Def Leppard began life as a scraggly band of teenagers whose hopped-up hard-rock boogie sound, as heard on their 1980 debut, On Through the Night, lumped them firmly in place alongside fellow New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Iron Maiden, Saxon and Diamond Head. But just three years later, their third album, Pyromania, would present an almost entirely different beast to the world, one whose glistening, hard-pop sound –anchored by sharply focused and cleanly played guitar melodies, lushly layered blocks of vocals, huge singalong choruses and lots and lots of hooks – would not only transform Def Leppard into mainstream rock superstars, but would also help to shepherd into existence the pop-metal style that bands like Motley Crue, Ratt and Poison, among scores of others, would ride to multiplatinum glory throughout the remainder of the decade.
Credit for Pyromania’s massive success – to date it has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone – goes largely to the band members, who crafted now-classic pop-rockers like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’.” But equal acclaim must also be handed out to producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, whose visionary recording techniques and steadfast belief in the idea that a rowdy rock band could stand toe-to-toe with pop royalty of the day like Duran Duran and Michael Jackson were essential to its triumph. Lange and Def Leppard would revisit and expand on their approach on the band’s next album, 1987’s Hysteria, and reach even greater heights. But before that, there was Pyromania, the record that, for all intents and purposes, not only put Def Leppard on the path they’re still following to this day, but also forever altered the notion of what a hard rock band could sound like, as well as moved the goal posts as far as what they could achieve.
In the following interview, guitarist Phil Collen, who joined Def Leppard while they were in the midst of recording Pyromania, discusses the process of creating the groundbreaking album. Recalls Collen, who had previously played with British glam rockers Girl, “Mutt would say to us, ‘Yeah, you can be average, and you can be good. But you’ve got to be better than that. Be great. He wanted us to make something that would cross over, and it did –big time. Pyromania was number two on the Billboard chart behind [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller. For months. So, mission accomplished, really.”
You joined Def Leppard while sessions for Pyromania were already underway. How did that come about?
Phil Collen: I thought I was just coming in to help the guys out. About a year prior, [singer] Joe [Elliott] had called me while they were on the High ‘n’ Dry tour and he said, “Can you learn these songs in two days? It’s not so going so great with [then Def Leppard guitarist] Pete Willis...” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So there was some stuff going on. And so when Joe phoned again when they were in the studio and said, “Hey, do you wanna play some solos on the new record?” I said, “Sure.” I came in and Mutt Lange, he gave me a tape and said, “Okay, this is a song called ‘Stagefright.’ Can you learn it and come back with a solo tomorrow?” So I went home, got an idea, went in the studio the next day, picked up my Ibanez Destroyer and plugged it into my Marshall and did a one-take solo. I didn’t know that was an audition, but I guess it was! And that was it, really.
What happened from there?
Collen: After that it was, “The next song’s ‘Photograph.’ ” And Mutt said, “Do a solo that’s really melodic. Don’t mess the song up. Let go and do a bit of shredding as well, but it’s gotta be in the groove, it’s gotta have the melody.” Then the next one was “Rock of Ages,” then “Foolin’.” What Mutt was having me do, it was an amazing lesson to learn. And it’s one that has carried over to now, really. He was having me keep it very fiery and all that stuff, while also respecting the songs. I still try to do that on my solos.
Def Leppard’s previous album, High ‘n’ Dry, which Mutt produced as well, still evidenced some of the band’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal roots. But when you arrived at the studio and heard these new songs they were working on, did they sound shockingly different to you?
Collen: Way different. The thing is, on the first two albums — and especially High ‘n’ Dry — I think the band sounded a bit like other people. They were still trying to find their way, if you like. Mutt had come off doing AC/DC and you could desperately hear that kind of influence in there. It was definitely AC/DC-esque. I think with Pyromania it was those guys finding their own thing. All of a sudden they had their own sound. And obviously we took it even further with Hysteria. That became the pivotal Def Leppard sound, if you will. But Pyromania was a big step away from the influence of other bands. It was our own sound. That was the magic of that record.
Mutt is known for having a very particular way of doing things in the studio — for instance, recording the drums last, instead of first. Did his approach seem like a weird way of working for a rock band?
Collen: No. It just seemed like an amazing process for an artist. I think people get so wrapped up in their genre or this idea of what they’re supposed to be doing. Peer pressure, basically. It’s like, “Go smoke a cigarette around the corner — yeah, it tastes horrible but you’ll be cool because that’s what we do.” It’s that thing. But I think the great thing with Mutt, and what was so refreshing, was that all of a sudden we had this incredibly artistic and inspirational way of going about things. To me it was just amazing.
Were the drums on Pyromania programmed?
Collen: Not all of them. We played to a grid and [drummer] Rick Allen played over that. So he played all the cymbals live. But yeah, the drums were really done at the end. Because you didn’t want to get too locked into something. You may want to change a vocal or a chorus and then you’re stuck with this drum thing. So we did the drums last. And we did the cymbals separate from the drums so you could put them in their place. You didn’t want the murder the guitars and the vocals with swishy cymbals. You needed control over it. That way you could have the excitement without them be overbearing.
Did you use a Fairlight workstation as well?
Collen: We used a Fairlight I. And we had three or so slave reels. It was all on 24 track analog, on Studer machines. That was a weird thing for me because I’d never experienced anything like it. I’d come into the studio and it was, “Ah you’ve gotta sing some vocals…but we have to put the vocal slave up.” The tapes had been dubbed on top of dubbed on top of dubbed…like the Beatles had done with four tracks, but we had, like, multiple 24 tracks. It was pretty amazing, actually. It was a bit like jumping into a Beach Boys or a Beatles session. It was unheard of in rock music. Because in that world it was always like, “Well, we’re a rock band and we’re supposed to do it this way…” No. you’re an artist—who cares about the genre. I always feel it’s weird when people ask, “Are you faithful to rock and roll?” and all that. I go, “No — I’m faithful to my art.” That takes precedence over everything else. Do it any which way, and by whatever means necessary. And Mutt was kind of my introduction to that sort of supreme artistic approach to music.
Guitar-wise, some of the songs on Pyromania, in particular something like “Rock of Ages,” are not particularly riff-based, which was a very different way for a hard rock band to approach songwriting at the time. Did it feel different to you?
Collen: It felt very different, because I’d never heard anything like it. But it also felt really right. It felt refreshing. “Rock of Ages,” that song has Thomas Dolby on keyboards. And there’s hardly any guitars in the verses. And the big deal with that was when the vocals and guitar come in on the chorus you get that “super-rock” sound, you know? Instead of just being a bunch of guys playing the same old riff and everything, and losing the dynamic, you have no guitars on the verse, or very little—mainly keyboards—and then it just goes bang! It blows up in the chorus. Then you have all these vocals…the whole thing just turns into an orchestra.
Speaking of vocals, there are a lot of them on Pyromania, and they’re very pushed up front, which is something that would become a Def Leppard trademark. It’s also very much something you hear in pop music, where the focus is overwhelmingly on the voice.
Collen: Yeah — Mutt would put the main melody first and then put all these harmonies around it. But he also never did gratuitous vocals. And there’s an absolute way you can fuck a rock song up by singing too sweet and happy on the vocal. The approach has got to be that you’re shouting the words. A lot of the American bands, they sing better than we do but they also have a lot of gloss and polish on it. But with something like the backing gang vocals, Mutt would go, “No, it’s gotta be AC/DC-meets-the-Sex Pistols. And Mutt would be singing all these songs right along with us. He’s the best singer out of the bunch. So it was cool to just follow his lead.
While you were in the studio trying out these various techniques, did you worry that your fans and your peers would think you went soft?
Collen: No. I think that shows a huge insecurity. So we didn’t do that. We put our faith in Mutt. You know, he’d done Back in Black, for god’s sake! Highway to Hell. His track record was amazing. So we trusted him. And he’d go, “This is gonna be a bit different. It’s gonna be uniquely you.” And he turned it up even more when we did Hysteria.
At the same time you guys were recording Pyromania, a whole new wave of melodic hard rock bands was starting to take root in America—acts like Motley Crue and Ratt. Were you aware of that scene?
Collen: Absolutely. And we were very aware that after Pyromania everyone was trying to copy that sound. You’d go into any studio and they were using the record as a reference. It happened even more with Hysteria. I’ve spoken to Alice Cooper about it, and he said he would put Hysteria on as a reference in the studio. I’ve heard that Stevie Wonder and Prince were commenting on that record’s sonics. To be in the company of those guys, that’s what you aspire to.
Not only did Pyromania hit big, but songs like “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages” became MTV staples. All of a sudden Def Leppard was in the same world as Michael Jackson and Duran Duran.
Collen: Yeah, absolutely. We were Top 40! The equivalent now would be being played next to Beyonce or Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. It was that kind of thing. We were shifting crazy amounts of records, and it was just a joy to be there. And again, going back to the Mutt thing, that’s what he wanted it to be. He was like, “It’s so safe to just be a rock band.” And doing what we did, it was a lot of hard work, but it was inspiring. It was wonderful.
Was it more Mutt’s vision or the band’s vision to really shoot for the mainstream?
Collen: Oh, it was Mutt’s vision. We also wanted it, sure, because whenever you’re in a band you absolutely want to be the most popular and successful band ever. I never for one second just wanted to play for a bunch of 17-year-old boys, you know? I wanted to play for everyone. But I think Mutt took us out of this kind of frame of mind where you believe you only belong in a certain genre and that’s all you do. He was broadening our minds and opening us up, really, to an almost spiritual kind of realm.
Pyromania also broadened the minds — and the music — of a lot of other bands in your genre at the time. In a lot of ways, it changed the sound of heavy music. For the remainder of the Eighties, hard rock became way more hooky and melodic. Do you think the success of Pyromania made it so other bands could see there was real mainstream potential in this music?
Collen: I do. And I don’t think they did before that, because even with huge bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, you didn’t really see them next to acts like Michael Jackson or Duran Duran or the Police or Prince. But all of a sudden we were in that group. And I’ve gotta say, that felt really, really great. It was a bit more special than just playing plain-Jane rock. And with the success of that, Mutt then said, “Okay, we mustn’t make Pyromania II, because everybody else is out there making it. We’ve gotta turn it up.” And that’s what we did on Hysteria. We introduced new wave sounds, things bands like the Police and the Fixx were doing, some Prince stuff. Frankie Goes to Hollywood — that was another big influence. We took in all of that. No other rock band was doing that at the time. So it was the first crossover. And it kind of tested the waters for what was to come for us. In a lot of ways, it was the beginning.