Music legends Savage (left) and Elliott (right) reflect on their careers with the English rock band Def Leppard.
Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott & Rick Savage
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Joe Elliott and Rick Savage, two of the founding members of one of the most successful heavy metal bands, Def Leppard. 35 years after they came on the scene, they’re still going strong, now on tour with KISS.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Joe Elliott and Rick Savage of Def Leppard coming up right now.
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Tavis: Rick Savage and Joe Elliott, two of the founding members of Def Leppard, met as teenagers forming the band that is still going strong 35 years later. They’ve sold more than 100 million records worldwide and are currently touring with KISS. Let’s take a look at Leppard performing their hit song, “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
Tavis: Joe and Rick, good to have you both here.
Rick Savage: Thanks.
Joe Elliott: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking how a band navigates staying together 35 years? That’s a long time to be together, particularly given that there are always ups and downs in that process.
Your drummer – at one point, a drummer loses his arm. You lose one band member to drug or alcohol overdose, and all the other challenges that come along notwithstanding. How do you stay together 35 years?
Savage: It’s a good question [laugh]. It’s one of those things that your time just seems to fly by. We like each other. We’ve always had a respect for each other. We have similar tastes with similar people and it’s not hard work. I think that’s the essence of it, you know. There’s no big secret. It’s not a special thing.
Tavis: You might like each other and that’s a start, which isn’t easy to like somebody for 35 years. You might like each other, but how do you not grow apart over that 35 years?
Elliott: I think it’s just the fact that we had the common goal when we were kids. Coming from Sheffield which is a very industrial town in northern England, you’ve got two choices. You either just got sucked into the whole what your parents did and your grandparents did or we were just really looking – in the mid-70s there was like a kind of a new way of thinking coming along where kids would just go, “I don’t wanna do that,” you know.
To a lot of people, it’s football, soccer, but any kind of sport gets them out of a bad situation or just an ongoing more of the same that their parents went through. I think when you get an opportunity to do something that you dearly love, like for us it was music, you just grasp it and you just don’t ever want to let go. I mean, that’s what it is.
Tavis: How did music for you guys become the way out?
Savage: The minute that you start hearing songs on the radio, a light bulb goes off in your head and you literally go, “I’d love to do that” or “I’d love to be in that band or just be part of something like that.”
It’s when you meet as we did as teenagers, me and Joe, it just fuels the fire and it just makes you more determined to want to be something like that. ‘Cause you can sit on your own and wish and wish all day, but you need four or five other guys with you.
Tavis: It’s one thing to make that decision. It’s another thing to sort of – how can I put this – find a way to get in where you fit in. That is to say, that particularly when you guys were coming along, there were so many great rock bands.
How do you find your own way in? Put another way, how do you create your own style and your sound? How do you end up being an original, not a copycat of the stuff that’s already out there?
Elliott: Well, I think if everybody – especially if you’ve been around as long as those were, it doesn’t matter anymore what you say [laugh]. I think the truth is that, when you start off as kids, as 16 and 17-year-olds, you are gonna sound like somebody else. You just are because the reason that you get into music, if that’s your thing, is because you’ve heard other people.
And what you do is, you go, “Well, I want a bit of that and bit of that” and you put it in your bucket and stir it around. It’s still gonna sound a little bit like all your heroes or whatever, but eventually it starts to take on a kind of a life of its own and it does become your identity.
You listen to our first record, “On Through the Night,” you can hear little chunks of other bands that we grew up listening to, but it still had a lot of our identity. That’s one of the reasons that we got to make the record because other people like A&R people, record companies and the general public saw that we did our own thing in addition to what obviously was influencing it.
So that’s one of those things that you’re just born lucky – you know, that you’ve got a certain amount of talent inside you that just needs nurturing. It needs to come out. Lots of people could start the same way as we did and not get as far because they just maybe didn’t have that what we used to be able to call the X factor.
Tavis: It’s one thing to read what the critics who’ve loved you guys for years have said about your music, but how would you define your sound? If there were a creature from another planet coming here, how would you describe this Def Leppard sound?
Savage: To me, what I always – this is just me. What I always wanted the band to be was some sort of cross between Queen and AC/DC. You know, just the melodic and the melodies and the songwriting of Queen, but with the attitude of AC/DC, the solidness of AC/DC. I don’t think we’re far from somewhere in that little mix.
Now the great thing about our band is, obviously, we feed off each other. We all have different influences anyway, so it’s all a combination of our own influences that kind of ends up where we are.
Tavis: I was looking at – I just wanted to remind myself. I’m part of that MTV generation, so I grew up watching you guys, listening to you guys all the time in middle school and high school. But it was fascinating for me to go back and just do a little research, and you guys have done nine studio albums and that number seemed really, really small to me…
Elliott: It is, yeah.
Tavis: Over 35. I was telling Sasheen, our producer, I was trying to juxtapose as I was reading the research how a band could sell 100 million records, become this iconic the world over, and have only done nine studio records? Obviously, you guys did the right ones [laugh], but it just…
Savage: It took a while sometimes to actually complete the record [laugh].
Tavis: But it just seems – I mean, the impact that you had just seems so much bigger than nine studio records.
Elliott: I think a lot of that was just out of good fortune, you know. We certainly didn’t flood the market [laugh]. You know, we started off wanting to do what everybody else did. You know, when we grew up, all the bands that we listened to put an album out every year.
Elliott: That’s what they did.
Elliott: And when we started out, so did we. We had an album in 1980; we had an album in 1981. Then things started to change. We now see some of the bands that we grew up with were starting to put an album out every couple of years and that was down to the world expanding and you were touring more. So you couldn’t get back in the studio as early as you did before.
You know, people maybe used to do a three-month tour and back in the studio. Then all of a sudden, there was like, well, you can go to Australia and you can go to South Africa and you can go to South America, and there’s all these other areas that you end up touring. That happens to a lot of bands.
With us, it wasn’t that at all. We started with a producer called “Mutt” Lange. And what we went to do what was to become the “Pyromania” album, he said to us in preproduction, “Look, I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna just make a replica of your previous record.”
The first album we did with him was our second album called “High and Dry” which took three months to make which is kind of standard really for that kind of a record. Well, the next one, he said, “I think we should try and make a record that nobody else has ever made.” And that intrigued us and we were young enough to go, yeah, I can go for that.
All the new technology that was coming in that was being used a lot not in rock – Michael Jackson was using drum machines and synthesizers and so were The Human League. It was almost like taking craft work kind of music and shoving into rock and roll.
And we were starting to use the studio and all the new technology that came along to make the next record and it just made it take a lot longer to make ’cause we went down a lot of dead-end avenues going, “We can’t do that. It doesn’t work.” And we’d come back and say, “Well, this bit does.”
And when you listen to the record in 1983 when it finally came out ’cause it took about, what, nine or ten months to make, which was stupid time, it was so different to everything else that was out at the time that it actually just took off. In America…
Savage: Sonically, it was groundbreaking.
Tavis: That third and fourth album, that was…
Elliott: It was only Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that stopped “Pyromania” getting to the top of the charts. That was for about four months, he just wouldn’t budge [laugh].
Tavis: You’re forgiven for that [laugh]. It was “Thriller,” yeah.
Elliott: But, you know, that record took off so well that we were on tour for an entire year promoting that record. So that, again, eats up another year. But then when it came to the next one, that’s when everything started to kind of – life started interfering with the music, like Rick lost his arm.
We also – if we’re honest, we all knew that – I mean, the album, at the time it sold six million copies in America. The next one better be damn good because everybody’s gonna have their knives out if it’s not and that was a weird situation.
Savage: Well, everybody was saying, “How are you gonna follow? There’s no way you can follow six million at the time selling records, you know.” And we actually thought, you know what? Of course, there is. You’re not gonna do it overnight and you’ve got to be very careful about how you go about doing it.
But we always viewed our competition, if that’s the right phrase, as people like Whitney Houston and George Michael and Michael Jackson. It wasn’t the hard rock bands of the year. You know, we wanted to be up with, you know, the big-selling artists that went across the board, not just hard rock or pop or whatever. It was everybody.
Tavis: That’s a fascinating take to put yourself in that stratosphere.
Elliott: We liked being the sore thumb in the charts where it would be like, you know, all these solo artists, there could be R&B, there could be just pure pop and then there’d be us [laugh]. What the hell are they doing there? But, you know, when you’re in a band, it might seem a bit weird for rock funders to take that in and go, “I don’t get it.”
But, seriously, you know, once you’ve established yourself as a great rock band, it’s kind of taken for granted or even easy to just be top of a pile of rock bands or to say, okay, well, we’ve done that. Now what’s the next mountain?
It’s like infiltrate the other stuff, you know. Get people that normally buy Michael Jackson or George Michael or even just other types of music like country – it doesn’t matter what it is – to go, “I like that Def Leppard record and I’m gonna buy it.”
Tavis: So I take your point. I take both of your points about this. But how do you go about achieving that musically when what you’re putting out is so dramatically different in sound from a Michael or a Whitney or a George Michael? How do you achieve that musically? It’s a great goal to have, but how do you do it musically, artistically?
Elliott: Well, you stick to your goals, don’t you?
Elliott: You’ve got your format of what you want rock music – your idea of what rock music sounds like. But at the same time, you take in the other influences. And in the 80s, a lot of that was the sonics. It was the sound. You wouldn’t be scared to try a drum sound that was more suitable or supposedly only ever used by, say, R&B or something like that. If it works on a rock song, why not? Then people would hear it as a sound that they’re familiar with from another form of music.
We would never, oh, we just got to sound like John Bonham or Ringo Starr, a typical rock drum sound. We were always prepared to go a stage further and bring in other influences sonically, musically, even just the arrangements of it. They were very structured for the fan. We were very, very commercially orientated as a band.
We wanted our songs to be heard by as many people as possible, so we weren’t alienating the songs and pointing them purely to a category that’s just gonna appeal to, you know, heavy metal fans or something. We wanted it to be a much more broader picture.
Tavis: How much of this success you think has to do with the time, the time that you came along? That seems like a silly question ’cause everything is about timing.
But what occurs to me now as we are in the part of the conversation is who you were up against, who else was putting records out in that era, how you were able to break through in that era to go on and sell 100 million records. What was happening as you look back on that era that made Def Leppard break through?
Elliott: Three letters: MTV.
Savage: That helped. Again, there’s so many little components that go in to just being successful. One, there’s got to be a certain amount of talent, a certain amount of ability to write songs and to recognize great melodies. But you need a hell of a lot of luck as well, and timing is everything, you know, to go along with that. You need good guidance, good management.
There’s so many little things that encompass the big picture. It’s one of those things. It kind of just happens and, all of a sudden, you’re selling half a million records a week and you’re going, “I don’t really know how this is happening, but it is.” It’s something you’ve always strived for and worked towards, but it’s hard to actually analyze and go, well, it’s because of this and because of that.
MTV absolutely helped at the time ’cause that was new and our music was kind of just almost growing in step with the success of MTV. That was a big factor, for sure.
Tavis: When was – just between the three of us. Nobody’s watching. Just three of us. When, where, was that darkest moment when the band was closest to disbanding? 35 years later, you’re still together.
Savage: Well, after 35 years, there’s been a few occasions, I think.
Tavis: I figured as much.
Savage: It’s like anything else. The obvious points, you know, where you just wonder – first of all, when Rick had his accident. Once it became clear that his life was actually not in danger, you then start thinking, “Well, okay, but a drummer cannot play with one arm.” That’s your immediate thoughts. So it’s things like that that you really focus on whether you want to continue doing this or what are we gonna do?
I mean, you know, there have been occasions like that. You know, when Steve passed away, it was like we need to take stock. We need to evaluate what is important and where we do go, if we go anywhere, you know.
Tavis: So it seems to me one thing to continue when your drummer loses his arm, ’cause you’re right. All your fans were thinking the same thing. How does a band go on with a drummer who – a drummer can’t play with one arm? So it’s one thing to decide to go on, to keep moving forward after that happens.
It’s a little different, though, when you lose one of your friends and one of your band mates. So then the flip side of the question I just asked is what then becomes the motivation to continue when you’ve lost your band mate?
Elliott: Well, with Rick, it was pretty simple really because it was almost cowardly on our part. We’re like, well, I’m not firing him, you know. He’s lost his arm. He can’t possibly carry on, so he’s gonna want to leave. But when he kind of regained consciousness and it all started to soak in, he just turned around and said, “I’ve figured out a way of doing it” and we’re like, “Okay.”
The first thing you’re not gonna do is say, “Don’t be silly. You know, come on. Nice try, but we’re gonna get somebody.” You say all right. Well, look, we just happened to be – and again, it’s all part of the big picture by accident in a situation where we had drum tracks down on tape that he’d done before he lost his arm.
So we could do all the over dubs and keep working on these songs and he didn’t even need to be there ’cause we got his contribution to the song so far on tape already. So he could just recuperate and go and figure out how to do this. And when the realization kicked in that he couldn’t, then at least he gave it a go. But it wasn’t like that. He kept going and he’s still going, you know [laugh].
He figured it out, you know, by using electronics which he wouldn’t have had five years earlier. So, again, that’s the timing thing. The mid 80s, this is gonna sound ridiculous, but if there was ever a time to lose your arm, it was 1984 because, by then, there was technology that could help you out.
Tavis: The drum machine, yeah, yeah.
Elliott: No, it wasn’t the drum machine. It was actually – he literally, instead of hitting things with the arm that had gone, he was pushing pedals which you do anyway as a drummer. You’ve got the high out and you’ve got the bass drum. But, you know, rock and roll doesn’t really do that very much, so that foot’s pretty much redundant.
So he just figured that out. Lock the high out shot, moves the foot over onto a trigger that hits the snare, and in theory it works. And it just took a lot of practice, but he got it.
That is so inspiring that you think, well, anything else that comes along, we’ve passed the test. There’s nothing that can kill this band and that was pretty early in our career. That was only seven years in or so, eight years in.
Cut to ’91 when Steve passed away. The horrible truth is, it was not a shock. It was as shocking as somebody telling you that your 99-year-old granny just passed away.
It’s coming sooner or later. The guy had problems. He had serious alcohol problems. He didn’t die of a drug overdose. He died of prescription drug overdose washing it down with alcohol because he like to drink. That was the big problem.
So when we found out he died, we were extremely upset, of course, but it wasn’t like a major shock. The truth is, the record that we were making at the time, we’d been making it for six months without Steve.
Tavis: But how do you navigate all of those years with a friend and a band mate who you love and care for, who you see killing himself?
Savage: Well, that’s the hard thing, you know. We believe, and we honestly did believe at the time, that we’d done as much as we possibly could to help Steve.
Tavis: So no guilt on your part when he died?
Savage: Honestly not, absolutely not. It’s a natural thing to question yourself and analyze yourself after the event and say, “Did we do enough? Could we have done this? Could we have done that?” You know, honestly, we’re clean on that. It was like we really couldn’t have done any more for the guy.
Elliott: He was on a six-month sabbatical when he died. We gave him six months away from the band so he could take his clothes out of a wardrobe instead of a suitcase, all the things that might have been bugging him.
And he was an adult. He’s got lifestyle choices to make here. He wasn’t like a kid. He was in his 30s, or just. He was 29 or 30 years old. He’d been in a successful band. He knew how to buy a house. He knew how to drive a car. He knew how to write a check. He wasn’t an idiot, but he had really bad problems with alcohol.
We’d made him to go into rehab and it doesn’t work when you make somebody go. They’ve gotta want to go. So he failed three or four times. We really don’t have any guilt. We tried to say, “Steve, you need help.” “Yeah, I know I do.” And he’d go and, for a month, it’d be fine and then it would all go wrong.
And then, it’s like, “Okay, the best thing that we can do here, you don’t seem to be in a happy place. It’s not really very good for the band either, but more importantly, for you. Go home. Just go home.” And he went to London and, four months into that “six-month break,” he passed away.
But all the time he was over there, we’d be on the phone once a week. How you doing? All this kind of stuff. And he’d be either pretending he’s fine or he really was, I don’t know. When people fall off, they can literally fall off just for one second. It’s all it takes. So we were already making this record.
Yes, when he died and he was buried and we were all together there at the funeral and then we all got together and decided what do we do now, you know, you say all the usual things like, well, he’d want us to finish this ’cause you have to justify it yourself more than anything else.
But the fact of the matter is that we wanted to finish it anyway because this is our job and why should the four of us have to quit because one of us didn’t run the race the same way that we did? So it wasn’t that difficult. There was a certain emotional heart tug going on. Of course, there always will be, but at the same time, this is our life and it’s our career.
And the four remaining members of the band decided out of respect to Steve we would finish the album as a four-piece. We wouldn’t get anybody else in. So Phil did all the guitars and we made the record. We dedicated it to Steve and we did what everybody else in life does. We moved on.
Tavis: And all these years later, 100 million records sold, you’re still moving on. And before I let you guys go, we have got to say a word about this tour. I’ve been so fascinated by your life and your legacy and your career, I ain’t said a word about the tour. So you’re hanging out with KISS?
Elliott: Yes, we are.
Tavis: Traveling everywhere [laugh]?
Elliott: Literally, yes. The banter in the corridors between us coming off and then going on is hilarious.
Tavis: Are we having fun on the tour?
Elliott: It’s great. You know, they’re easy guys to work with. There’s a lot of respect between the two bands and there’s a lot of hits between the two bands.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Elliott: So the classic cliché of one and one making three. That’s what this is. We’re not really good at math, but that’s actually…
Savage: That’s what it feels like. Lovely guys, some of the nicest guys we’ve ever worked with. Really nice people.
Tavis: I say the tagline for this tour is “Too many hits, too little time” [laugh].
Elliott: Yeah, it’s pretty much true. You know, you could cram in as many songs as you can. You can’t get them all in, but you just have to do what you can, you know.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you guys came to see us in the midst of a busy tour and I’m sure a lot of late nights on this tour [laugh].
Elliott: Sure. We’re used to it. Last night was a late night, yeah.
Tavis: Every night’s a late night with you guys, I’m sure, on this tour. If you can get in to see Def Leppard, they’re on tour for a little while this summer with KISS. I think you will have a good time. As I said, so many hits, so little time. But enjoy yourself in checking out Def Leppard. Rick and Joe, good to have you guys here, man.
Savage: Thank you for having us.
Tavis: Oh, man, what a great conversation.
Elliott: Thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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