Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott on dueting with Swift and Cyrus, going symphonic and surviving trends: 'I had no issues with Kurt Cobain trying to kill the '80s'
In 2008, Lep signed up to film a TV special with a then-rising country star named Taylor Swift — and they received two CMT Awards nominations. Fifteen years later, their artistic risks are still paying off.
“We've done so many things in our career that we hoped for, but we didn't necessarily think would happen,” says Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from the vinyl-packed “music room” of his Dublin home. “We’ve achieved so much, yet … there’s so much more that we want to achieve. And sometimes we don't know what it is until it's presented to us.”
The most recent opportunity that was presented to the British rockers is Drastic Symphonies, a collection of their tracks — some greatest hits, some less obvious deep cuts — reimagined at Abbey Road Studios by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
“We've never been afraid to go, ‘Yeah!’ … And it was a hard-fought battle to do that with us.” In the early ‘80s, when the young, photogenic “Photograph” band embraced became MTV sensations and “definitely looked more like Duran Duran than we looked ‘NWOBHM’ or whatever you want to call that movement,” Elliott says they “were accused of betraying that ‘British New Wave of Heavy Metal’ by doing ballads. And then we were [accused of] betraying ourselves by going back to a more basic sound [on 1996’s stripped-back Slang]. It made no sense to us. But like everything else, we don't make records for other people. We make records for us.”
Drastic Symphonies proves just how well Lep’s songwriting translates and appeals to any genre. But they also proved that 15 years ago when they took one of the biggest artistic risks of their career and signed up to film a TV special with a then-rising 19-year-old country star named Taylor Swift. The collaboration earned Swift and Leppard two CMT Music Awards nominations, for Wide Open Country Video of the Year and Performance of the Year, and two even closed the 2008 CMT Awards ceremony with a cross-generational duet of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Some fans — of both artists — may not have gotten it at the time, but Swift, like Def Leppard, went on to reinvent herself over and over. And the collaboration in some ways even foreshadowed Lep’s duet with crossover country star Alison Krauss on their 2022 album Diamond Star Halos.
“We were on tour in 2007, and somebody came in with this article on some website and they said, ‘Have you seen this?’ Somebody had asked Taylor if she'd ever worked with any other artist and she said, ‘There's only one [band] I really want to work with… and that's Def Leppard.’ And we were like, ‘Wow, that's so cool,’” Elliott recalls. ‘You know, that [Swift] album 1989is named because it's the year she was born. So, basically she was in her mom's womb through 1988 and that’s all she ever heard, was us, because the mother was a big Leppard fan. And Taylor became one because of her mom.”
A year later, Swift and Def Leppard ended up sharing the stage for an episode of CMT’s Crossroads, during which they performed 11 songs — six Lep classics, and five recent Swift hits. “I was singing things like [Swift’s song] ‘Love Story’ from a male perspective, really,” Elliott chuckles fondly. “And she was singing ‘Two Steps Behind’ and ‘Love’ off the Sparkle Lounge album, and the bits of ‘Sugar’ that she felt comfortable singing! We had a ball. It was two weeks out of our lives. We all did the homework for a week. We spent about a week in Nashville, two or three days rehearsals. We shot the show twice.
“It was great doing that show,” Elliott continues. “We were playing this theater in Nashville, a 3,000-seater, and we had all these little girls looking at us going, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And we had all their parents looking at Taylor and going, ‘Who's she?’ We had old and new: The parents were there for us, and the kids were there for Taylor. And there was mutual respect as we made music together. Those are the moments that defined who we are more than anything else. I think we are prepared to go down these roads that many other rock bands wouldn't necessarily do.”
More recently, Def Leppard teamed with another teen pop princess-turned-queen of reinvention, Miley Cyrus, when the Foo Fighters invited them to perform at last September’s all-star Taylor Hawkins tribute concert at Los Angeles’s Forum. Cyrus and Elliott’s surprise “Photograph” duet, one of the most viral highlights of the five-hour evening, was actually recommended to Miley by Hawkins before his March 2022 death. “Miley, after the fact, let a voice recording that she had from her answering machine out on Twitter or something, and it was a message from Taylor Hawkins,” says Elliott. “He's driving his car and he phoned her up and he goes, ‘Dude, I'm listening to Def Leppard. You could kill this song. You should do it!’” But when Elliott arrived at the Forum for rehearsals to work out the arrangement of the high-octave anthem, he and Cyrus had their work cut out for them.
“Me and her just stood side by side, and I go, ‘So, which bits do you want to sing?’ She goes, I don't know — the easy bits!’ I’m like, ‘Gee, thanks. You sing the high bits, please,’” laughs Elliott, who confesses that he’s ‘not naturally Brian Johnson’ and has more of a pop voice. But he realizes that his vocals have always been a big part of Def Leppard’s appeal to female fans like Swift and Cyrus. “I was kind of led down the path of the rock singer when we were producing the hard stuff with Mutt [Lange], but it was difficult for me to do. … When it comes to singing things like ‘Photograph,’ it's got all the high stuff, the histrionics that sell it, but listen to the verse parts and it's actually quite understated — because that's just my natural voice. And I think that is more appealing to a female audience, maybe. Because I'm not shouting at them; I'm singing to them. But I always shout to the guys in the bridge and chorus!”
Looking back on the Hawkins concert, during which Def Leppard’s Phil Collen played Foo Fighters member Pat Smear’s borrowed guitar, he recalls “just watching [Dave] Grohl and Smear looking at each other, cigarette in the mouth dangling, giggling, because they were throwing a Nirvana lick into the middle of ‘Rock of Ages.’ And they were hoping that their mates would, or would not, notice. They said, ‘Let's see if anybody spots this!’ And I just thought that was cool. I also thought it was ironic that there was a Nirvana lick in a Def Leppard song — the very kind of music that supposedly tried to kill us off. All of a sudden, when time passes, there's not that much difference.”
Elliott never resented the grunge movement that, as he jokes, purportedly rendered many of Def Leppard’s 1980s MTV peers obsolete — insisting that “the Foo Fighters are the greatest thing that's happened this century” and he had “no issues with Kurt Cobain trying to kill the ‘80s. I don'tthink he tried to kill Def Leppard; I think he tried to kill 99 copyists. I think he'd have been fine with it if we'd have been the only ones out there. But it was saturated… and so that's why we moved away from [pop-metal] after Adrenaline, and we went in to record what we jokingly called ‘commercial suicide,’ which was Slang. … We weren't jumping on any bandwagon; we weren't trying to write songs that sounded like Soundgarden or Nirvana. We were just stripping it back down, because we'd done three albums that were massive productions. We'd done Raiders of the last Ark 1, 2, and 3. We wanted to do something else, not 4.”
But for their latest collaborative career curveball, Def Leppard are obviously doing the opposite of stripping things back. Drastic Symphonies is full of surprises, not the least of which is the orchestral album’s track listing. While the record features familiar favorites like “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” (which — fun fact — was once covered by another pop diva, Mariah Carey), “Hysteria,” “Love Bites,” “Animal,” and “When Love & Hate Collide,” there are also unexpected gems like 1981’s “Switch 625,” the ‘90s tracks “Turn to Dust” and “Paper Sun,” and the Hysteria non-single “Gods of War.” Interestingly, “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages” are not on Drastic Symphonies, and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” almost didn’t make it because the first attempt didn’t work. “Ten seconds into the original [orchestral arrangement] of ‘Sugar,’ we go, ‘Nope, absolutely not! F***ing hideous!’” Elliott laughs. It was only when Lep guitarist Rick Savage suggested covering the moody 2001 version recorded by Bowie associate Emm Gryner that “Sugar” finally made the Drastic Symphonies cut.
“We said, ‘We'll do [this album], but not just to make the sleeve [tracklist] look good,” Elliott says of when the Drastic Symphonies concept was first proposed to the band by their record label. “So, we were not going to do ‘Photograph,’ ‘Rock of Ages,’ or ‘Let's Get Rocked’ if they sound hideous. … We said, ‘We will do as many hits as we can, but we want to go more symphonic.’ … We wanted to make a statement that this is not just butter on a piece of toast.”
Eventually the group was “secretly sneaking into Abbey Road” to watch the Royal Philharmonic’s Drastic Symphonies recording sessions, “just being in awe of these insane musicians playing our music. … Here we are up on the balcony, filming it, watching it, going, ‘I can't believe we're doing this!’” But in a way, they really could believe it, because the shape-shifting, risk-taking rockers were ambitious from the very start.
“We always had ambitions, back when we were catching the bus in the freezing cold snow… saying, ‘We are gonna be the biggest band in the world,’” admits Elliott. ‘I didn't see the point, with all due respect, of being a band that once got to No. 42 on the Billboard charts. That wasn't an ambition that resonated with me. If that's all we ever got, fair enough, but you don't stand at the bottom of Mount Everest saying, ‘Oh, I just want to get a hundred yards up.’ You want to get to the summit.”
Watch Joe Elliott's full interview about about Drastic Symphonies, Thomas Dolby's semi-secret credit on Pyromania, making Diamond Star Halos in the middle of a pandemic, and much more.
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