to produce themselves. Then on New Year’s Day, 1985, drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident. For a band with two albums in the can before Pyromania, this was a particularly vicious case of the Sophmore Jinx.
Summoning reserves of courage and expertise, the Leps survived, inspired by Rick Allen’s gutty return. And by waiting out the fates and the muses, and Mutt Lange’s crowded schedule, they managed to catch a break at last. Buoyed by the mega-success of post-Leppard bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, Poison and Cinderella, Hysteria’s eventual release arrived at what must be considered great timing.
If not a definitive a statement as Pyromania, Hysteria nonetheless answered many of the burning hard rock questions turned to cinders during the hiatus. We had questions of our own, perhaps most burning of which was would guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen cling to the energy of their youth, or instead stand up as musicians who were, like it or not, four years older than those wild pyromaniacs who started metal blazing up the charts when last we last heard from them? The answer, as we learned in this interview, is that time marched on and so did they.
After Pyromania fever died down did you put your guitars away?
STEVE: People don’t realize that for the whole three and a half year period after Pyromania there was always at least one member of the group in the studio. There was never a break. After we left America we went back to Europe and toured for another two months.
PHIL: We finished touring and went straight to Ireland and threw ourselves into writing. We had no material prepared whatsoever. At first it was a struggle because we hadn’t actually counted on the fact that the tour would end and we’d have to write a new album. We didn’t write any songs while we were on the tour. So we were stuck. It was a bit uninspiring actually.
STEVE: We were a bit lost for a direction to take. Was there anything [Phil] from when Jim Steinman tried to produce the band that you learned and later applied to the album?
PHIL: No. It didn’t work at all. It was a very wrong move on our part. We ended up having to scrap all of that and record again.
STEVE: The first two years were virtually fruitless. Phil and I both knew exactly what we wanted and we couldn’t get it. I don’t think he heard it the same way as we heard it. It wasn’t going anywhere. We knew in our guts it was wrong but we sort of went along. I think after Jim left about five new songs appeared.
Did any of these early efforts make Hysteria?
STEVE: “Gods of War” came out then.
PHIL: “Animal” is a reincarnation of the original.
STEVE: We wrote “Armageddon It” in Dublin and there’s not one section that survived. The chorus wasn’t strong enough so we changed the chorus. Then we thought the chorus is so strong the verse is a bit weak. We rewrote the verse and said the bridge stinks. There’s not one existing note from the original, but a progression that went over about three years.
PHIL: The only thing the same is, it’s still in E.
This is the first album where Phil had a hand in writing. Where is that influence heard most prominently?
STEVE: It’s all throughout the record. Phil came up with a lot of lyrics. I didn’t come up with any lyrics on this album. Listen to the riff in “Rocket.”
PHIL: We’re not a band that says, you’re the guitarist, you write the music; you’re the singer, come up with the lyrics. If anyone has an idea then that’s fine and good. I wrote vocal melodies as well. Instead of writing a guitar riff and putting the melody on top of it, I’d write a melody and we’d put chords underneath.
STEVE: We’d guitar-ize it after, in the gaps between the vocal, rather than coming up with a complicated riff and thinking, where is the vocal going to go? We’d come up with the vocal first and in the gaps we’d be putting interesting riffs and suspensions. That’s something that Phil added that we’d never done before. The good thing about it is we have the capacity to think differently. Phil will come up with a riff that I’d never even think of. Also, we can come together at some point and make it work.
What’s the role of the guitar in the band’s sound?
STEVE: We now approach things more like a classical orchestra. There is a part for everybody to play. It might be the simplest thing in the world, but if it sets up another part to come alive, that’s what’s right. It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated, as long as it makes the song live [gives the song life]. You just have to be mature about it. We don’t make any bones about it; we do whatever it takes. People thought we were crazy sitting in the studio just hitting an E string. Guys would come in and say, what the hell are those two doing? It can be that simple. If it all comes together to make a piece of music work that’s the thing. It’s just using the instrument properly.
PHIL: I wouldn’t say we are making a detour, but there is a lot of guitar players who play solos for the sake of self- indulgent reasons. The guitar, after all is an instrument, and it should complement others like a voice. If you can’t so that then you’re playing wrong. If you’re getting in the way of a song with a great vocal, something is wrong.
If I spoke to you on the first album you probably wouldn’t have had this attitude.
STEVE: No, but it’s a good sign that we have the capacity to grow, because I know people who don’t develop that. There are some great players around, but they are not doing anything they weren’t doing years ago. They are playing for themselves as an ego trip. That’s fine for them, but they’re limiting their audience. We want to look beyond just guitar players and cover every aspect. We take a lot of pride in everything, especially guitars. Part of that is knowing when to stop.
PHIL: Another important factor that a lot of people don’t realize, is that so many good front room guitar players, when put in the studio with a drum machine, can’t play in time or they can’t play chops. But you need to get it right. We worked hard on this stuff. It improved our playing a hell of a lot.