Def Leppard's Phil Collen talks "Hysteria"

When Def Leppard released "Pyromania" in 1983, the album was so successful that it was hard to imagine the British arena rockers would ever top it.
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When Def Leppard released Pyromania in 1983, the album was so successful that it was hard to imagine the British arena rockers would ever top it. Featuring radio hits such as “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages,” Pyro immediately, ahem, caught fire, and went on to sell more than ten million copies in America alone.

But when it came time to start the next album, Def Leppard’s producer—the now legendary Robert John “Mutt” Lange—revealed surprisingly lofty ambitions for the band.

“Mutt told us, ‘Every other rock band in the world is trying to make Pyromania 2, so let’s do something different,’” says Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen. “He said, ‘Let’s do a rock version of Thriller, where we have seven singles, and we create a genre of our own. Let’s make a record we’re still talking about in 20 years.’”

The record that would come to pass was 1987’s Hysteria, and it shattered even the most optimistic sales forecasts by going 25-timesplatinum. And, as Collen points out, we’re still talking about it 30 years later.

“We were doing rock without the rock-machismo attitude,” explains Collen about the sessions. “I meet a lot of bands who shoot themselves in the foot because they’re ego driven. But with us, it was like, ‘Whatever makes the song great.’ It harkened back to that whole Beatles thing, with George Martin saying, ‘We’re going to put strings here, and a brass band there.’ It’s inspiring not having limitations based on whatever genre your band is in. Any artist who’s massively successful doesn’t stay in a box.”

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Universal Music has re-mastered and re-released Hysteria in single-disc, multi-disc, and boxset formats. As an added treat for Guitar Player readers, the label also booked Studio A at Capitol Records in Hollywood so that Collen could show us how the riffs on the album were put together. When I arrived, Collen was cranking one of his signature-model Jackson Phil Collen PC1s through a Blackstar combo, playing powerful licks that could only emanate from the fingers of a veteran stadium rocker, all the while retaining the joyous abandon of a teenager rocking out in a guitar shop on Saturday morning. It seems that throughout the glories and tragedies of three-plus decades with Def Leppard, the guitar has never let Collen down. [Editor’s Note: To hear the audio, listen to Jude Gold interview Collen on Episode 56 of Guitar Player’s podcast, No Guitar Is Safe.]

How fun is it to play like that on a big stage through one of Def Leppard’s huge P.A systems?

It’s the best thing in the world. It’s funny. People actually ask me, “Does it ever get old?” I’m like, “Are you insane? I’m nearly 60, and I’m allowed to do this in front of all those people.” But, in many ways, what you’re hearing right now sounds exactly like my giant rig—which is a Marshall, a Randall power amp that I’ve had since the ’80s, and two EVH cabinets. My ultimate guitar tone is whatever I am playing through. I mean, we did most of the guitars on Hysteria through a Rockman. That album was done on a little transistor box!

So, there you were, with a producer who was already famous for the huge tube-amp tones on AC/DC’s Back In Black, and he had you going direct. Did you think he had gone nuts?

A big reason we used the Rockman was we knew we were going to stack tons of guitars, and we didn’t want a bunch of noise and hiss to build up. This was before Pro Tools, and as we were often putting 100 or more guitar and vocal tracks on the songs, we had to keep things super clean. For example, the intro lick on “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is four guitars—two tracks using my Jackson Soloist, and two using a Telecaster—all run through the Rockman. Another way we kept things clean was by always tracking the drums last. That was helpful, because once you finish the vocals and counter melodies, you can make sure there aren’t any big fills or cymbal crashes getting in the way of things.

Do you think that a silver lining of Rick Allen’s horrible car accident is that he ended up with a semi-electronic kit that helped Hysteria sound even more clean and modern?

Absolutely. Rick’s kit made the album sound different from anything else out there. It fit in perfectly with Mutt’s aim of creating a new genre. Mutt wanted to bring pop elements and other things into our sound, and we were totally onboard, because we loved Queen, Michael Jackson, Prince, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Chaka Khan, and other artists of the day. There’s even a bit of Run-D.M.C.’s rap influence on the “Pour Some Sugar” vocals.

Where was “Pour Some Sugar on Me” recorded?

Well, we tracked Hysteria in different places, because no one actually lived in England. “Sugar” started in Holland, and it was the last song we did. We were already late with the album and four-and-a-half million dollars over budget, but when Mutt heard Joe Elliott in the hallway strumming an early version of the chorus, he was like, “We’re doing this. This is going to be an important song.” He helped us arrange it, and he helped us dial in the guitar parts by leaving gaps for the snare drum to pop through—which made things sound huge.

How did you track the shimmering clean chords on the chorus to the album’s title track?

Okay, so there’s this myth that we sometimes hear: “You’re Def Leppard. You record one string at a time.” Well, on this particular part we did record that way. Mutt didn’t want the chords to sound strummed. He wanted all the notes to hit at once, like a keyboard—but not a keyboard, because that would have been lame. So there are as many as five or six tracks for that simple guitar part. And then we doubled it [laughs]. Mutt’s whole thing was creating ear candy, but never gratuitously. It was like, “So many other bands sound one-dimensional. Let’s create a third dimension with little enhancements.”

When it came time to do the Hysteria tour, you guys helped pioneer arena rock “in the round.” How did that come about?

One day, Peter Mensch, our manager at the time, told us, “I just saw Frank Sinatra play the Garden in New York in the round. It was killer. We’ve got do it!” There were challenges. For example, I had to get used to running around between six different vocal mics, but we loved playing that way. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Four front rows!

The tricky part for us was getting to the stage. Rick liked to warm up with the opening band, so he’d just walk out there in a baseball cap wearing a fake arm holding a beer. The rest of us got pushed out to the stage in laundry hampers. One night we played Chicago, and Robert Plant was there, and he said, “Let me push you out.” So [bassist] Rick Savage and I were crunched up together in this laundry hamper, and Robert pushed us out there with this bandana wrapped around his head, totally unnoticed. In all those shows, no one ever figured out the laundry hamper trick.

Def Leppard’s vocal sound is huge on the albums. Do you use any backing tracks to replicate that sound at shows?

No. We’re real singers, and we pride ourselves on that. [Co-guitarist] Vivian Campbell has been in the band for 25 years, and he, Sav, and I have got this amazing chemistry with the vocals. And when I’m doubling something with Joe, the vocals sometimes sound like they’re phasing, which is cool. It sounds like a sample!

Can you tell me about this Jackson guitar you’re holding?

This is one of my lovely Jackson PC1s. They’ve been in production now for about 20 years. It’s a hybrid super-Strat, really, with DiMarzio pickups in the neck and middle positions—I have DiMarzios on everything—and a Jackson Sustainer/Driver in the neck position. My Floyd Rose tremolos are modded with titanium and brass hardware from FU-Tone, including titanium string blocks and saddles—all of which really make a difference in the sound. I use brass picks from Dunlop—they’re incredible when you’re shredding, because you can actually hear them hitting every note. I used to use steel picks, but they would damage the strings—which are .013-.054 sets from D’Addario.

It’s well known that you made some healthy lifestyle changes fairly early on in your rock and roll career. Have they helped you?

Yes. I used to be drinking partners with [late Def Leppard guitarist] Steve Clark, but at a certain point, I kept blacking out, and driving drunk. I finally said to Steve, “I can’t do this. I’ve got to stop.” I stopped the same year Hysteria came out. But Steve wasn’t able to, and it ended up killing him.

It has been said that while failure is tough to handle, success is even more of a challenge. How does one handle the insane amount of success you guys have experienced?

Well, having crappy things happen along the way—losing Steve Clark, Rick Allen’s accident, Mutt having to leave us for a while at the beginning of Hysteria because he was obligated to do a Cars album, being in crazy amounts of debt—was all very humbling, and that can be good. Life actually isn’t easy. It’s pretty harsh. Maybe you have pockets of excellence, but you know that everything is temporary. We’ve worked hard, but we’ve always kept that in the back of our minds: Success is temporary, and failure is also temporary.