ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 18, 2003
By Steve Newton
A lot of bands that were big in the ’80s are now having trouble getting booked into bowling alleys, but Def Leppard’s not one of them. The British melodic-rock quintet—which hit its commercial peak in 1987 with Hysteria, which has sold 16 million units worldwide—is still on the arena circuit, with a gig lined up for Tuesday (September 23) at the Pacific Coliseum. As lead vocalist Joe Elliott explains over the phone from a midtour break in Phoenix, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There is the odd person who it’s always nice to see in an intimate setting,” relates the 44-year-old singer. “I don’t think Tom Waits would work too well in Madison Square Garden; you’d rather see him in Carnegie Hall. But there’s a novelty factor about a band like us in an intimate setting. Other than sittin’ down on a stool doin’ like the VH-1 Unplugged–type stuff, Aerosmith, Zeppelin, us, Bon Jovi—whoever you wanna name—kinda gravitate to the larger-than-life persona. I think if you aim big and think big you actually end up just being big.
“Some people like that intimacy of stayin’ small,” continues the talkative rocker. “Maybe Norah Jones is going through a bit of a headfuck at the moment. She probably always wanted to just be Billie Holiday, but now she’s Alanis Morissette, you know. And she’s gonna be wanting to do intimate stuff, but 10,000 people per town are gonna want to see her do it, which means holding up in a residency for a month or just biting your lip and going with a big gig. For us, when we got offered the big gigs, that’s what we were looking for. And as long as you put a value-of-the-money show on, the fans would rather see you in a bigger venue most of the time, anyway.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But when those fans are coughing up more than 50 bucks for a “big gig”, do they also appreciate an intimate performance by a solo artist they’ve never heard of? Leppard’s current North American tour includes an acoustic warm-up set by singer-songwriter Ricky Warwick, whose Elliott-produced solo debut hits stores this month.
“Of course we looked around to see what was available,” says Elliott of the opening-act options, “but to be quite honest, nothing really appealed. If we wanted them they didn’t want us, or we didn’t want to be paying the kinda money that they were looking for. I mean, some of the artists that wanted to come out with us were looking for as much money as we were getting, and it’s like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’
“So then we all sat down and said, ‘Well look: everybody likes Ricky, everybody likes his record, why don’t we take Ricky out?’ So we’re giving somebody who’s a new solo artist an opportunity to play in front of a lot of people when he’s just about to release an album, and it make us feel good, because we’re like a launching pad—maybe. It’s up to him how well his record sells; it’s up to the stars and the alignment of the climate and all this kinda stuff.”
Astrology and weather patterns notwithstanding, Def Leppard itself hasn’t managed to sustain the immense popularity of its late-’80s heyday. The quintet’s latest CD, last year’s X, was a commercial flop, although only by Leppard standards. “To be quite honest, I’ve never looked at [sales] figures,” contends Elliott. “It went in [the charts] at No. 11—which is not seven weeks at No. 1, we’d be the first to accept that—but I know it’s [sold] over a million worldwide, and it’s pushing two. It’s not bad in this day and age, 23 years into a career.”
It’s a known fact that critics have never been kind to Def Leppard, and after listening to X, this scribbler’s not about to try and change that. But the resolute Elliott contends that the ballad-heavy disc was “well-received” by the music press.
“Believe me, Hysteria had worse reviews than X,” he claims, “and look what that album did! From an artistic point of view it’s gratifying that people actually believe that we don’t belong in the Winger/Warrant/Ratt category. We were never anything to do with that, and we never wanted to be anything to do with that. For starters we weren’t from L.A. We weren’t a big-hair band, we were a longhair band. Our hair was no bigger than Zeppelin or Sabbath, and nobody ever called them big hair.”