Get it back they did – in platinum, with interest. Their third album, Pyromania, put them over the top for keeps. While their first release, an EP, distributed on their own before they’d gotten a label deal, sold a phenomenal 20,000 copies, five years later Pyromania sells 20,000 copies a day. Photograph and Rock Of Ages from that album not only soared up the charts, but became instant classics. Though one of the founders of the group, Pete Willis, had to be replaced, a good friend of the band, Phil Collen, was available to fill his shoes and fill his fills.
GUITAR spoke with guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen, as well as the since-departed Pete Willis, on the Def Leppard sound, attitude and experience. We spoke about their beginnings, when the dream was only a dream in the making.
Guitar: Can you remember any musical fantasies you had as a fan?
Pete: There’s a place in Sheffield called the City Hall, where all the bands played. I was about 14 and the first person I got into was [Jimi] Hendrix. In fact the first record I bought was Voodoo Child. In my dream Hendrix was playing at City Hall and I was going along to jam with him. I stood up there and it was great. We were having guitar fights and the crowd loved it.
Steve: My dream came true. When we first started I did some gear humping for a band called Wild Horses. Their guitarist, Brian Robertson, the new guy in Motorhead, was one of my heroes. His roadie gave me five quid for humping. A year later I ended up jamming with Wild Horses and the guitar roadie who gave me five quid for helping him ended up working for me! I also remember lying in bed at night, thinking that when I get rich I’ll have a wall full of guitars.
Guitar: Can you remember your first guitar?
Steve: My dad asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said a guitar. He said he’d buy it for me on the condition that I learn it properly. He made me take classical guitar lessons for a year. But when I heard Jimmy Page on How Many More Times, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Before that I knew a few chords but I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take. When I heard that riff, I said ”That’s it!”
Phil: I was an only child, so when I said I wanted a guitar, I got one. I couldn’t play it, but it was a Gibson SG. Steve and I started playing about the same time. I started because I saw Deep Purple in concert. The Led Zeppelin album was also great for guitar inspiration. I sat down and listed to loads of [Ritchie] Blackmore and Jan Akkerman.
Guitar: Thousands of guitar players get into Zeppelin and play along with records. What’s the break-off point where you knew you were headed beyond the local pubs?
Pete: It was determination. I know a lot of bands that started off with 16-year-old kids who have never touched an instrument before. They say “Let’s get a band together and start doing concerts, because you can get loads of girls and free drinks.” It wasn’t like that for us. We enjoyed playing together and that’s why we practiced for ten months before performing.
Steve: You can practice and rehearse as a group forever. The only way you can learn how to do it live is on stage. The only way you can learn to be a performer is to actually perform.
Guitar: How soon after your first gig did you make the Getcha Rocks Off EP?
Pete: About three months.
Steve: We’d never been in a studio and thought we’d like to try it. The idea was to make a thousand records and sell them to our friends at local gigs. When we got into the studio we couldn’t believe it would sound like that. We really enjoyed it and learnt a lot because we produced ourselves. It turned out to be one of the best things we ever did, because we actually got into the top 50 on the English charts without a record company. It cost us $300 and we sold 20,000 copies. Then all the record companies started making offers. The radio stations started playing it because (lead vocalist) Joe Elliott got in his car and knocked on their doors asking if they would play our record. They said they would if it was good enough. So we were getting played all over the country and kids were going into record shops and asking for Def Leppard.
Everybody jumped on the bandwagon. We couldn’t wait to get into the studio again to show people what we could really do. But in the end I think some of the tracks on the EP sounded better than the first album.
Guitar: Was it like being kids in a candy store when you finally had all the backing you needed?
Steve: With each successive record we’ve spent more time in the studio. That’s been intentional. On the first record we had no experience whatsoever. We went in and relied on energy. Without experience we got our ideas off of other records, which is a mistake. On Pyromania we spent a hell of a lot of time. It’s not just the time we spent, but the maturity that comes with age and playing together over a long period of time. With the first album On Through The Night, we did all the backing tracks in two days. We had it finished in two weeks. We had booked the studio for a month, so the second half of the month we were just playing around. We didn’t know when to stop. It was like painting. We got it to its peak and then we thought “we’ve got more time”, so we started throwing more paint on there. We didn’t know where to stop. When you’re a kid and you see a new effect like a flanger or an octave divider, you don’t listen to it for its actual qualities. You use it as a gimmick. You think it sounds great, so you use it on everything until you get bored with it and throw it away.
Guitar: What growth can you point to for the second album?
Pete: On Through The Night sounds pretty diluted compared to High ‘n’ Dry. We hardly used any effects on the second album. There’s one effect on Bringin On The Heartbreak that sounds like flanging, but it’s not. During the fingerpicking part we each put down a straight track and then another track which was slightly out of tune.
Steve: By the second album, when we wrote a riff, we had the actual overdub built into the riff. On Pyromania we didn’t use 50% or our experiments. We tried maybe five or six different combinations of guitars. Maybe we had two Les Pauls for the bottom, two SG’s for the middle and two Telecasters for the top end. Then we mixed them together in different combinations. In the end there were two guitars in the mix, but we found the best combinations of all the guitars that were available.
Guitar: Phil, how did you join up with Leppard?
Phil: I was in a group called Girl before this. Steve and I knew each other because both bands started at about the same time. We just kept in touch. We used to have these silly jams in the clubs. I just came down to the studio to do one solo on Pyromania and it worked so well we just carried on.
Steve: All the backing tracks were finished when Pete left. It was a situation where I was asked to do all of the solos. I didn’t feel happy doing that. Def Leppard had a trademark as a two guitar band with two different styles of playing. I asked Phil to come down and do a couple of solos. He worked out so well, we asked him to join. We split the solos 50/50 on Pyromania. He’s the speed merchant. My favourites by Phil on Pyromania are Foolin’ and Stagefright. He also does the solos on Photograph, Rock Rock, and Rock Of Ages. I take the others and we both do solos on Billy’s Got A Gun.
Guitar: How do you get set to record a solo?
Phil: The solo in Photograph came from working with our producer Mutt Lange. Before that, every time I took a solo, I ripped right away. I’ve learned you’ve got to treat it like a vocal, like a melody. On that song I particularly felt it needed a melody rather than just vibing out. I thought about how I could add to the song, because the solo is important. If it’s got nothing to do with the song, forget it.
Steve: One good thing about how we work together is that there is no competition. We can tell immediately who the solo is best suited to.
Phil: The drums were done last. We had to get all the guitars dead tight.
Steve: We did it with the Linn Drum because when you go into the studio you aren’t exactly sure of the arrangements. If you want to make any changes and the cymbal crashes are already down it gets hard. Once the drums are down, you really can’t change the arrangements. So we thought, let’s get the songs down as we want them, play to a Linn Drum and let Rick play afterwards to the tape. He can listen to the track over a period of months and learn how he wants to play it. That way he can also put down his best performance, rather than play it simple in case we wanted to make any changes.
Guitar: Steve, what would you point to as the highlight from each of the three albums?
Steve: On the first album, I like It Don’t Matter because we didn’t throw that much in. It was pretty much the way we play it live. From the second album I’ve always liked Heartbreak and Switch. We had a lot of fun messing around on Switch. For the third album it’s difficult to single anything out. But Billy’s Got A Gun is a good band performance.
Phil: Rock Of Ages is a lot of fun. Billy is fun live. After you’ve finished an album you don’t realize what you’ve done until you listen to it a long time afterwards.
Guitar: How did you guys resolve your early aspiration to play like the guitar greats with only a beginner’s technique?
Phil: I couldn’t understand a lot of Blackmore’s and Akkerman’s scales. So I went to other people’s stuff, like [Eric] Clapton’s, which was easier straight away. It’s important to listen to more than just one player. Listen to everything. I hear millions of kids who sound just like Eddie Van Halen. When I heard Al DiMeola, I thought that’s how I want to play. So I changed my whole technique and everything. He influenced me a lot. Recently I started getting into Jazz great Joe Pass, just to take another angle.
Steve: When I began I tended to go back a generation to get the basic idea of improvisation. I found it easier to go back to B B King, which is exactly what Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton did. B B was playing the basic scale. From there you can add further out notes that [Jeff] Beck and Page were putting in. To copy something directly from a guitar hero of the moment will get you stuck in a rut where you play this guy’s solos note for note and never get your own style. Rather than copy the fashionable hero of the moment, find out where his influences come from and start from there. Then put in your own ideas and bring it up to today’s standards.