Like a team, Def Leppard perseveres

If any band can be classified as undefeated, it's Def Leppard. Coming together in Sheffield in 1977, the working class English kids with the lofty goal of becoming the biggest band in the world have weathered every setback that would have derailed most groups.

After winning with 1983's "Pyromania" album, Def Leppard spent an exhausting four years trying to repeat that success with a series of false starts, compounded by drummer Rick Allen losing his left arm in an auto accident at the end of 1984.

The resulting "Hysteria" was an even greater victory. But relentless touring, followed by the death of guitarist Steve Clark in 1991, led to another four years before bouncing back with the 3 million selling "Adrenalize." By then the sound of popular music had changed, leaving Def Leppard virtually ignored throughout the '90s before rebounding as a popular summer tour draw throughout the past decade.

Their perseverance is not much different from a sports team that keeps fighting to win a playoff. "Undefeated," the first single and one of three new studio tracks off their new live album, "Mirror Ball" (iTunes | Amazon), captures that determination complete with the floorboard-stomping rhythm of a classic sporting event anthem.

Def Leppard made sports crawl headlines two years ago, when singer Joe Elliott unknowingly upended the Stanley Cup during an NHL opening night concert. Elliott, who actually received death threats as a result of the incident, says he doesn't know if he's been forgiven by mocking bloggers and angry fans. But the traditions of American teams are mostly unfamiliar to him, a Sheffield native single-mindedly obsessed with English soccer for most of his life, he says.

Elliott, 51, spoke with The Life the day before Def Leppard began their summer tour in Palm Beach, Fla. He dissected the stadium appeal of "Undefeated," and the direct connection of its lyrics to sports, in the process revealing that the similarity between a team and a band runs deeper than just sports analogies.

The Life: In sports, "undefeated" is a quantifiable term. But what makes a band undefeated?

Elliott: I think, in truth, there is no such thing because with a band you don't lose; you get knocked down. But as Chumbawamba would have said, you get back up again. It's more of a metaphor for "knock me down, I'll get back up." It's that "us against the world" kind of thing.

I think a band that remains together is undefeated, even though they've taken a few losses along the way. It's a case of, they've lost the battle, but they've not lost the war. If we're talking about a band in general terms, I'd say a band like ourselves, it's 20 years [with] this lineup and still going strong and we've redefined ourselves. We keep coming out, and we keep fighting to remain in that position that we've achieved. I think that's about as close as you can get to being undefeated.

The Life: There's a very moving chapter on the new "Mirror Ball" DVD of you acknowledging the site of Rick Allen's full-time return to drumming back in 1986. That moment comes as close to saying that's when Def Leppard went undefeated.

Elliott: I suppose you're right. The thing about Download [music festival, formerly known as Donnington] is, it's become a spiritual place for the band. It was Rick's rebirth, if you like, because even though he'd lost his arm two years previously, and we'd done a few little warm-up gigs in Ireland in front of no people, to go in front of 70-odd thousand people like he did in '86 -- and let's be honest, in an environment where most of the audience didn't actually know us. As much as we'd sold all those records in '83 in America, we didn't really sell that many in England.

The Life: Right, still unknown at home.

Elliott: We were a curiosity factor. We were that band that sold records over there. And we were that band with the one-armed drummer that they read about in the daily papers. Notoriously, third on the bill bands don't always have the entire crowd watching them; they'll be milling around the beer tent. When I introduced Rick in '86, the wave of response was so positive, that brought tears.

It started a journey that would really take off a year later when "Hysteria" was finally released. That meeting of the British gathering of all rock fans at this one venue, and this band, we finally kind of connected. A year later they kind of showed their seal of approval by buying the album. We became this band they all loved, and because we were British, we were [finally] selling over there.

So, to go back there 23 years later and see the finished article, as opposed to the 1986 version, which was the start of it all when I was making that speech, I was having that flashback moment you supposedly get when you're about to die, where your entire life rewinds. I went through everything, from Vivian [Campbell] joining us; the year we were together as a four-piece; Steve [Clark] passing away; the amount of gigs we did and the hardship that we went through on that tour -- everything, all the way back. It was a really weird feeling, so it definitely is more than just a geographical pin on a map to us.

The Life: Commercially, there have been so many winning moments in this band's career: back-to-back 10 million selling albums in the States; albums spending years on Billboard's catalog sales chart; crossing over to the country market. In a commercial sense, what's your best win?

Elliott: For instant impact, the first time we hit [No. 1]. I can't remember which venue in '88 … Charlie Hernandez, who was our big, cuddly Brazilian stage manager, came out of the dressing room with a cigar in his mouth going, "Boys, you finally got there." It was the 49th week the album had been out and it went to No. 1.

We'd never had a No. 1 'cause [Michael] Jackson kept us off the top with "Thriller" in '83 for about four months. In any other time we'd have had a No. 1 with "Pyromania" for months at a time, and it never happened. You always wonder if you've missed your opportunity, especially when an album's been out almost a year, and it's been hanging around the top five but never quite got to No. 1. All of a sudden, it just started going, and it climbed and climbed and climbed, and it finally got there. That was a special moment.

But because it's just a phone call, and you hear it out of a guy's mouth, you all hug each other and go, "Yes …" You move on, 'cause you've gotta do a sound check, otherwise the union are going to get on your back. You get shunted into real life again.

When we actually went to New York for the ceremony of the first-ever giving of [RIAA] Diamond Awards [for sales of more than 10 million copies], they managed to get such an A-list of people there that had achieved it. I mean, Billy Gibbons, the guys from Journey, the guys from Boston, and people from Fleetwood Mac, representatives from Led Zeppelin, all in one room, going up to get these awards. You're rubbing shoulders with what are now your peers, but when you were at school you were buying their records. [Laughs]

The fact that we had a good three hours to sit down and soak it all up, I think that will always be one of my defining moments away from actually just being onstage and performing a song in front of a great crowd. When it comes to the business end of the music biz, that would probably be my favorite bit.

The Life: Lyrically, the song "Undefeated" is very relatable to athletes. When did you first make the connection that a rock song could also work as a sports anthem?

Elliott: The first time I came to America and heard "Rock and Roll Part 2" being played every time the game stops at hockey. There's no vocals on it. You guys got the instrumental version. It was the B-side of the English version. Ninety-nine percent of the Americans don't know who the guy is that sings it. The song has superseded the artist!

I was invited to the '94 opening of the World Cup in Chicago to do an interview with Downtown Julie Brown, [and] Gary Glitter was playing live. They'd invited him over to play that song. I was sharing a dressing room with Yes, and he was using a toilet as a dressing room, warming up and screaming the words "Hello Chicago!" very loudly, which was amusing Yes to no avail. He went up onstage to do the song, and I just stuck my head out and could actually hear people going, "Oh my God, it's the hockey guy!"

We used to giggle at the background music in [sports broadcasts], where there would be some dude with one of these old church organs like Phantom of the Opera, and he'd keep going up a semi-tone and it just got the crowd on their feet while they were waiting for the ref to split a fight up or whatever. Then you'd start hearing certain classic rock songs, like "We Will Rock You" and the Gary Glitter song, and a few others. Then we started hearing our own stuff. We'd hear "Rock of Ages" and stuff like that.

When Sav [bassist Rick Savage] wrote "C'mon C'mon," three, four years ago, I actually turned around to him and said, "I can hear this in hockey arenas." It wasn't like it was manufactured to be in one, it's just that kind of music that gets used, whether it be hockey or basketball or football. And, lo and behold, we were on tour, and days off you're flicking through the channels and occasionally you just get to one of these things, hearing "C'mon C'mon" getting played!

With "Undefeated," I certainly didn't sit down and go, "OK, I'm going to write another song that will get us into [sporting events]." But the second I had the chorus, I just knew that I'd done it without trying. I just started humming noises and singing phonetic phrases, and then when it got to the big punchline of the chorus, sooner or later I just blurted out the word "undefeated." And I thought, ooh, that works well. Once you've got the chorus down, the rest of it falls into place because you have a subject matter.

As soon as it got to "undefeated," I actually did put myself in the position of a boxer, actually. I think it was more Rocky than Muhammad Ali, but it was, look in these eyes/these eyes don't lie/and they say if you don't blink -- the whole thing about when they're doing these press conferences, looking at each other, or when the referee brings them together and goes, "Boys, we need a good, clean fight," they're just staring each other out.

The Life: A battle of wills.

Elliott: Yeah, and the first one to blink is going down. So, that was an obvious one for me. If you've got the will to win/you've got to take it on the chin -- in other words, you might get a few pummelings, but you've got to pummel back harder.

From a lyrical point of view in the verses, it's not being sung as a five-part harmony [so] it has to be portrayed by one guy, not a team, if you like. So, the most obvious stance to take was the boxer because I was singing as one person. It seemed to me the most logical sport of, "you get knocked down, you get back up, but you've got to stay undefeated."

I don't see much that fits with Tiger Woods or Ernie Els, though if somebody wins four tournaments in a row, I can see some golf channel playing it in the background because they'll hook into the chorus.

I got into trouble a couple years ago for making an innocuous comment about other bands, being compared to other bands, and I said, "I don't think there's any comparison to be made." I wasn't trying to make any ill will against other bands. The point I was trying to make is that when Def Leppard goes into doing anything -- walking onstage -- I have to believe that we're capable of following The Beatles if they re-formed, or The Rolling Stones. There's no point in walking out on stage going, "Well, we can't possibly follow them, so we've lost." You have to have this puffed-out chest, going, "We can follow anybody onto a stage, we're that good." And that, in many respects, is what boxers do; they talk bull---- all the time that they're going to win, even though in the back of their mind somebody's got into a ring knowing damn well they're going to lose because they just know they're not as good as the other guy. But they have to go in there thinking, "I can f------ win this, I can do this!"

The Life: Musically, the drums at the start, you can imagine people stomping their feet on the floorboards in an arena at a game.

Elliott: Yeah, well, again, not consciously thought of for that particular reason.

The Life: But it will work.

Elliott: Yeah, it absolutely will. I don't think Roger Taylor or Brian May -- whoever came up with the stomping thing for "We Will Rock You" -- was doing it going, "Hockey arena." But it absolutely is one of those moments that, once it gets going, it just makes your head bob or makes your foot tap.

For me, I am massively a fan of hypnotic drum rhythms, always have been, always will. This is an absolutely true story: When I was 12 years old, I used to go to a matinee disco, 10 'til noon at the Sheffield Top Rank, where kids were allowed in and you could buy lemonade and popcorn. And all the bingo chairs were folded up under the stairs, but you could sneak in [there] with a girl and all that stuff.

I was under the stairs with this girl, having my first tongue kiss probably. All of a sudden this song came on, and I remember breaking off from the kiss saying, "I'll be right back," crawling out from under the chairs, going up to the DJ booth and saying, "What is this?" And the guy says, "It's this new artist called Gary Glitter. It's called 'Rock and Roll Part 2.'" And I left, got on the bus home and stopped at the stop before my house where the little row of shops is, went into Sun Electrical, the record store, and said, "Do you got that Gary Glitter single?" And I bought it … and she's probably still under the stairs today, I have no idea. [Laughs]

I was so transfixed with the drum rhythm, I had to have it. I went home and played that song 'til I drove my parents crazy. Then Adam and the Ants took that to the next level in the late '70s. We kind of did it with the song "Rocket," where we lifted a kind of tribal, Burundi Black thing for the verses.

I've always been a fan of doing it, and I've always been conscious if you do it too often, it starts becoming a bit of a theme you can't get away from. So, having not done it for a long, long time, when that one came into my head, I had our producer, Ronan [McHugh], make me a drum loop that was about 15 minutes long. I just literally would let this thing roll while I was walking around the house with an acoustic guitar, just trying to play chords over the top to get some spark of where we would go with this.

The Life: "Kings of the World," also on "Mirror Ball," is very much in the grand tradition of Queen. Will any song ever unseat "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions" as the ultimate sports anthems?

Elliott: No, I don't think so, because they've been there for 30 years. They'd have to be in people's DNA for 30 years, so that they were of equal par, then people can decide if something's going to go past.

I can see certain songs from maybe 25 years ago coming in. I don't see why maybe "Living on a Prayer" or "Photograph," or maybe some Motley Crue song from the '80s -- a band who, if you saw the video once, you saw the video a thousand times era. I think maybe that might happen. But I don't see that there's any actual infrastructure these days for a band to put a song out that's going to go further than the summer it's released.

I think "Kings of the World" is a fantastic song which, you're absolutely right, it's a big nod of the hat to Queen. But it also takes in the Beach Boys and 10CC and ELO, and anybody that just happens to have an enormous vocal vehicle that that song is. But could it take over from "We Are the Champions"? I highly doubt it.

The Life: What's the most unlikely use of a Def Leppard song as a sports rallying cry that you've heard?

Elliott: I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I can't remember any time I've ever heard one of our songs and gone, "What?" You know, Boris Spassky against somebody playing chess with "Foolin'" going off in the background. That would be a good one. If I had to invent one, it would be a chess game or something ridiculous. [Laughs] Shot put … you know.

The Life: I don't think I'll ever listen to any of your songs the same ever again. [Elliott laughs] Your love of soccer, especially Sheffield United, is very well known. And also your Wikipedia-like knowledge of rock and roll. Was there a point when you felt a need to choose between the two as your career path?

Elliott: Not at all. I was actually quite good [at] football. Sav signed with Sheffield United, even though he's a Sheffield Wednesday fan. He was actually on schoolboy terms for two years at Bramall Lane.

The Life: Like minor leagues here in the States.

Elliott: Yeah, so you're under the guise of the manager and coaching staff. They'll throw you into the odd reserve game to see how well you do, and after two years they have the option to sign you professionally or let you go. Sav kind of manufactured a situation where they let him go because he never felt comfortable playing in the red and white, 'cause he was a blue and white supporter. And he just didn't like the infrastructure down there; it was too clique-y for him.

By the time me and Sav were in our early 20s, and we were playing in charity soccer games all 'round the world and stuff, I wasn't far behind him as a footballer. He was the playmaker, and I was the one that just got the ball and smashed it into the back of the net. I didn't have as much skill, but I had enough to be able to win a game, and plenty of footballers still play that way. They don't do a lot of work, but they win a lot of games.

I was good, but I was never good enough, and I certainly wasn't disciplined enough to have ever been a [professional] footballer. It was always going to be a hobby for me. Also, I was very aware of the fact that most people at the age of 32, their career's just about done. At the age of 32, we were just releasing "Adrenalize." That's 19 years ago, and I'm still doing it. There's no 51-year-old professional footballers out there.

I figured out in my mid-20s that I was a very lucky boy, that I got to do what I really, really love above something that I really love nearly as much.

The Life: Of course, you have made contributions to the game, "testing" the adidas Predator prototype, ultimately popularized by David Beckham.

Elliott: Oh yeah! I wore the left foot of the first ever, which was literally a handmade version of it, with ping-pong bat material glued onto the side and the toe and the instep. And myself and Craig Johnston kicked the ball up and down my garden for two hours making a mini film of it all, which he used on a TV show in England back in, like, '94.

See, Craig moved to Dublin, for some strange reason, for about three or four years, and we used to hang out all the time. We used to go to gigs, watch soccer, just go to meals and stuff -- just hang. He was a very rock-and-roll footballer, and we were very footballing rock and rollers, if you like. Between me, him and Sav, we were like the Three Stooges.

The Life: That's like getting an advance copy of the album, so to speak.

Elliott: Absolutely, an unfinished one, as well, without all the harmonies put on. He says, "You want to wear the Predator?" And I'm like, "You've got them?" He says, "I f------ invented 'em, mate." He says, "You've got a big garden, I'm bringing a ball." So, up he comes, and he says, "Put your kit on, 'cause I'm going to film this." [Laughs]

So I did. He turned it into this little 12-minute kind of movie that he put within this 30-minute show he was doing on sports. It was done a little bit like Max Headroom back in the days, all kind of modernized and chopped, as though you're turning a dial on a radio and it goes to some bizarre channel. You'd see football from Iraq, then he cut to me doing the Predator thing, then he'd cut to Paul Gascoigne pushing a shopping trolley through a supermarket or something. It was just a mad, mad show, but it was a lot of fun to wear the boot, for sure.

The Life: Years ago, it seemed like every rock band from England was playing soccer against each other.

Elliott: Oh yeah, yeah! Oh, it was a big deal. They normally entered these charity competitions that some magazine or somebody would put up, and whoever was around would play.

The Life: Does that still happen very often, bands playing each other?

Elliott: Well, no, because there aren't them kinds of bands anymore. I remember the huge Blur-Oasis [feud] all kicked off after a game of football. That's when all the great musical rivalries kicked off, basically, by soccer.

Back in the day ourselves and Iron Maiden, we used to play either against each other or together. Me and Steve Harris have played in loads of charity matches. We played at Wembley for an England Select with people like Frank Worthington against Scotland and drew 1-1 … and I crossed the ball for our goal, which I was quite proud of meself for.

It all started, really, when Rod Stewart was doing it in L.A. We used to do it a lot in Dublin, as well, play football with all sorts of people like U2's crew, 'cause they weren't so much very good, actually -- the band themselves. [Laughs] Some of their crews were, and loads of other Irish musicians. But we've played football with and against some ex-pros, just legends: Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Tony Currie -- I played in the same team as George Best once, for Tony Currie's testimonial, and made a big deal of making sure I passed to him, so he could pass back to me -- tell the grandkids, you know -- and I have it on film.

The Life: What's the main difference between European football and soccer here in the States?

Elliott: It's a good question because -- you know, jingoism would say because we've been playing it for a hundred years, we know how to play better than you guys. But the thing is, the last couple of times we've played America, I think we've lost. So, that just goes to show it's a load of rubbish.

The most obvious difference to me is the Americans have got it down, technique-wise. You see adverts selling stuff, so people can learn how to dribble and all this kind of stuff. In England, you don't learn how to dribble; you're born knowing how to do it. What you do in England is you learn how to win a game. You learn how to stop an opposition [from] getting back into the game, if you're winning 1- or 2-0.

What used to be the big difference, when we used to watch the American National Team play in a tournament, is they were absolutely as good as anybody else up to the lat 10, 15 feet of the pitch, and then they just couldn't score. They didn't know how to finish the move. They could do all the fancy passing around, all the perfect movement, but they just didn't have the killer instinct of the European or South American teams.

That's changing. That's changing a lot now, and I think the fact that you've got people like Beckham coming over there, and a few other English players, they're just slowly but surely showing the other side. See, American sports -- especially American football -- by nature is almost mathematical. They have these plans; they have these movements down to an inch; they have to be done a certain way. If you watch an English soccer game, you'll notice that most goals come from mistakes by the opposition or a set piece. The great thing about soccer is, the [more] tired the players get, the better the match is to watch. As soon as mistakes come into it, or tired legs come into it, the game opens up and becomes more exciting.

The Life: The first dates of your summer tour are in Florida, where the Miami Heat just lost the NBA championship, despite being top-heavy with superstar players. In terms of a band, is it more important to have a blue collar attitude of each man being a role player, than loading your band with virtuosos?

Elliott: Yeah, too many superstars and everybody's arguing about who goes in the middle for the photo shoot. I think everybody has a role to play, and you just have to realize it's like "Animal Farm"; we're all equal, but some of us are more equal than others. But you do it on behalf of your team. When I do more interviews than the rest of the band, everybody realizes there's a reason for it: people want to talk to the singer. It's not like you walk away with a bigger ego because of that, it's just a fact, so you're doing it on behalf of everybody else.

It also helps that we all grew up in the same environment. We all started at the same time, in the same band, pretty much. And the two guys that didn't, Phil and Vivian, had their own versions of "us" and knew what it was like to travel around on the back of a truck, sitting on the Marshall cabinets, bouncing up and down some dodgy country road. We've all went through the same thing. It's not like somebody joined the band a multimillionaire, so he's going, "I'm traveling separate to you guys in my own plane." That's what causes problem. As long as you're all mucking together, that's why we're still around.

The Life: If there's a team mentality to being in a band, is taking the stage the equivalent to taking the field?

Elliott: Absolutely. The difference is sometimes -- not every single time, but sometimes when you actually walk onstage, you've won. You don't have to wait the 90 minutes; you've already won. Sometimes you walk onstage and you know this is a tough crowd, we're going to have to really work them.

We joke, and [say] things when we come off stage like, "Well, we were losing 1-0 at halftime, but we won 2-1 in the last minute." And other times you just know, if it's a full house, and it's a crazy crowd, you've already won. It's a backwards way around.

The Life: Being on tour isn't altogether different from a sports team on a road trip of away games. Your U.S. tour runs 43 dates through mid-September. Like an athlete, what nightly ritual -- your pregame routine, so to speak -- do you have to stay healthy?

Elliott: Well, just the usual stuff, making sure that you can still perform. I'm pretty deep-throated at the moment because we were doing [production rehearsals] all day yesterday. For me to be able to sing in tip-top shape tomorrow night, I have to do loads of vocal exercises and rest up, so you'll be my only interview for the next 48 hours.

And then, I have a warm-up tape, all that kind of stuff. I'll just sit around [singing scales] while I've got "Law & Order" on in the background, that sort of thing; get in a steamy shower, do all the right things to make sure I'm in good shape.

Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.