What's next for Def Leppard? -- The metal band talks about their all-covers album

By Chris Willman
Updated May 12, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Never before in music history has a major rock & roll band, fed up with a full quarter century’s worth of mischaracterizations and mislabelings, feistily set out to finally put the rockin’ record straight by getting good and angry enough to…cover an ELO song. But when you’re as misunderstood as Def Leppard, you have to undertake some unusual measures to prove your mettle. Or to prove you’re not metal.

”I think it’s absolutely fair to say that Def Leppard is a pop band more than anything else,” guitarist Vivian Campbell courageously declares.

Mind you, this is the one guy in the band who actually could lay claim to serious devil-horn credentials; after all, before Leppard hired him on in the early ’90s, Campbell was a member of the quintessential metal band, Dio. ”It’s so weird, man. I meet people and they’re all like, ‘Dude, Holy Diver, metal!’ And I hate heavy metal music. It’s true that in the ’80s I wanted to play like [metal fret-meisters] Yngwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert and all those cats. But that stuff does not endure. It’s really impressive for the first 20 seconds. But I can still go back and listen to [David Bowie’s late guitarist] Mick Ronson and be totally blown away every time.”

Which brings us to the enthusiastically titled Yeah!, Leppard’s new all-covers album, featuring not only a Bowie/Ronson song but tunes from Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, David Essex, Thin Lizzy, Sweet, Blondie, and other potent but not-ready-for-shred 1970s rockers. But where are Deep Purple and Black Sabbath? Well, exactly. The fortysomething Englishmen (and one Irishman) of Leppard came of age not with that first wave of metal but in the glam-rock era, when crunchy hard-rock licks were suddenly being brandished by overdressed fops on the U.K.’s Top of the Pops — a brief, idyllic, Brit-centric age when tight vocal harmonies, visual flamboyance, and tastefully screaming guitars came together in perfect accord. ”It was rock music dressed as pop music,” says singer Joe Elliott, ”and as kids, that sucked us all in.”

The other band members have kidded that Elliott has wanted to do this album for decades — or maybe they weren’t f-f-f-foolin’. ”It’s no exaggeration at all, actually,” the singer insists. ”We’ve jokingly said I was probably wanting to do one of these ever since I went out and bought Bowie’s Pin Ups, which was five years before I joined the band.” (That landmark 1973 album was analogous to this one, with Bowie remaking the ’60s tunes that most influenced him.) ”We’ve talked about it for years. I’ve said, ‘One day, we need to put the world to right. If we make a record that says where we come from, maybe people will listen a little better.’ Because no matter how many times we told everybody we were getting labeled a certain way we didn’t think was fitting, the next time we did interviews, they were just relabeling us the ‘new wave of British heavy metal.’ Then it moved on to ”80s hair metal’ and all this stuff. But if you took Lemmy and Ozzy and stuck ’em in a room with Scott Ian from Anthrax and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden and said, ‘Def Leppard — heavy metal? Discuss,’ they’d all burst out laughing. Even if you listen to our first album [1980’s On Through the Night], it was full of harmonies that were more Queen and Beach Boys than just the obligatory vocals over a riff.”

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