Joe Elliott talks Viva! Hysteria
20th Sep 2013 | 10:30
Front man talks the long road to recording a classic
After resisting big money offers for several years, Def Leppard are finally revisiting their world-conquering 1987 album Hysteria, and bringing it to a cinema near you.
Filmed over two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas in March, Viva! Hysteria finds the band in relatively humble surroundings, playing the landmark album in its entirety. Lead singer Joe Elliott spoke to MusicRadar about the making of the original record, and reviving it for the 21st century...
What's the most up to date figure you have for sales of Hysteria?
"I'm told it's very close to 20 million, and I don't think it's boastful to suggest that interest in the film might just push it past that mark. People keep throwing figures at me, and my reaction is usually 'Wow! That's ridiculous!' It's hard to fathom these numbers."
Did you have a sense when you were making the album that you were on to such a winner?
"I don't know many musicians who think like that. I remember John Paul Jones being asked something similar about Stairway To Heaven, and he said Led Zeppelin had no idea of what it was gonna become. As far as they were concerned it was just one of eight songs on an LP they were doing.
"You can't think you're on to something phenomenal before you've finished it, I've made that mistake in the past. I've lost count of the number of times I've ran into a room and said 'Guys, this is the biggest thing we've ever done' only for it to completely die. Of course, the other side of that coin is when I said 'I'm not sure about this song', and it was When Love And Hate Collide, the biggest single we ever had in Great Britain. These things take on a life of their own, once you've finished it you have no control of where it goes."
But surely you must have had an inkling that you'd made something good.
"Well, I have to be honest and say that when we'd finished it we knew it was the best record we'd made up to that point."
Did you feel under pressure to try and top the previous album, 1983's Pyromania, which had been such a huge hit?
"It wasn't actually that big a hit in England, it did very well in America and Japan. But yes, of course it put pressure on us. I remember we did a TV show with Elton John the Christmas after Pyromania came out, and he told us he loved it, but added 'Good luck with the next one, you're gonna need it.' I think it was his way of saying be careful what you wish for.
"The pressure of following an album that's sold six million, as Pyromania did, could have been intense, but we were smart enough not to have bought in to the whole rock star thing. We weren't living on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where it would have been in our faces all day long. We were back at home in Sheffield, or in Dublin or Holland, where we'd sold nowhere near as many records. We were fairly faceless, we could walk the streets without getting hassled.
"We never courted the paparazzi-type press, you never saw us in the gossip pages, the same way you never see the likes of Robert Plant or Metallica in the gossip pages. We're not that kind of band, never have been. Any pressure we felt was largely self-inflicted. We just wanted to better what we'd done before, to keep going as far as we could, but it wasn't always easy."
There were difficulties during the making of Hysteria, weren't there?
"We were in the middle of pre-production with Mutt Lange, who'd produced Pyromania, when he told us he wouldn't be able to do the actual album. That put us in a bit of a spot, we went round the houses for a while and ended up doing about eight weeks with Jim Steinman, which was an absolute disaster.
"Then we did six or seven months' work with Mutt's engineer, Nigel Green, but then Mutt came back into the fold. We didn't exactly start again, but we replaced a few bits and pieces and wrote some new material. Half of what we'd started made it onto the finished album in one form or another, but things like Rocket, Love And Affection and Pour Some Sugar On Me were pretty much written on the fly in the studio."
Sounds like it was a lengthy process.
"Well, it took us about two years altogether, partly because a year into the process some it was beginning to sound out of date. What we were creating was a very acceptable Pyromania II, but we kind of looked each other in the face and decided that Pyromania II really wasn't good enough.
"When Mutt was back on board he said to us, 'Look, Michael Jackson had six hit singles off one album, why can't a white rock band have seven?' We thought he was mad to start with, but once we thought about it a bit we decided it would be something interesting to aim for.
"We upped our game, admittedly by heading in a much more commercial direction than the majority of Pyromania, which really only had three songs on it that sounded like they could be hit singles, and they were."
You hit your goal with seven hits off Hysteria, but was there ever a temptation to try for eight?
"A couple of people at the record company were thinking that way after the seventh single, Rocket, but we just said enough is enough. We'd been on the road for 14 months, we were close to death. We didn't have the energy to promote anything else.
"With hindsight, I suppose the label could have gone for eight or nine, but it would have been without our involvement at all, we'd have been off on a beach somewhere recovering. It took us two years to make the record, another year touring and promoting it, and any more than three years on one project will split most bands. We wanted to avoid burning out, and thankfully we did. We're still going."
It's interesting to hear you say you weren't prepared to settle for a Pyromania II, when a lot of bands might be more than happy to replicate what went before, for fear of losing their audience by changing too radically.
"Some bands do think that way, but that's their choice. We wanted to be coat-tail riders on the back of people like The Beatles or the Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Small Faces. That's the calibre we were aiming for, rather than becoming the next Loverboy or Foreigner, those bands you might put in a slightly lower division than the classic English bands we grew up listening to.
"We wanted to be on the top table, to be a band like Queen. Just listen to those first four Queen albums, they never repeated themselves, they never settled for what had gone before just because it had worked for them. That was the yardstick for us, to keep moving forward and developing."
Where did the idea of the film come from?
"We'd had offers from promoters in the past to go on tour playing the whole of Hysteria, but we were always too busy promoting our new albums, we turned those offers down for years because we never wanted it to overshadow the newer stuff. But after finishing the Mirrorball tour we had about six or seven months to prepare for it."
The venue in Las Vegas is relatively small, compared to the arenas you usually play. Did it take a lot of work to strip the production down?
"Not especially, because we've got our own stage set that we've always used, and it's a bit like Meccano; you can lob a bit off the side and rebuild it at the front, you can tinker away to your heart's content. The Hard Rock venue might seem small, but it actually holds about 4,000 punters, which makes it about the same size as the Royal Albert Hall."
Do you have any personal favourite concert movies?
"There aren't many, I have to say. People tell me The Last Waltz is a film you should watch once a year, but I think I was probably a bit too young when it came out and it doesn't carry the same weight for me as it does for others. I liked The Song Remains The Same, but the fantasy sequences got on my nerves. Even as a kid I thought 'What are you guys doing?! You're Led Zeppelin – give us more of the gig!'
"If I had to name one concert movie, it would be Ziggy Stardust, because it's just the perfect encapsulation of who Bowie was at that time, it's a proper snapshot of history."