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.

It’s been said that, up until that point in time, Hysteria was the most expensive record ever produced in the U.K. Reportedly, you had to sell five million copies just to break even.

I believe that’s true. We spent so much money in the studio. And we worked on the record for more than three years. But when you’re recording you don’t even think about it, because the artistic thing outweighs the business thing. We all were thinking, It doesn’t really matter how much we spend, as long as we make this amazing record. And then I saw all the bills and went, “Shit!” Changed my mind real quick! One thing that sticks out is I remember seeing a line item that said, “Sundries: $20,000.” And I was thinking, What the fuck’s sundries? And that was just from sending out for food from the restaurant next to one of the studios. Because you have to eat, right? [laughs]

Supposedly the bill was also ratcheted up because you had to buy out producer Jim Steinman’s contract. [The band had begun work on the album with Steinman prior to Lange coming onboard.]

That’s true. Jim got a hell of a lot of money for not doing very much. But I’ll tell you, he would have gotten a lot more if he’d taken points on the album instead of the buyout.

Over the years, Jim hasn’t had kind words to say about his time working with the band. It seems like you didn’t get along well.

We just had completely different approaches. We had worked with Mutt for two albums, and then when he wasn’t available at the start of Hysteria [Lange was in the midst of producing the Cars’ Heartbeat City], we decided to try someone else. But Jim was very set in his ways as far as what he liked, whereas we wanted to evolve and do something different. So it was a bit disappointing after having worked with Mutt. Because to be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who can do what Mutt does.

“What Mutt does” turned out to be a lot of things that weren’t being done at the time, particularly on rock records. From a guitar perspective, is it true that there are no traditional amps on Hysteria and that you and Steve Clark played all your parts through a Rockman unit, which is essentially a headphone amplifier?

Pretty much. I used a small Gallien-Krueger amp on the demo for “Love Bites,” which made it on to the record, and also on a bit of “Animal”—that little feedback thing in the intro is me leaning hard on the Krueger. But otherwise the sound is all Rockman. And the reason for that was there were so many layers of tracks, and the sound was so huge that if you had had a massive Marshall sound it wouldn’t have fit sonically. The guitars would have smothered the vocals and drums. They really had to fit in a specific slot. Plus, Steve and I weren’t playing straight power chords; we were doing all these inversions and partials and different things that required definition. That would have been lost with a big, overdriven-amp sound.

You and Steve came from the guitar-into-Marshall school of playing. Did the fact that there were no amps to crank up strike you as odd?

Yes and no. Because it became apparent early on that it was all about the song. So you had to step out of the “I’m the guitar player, check my shit out” way of thinking. The big amps are fine if you don’t do a lot of overdubs. But we were moving into something more nuanced, with a lot of depth. So the guitar playing in some ways really took a backseat. The band and the song and the production came before the guitars. What Steve and I were doing was really just an enhancement of the overall song. And we accepted that.

The fact that the Rockman was developed by Boston’s Tom Scholz is an interesting connection. Even though those first few Boston albums were recorded before he invented the unit, was the sound that Tom achieved with Boston a template for what you were doing on Hysteria?

Absolutely. Big time. You listen to “More Than a Feeling” and then some of the stuff we were doing, and it’s almost like part two of that, if you like. Boston had incredible vocal sounds and the guitars were great. A Boston record is so well recorded and it does everything it’s supposed to. At the end of the day it wins all around. That’s what we were trying to achieve.

What was your main guitar on Hysteria?

A 1978 Japanese Strat I call Felix. It had two stock single-coils, and then I put in a DiMarzio humbucker at the bridge. My mom had actually bought it for me for my 21st birthday. I got so many sounds out of that guitar. I also used a few Charvels and my Jackson with the Cracklejack finish, and Mutt brought in a few of his own Teles. Steve tended to favor his three-pickup Les Paul with a Kahler on it, but he ended up using my Strat as well. So that’s the main sound you hear on the record: Felix through the Rockman.

Perhaps the most enduring guitar legend surrounding Hysteria is that Lange had you and Steve record many of your parts by breaking chords down into single notes and then building the chords back up by layering the tracks. But the truth is you only used this technique on the title song, correct?

Yes. I’ve heard the rumors taken as far as people saying we did the entire album one string at a time, which is crazy! [laughs] We really only did it on the bridge in “Hysteria”—the part that begins, [sings] “I gotta know tonight…” If I remember correctly it was just Mutt and me, sitting in a little jingle studio in Dublin, with me playing the part on one string, then stopping and doing it again on the next string and so on.

What was Mutt’s reasoning for having you do it this way?

He heard a certain sound in his head and he knew he wanted it to be a guitar and not a keyboard, but he also didn’t want there to be any sort of arpeggiation to it. And when you strum a chord on a guitar there’s always a certain amount of that. He wanted all the notes to hit right on the nose, so that everything about the sound hit the listener at the same time. And it worked.

At the time did this strike you as somewhat ridiculous? Did you think, I could just strum the chords and no one will notice the difference?

I’d feel that way all the time. [laughs] But then you’d do what Mutt asked you to do, and when you heard it back you’d go, Oh, okay. I get it. So at some point I just stopped even questioning him. Because at the end of the day you’d listen to the finished product and it would be like, You know, I’ve never actually heard that on a record before. So that was the payoff.

Mutt also took an interesting approach in terms of the order in which the instruments were tracked. Rather than laying down bass and drums first, as is customary, those instruments were actually added on after the guitars and vocals. As I’ve heard it told, Rick Allen’s drums weren’t brought in until the mixing stage and were actually played through a Fairlight sampler.

Yes, though I believe by the time we got to mixing we were using a Synclavier. Basically, Rick went in right at the end of the sessions and played all the drums on his electronic kit. That went into a Fairlight III and was then transferred to a Synclavier. So everything was time-coded and sequenced and quantized, and all that. This was all done right at the last minute. But with a record like Hysteria we couldn’t have laid down the drums first. There was no way, because the songs kept changing. Parts would be rewritten, tempos would shift, whole arrangements would come and go. “Animal” alone took three years to do. We kept changing it and redoing it. There was something in there, but we just couldn’t tell what it was. At one point we redid the entire song under Joe’s vocal. Mutt just scratched everything and we started over. That’s the way we were working.

One of the most recognizable aspects of Lange’s production style is the layered sound of his background vocals. In addition to the band members, he performed many of those backing vocals himself, correct?

Absolutely. Mutt sings on everything he’s ever done with us. And he’s an amazing singer. That’s his voice you hear in back on Highway to Hell, Back in Black, the Shania Twain stuff, the Bryan Adams stuff. He can make his voice sound like anything. On Hysteria, he basically said that we needed to make the backing vocals sound like another instrument.

Is it true that some songs feature upward of 100 vocal tracks stacked together?

Yes. On, say, “Gods of War,” I can remember all of us standing around a microphone and everyone doing a bunch of takes that were then copied and added together, and ultimately you had this massive, boomy, rich sound. There’s probably more than 100 vocals on there. And some songs needed that. But then something like “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” that’s me doing the main chorus background vocal, and I only did about four or eight tracks. But I almost lost my voice doing it because Mutt had me sing in such a rip-your-throat-out style. But it had the desired effect.

On an album filled with hit singles, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was by far the biggest. But it came in right at the end of the Hysteria sessions, correct?

Yes. One day as we were getting toward the end, Joe was sitting in the control room with an acoustic guitar and playing the chorus chords and just singing, “Pour some sugar on me…” And Mutt said, “What’s that? We need to work on that.” By that time we thought we were at the end. Even the record company just wanted the thing out. But Mutt knew there was something there. And he was the one that came up with that country-ish single-note thing before the verses. Then he said that we needed something for the verse, so I came up with chord part. It was actually a longer riff but Mutt said, “No, cut it here, we need gaps.” Then Steve added the middle section. So it was pretty cool the way the song evolved, and it happened rather quickly. It took us three-plus years to do the album, but we did that song in 10 days.

Did you see a distinct shift in the band’s popularity once “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was released as a single?

Yes. That was the fourth single in America, and things changed almost overnight. And it all started because strippers down in Florida were requesting the song at the local radio stations, because they were all using it to dance to. [laughs] But it exploded so big. It really was a turning point. We were out on the road and had been for a while, and you could see the impact of the song in the size of the crowds.

You performed in-the-round on the Hysteria tour, one of the first rock bands to do so. How did that come about?

Our manager at the time, Peter Mensch, had seen Frank Sinatra do it at Madison Square Garden. So he came back and said, “You should do a rock version of that.” I believe Yes had done it too, but they weren’t really animated about it. We were kind of this youngish, MTV-generation band—we always said we looked more like Duran Duran than Iron Maiden—so the in-the-round thing was perfect for us, because we’d just be running around and having fun. And it was fun. But initially it was pretty scary, because you couldn’t hear your guitar all the time. This was before we had in-ear monitors, so you’d have your monitors under the stage and spread out everywhere. You just had to keep moving.

Given how studio-intensive the music was, did you find it difficult to recreate the Hysteria material onstage?

Sometimes. One song that was really hard was “Love Bites,” because it really was a studio song. When we started the tour we had never played it as a band, and it was different from anything we’d done before. It was really vocal-based. Mutt actually came in with that song and played it on acoustic guitar, and it sounded like Don Henley. And it was like, “Wow, this is fucking great. But how are we gonna do it?” And it actually ran away with itself, to put it one way. There were all these different parts and textures, and keyboards and vocals all over the place. So we never played it on tour—we were actually kind of scared of it. But after the success of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” we released “Love Bites” as a single, and it went to Number One. And then it was like, Fuck, we’re going to have to play this thing live! So I remember we took two days off in Canada to rehearse it and try to get a version together. Steve and I basically picked out the most prominent guitar parts and made a collage. I would take two parts and combine them into one, and he would do the same. And we made it work. But it was almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

What do you consider the legacy of Hysteria?

To me, it sounds like a classic rock album. And not classic in the sense of classic rock but in the sense of one of those albums that you put on and it takes you somewhere. People always talk about the production element and how long it took and all the tracks and all these things, but at its heart the music means something, and it achieves what it sets out to achieve. Even though it’s got all this stuff going on, it’s very real sounding. And I think over the years people have started to appreciate it for what it is. But you know, I remember when the record was just finished and Steve and I were first sitting there listening to the whole thing. We were so happy. We figured it was a masterpiece, and we felt that even if everyone else thought it sucked, that was okay. We said, “Even if only our mothers buy this album, we’ll be cool with it because we’re so proud of it.” [laughs] Of course, a few other people bought it, as well.

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