Joe Elliott on Def Leppard’s New Album, Wild Groupies, and Netflix

His band sold over 100 million records—but nowadays if he’s not on stage, he mostly just wants to binge-watch Narcos.

There was a moment in the late eighties when Def Leppard were arguably the biggest rock band on the planet. You couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing videos for “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and a slew of other bubblegum metal hits from their monster album, Hysteria, that prominently featured frontman Joe Elliott in all his mulleted, arena-rattling majesty.

While the glossy Hysteria was their biggest triumph, Def Leppard dominated the charts several years before that with the harder-rocking Pyromania album’s triple threat of “Photograph”, “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin”. But alas, you can’t stay at the top of pop metal heap forever. 

Def Leppard’s reign was first upset by the grittier Guns ‘N Roses, before being violently dethroned by the likes of Nirvana in the early 1990s. Now, more than 25 years after their sold-out stadium prime, the veteran British rockers are set to go on a world tour in support of a new, self-titled album.

Maxim spoke to Elliott, 56, about life on the road, the resurgence of vinyl, his wild groupie past and current Netflix obsessions.

Hey Joe! So tell me about the new album.

It’s called Def Leppard, which we’ve never done before in 35 years. We went into the studio to come up with one or two songs, and ended up with 14. We liked everything we did. It’s the most honest way to make a record. Nobody tapping their watchface, pointing at the clock. We just expressed ourselves the best we’ve ever done. I think it shows in the grooves. It’s as diverse as anything we’ll ever make, but it still sounds likes us.

I know it’s probably made you a lot of money, but be honest: do you ever get sick of playing “Pour Some Sugar On Me?”

Not really. I’ve learned from watching the masters and thinking, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” We call it the Pete Townsend Syndrome, and I totally understand it. When The Who are in a rehearsal space 30 years into their career and Roger turns around to Pete and says, “Let’s play ‘My Generation’, and Townsend says, “let’s not.”You don’t really want to play these songs in front of four blank walls. But they come to life in front of a crowd. Do I get bored during rehearsals? You bet I do. It’s like, do we really have to rehearse these fucking things? I remember reading stories about the Moody Blues playing “Nights in White Satin” like The Dickies did, just because they were fed up as hell with it. They used to soundcheck it like that. You do get those moments in rehearsals, but in front of an audience, my motto is, “If you can’t handle the responsibility of a hit record, don’t write it.”

Well, Def Leppard  sold more than 100 million albums. And it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever sell that many physical records again in the age of streaming.

In this day and age, no. But who knows what could happen in 20 years time? Something could happen where everything digital gets lost because the atmosphere changes. Who knows what the fuck’s going to happen?

Right, like if there’s some kind of crazy apocalypse that destroys the digital universe and forces us to revert to albums and CDs?

Yeah, if you’d have said to me ten years ago that vinyl factories would start re-opening, I’d just laugh at you. They’re opening everywhere. All the sudden, people want vinyl again. Why, I don’t know. I don’t get it. I understand it from a fan point of view, and I love that music brings that obsessiveness out in people. When my mates turn up and say, “Oh, I got this vinyl blah blah blah,” I say, “Really what’s it sound like in the car? Or in an airplane? Or on the treadmill?”

It sounds like you’re streaming music just like the rest of us.

I signed up for the Apple one, Beats. It’s kind  of semi-evil, because whoever owns Spotify is worth more than 50 times than Mick Jagger, who’s been in this business for 50 years. And that’s just not right. Because when you read stories about Lady Gaga getting 127 dollars for 60 trillion plays, or whatever, you’re thinking, this is bullshit. And when you get on Spotify, it’s very insular. Which the whole industry has become. Everybody is on headphones now. It’s just Zombieland, and we’re all guilty of it. I do it too, but only when it’s necessary, like on an airplane.

What new music are you listening to on  airplanes? 

The Struts. They’re an English four-piece band from Darbyshire, except the singer is from Bristol who sounds EXACTLY the same as Freddie Mercury. You put it on and you go, “This is what Queen might have sounded like if they were still around and they were 20 years old.” It’s parallel universe stuff. They kinda sound like Slade, with Freddy singing. But there’s a bit of pop thrown in too: a couple of songs sound like George Michael, Faith period, a couple sound like Katy Perry, with Freddie singing. You know, “I Kissed a Girl” is pretty rocking. 

There’s a funny picture of you guys wearing Union Jack tank tops and matching  short shorts from the  eighties. I’m guessing you won’t be digging those out for the new tour?

No, of course’s not! The same reason I’m not bringing out the breakfast I had that day. The photographer said put all that shit on, because we were selling it at the merch stands. But of course, that comes back to haunt you. You can thank the Internet for that. Does Jimmy Page still wear that black suit with the roses stitched on the sides? Probably not!

Fair enough. Speaking of the good old days, what was the wildest tour you guys ever did?

I suppose you could say the most popular we were was in ’88, when we literally were the biggest band in the world. And then we were again in ’92, until Guns ‘N Roses came along to kind of spoil the party. But we still sold more records in the nineties than most bands did in the eighties. It just wasn’t as well documented by people like yourself. The ’88 tour was pretty crazy, but by then everybody was in their mid to late twenties, getting married and having kids so it wasn’t like, bonkers, with groupies and stuff. All that happened on the first tour, when we were still third on the bill with Ted Nugent and The Scorpions. We had a half hour on stage and 23 hours to kill before the next gig, no money, and the girls bought you beer.

What made those days so memorable?

We were all young, single, and in America for the first time. The first footsteps I ever took in America was Sunset Boulevard, checking into the Chateau Marmont. Looking at pictures of Led Zeppelin behind the desk, on the very steps that we just walked up to get to that desk, so it was like, “Here we are. “ And then we went to the Rainbow, and British accents are like magnets to American girls. We walked up to where the Hollywood Vampires would be hanging out, the upstairs room in the Rainbow. And there were a few chicks in the corner. Me and Steve [guitarist Steve Clark] were ordering vodka and orange. And they guy said, “You mean like a Screwdriver?” And of course, being English, we were like, “Dude, If I wanted a screwdriver I’d go to a fucking hardware store.” All these girls heard my accent, and they were like, “Hey, you guys British? You in a band?’ And we was like, “YEP.”

And the rest is history, right?

I can see what you’re digging for. But by the time when we were in the round in ’87, ’88, it was such an exhausting two and a half hour show, we just wanted to go to bed! We knew it was gonna be hard work to match an album like Hysteria live, because there was so many overdubs. It’s like Queen learning how to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” live, without using tapes on the middle bit. So we were really focused on what we did. All the other stuff was like, pretend, really. Phil [guitarist Phil Collen] stopped drinking in ’86 because he saw what was happening to Steve, and I mean,  Steve died [in 1991 of alcoholism]. Everybody said, “What do we really want out of this? Do we want to be one of these idiot, Sunset Boulevard bands, or do we wanna coattail off the back of The Who and the Stones and The Beatles and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Kinks and Queen, all the fantastic British bands who never changed their names.

Of course, all the greats…

I think Ringo Starr and John Paul Jones are the only two that actually don’t have their names on the passport. They’re like real people, with real success. What got us into this was the music, not shagging chicks. I mean it’s great, “Hey do you wanna dance?” “No, fuck off!” which is what happens before you’re in the band. And then when you’re in a band and you meet a girl at the bar, they go “Ok, let’s go to bed.” I mean, it made life a lot easier. But it wasn’t the focus. It wasn’t the girls, the drugs or the booze, it was the music. And you know what? 35 years into it, it still is. If I don’t drink, I don’t care. I don’t do drugs. I’m married, I don’t do groupies. It’s the music. I know I’m fucking boring, but I’m real. I’m human.

Good for you. Tell me who you’re playing with on the new world tour.

We’re about to embark on a Japanese tour where you don’t have support bands. It’s really weird. We’ve got Live, remember that band Live? They’re opening for us in Australia. And we’ve got Whitesnake and Black Star Riders on the bill with us in the UK for ten shows in December. Then we’ve got this cruise thing in January, there’s a trillion other bands with us on that one. Then we’re doing 12 shows with Tesla and Styx in January/February. Then we take a little break.

And when you’re not on the road, what do you spend your time doing?

If I’m not working, I’m a couch potato. I’m catching up on American Horror Story or Homeland or Black List or Damages or Blind Spot. I just blitzed the entire series of Narcos in two days. It’s just brilliant. When I’m at home in Dublin, I’ve got a home studio because I’m usually making music, either writing for Leppard or Down and Out, my side project. I’m working on a duo album with a Canadian songstress called Emm Gryner. Me and her are attempting to make kind of a 2015 Hunky Dory album, kind of like acoustic glam rock. I scream my balls off on stage, so the last thing I’m gonna do is scream  at some nightclub to order a drink. I watch a lot of movies.

Oh, yeah? What kind of movies are you watching?

I’m not into the artsy shit. I prefer Caddyshack to The Piano. And you know what? I’ve just watched Mortdecai, and I know it got ripped to pieces in the press, but I loved it. It’s a right place, right time thing— if you’re stuck on an airplane and you’re watching Johnny Depp pretend to be English, it IS funny. It depends on where are in your head as much as where you are on Google Maps. So that’s what I do: Listen to shitloads of music and watch a lot of TV. And other than than, I’m performing.

Sounds pretty good to me.

Hey man, It’s better than digging ditches.

To see Def Leppard on tour, go to Their new album is out October 30. 

Photos by Getty