News Segment


July 5, 2007

CINCINNATI — Sweat dripped off my brow as I waited for Def Leppard to arrive for the sound check at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center, a venue nearly identical to the Post-Gazette Pavilion, where the band will play on July 7. I had watched the stage crew build the custom-designed drum set for one-armed drummer Rick Allen.

“Bring ’em out?” a worker asked before he got the OK from the technician.

The worker left and retrieved the band.

The band dressed and behaved casually for this round of songs. Joe Elliott had a baseball cap on. Vivian Campbell went shirtless. Rick Savage smoked a cigarette in between guitar riffs of “Photograph.”

Campbell, Elliott, Savage and Phil Collen went out to the front of the thrust stage to rehearse “Two Steps Behind.” A crowd of women will go crazy three hours later when this song is played, but at that time, it was just empty seats and a few employees.

“They’re going to be pouring at your feet,” Elliott told Campbell as they checked to see how close the seats were to the stage.

Once the band finished the sound check, their manager guided me into a room that was dimly lit, decorated by Marlboro Reds and a bottle of whiskey and dominated by scented candles. The perfect place for an interview.

Collen walked in first, stocky but well-built. Elliott walked in later, a bit pudgier than he was in music videos like “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

Their band hails from Sheffield, England — a town reminiscent of blue-collar Pittsburgh. In 1977, they set out to be the next Beatles, the next Floyd, the next Who. But did they fulfill those goals?

“No. But there’s no point in having ambitions as high as that table,” Elliott said as he pointed to a table a foot off the ground. “It depends on what you want to say. Are we as iconic as the Beatles? Are we thought along the same lines?”

He paused and shrugged because he didn’t want to say no — but he knew it was not so.

“But we’ve sold two albums that have gone 10-times platinum. We’re one of only six artists in the world to have done that. So at different levels, we’ve achieved different levels of success.”

Elliott is asked why he detests the “hair-band” label. “I hate it because no one ever says it about Zeppelin, and they had hair,” he said in his thick English brogue.

So then why does Leppard have the label?

“The TV thing, it’s such a huge thing. Unfortunately we did get lumped in with Poison. It was the time frame,” Collen said.

Their videos established a hair-band image in the minds of fans and critics alike. Def Leppard’s music was probably better than their peers, but there was little difference between Whitesnake’s video for “Here I Go Again” and Leppard’s video for “Foolin,’ ” which had Elliott tied down to a table while he sang. Both videos were over-theatrical.

You don’t see the band as magazine cover boys too often, and Elliott elaborated on why they aren’t placed there or among lists of the best musicians of all time.

“Rolling Stone and some of the others are really going to be stumped as to whom to put on the cover in a few years because Dylan’s going to be dead, McCartney is going to be dead, The Stones are going to be dead. Is anybody going to step up to the plate in their eyes that they can now turn into the icon?”

His voice did not bear the humor it had during the sound check.

“They’ve been putting Dylan on the cover since ’65, and they still put him on the cover. The bands of that era are thought of in the same ilk as they were then. They don’t allow anyone into their little clique. U2 is slightly sneaking in there, more because of Bono’s political stuff than his musical contribution.”

“It’s just an observation,” Elliott said in a more reflective tone, “because there comes a point where you can’t put Morrissey on the cover of Rolling Stone every time because he’s the only thing they’ve got left to hang their coat on, or because he’s really cool. He’s not Bob Dylan. I’m not saying we’re Zeppelin, but sooner or later, the [stuff] is going to have to change. They are still pandering to the way they thought post-Woodstock.”

Later, during the concert, some fans’ T-shirts reflected Elliott’s theories. There were a few Motley Crue shirts in the crowd, but then again a few Zeppelin shirts as well. When judged by the audience, Leppard has a hung jury in determining its historical place in music.

Which means that critics still decide where Def Leppard fits as an influential band. For the most part, Elliott was right, despite a positive Rolling Stone review of “Yeah!,” their most recent album. Even if he had critical acclaim, he probably wouldn’t be happy.

During the interview, Elliott would mention record sales, but then focus on Rolling Stone, which had them on the cover in April 1992.

“You get it when you’re young, but do you get it in 10 years time?” he asked rhetorically.

“The point is we have to adapt ourselves,” he said. “It used to be if you got the cover of Rolling Stone, you were there, you made it. It’s probably more important now to make the cover of some download Web site.”

It is hoped he adapts to the times as easily as he does to the weather. During the show, there was a thunderstorm so bad that fans were swimming to get a view. Elliott laughed and began playing “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“What we’re trying to do, if we’re not ahead of the game, we keep an eye on who is,” Elliott said of maintaining the band’s popularity. “We don’t so much follow them, but we make a decision of whether that’s a good or a bad thing to do. We might come across an idea that isn’t good for now, but maybe it will be in two years.”

Perhaps he should let go of his desire for critical acclaim and be as carefree as a tap dancer in the rain. After all, it’s probably more enjoyable to be cheered on by thousands of people than to be a name on a list.

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