Def Leppard

When I speak to Phil Collen, I find myself in unusual surroundings. I’m in a small, rickety house in rural NSW, sharing the landscape with around 500 goats and an ostentation of peacocks. It seems fitting, in a surreal way, to be there and talk history and culture with the guitarist of one of the most successful bands of all time. That's no hyperbole – Def Leppard have sold over 100 million albums, and the likes of Hysteria and Pyromania are consistently listed amongst the best records ever. But they’re not stuck in the past; after nearly forty years together, the UK heavy metal act are performing stronger than ever. Collen talks to Beat about what first attracted him to the fledgling band.

“They were trying to do something a little different,” he says in a measured, Hackney/Californian hybrid. “What always happens – and this is something you can take to any genre of music, any art form, any movie, any book, anything that has even a slight modicum of success – is you get copies. What I liked about the guys from Def Leppard, even from the first album, was they were trying to attempt something a little different to all the others. I find nothing as boring as when everyone is just trying to make the same thing, so there was a spark there that I liked. But I especially think being open-minded was important then. Particularly around Hysteria, which sort of fused and blended pop and rock in a new way. Run–D.M.C. were also fusing sounds then, there were all of these really exciting music blends on the radio, and so we thought ‘Why not see where that leads?”
Collen joined the group in 1982, in the midst of recording their third album, Pyromania. While Def Leppard were already a band on the rise, it was this album that would topple all expectations – within a year they were being rated as highly as other seminal acts like The Rolling Stones and AC/DC. The early ‘80s was a vibrant time for stadium bands, and while there was inevitably great excess and darkness that accompanied many bands’ trajectories, Def Leppard achieved longevity thanks to a work ethic that Collen finds quite rare in music today.
“There was great music being made then,” he says. “That time period was really quite symbolic, when the art form turned into a business. After that we lost a lot of the art. There were, and still are, a lot of great artists out there doing their thing, but it's different. But we were right on the cusp of things changing, when it all became about image, and the MTV culture. It changed, and I don't think it's ever going to be like it was. That period was unique and now it's just another thing. I think it was a lot more important in peoples’ lives then, and now a lot of music is just a backdrop to other stuff. It's a backdrop to, 'Hey, aren't I sexy.' The whole Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé thing. There's a lot going on there, but it's not really related to the art any more. It's all of these other things, it's all image. But I suppose that's just the new generation, and that's all a reflection of it.”
If there is cynicism to Collen's words, it isn't entirely unfounded. For many performers today, image and self-promotion do come at the expense of the music. However, Collen is the first to acknowledge there are exceptions to the rule. He is adamant that the motivation behind your music is key, and if you’re not working tirelessly at your art for the sake of expression, then you are in the game for the wrong reasons.
“We put so much effort into [the band],” he says. “I mean, if we'd put that work in and hadn't succeeded, we'd have been really pissed off. But it's all about the work. For me, it was also a tool of expression. I learnt to play guitar, and to write songs. There's a great thing about painting or poetry, music, whatever – just creating something when you're young. You lack the communication skills with other people then – with your parents, other people – and it allows you to let off steam like a valve. I never had much teenage angst because I was able to do that with the music. Some kids can do that with sport, and then they get old and can't quite do it any more and so they don't have that release.
“But the reward for me has stayed the same thing. I still get this amazing, monumental buzz out of creating something. I can still bring myself to tears writing something, coming up with some story and pulling it together like a jigsaw puzzle. It's all about expressing yourself artistically, that is the reward. Everything else was gravy. You ask a lot of kids what do they want from it, and they go, 'I want people to pay attention to me.' And that's an interesting thing. Whether that's parental or the culture right now, I don't know, but it looks nasty to me. We're in a pretty weird place.”

The mighty DEF LEPPARD play Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday November 18. Tickets are available via Ticketek