The pandemic may have caused an existential pause button to be pressed, but for Def Leppard, it meant a creative rejuvenation that yielded Diamond Star Halos, the band’s 12th studio album and its first since 2015’s self-titled predecessor. It’s a feeling guitarist Phil Collen wholeheartedly embraces when asked how he and the rest of the group navigated COVID.
“For me and Joe [Elliott], selfishly, we had the best time ever,” Collen said. “We had no kids at home and actually experienced the most creative period artistically that we’ve ever had. Because of the pandemic, and because we weren’t really making an album, there was no business agenda. We didn’t even have a label when we started. We were writing for the pure love of writing songs. Me and Joe started getting giddy [because] we were on a roll. We had to stop writing because we had to release this album. We had a few more in the can as well, so that was great.”
The result was 15 songs that dip into the ’71–’74 sweet spot of music history Def Leppard has unabashedly tapped into since the band was founded in Sheffield, England back in 1977. And while Collen only came aboard after being asked to replace founding-member Pete Willis in 1982, he shared the same love of glam rock that continues to this day and that can be experienced on this latest outing starting with the title song, which borrows a lyric from the T. Rex 1971 hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Powerful, guitar-driven harmonies dripping with hooks erupt on the anthemic opener “Take What You Want” and are quickly followed by “Kick,” an earworm adorned with hand-claps and an infectious chorus that reverberates with the kind of infectious pop nuances of vintage Sweet. The glitter connection is further enhanced by the contributions of pianist Mike Garson, who cut his teeth working with David Bowie and plays on the string-kissed ballad “Goodbye For Good This Time” and the soaring “Angels (Can’t Help You Now).” Garson’s involvement came out of the band wanting to find a master of the 88-88s to work on these two songs Elliott brought to the band.
“Joe had written these two wonderful songs on piano, and he played them for me a while ago,” Collen said. “I said they were great, and I asked why we couldn’t do them. He said they were piano songs and I said ‘Angel’ sounds like an Elton John [tune] that turns into Pink Floyd in the end. He said what if he asked Garson, because he was speaking with him all the time. Mike was straight away in for it. He’s my favorite piano player, so that was an obvious thing. He really added a dimension that we wouldn’t have had.”
While the Leps’ self-described “Queen-meets-AC/DC” sound can be heard on other notable tracks like the arena rocker “Fire It Up” and driving riff machine that is “SOS Emergency,” the band took the opportunity of not having label oversight to take radical chances like tapping Alison Krauss to pop up on a pair of cuts—“Lifeless” and “This Guitar,” a gem Collen had been sitting on for 17 years. As for the Krauss connection, the guitarist shared that it came out of a soccer rivalry Robert Plant—who has recorded a pair of albums with the bluegrass superstar—has with Elliott.
“Joe was talking to Robert Plant about whose soccer team sucked the most,” Collen said. “Robert asked Joe what he was doing, and he said we were doing an album. Robert had worked with Alison Krauss and said she’d love to do [something with us] because Def Leppard is her favorite band. We thought she’d perhaps like to sing a line or two. We sent two songs that we thought would be suitable, and she loved them both. She did all of these vocals—lead and backing vocals on the whole—it was like a Queen version of Alison Krauss with counter melodies and a beautiful duet with Joe. We kept it all on there. It was another dimension that we loved.”
As someone who grew up in London and was bitten by the guitar bug after being front row at a Deep Purple concert in support of Machine Head—“I was in the front row and got to touch Ritchie Blackmore. He smashed his Strat. I could hear him playing all this s*** right in front of me and right in front of the cabinets. It blew my mind”—this kind of musical risk-taking is nothing new for Collen. Reggae, ’70s funk and catching seminal artists like jazz-guitarist Joe Pass at Ronnie Scott’s in London all shaped his musical worldview. But it was the Thin White Duke who became a major game changer.
“I saw Bowie doing ‘Starman’ on TV when I was 14,” he said. “I was already into guitar-playing since I’d seen Deep Purple, so I was already smitten. Then my world went from black and white to color just that quick.”
And now, with Def Leppard gearing up to embark on a twice-canceled stadium tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett, Collen is thrilled with how his own crew is sounding.
“We were actually in Pennsylvania for production rehearsals, and I realized this was the best live band I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. “This is us. We recorded it and played with the lights, lasers and God knows what other production stuff. We’ve never sounded this good. Joe has never sung this good. Rick Allen has never played the drums as well, and we’ve played this well as a band. It’s easier to play guitar. The singing part is always hard—you have to do warm-ups and it’s such an important thing. The band, everything about it, we’ve just raised the bar. That’s really exciting more than anything else. And these new songs just blend straight in with the set, so it’s totally exciting.”
Fans can expect a set chock-full of hits with a few surprises thrown in along the way that may or may not have come out of Def Leppard’s pre-pandemic Vegas residency. In the meantime, Def Leppard continues plowing on and enjoying longevity that Collen credits to that most un-rock and roll of reasons.
“It really comes down to our parental influences,” he said. “We loved our parents. They were so great, so helpful and so accommodating. They were World War II survivors. The Nazis were trying to blow our city up, and so our parents were in air raid shelters. [Our folks] had a value system that they shared with us. I’m from London, Joe is from Sheffield, Rick is from Northern Ireland, so it’s slightly different. But we all had that experience from our parents. When they done their first EP, Joe and his mum sat up all night sticking 1,000 labels on the records. It’s stuff like that. And that really helped, and we still have all that. We haven’t ticked all our boxes yet—we’re getting there. We still have a lot to go.”
Def Leppard will appear Sept. 7 at Oracle Park with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett.
The Music That Inspired the Music
Phil Collen on Def Leppard’s fave glam acts
By Dave Gil de Rubio
Seeing Ritchie Blackmore and Deep Purple may have cast the die for 14-year-old Phil Collen in terms of getting sucked into the world of playing music professionally, but it was glam rock that sucked in the future Def Leppard guitarist and the rest of his bandmates.
“From ’71 to ’74 was [a music era] that kept popping up [throughout our band’s history],” Collen said. “You start with the New York Dolls—I love Johnny Thunders’ guitar. And Steve Jones was the next generation of that. I love Johnny Thunders and Steve Jones as much as I love Michael Schenker and Ritchie Blackmore, which I add all of that to my thing and I think you can have both. We absolutely did that. And Mick Ronson—a huge, huge influence all the way through.”
That glam-rock impact continues to this day right up through the recently released Diamond Star Halos, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ 12th studio album whose title is a lyric from the T. Rex 1971 hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Recorded during most of 2020 into 2021, the 15 songs on this outing were fueled by the pandemic-forced isolation that allowed Collen and vocalist/writing partner Joe Elliott the freedom to indulge in what the former called “… the most creative period artistically that we’ve ever had.” With the Leps in-between labels at the time, the U.K. quintet was able to stretch out and take chances ranging from bass-player Rick Savage spending 12 hours recording a 12-string guitar part on the Collen gem “This Guitar” to getting bluegrass royalty Alison Krauss to duet with Elliott on this song along with the equally buoyant “Lifeless.” As a band notorious for taking years to pull albums together—Def Leppard’s prior album was a 2015 self-titled effort—the speed with which this outing was pulled together was both surprising and rewarding for Collen.
“The creativity was unbounded,” he said. “When you go into a studio and are playing, people are waiting for you and vice versa. When we do the writing, we get to do it on our own time in our own little universe. I think if we had been in a regular recording studio, none of that would have happened. I can’t wait to do it again. I think we’re going to do it again next time because it’s so much easier.”
In the meantime, the Leps are heading out on the road for a twice-canceled stadium tour with some old friends—Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett. It’s a string of dates the 64-year-old guitarist is very much looking forward to.
“It’s just going to be a blast and so much fun,” Collen said. “The bands are all radically different from each other. I’m really excited about the response to this, and what we’re going to get out of it as a show. And also, what it represents. We all come from the same background. Everyone loved all those [glam] bands as well, so it’s a little celebration of that.”
To that end, Collen shared with East Bay Express his favorite artists from that era of glitter.
(January 8, 1947 to January 10, 2016)
“I saw Bowie doing ‘Starman’ on TV when I was 14. I was already into guitar playing since I’d seen Deep Purple, so I was already smitten. Then my world went from black and white to color just that quick.”
(1967 to 1977)
“It was the same kind of thing [as David Bowie]. Cool. Infectious. At the time, being in England, it was right there.”
Mott the Hoople
(1969 to 1980; 2020 to the present)
“I was at one of the classic concerts. I saw Mott at Hammersmith Odeon, and the support band was Queen. That was brilliant.”
(1970 to the present)
“What I’d been waiting to hear was hybrid between pop and rock. It was The Beatles-meets-Led Zeppelin. We’ve actually modeled ourselves on Queen-meets-AC/DC. So you have the power. And also, the backing vocals. When I sing, I kind of shout. It’s Sex Pistols. It’s Slade. I’ve always done that, and I always felt there was an energy. AC/DC didn’t really have great backing vocals. They did when Mutt Lange sang them on the records. We actually have this energy—it’s not just guys singing harmony. It’s this power. Queen was that thing. Brian is unbelievable with what he did. He’s so underrated.”
(1968 to 1981; 1985 to the present)
“I love the Sweet. They started out as a pop band, and all their early hits were written and recorded for them. They were this bad-ass band. Their drummer, Mick Tucker, could have been in Deep Purple if he wanted. He was just amazing. The whole band was a pop version of Uriah Heep. They had these vocals and great catchy songs.”