Legendary English rock band Def Leppard brought the circus back to town last week. Paired up with fellow hair-metal survivors Whitesnake, the group began a four-date Japan tour with two nights at the prestigious Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo on Oct. 23 and 24.
The two behemoths of 1980s pop metal have each weathered rather differently with age, and it showed on the opening night. While Whitesnake dragged themselves around the stage and lumbered through an uninspiring set, Def Leppard, buoyed by their latest album hitting the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, captivated the audience as if time hadn’t passed at all.
“I’m knackered!” announces guitarist Phil Collen the morning after. “With jet lag! Normally we Zen out about it, three hours sleep and bang. But I definitely sensed a bit of drag in our ass!”
The group have been a five-piece since guitarist Vivian Campbell, ironically once of Whitesnake, joined them in 1992, and Collen and Campbell are taking interview duties while the other members slink around the Four Seasons Hotel’s hallways. Despite all of the members now being in or approaching their 50s, the two ax-wielders in particular prowled the stage like a fledgling band hungry for success.
“We have a trainer who comes with us,” explains Collen, a vegan for 25 years. “He’s the European Champion at Muay Thai kick-boxing, so I do everything — weights, spin-bike; really hardcore!”
A laughing Campbell retorts, “I eat all the pies and drink the beer!”
Def Leppard were renowned in the 1980s for spending years crafting “perfect- production” albums such as “Hysteria” (1987, four years) and “Adrenalize” (1992, five years) with revered producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, then going on to tour the records endlessly.
“On the ‘Hysteria’ tour, we played the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky on Halloween,” recalls Collen. “It was a 23,000-capacity arena and we had just 3,000! People were all dressed up but we were really depressed that no one was there. That was grim! Fortunately the record then did what it did (selling 20 million copies) and we came back (to the Rupp Arena) and filled it!”
Today, Leppard have adapted better than most to the new music climate, and they are cautiously happy at the way the music industry has developed.
“Albums are not as important; it’s not as critical as it used to be,” explains Campbell.
“You can bang out stuff on your laptop now where you would have spent gazillions of dollars in a studio (back then),” adds Collen. Referring to the band’s trademark multilayered guitar sounds, he laments, “If Mutt had had (music-editing software) ‘Pro Tools’ back then, we’d have got that done in six months!”
“Technology is great, but it’s taken away the mystery, and that’s taken the shine off of modern music. Now, personally, I am a little skeptical if it’s real,” says Campbell. “That’s what’s great about Motown records: You are hearing the sound of a room. Now, with any medium, including visual, it’s too easy to manipulate.”
Collen counters, “I disagree a little bit, because what you get now is artists having a direct relationship with their music. You are not bogged down by the bullshit of a label or an A&R guy or a producer.”
On their latest album, “The Sparkle Lounge,” the band found themselves fully adapted to the demands of the digital- music era. “Previously, we’d do three years on an album, tour for a year, then three years on another album,” says Collen. “We don’t have the poncy studio thing where you finish a tour, have a few months off and think about the direction of the album and forget you are a rock band. Now we’ve been touring consistently for four years and have breaks to do the album.”
Def Leppard’s sustained success is also down to their constant search for new sounds and development in their music, from the alternative rock of 1996′s “Slang,” which sought to keep the band’s relevance after the grunge era had left hair metal dead in the water, to 2006′s “Yeah!,” an inspired covers album that saw them pay homage to the artists that inspired them, such as T. Rex, Blondie, Roxy Music and David Bowie. Recently the band has embraced country music too, with multimillion-selling Tim McGraw cowriting and lending vocals on the single “Nine Lives.”
The band have also just recorded a TV special with Grammy-nominated teen sensation Taylor Swift for U.S. station Country Music Television’s “Crossroads” series.
“Apparently when she (Swift) was young, her mum was forcing us on her, so she’s got this delusional dream that we are actually good,” jokes Campbell. For her part, Swift has described it as a “dream come true.”
Def Leppard’s appetite is very much unsatisfied, and their days are clearly far from numbered. Collen, for one, is feeling better than ever about their prospects.
“I can remember when we kicked off ‘Hysteria.’ I was 29 and I (felt like we were) old fogies, but I don’t feel that now. I’ll be 51 in December but I feel probably better now than I did then, and if you’ve got an itch to scratch, you have to do it!”
“Sparkle Lounge” is out now.