Interview: Phil Collen on the Making of Def Leppard's 'Hysteria'
"You know,” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen says, “we weren’t doing what we were doing to be different. We were a bit different.”
What they did was create one of the more forward-thinking, over-the-top and ultimately successful albums in rock history: Hysteria. Released 25 years ago this summer, the record spawned an astonishing seven hit singles, including “Animal,” “Love Bites” and the monster smash “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
It also hit Number One on the U.S. album chart—three times, no less—and went on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide. Hysteria spearheaded a new strain of hard rock, one that favored lush vocal harmonies, shimmering, highly melodic guitars and intricate layers of sound over pile-driving riffs and distorted power chords.
If the term pop metal was at the time being tagged onto bands as something of an insult, Hysteria was in a sense a reclamation of the label, and also a perfectly realized example of just what the style could offer.
Not that everyone was receptive to it at first. “When Hysteria first came out, a lot of people went, ‘Dude, this is lame. This isn’t rock. It’s pop. It’s wussy,’ ” Collen recalls of the reaction from certain corners of the hard rock and metal world. “But actually it had the absolute effect it was supposed to have had. Because the point was to not just play to the rock audience but rather to play to everybody. And we achieved that.”
Indeed, Hysteria was a huge crossover success, and its cross-format appeal was due in large part to the creative vision of producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who had helmed Def Leppard’s two previous albums, High ‘n’ Dry and Pyromania, and entered into the new project with the band with the express intent of making what Collen calls “a hard rock version of [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller.” Says the guitarist, “The fact that with Thriller you had an R&B artist who crossed over not just into pop but into everything, even rock, with Eddie Van Halen playing on ‘Beat It,’ that really appealed to Mutt, and to us. But I think without Mutt’s vision the record would have been a more standard-sounding thing. He definitely pushed it.”
Just how far Lange and the band—which at the time also included singer Joe Elliot, bassist Rick Savage, drummer Rick Allen and guitarist Steve Clark, who passed away in 1991—would ultimately push things could not have been anticipated. Over the years, in fact, some of the more outlandish details of the recording sessions have seemingly passed into rock and roll mythology.
They include reports that the three-plus-years-in-the-making album was at the time the most expensive record ever produced in the U.K., that individual songs are fortified by hundreds of vocal tracks, and that Lange, in a quest to achieve a perfectly crystalline sound, had Collen and Clark record their guitars sans amplifiers, and by playing their parts one string at a time.
The most impressive thing about these tales is that, as Collen discusses in the following interview, they are to varying extents all true. “It was a pretty hardcore experience, actually,” he says with a laugh.
And then there’s the story of Rick Allen, who, early in the Hysteria sessions, was involved in a car accident that severed his left arm at the shoulder. Within months of the incident, however, the drummer was back in the studio relearning how to play using a custom electronic kit, his left foot picking up the slack for his missing appendage.
“It was pretty amazing to watch that happen,” Collen says. “Especially considering all the other stuff Rick couldn’t do—he couldn’t tie his shoelaces, he couldn’t cut a loaf of bread, he couldn’t even stand up properly because all of a sudden he was now unbalanced. But he practiced and practiced and practiced, just trying to get the coordination going between the left leg and right hand. And it was remarkable. I remember when Steve and I first went to see him in the hospital how terrible it was. We both thought, There’s no way he’s going to be able to do this again…
“But you know,” he continues, “Mutt’s actually great about that kind of stuff, too. He told Rick, ‘Why don’t you get some pedals and other things and just play?’ And Rick said, ‘Well, no one’s done it.’ And Mutt responded, ‘Then you’d be the first.’ ” Collen laughs. “I guess you could say that when we were making the album that’s kind of how we all felt at one time or another.”
From the outset, did Mutt Lange explicitly state that with Hysteria he wanted to create something that could be as successful and have as much crossover appeal as Thriller?
Absolutely he did. That was it in a nutshell. But I think even more than that, Mutt wanted to make something that was unique. With rock bands in general, they’re usually not very open-minded; they’re kind of genre-specific and like to stay in their little boxes. I think the whole thing with Mutt was he wanted to open it up and do a hybrid thing, which obviously he’s amazing at. Just listen to all the stuff he did with Shania Twain later on, which basically brought country to the masses. It was the same with us: it was all about crossover appeal. Because, you know, I hear a lot of people say, “High ’n’ Dry is my favorite Def Leppard album.”
And it’s like, yeah, but that sound was kind of borrowed from AC/DC, which in some ways was a Mutt thing as well [Lange had produced three AC/DC albums, including Highway to Hell and Back in Black]. It very much had that vibe. To me, Def Leppard didn’t start to sound unique until Pyromania, which crossed over, and then Hysteria, which really crossed over.