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Def Leppard's Joe Elliott On Covering Def Leppard

Joe Elliott fronting Def Leppard in London last year.
Jo Hale
Getty Images
Joe Elliott fronting Def Leppard in London last year.

More than 30 years after Def Leppard got its start, the band is still playing stadiums. Until recently, however, you couldn't buy its hits, like "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Rock of Ages" from online retailers. Lead singer Joe Elliott joined weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz to explain why and what the band's doing about it. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.

GUY RAZ: Why can't I download your original songs off iTunes?
JOE ELLIOTT: When we signed our record contracts, Noah was still sailing the ark off into foreign climes. It was 1979 and there was no such thing as "digitally." It wasn't written into the deal and consequently they [the band's label, Universal Records] have no rights for a digital release.

They can only release them digitally with our permission because that's written into our contract. We're trying to wrestle back all control or as much as possible. We're not enjoying it — but they've got to come to the table with some kind of reasonable proposal, which they haven't done, so we shall go in the studio and have a bit of fun.

GR: You haven't been able to come to an agreement about how you would be compensated, so in order for you to, as you said, "control your work," you guys are going to re-record your entire back catalog.
JE: That's about 180 songs. There are some strange Japanese B-sides that really aren't worth the effort, but when it comes to the " Bringin' On The Heartbreaks," the " Photographs," the " Hysterias," " Love Bites" — I can name 20 Top-20 hits — some of those are well worth the effort.

GR:You guys are covering yourselves.
JE: Yeah, we're just basically doing re-records — it's as simple as that. We're making them available on iTunes, but what we're trying to attempt to do — and it's down to the listeners to decide whether we achieve it or not — is give them something that sounds like the original.

We don't want them to say it's better or it's worse, we want them to say it's the same. I've done it myself where I've gone in iTunes where I've looked for a certain song where I accidentally bought the re-record and it's been awful. It's just been lousily, quickly done for a quick buck. We're not trying to make a quick buck, we're actually trying to maintain some kind of dignity in this. Cause we don't want other people making a shedload of cash out of our work and not pay us for it.

GR:You're not in your early 20s like you were back then --
JE:No, I'm 52, actually. I was 28, I think, when I recorded ["Pour Some Sugar on Me"].

The thing is, imagine a Picasso, or something, and somebody down the road buys this Picasso for $20 million and then they find out it's not a real one — that's what we're trying to achieve here. Whoever did the fake painting studied the original inch by inch and we had to — second by second — go back and listen to that thing.

Cause you sing it differently live every night and it just drifts away from the original. Plus you take into consideration the atmosphere of a live gig and you do it differently. To go back in and recreate what's in everybody's DNA is near on impossible. It's a challenge if nothing else and, like I said, it's a business decision.

We'd much rather get on with making new music, doing tours, entertaining people, but it's just part of what we do. We're not going to be on the road for 365 days a year, so when we're at home — and we've all got home studios — it's very simple to just nip down the stairs to your studio for a few hours a week and just piece together something.

GR:Explain how you put this together. Did all the band go into a studio together and just re-record hundreds of times until you hit a note perfect?
JE: No, we just did it the way we did the originals. When we worked with Mutt Lange on the originals, we broke the mold for what rock and roll was. We didn't go in and — what you see in movies where the band sets up and they put five microphones on a drum kit and some guy goes "And 3, 2, 1, go," and they all play. Those days, unless you're doing demos, are long gone. Even the Beatles weren't doing that in '66, you know, they were piecing things together in '66.

We took the advantage of then-new technologies in the '80s to actually do what the Beatles did. Technology-wise they used to run tapes backwards and speed things up and slow them down and do all these mad trickery to make an exceptionally different recording. That's what we were trying to do as most rock bands just wanted to record themselves, and they all sounded the same.

We were taking the tricks of bands like The Human League, and Joy Division, or New Order, anybody who was using machines, even the disco stuff, but we would turn it into rock. And we were using all the new technology to do old-fashioned music and bring it into the latter 20th-century.

GR:How did you capture your sound — your 28-year-old sound?
JE: It's a headspace. It's like acting. I dare say that people like Pee Wee Herman don't actually talk like that in real life. You train your brain to try and recreate, remember how you were singing back in those days. It's a learning curve, it really is. It's like going through a history book. But we had more fun than not. It was actually kind of comical trying to do it all — myself and the engineer spent more time laughing than crying.

GR:This is something I've always wanted to ask you, the name Def Leppard — this is not about a large cat with a hearing disability?
JE: No and neither is it that hip that we knew that — we were Def before Def. The true story is we were actually approached by Rick Rubin — could he use Def for Def Jam? And foolishly we gave it to him for nothing.

So yeah, I'll tell you what it was all about: When I was at school I had this kind of art project where I just got fed up with boring, ordinary bowls of fruit and vases with flowers in them, sort of stuff, and I started doing rock posters and I started coming up with names for bands that didn't exist and Deaf Leopard in the traditional spelling was one that sounded good. It just had a good sound.

It wasn't universally accepted on Day One but it became, "Alright, it'll work." Especially when our original drummer, a guy called Tony, suggested we went with the phonetic spelling and he said, "If we just lose the 'a' and turn the 'o' into a 'p,' it'll look as good as it sounds."

GR:So, what do you make of this Def Leppard revival right now? You've got the film Rock of Ages out, named after one of your songs. You're on tour with Poison and Lita Ford going all over the country playing to huge stadiums.
JE: Yeah, 34 years we've been playing — 35 actually come this September, I think. It's crazy, we're still 20 years behind McCartney and 15 behind the Stones and all that kind of stuff. We're puppies in comparison, I suppose, but we're like the last of the ones who got through the door before it was slammed shut.

What do I make of it? I think if a band's around long enough, there's always going to be ups and downs. If they don't split up during the lows, the wheel's going to go back around. It's going to go back up, through a lot of hard work and determination, a lot of self-belief and luckily, a pretty big fan base.

GR:And you guys must have gotten along pretty well.
JE: It's always been a band. I'll gladly and gallantly carry the captain's flag but i certainly couldn't do it without the other guys. I like the responsibility of taking charge but at the same time it's always nice to turn around at four other people and go, "I really don't know where to go from here."

We're all musically very akin and we all grew up with the same backgrounds — we were all working-class kids with the same outlet. It was either this or it was as Michael Monroe once said, " Dead, jail or rock 'n' roll." We were destined to factories or coal mines. I never wanted to be a fireman or a policeman, I wanted to be Elvis or Marc Bolan or David Bowie. I had four other people that I actually just fell into the path of, who felt exactly the same way.

GR:So now that you've re-recorded your old songs, your classic songs, you own these new recordings. They are yours to do what you'd like to do.
JE: Absolutely. We can license them, we can box them, we can sell them, we can sit on them, but they're ours. I think artists need to wrestle back their careers and the ownership of their stuff.

It's fair enough we all signed a deal with the devil when we signed to some corporate label when we were teenagers and stuff, but you learn as you go along. You realize you're the ones that put all the hard work in and yet you're going to get paid maybe the same amount that you would tip a waiter for room service. I hope many other bands take our lead. We're not the first to do it, by the way. We may be the ones getting all the publicity for it but there's hundreds of people who've done this in the past.

GR:Any feedback or response from Universal? I imagine they're not too pleased.
JE: I wouldn't know. They don't talk to us. Here's the thing about a record company: The people that were there when we were what you might call [at the] top of our game — '88, when we were building the building that they are now currently working in, which was paid for pretty much by our sales and some Bon Jovi albums — they couldn't get enough of us. They were nice and they would come and visit and they would ring you up and take your phone calls. After a while some of them leave, they get better jobs, they retire, they get pregnant, they go away.

We're still there, but the regime that's running the company changes. They don't like the deal because they're paying you too much, they think. We're thinking they're not paying us enough. And there goes the grand game of chess between corporate and between them and us basically — the ones on the top floor and us on the pavement.

GR:I imagine cause you're on tour with Poison and Lita Ford, that these are really wild backstage parties, but I read that you guys are all vegetarians and you just go to sleep at 8:30.
JE: Where do you get your information from? It's fantastic. I love that man. "We're all vegetarians." Well, for a start, we don't even go on stage 'til 9:15 so going to bed at 8:30 is a bit of a non-starter. Two and a half of us are vegan — if that makes sense cause Vivian is a lactopescetarian, which means he eats fish.

But everybody's very health conscious, I mean you have to be. If you're going to play the game — if you're going to be Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, kind of outlive everybody else. You're not going to be able to do that by drinking four bottles of Courvoisier a night and doing 10 bags of blow. There comes a cutoff time in your life, especially normally when you get married and have kids and your priorities change. Luckily for us, although we have indulged in everything on the planet that there was to indulge in, it was never our main focus.

I met a lot of bands that got together purely because they wanted the women and all the after-midnight activities that come along with it. For us it was all about the music, and if we got good at that everything else would come along for free afterwards.

That's just the way it was for us: music first. It's because we work really hard, not because we're lucky. We just work really hard at maintaining a level of performance that people expect for us.

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