Continuing our series My Best And Worst Gigs Ever, Def Leppard guitar star Phil Collen talks about one show that stands out in his mind as being the greatest he's ever played – and one that didn't work out so well.
“I’ve been fortunate to have played a lot of great shows all over the world. If I had to pick one that really stands out, it would be one of the ‘event’ shows. The Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley comes to mind for many reasons – it was also Vivian’s first real gig with us. The nerves were running high that night. I never really get stage fright, but we were all pretty nervous for that one.
“Don Valley in Sheffield was the first time we ever headlined a British stadium, so that was an amazing one, too; it was a great audience and a really fantastic day for us. But I think the best one might be when we headlined the Download Festival in 2009. It was just one of those gigs where all the stars lined up beautifully.
“The audience was massive – 85,000 people – and the weather was perfect. A lot of European festivals can be mudfests, but the sun came out for us, and it just stayed beautiful. During our set, the sun went down, and the view from the stage was spectacular. From the very first note, we played our asses off; everybody was totally on their game. The sound on stage was spot-on, too, which really helped. It’s always a help when the acoustics cooperate.
“Certain shows are so good that they almost play themselves, and Download was like that. This has happened to me about five or six times in my life, when I feel as though I’m having an out-of-body experience. Somebody else is playing the show, and I’m kind of channeling that person. That was Download. It was like I couldn’t play a wrong note. Everything I did worked – I didn't even have to think about it. No matter what I tried, I couldn't miss. The same thing happened with my vocals. I was like, ‘Wow, who’s singing? That sounds so good. Oh… it’s me!’ [Laughs]
“It was also a special night because 26 years prior to it, Rick Allen had played Donnington, which is what Download was called then. It was his first show after the accident. We got a standing ovation that night – people were crying and sending such joy and appreciation to the stage. To come back to the same stage all that time later and be welcomed as returning heroes was an incredible feeling. If you get even one gig like that in your lifetime, that’s pretty cool.”
“There have been a few bad gigs – every band has an off night. To be in a rock band, you need to have a certain amount of confidence and swagger; you have to be able to go out there and just know you're gonna knock everybody out. If you haven’t got your mojo, for whatever reasons, it can lead to a real downward spiral. This is something I experienced one night in Wichita, Kansas, during the Adrenalize tour.
“We used to play in the round, and for our opening number, our big entrance, there would be this kabuki that would drop down. It was basically a tent, so we were in darkness. Joe would say, ‘Do you wanna get rocked?’ and then I’d hit the guitar riff; that riff was the cue for the crew guys, on the count of 1, to let go of the ropes that would bring up the whole curtain. Right as that happened, we’d bust out and blaze into Let’s Get Rocked. It was a cool opener.
“Only problem that night was, my guitar wasn’t turned on. I was playing, but nobody could hear me. We all just looked at each other like, ‘Oh, shit, what do we do?’ Rick didn’t know where to start, and so the crew guys just kind of yanked the ropes up whenever, totally in the wrong place, exposing us like a bunch of deer in the headlights. We just kind of trainwrecked into the song. It was a mess.
“Let’s Get Rocked is sort of a difficult song to play anyway; it seems simple, but it’s really easy to fuck up. So as we're falling into the song, the audience just looked at us like, ‘What are they doing?’ [Laughs] It was a real struggle to get the mojo back. Everything just went pear-shaped, and we felt so silly. It was totally embarrassing.
“My guitar didn’t come on till we were into the first chorus, so I was basically doing air guitar for a while there. The weird thing was, that fucked-up opening put a black cloud over us for almost the whole show. It wasn’t until our acoustic set that we started to feel confident again. That’s not like us – usually we can roll with whatever goes wrong. And believe me, things go wrong on tour; that’s just the nature of live shows. But screwing up the first song knocked us off our game. It’s never happened since, thank God.
“Later on, we had a laugh about it; we sat backstage and talked about Spinal Tap and all that – the pods not opening. You have to find some humor in it. But while it’s happening, it doesn’t seem funny at all. You just stand there thinking, ‘This is terrible. Somebody get me outta here!’” [Laughs]