Def Leppard celebrates silver anniversary
Rock guitarist Phil Collen, equally at ease wailing on an electric or strumming an acoustic, was working away in British band after British band in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He played in Lucy, then Tush, then Dumb Blondes, then started to see some success in Girl.
But it was a 1982 phone call from Joe Elliot, singer in the then-up-and-coming band Def Leppard, that put Collen on the right track, on he’s never veered from since. The members of Def Leppard were having some differences of opinion with their guitarist, Pete Willis, and were out to replace him.
"They were an opening act at the time," said Collen by phone from his California home. "I knew the guys, and I had jammed with them a couple of times. And they’d seen me play in my band Girl. We liked the same kind of stuff."
Collen was under the impression that they just needed his help on a record they were making.
"I went down and [producer] Mutt Lange told me to learn this song and to play a solo over it. The song happened to be ‘Stagefright,’ and the album ended up being ‘Pyromania.’ Then, before I knew it, we were on tour."
The album went on to sell more than 10 million copies, and the band continues to record and tour.
Collen grew up in Hackney, a working-class neighborhood in London, and was knocked out by rock ’n’ roll at 14 when he saw Deep Purple play.
"Being in London, I was blessed to see everyone," he said. "Bowie, Zeppelin, the Who. All these amazing bands came through."
His parents got him his first guitar, after a great deal of pestering, for his 16th birthday.
"It was in a magazine called Exchange & Mart," he recalled. "It was a secondhand Gibson, and it was great. I couldn’t even play, I only knew one guitar chord, and my parents went into debt over it. But it was amazing."
To put it mildly, Collen has since learned to play, and usually does so shirtless up on the stage, partly because it adds to the rock spectacle, partly because, at age 54, he’s in terrific shape, sticking to steady regimens of working out and eating well, even while on the road.
"Playing in the band is still a blast," he said. "It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like a total vibe. It’s easy, actually. You know the songs; you haven’t got to write them. You just have to have some fun with them now."
There’s also the fact that Collen stopped drinking 25 years ago, right around the time their album "Hysteria" was released.
"That made a big difference," he said. "It meant I wasn’t recovering from hangovers."
A few years ago, in the midst of a career that just won’t slow down – three of their albums have achieved Diamond status, sales of 10 million – the band was approached about using one of their songs in a theater piece about ’80s music. The song, and play, was "Rock of Ages," actually one of the first songs Collen played on in the studio when he was recruited.
The band said no.
"A lot of these things float around and you don’t really know if they’re valid," explained Collen. "We were just waiting to hear a bit more information about it. It all happened so quickly, and we didn’t agree on getting our songs in the play. So there’s no Def Leppard music in the Broadway show."
But there’s plenty of it in the movie.
"Yeah, that was all about negotiation," he said. "We didn’t negotiate with them before, but they wanted to use three of our songs in the movie, and so they figured out a kind of a deal."
Collen went on to share his thoughts on Tom Cruise’s performance of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" in the film.
"Tom said he thought the song was iconic, and he wanted to give it the respect it deserved," said Collen. "That’s why he took singing lessons and was coached on it. He’d never sung before so it was a whole new thing for him. And he was wonderful."
That song will certainly be on the tour's set list, as will many others from "Hysteria," since the band is celebrating its silver anniversary. But Collen also promised that newer songs, including "It’s all About Believing" and "Undefeated," will be heard this summer.
As will, as has become their tradition, a whole set of songs done unplugged.
"We’ve actually extended the acoustic part," he said. "We’re doing a few songs that we’ve never done before. Like ‘Where Does Love Go When It Dies’ off of ‘Slang.’ It’s a really nice acoustic section in the middle. I think we’ve been doing an acoustic set since before the Stone started doing it."
Known for never slowing down, the band is already working on new songs that they intend to record and release next year, while also doing some select gigs.
"I like the idea of recording a bit in the studio, then playing out a bit more," said Collen. "I think you get more inspired doing it that way."
But they did take the entire year of 2010 off from playing and recording. So what did Collen do during his time away?
"I went and got married, to my wife Helen," he said. "That was the big thing we did that year, for sure."