By Jeb Wright
Def Leppard is one of the most popular rock acts of its generation. The band is one of a select few to have two Diamond-selling albums — sales must total at least 10 million copies to qualify — and both “Pyromania” and “Hysteria” earned that honor. Both albums, too, were riddled with problems. “Pyromania” saw Phil Collen replace original guitarist Pete Willis due to Willis’ alcoholism.
“Hysteria” took three and a half years to record, costing the band millions of dollars in the process. It was also during the making of “Hysteria” that the band’s future was thrown into question when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car crash.
The band celebrated “Hysteria” during its March 2013 residency at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. After performing an opening set featuring classics and rarities, the band launched into its headline set, where it performed “Hysteria” from beginning to end. If you didn’t make it to Vegas to see the show in person, you can enjoy it now with “Viva! Hysteria: Live At The Joint, Las Vegas,” available on DVD, Blu-ray and CD via Frontiers Records.
In the interview that follows, Collen talks in-depth about the making of Hysteria, beginning in tax exile in Ireland and culminating on the first time he heard the album’s final mix.
GOLDMINE: You actually began Hysteria in Ireland. Why?
PHIL COLLEN: We started writing the songs when we got off tour. We finished the “Pyromania” tour and literally moved into this house and started writing songs with Mutt Lange. One of the reasons we went to Ireland to record the album was due to taxes. At the time, if you were an artist, then you only paid something like 4 percent taxes. Back then in England, it was horrible. One year, Elton John paid 98 percent in taxes, if you can imagine that. People were doing anything they could to avoid that. When it becomes ridiculous, you have to take action. For us, it was going to be something like 65 percent in taxes we were going to have to pay.
GM: Was Mutt the thrust behind “Hysteria”?
PC: Absolutely, without a doubt. There was no resistance from us, because we wanted to make the best record possible. We could be an OK band, or we could be a great band. I think Mutt turned us into a great band. A lot of bands copied “Hysteria” by copying the harmonies, but it wasn’t the same. We had the harmonies, but we had the melodies, as well. We knew that the harmonies had to be great, the melodies had to be great, the groove had to be great and the lyrics had to mean something. Even if they are shallow, they have to mean something. I am very proud with what we were able to do on that album. Mutt had an insight to it all.
GM: The difference between the copycats is the strength of the songs, the sum of the whole.
PC: That was it in a nutshell. I think the album is now 13 times Platinum, which is crazy.
GM: “Hysteria” was not an easy album from the very beginning.
PC: It wasn’t, but it was very rewarding. We started with Jim Steinman, and that didn’t work out.
GM: I forgot that he was producer before Mutt.
PC: So do we, now. He didn’t have any direction for us. He just wanted to make a record, which is exactly what Mutt didn’t want to do. We would have been just an ordinary band with an ordinary album with Steinman, but we wanted to do something that was great. That was the difference; Mutt had that vision.
GM: But you began writing the songs before Steinman with Mutt. Why didn’t he just stay on and produce it from the start?
PC: Mutt had to do “Heartbeat City” by The Cars; he had already committed to that. We had only six months together. We all lived in the same house together, which was kind of cool. We wrote all of the songs together, but it took so long that Mutt had to go do The Cars’ album, and we had to find someone to record it. We had a very short list of producers. We ended up with Jim Steinman.
If he had done anything, then it wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but there were no real suggestions. There was nothing coming out of it at all. When you have someone producing a record, you want them to come in with a lot of ideas. Steinman didn’t work out at all.
We spent an extra year just trying to record with different engineers, and that didn’t work either. We tried Mike Shipley and Nigel Green and a bunch of different guys, and that was all fine and dandy, but we started it with Mutt. He had an idea of what it would sound like, and everyone was just second-guessing him, and it wasn’t working at all. It was very frustrating. It wasn’t even a lack of experience on our part. When Mutt explained the concept he had for the album … it is hard to explain. Not many people can actually explain how the songs should have a certain feel and verve to them. The songs just didn’t have any fire to them. We kept going back and doing it over and over again, and we kept losing the vibe.
GM: You took so long that Mutt’s schedule actually freed up. That’s crazy.
PC: We had been f**king off for two years, and when he came back, he said it was time to go to work. As soon as he came back into the fold, everything fell into place. He had a vision of what “Hysteria” was supposed to be like, and he was the only one who could do that album. When Mutt came back, he raised everything to a whole new level. Mutt Lange is great. He can just listen to a song and say, “That chord is too weak, and the vocal won’t work. You really need something else here.” He really breaks it down and analyzes it. He has a constant flow, and he is very inspiring. One of the big things that a lot of people don’t realize Mutt was doing with “Hysteria” was that he was making the album for CD buyers. He knew the CD thing was going to take off. We had 10 tracks and Mutt said we needed more. All of us, including the record company said, “What are you talking about? Quality will suffer from too many songs, and no one will buy the record.” In the end, it worked great, as CDs obviously took off.
GM: Was it a painstaking effort in the studio?
PC: When Mutt was there, it wasn’t. With Mutt, we were experimenting, especially with the guitar stuff. On the song “Hysteria” where we sing, “I’ve got to know tonight,” I played every note on the chord, separately. It had this sound that you’ve never heard before. Little things like that were not painstaking, they were actually really cool. I can remember Mutt and I staying up really late doing that particular part. A guitar player friend of mine came in the studio to say hello, and I was sitting there going “bing, bing, bing” on one note, and then I am tracking it and then going back and doing another note, “ding, ding, ding,” and tracking it and he goes, “What the f**k are you doing?” We were like, “Wait ‘til you hear it all together.” It really had this really unique sound. It was not painstaking, because we were doing something that had never been done. Every time we put a new part on, we got excited about it. We had to play things that would assist the song and not affect the groove or the melody. It went on a long time, and sometimes it was exhausting, but, at the same time, it was groundbreaking, which made it really exciting.
GM: Did this meticulous aspect of these parts present challenges to play the songs live?
PC: Yeah. The biggest one was “Love Bites.” We had never played it as a band; it was a pure studio song where everything was done separately. The vocal took forever to do, as there is so much going on there with the backgrounds. We were on tour, and it got released as a single and went to No. 1. We had never played it. We had to take two days off — I remember it was up in Canada, in Vancouver — and we went into a rehearsal room, and we played this thing over and over and over again until we got it down. It was so hard to do. Obviously, now, we can do it in our sleep, but it was tough to learn.
GM: How did the recording process take place?
PC: We recorded the album individually. We didn’t play as a band. Each of us went in and did our parts separately. It was hard work, but it was more like learning. It is not like we had some a**hole egomaniac telling us what to do. A lot of people don’t realize that by the time Mutt came in, we were banging a lot of the stuff out on the first take. We had to get the ideas right, but we really were nailing it in one pass. All of the guitars at the end of “Armageddon It” and “Hysteria” were improvised. Mutt would say, “Try and play something like this,” and we would just do it. We would not play it again until we started rehearsals. I had to figure a lot of the guitar parts out again after the album was completed.
GM: What about the vocal harmonies?
PC: Getting the harmonies on the album was rather easy, because in the studio, you can hear everyone’s different parts really well. Mutt was a big part of that, and he even sang with us. He really has a fantastic voice. It was hard, because he was pushing us. He turned us into singers. We really didn’t know what we were doing before that. When we properly finished the album, I was amazed. I remember thinking that if no one buys it, then I am still happy that it turned out like this. It really turned out as it was supposed to sound.
GM: How much thought went into he running order of the album?
PC: Everyone was involved in that. Again, Mutt had a clear picture of how it should flow. I don’t really remember much about it. Most albums, you try to front-load. You put all of your strong songs in the beginning. With that album, because it was such a strong album, you had a feel that you could really make a cool running order, because every song stood up on its own. “Woman” started the album, and while it was not a great commercial song, it was a great mood song. It made the album start with a certain mood. “Hysteria” had a great running order. We didn’t have to front-load it, because it was a real album, and we could make a great running order. I loved that about it. We really had a lot of creativity due to Mutt’s vision and the way the songs came out.
GM: Tell me about the cover.
PC: Andie Airfix did that. He did a few albums, like “Hysteria,” “Pyromania” and “Adrenalize.” At first, I didn’t quite get it. I was like, “I don’t really like this.” It looked like Tron on the back. The front had a man morphing into an animal, or the other way around. It was “Hysteria.” I didn’t understand it straight away, but once I got it, then I loved it. Now, I find it to be one of our most interesting sleeves.
GM: At what point did Rick have his car wreck and lose his arm?
PC: It was a year into it. I don’t think we were working with Mutt yet. Steve [Clark] and I were in Paris that night. We got a message that Rick had been in an accident and had severed his arm. We thought he just cut it badly, like a nasty gash. We had no idea how serious the injury was. He nearly lost both arms. The car flipped over and was just trashed. He flew out the roof and the car seat pulled his arm off. We didn’t hear any of this at the time. Pete Mensch, our manager at the time, called us from the hospital and told us that his arm was severed. We asked him exactly what that meant. He explained it and we just said, “F**k.” We were all fairly young guys. We thought stuff like that only happened in the movies. When it happened to someone we knew, it was a bit of a wake-up call. It brought reality into focus. It was something that we had never really had to deal with. In our band, we had not really experienced anything like that. We had never even experienced the death of a family member.
GM: I know you were concerned about Rick, but this had to be very scary as a band. It had to be very emotional for the entire band.
PC: Steve and I got a very nice surprise from Rick, as it turned out. We went to Sheffield to the hospital to see him. We drove up from London, and we had no idea of how he was going to be, or how he was going to react to us. I remember we actually went to a pub and had some stiff drinks before we went to see him. We thought, “Is he going to freak out? Is he going to be weird?” We really didn’t know how he would react. We went into his room, and he was all bandaged up, and he came over and hugged us, as if nothing had happened. He said, “Hey guys, how are you doing? I’ve got this all figured out and I’ve been practicing on the edge of the bed on the pillow. I’m going to use my left leg instead of my left arm.” We were like, “Wow.” He put us at ease, straightaway. He was very strong. It was crazy, but it was a huge relief. He adapted to the idea of it straightaway, he then had to learn how to do it.
GM: Once he was able to contribute, then that had to fit into the whole vibe of the album where you were being groundbreaking and pushing the envelope.
PC: Totally, especially when we played live. You can do stuff up in the studio, but when you get out on tour then that is when people can see what you can really do. With us, we are really live. For Rick, it was a big deal for him to be able to play on his own and play live. Initially, we took another drummer out with us. He wanted us to take another drummer in case it all went pear-shaped. The guy, Jeff Rich, used to play in Status Quo, missed his flight. We were waiting to go on stage, and the guy wasn’t even there. We were like, “F**k, Rick, you’re just going to go on and do it.” We were in a ballroom in southern Ireland, in the middle of nowhere, a place called Ballybunion, and Jeff had a problem getting down there because it is in the middle of nowhere. Rick got on stage, and we just played. Jeff finally showed up during the show and said, “Well, looks like you’re OK. You don’t need me.”
GM: Did the band ever consider replacing Rick?
PC: The idea of replacing Rick never really came into it. Mutt Lange had went to see him and told him that he could do it with one arm if he really put his mind to it. From that point on, it was just a matter of him figuring out how he was going to process it and how he was going to play. His determination was really an amazing thing. Steve Clark and I shared a house with Rick at the time. He would get up at 8 in the morning and practice all day. The only suffering at the time was him waking us up. He was very determined. We let him get on with it, and it really did work out good. It made the unit stronger, but it was a really weird thing to happen.
For Rick, the hard things were things like learning to tie his shoelaces. He would try to cut a loaf of bread, and we would go, “Be careful. You’re going to cut your nose off.” Things that we think are quite normal were personal triumphs for him. For the band, the triumph was when we played the Donington Festival. England had never been really into us. They thought we were kind of wussies. We had success in America, and they were a bit weird about it. Because we had a disabled person in the band, it forced everyone to listen. Rick was fantastic that night, as he had so much to prove. Everyone there went, “F**king hell, these guys are really cool.” It was a very positive thing. I think all of the things that happened in between really brought us together. We had to start the album again from scratch with Mutt, and Rick losing his arm really brought us all back to ground zero.
GM: This was your first full album after you joined Def Leppard. Were you a full-fledged member? Did you have to earn your stripes?
PC: When I played on “Pyromania,” all of the songs had been written. I initially came in to just play the solos. I played five solos. I played on “Stagefright,” “Photograph,” “Foolin’,” “Rock of Ages” and “Rock Till You Drop.” Then, they found out that I could sing, and then I was overdubbing on things. As we went on, everyone realized that I was a little bit different. On “Hysteria,” I wrote, and suddenly we had a different sound. It really opened it up. It changed the dynamics of the band. I think from that point on it was obvious. The album was so successful that it became a new sound.
GM: Do you remember hearing the playback to “Hysteria” for the first time?
PC: I remember that. We got a mix, and I think it was a cassette. Steve and I took it back to this little house we had on the lake, and we played it all the way back. We looked at each other and said, “F**k, we couldn’t have done anything better. We are so happy with it. If no one buys it then we don’t care.” We were very serious, and we actually said this: “If the only people that buy this are our moms, then it doesn’t matter.” This was the whole of artistry. This was that moment that you’ve always dreamed of where you want to be part of something that is so special. We actually really thought that. Initially, when the album came out and didn’t do well, we were surprised, but then it picked up and went through the roof. We didn’t get egoed out or big-headed about it, because it cost so much money that it was kind of an embarrassment. It wasn’t a good business move. There was nothing to be egoed out about it. We spent $5 million, or whatever it was, on a record. When it came out, we were pleased. It was really fulfilling. Steve and I sat there when we first listened to it and we just knew it was great. GM