Interview: Phil Collen on recording Def Leppard's Hysteria track-by-track
Recalling the price tag for recording Def Leppard's 1987 album, Hysteria, guitarist Phil Collen is still amazed. "Four and a half million dollars!" he says, laughing slightly. "Which was ludicrous. Who knows what that would be in today’s dollars? We had to sell three million copies just to break even, and for a while, we didn't know if we would."
The band had scored an across-the-board smash with 1983's Pyromania, but as they prepared for the follow-up, tragedy struck when drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a 1984 New Year's Eve car accident.
"That was a huge blow to us all personally, of course," says Collen. "But Rick came through it all so well, it's unbelievable. The fact that the record took so long to make took a lot of pressure off of him, in some ways. He had the time to learn how to play in a new way, of course, but just the way that he became a new person and learned how to do all the normal things that we take for granted – tying his shoes, cutting a loaf of bread and stuff like that – it was amazing. So Rick was able to get so many elements of his life back before we finished the album and went back into the world.”
Compounding matters was the fact that the group (which at the time also included singer Joe Elliot, bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Steve Clarke) were starting the album without their trusted producer, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who was committed to working with The Cars on the album Heartbeat City. The band began sessions with noted Meat Loaf writer and producer Jim Steinman.
"It seemed like a good idea at first," says Collen, "but it just didn’t work out at all. So we waited for Mutt. I remember he said to us once, ‘You can be a cool band, a good band or a great band. If you want to be a great band, you have to work harder than anybody else.’ That was it right there. That explains why we went that extra mile, and it was all because of Mutt.”
Already famous – or infamous – for his meticulous nature, Lange took the unusual step of instructing Collen and Clarke - heretofore Marshall amp lovers - to play through Rockman units to achieve a uniform, pristine guitar sound.
“We wanted clarity – clarity with a lot of bottom," says Collen. "Steve and I were working on these elaborate, very intricate guitar orchestrations, and if you’re layering 15 or 16 guitar tracks on a song, Marshalls just aren’t going to work. Using the Rockmans worked very well in that we could fit part upon part upon part, even separate strings. We might have sacrificed some of the hard rock balls element you’d get with a Marshall or something, but the melody and hooks and tone to each part really came through with the Rockmans. It wasn’t all Rockmans, though – there were some parts where we used small Gallien-Krueger amps.”
Going into Hysteria, Lange stated that he wanted the band to make a hard rock version of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Collen states that everybody was on board with such an approach. "Sure, let’s make every song as great as possible – why not?" he says. "Let’s be daring. So many rock bands just follow the stereotype, but Mutt wanted to open us up to any kind of sound, make us like a hybrid in a way, and we thought that was really exciting. He’s amazing at that.
“A lot of rock albums can sound thin and reedy. But listen to hip-hop albums and R&B records – they sound huge! We found that we could get a lot of crossover appeal by making the songs big and open. High ‘N’ Dry had a bit of an AC/DC thing to it. I remember putting my vocals on Pyromania and thinking, This doesn’t sound like anyone else. In fact, it sounded like Def Leppard for the first time."
Hysteria marked the last recordings of Steve Clarke (although he did contribute to the writing of 1992's Adrenalize). The guitarist, who died in 1991, was plagued by alcoholism, but Collen remembers that "he was OK during the Hysteria sessions. It wasn’t until after the Hysteria tour that things came to a head with the drinking. And it wasn’t like he was out of control then, it was the physical reactions he was having. But during the recording of Hysteria, he was OK.”
Collen admits that the three-year process for recording Hysteria did "make us a bit crazy at times, mainly in the beginning," but he clearly recalls the moment when he heard the completed work from start to finish: "We were staying at this little house on a lake in Holland. Steve got a copy and put it on. It was the first time I heard drums on a lot of the tracks, because when I was recording it, a lot of times I played to a click. So I listened to the record and I thought, If it sells one copy and my mom’s the only one that buys it, I’ll be happy. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. I was completely satisfied. I was so proud and pleased. I can still listen to it and feel the same way."
Released on 3 August 1987, Hysteria got off to a slow start (Collen credits strippers in Florida who embraced Pour Some Sugar On Me for kicking the album into the mainstream), but it eventually exploded, spawning seven singles and selling over 20 million copies. "It's been 25 years now," says Collen. "That's enough to make you feel old. Oddly enough, I can remember making the record very clearly. I can remember being in the studio, what guitars we used – I think I remember what we ordered for lunch on some days."
On the following pages, Phil Collen celebrates the 25th anniversary of Hysteria by walking us through the recording of the album track-by-track.
“Mutt came in with the idea. He wanted to do a song that was pro-women and didn’t say all the usual misogynistic things. It would be a celebration of women. That was mainly his song, and we worked around that.
“On the intro part, for that sort of riffy guitar line, I used a Les Paul Custom. My main rhythm guitar was a Fender Strat that I called Felix. It was something of a hybrid. It had two single-coil pickups and a DiMarzio Super Distortion in the bridge position. Actually, it had a Kahler on it. It was a great-sounding guitar that got broken, unfortunately. Nowadays it’s at the Fender Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum in Corona.
“The Strat was pretty much the rhythm guitar for everything. All the guitars on Women went through a Rockman.”
“Even in demo form, Joe said, ‘I’ve got an idea to use the rhythm from this African Burundi tribe.’ There was a song in the ‘70s called Burundi Black, and I remembered it, and so the idea was to use that feel and turn it into a real rock anthem. It was a little weird and quirky, but it really came together.
“I feel that Rocket is the absolute pinnacle of Def Leppard. It sums us up in a nutshell: massive drums, massive guitars, big choruses, and lyrically, it’s what the Yeah! album was. So you’ve got all of our influences and elements right there.
“I used the Strat on all the jangle parts and the rhythms. We had a lot of fun making that Star Wars bit in the middle – you know, ‘Countdown commencing’ and all that. It was an absolute blast. It's Star Wars for the ears. [laughs] And again, what was great was to not be restricted by your genre. We knew what we were doing was different and it sounded great.
“We had started taking weekends off, and I remember Nigel Green, the engineer, sitting in the studio with an AMS delay machine, and he was delaying all the stuff by hand. ‘Ahh-ahh-ahhh…’ Now you can do that so easily, but he had to do it the hard way – physically.”
“We wrote the song in Dublin, which was kind of my idea. Frankie Goes To Hollywood was really popular at the time, and we wanted to get some of that in there. Trevor Horn had produced their record, and it sounded amazing.
“We tried to get elements The Fixx, as well – that ‘prrring!’, all the guitar stuff. But we failed miserably [laughs], because I was using Gallien-Krueger on the clean setting.
“For some reason, the whole thing took three years. We started it in Dublin, recorded it in Holland, Joe did a vocal in Paris – but it was kind of sucking. [laughs] After all that work, Mutt said, ‘We’ll keep the vocal and rewrite the song.’
“So I sat with Mutt and Steve and we worked on a demo. I played through the Gallien-Krueger, Steve went through a Rockman, and we were both using Mutt’s guitars. I think I had either a Charvel or a Larrivee. Even though it was a demo, we were cranked up. Coming through the speakers, I got a bit of feedback, just barely, and it ended up on the record.” [laughs]
“Mutt had brought the song in as an acoustic thing. His voice is a little Don Henley-ish. He’s a great singer, and you hear him on Shania Twain records, Bryan Adams records – he does all the high stuff. Most of the backing vocals on Love Bites are Mutt.
“We demoed it – me, Steve and Mutt, initially – and then it made the rounds with everyone in the band. Like on Animal, I played through the Gallien-Krueger, and Steve went through a Rockman. I reinforced loads of stuff with my Strat through a Rockman. Those two demo guitars again wound up on the album.
“It’s really funny, because the initial sound was so shitty – it was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine for now’ – but the intention, especially when you play something for the first time, that’s what makes it. If you play something even two or three times, you start to lose it. So with Animal and Love Bites, we captured the real essence pretty fast.
“It’s an emotional song. I use my mom as a yardstick, and I remember the first time she heard it, she burst into years. Joe did a killer job on the vocals. It’s probably one of his best performances.”
Pour Some Sugar On Me
“It was the last song we recorded. We had the whole album done, and one day Joe was sitting in the corridor of the studio, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing, ‘Pour some suga on meeee’ – kind of like in a Bob Dylan way. Mutt heard it and went, ‘What’s that? Let’s turn it into a song.’
“Mutt’s a big country fan, and he plays guitar with his fingers, so when he played me this line to the song, I said, 'I can’t play like that, I use a metal pick.' I ended up playing it my normal way. Then he said, ‘We have the verses, the rap parts, but it’d be great to have these gaps.’ So I thought of Grandmaster Flash, you know, White Lines, and I worked up a guitar riff in that style, which sounded killer. Crank those up with the big snares and the ‘Heyyyys!’ – it became the song it is. We recorded it in 10 days.
“For the intro riff, I used my sparkly Jackson, the one with with the crackle finish. I used that for two tracks, and then I played a Tele on two other tracks.
“It’s funny: The album came out and kind of tanked. But the strippers in Florida started putting this song it in their routines. They loved dancing to it, it totally worked, and they would call up the local radio stations and ask them to play it. That’s what got it all going. Before you knew it, the song took off like wildfire, all over the States, Canada, everywhere. So it was the strippers in Florida who put this one over. Isn’t that something?” [laughs]
“Initially, this was Rick Savage's thing. It kind of went like ‘Dah-dah-dah-dahhh,’ and being that we’re all big T Rex fans, we said, ‘Let’s make it sexier, like Bang A Gong,’ you know? So we put that vibe to it.
“It was a fun song to record. We had a guide vocal going, and we were doing the T Rex groove – it was all very easy to put things on top. We never really did gratuitous recording; anything that we laid down was supposed to be there. No matter what we did, we never got in the way of the melody.
“There’s some guitar stuff, some harmonics, that kind of sounds like bells. Maybe that’s for the headphone freaks, but they work as hooks. Another one of the genius things about Mutt is his way with subliminal hooks: You hear one thing, and you might not even realize what you’re hearing, and before you know it, you’re hearing something else – and then the whole song opens up.”
Gods Of War
“Steve had this idea in Dublin. We had this working title for it – 'Epic' or something like that. There was this thing at the beginning that was kind of Jimmy Page-ish, with E-Bows and all that sustaining stuff.
“I came up with a verse and the bridge section, and then somebody had something else, and eventually everybody contributed. The song pretty much hits every note. I think there’s only one note we don’t do. It was like an experiment: ‘Anyone got any extra bits that’ll fit this?’ [laughs]
“The subject was pretty cool. Gods Of War – there’s nothing that we can do. It’s happening all the time, everywhere.”
Don't Shoot Shotgun
“We wanted it to have an AC/DC feel, although originally it was kind of Stones-y. The verse is really cool, but I will say that we didn’t get enough time to finish the song off. Just subject matter-wise – you know, I think the title could have been better. The rest of it is really grooving.
“I tried a Telecaster on it – I was thinking ‘Keith Richards’ – but it ended up being more AC/DC.”
“Again, we didn’t finish it off. We just didn’t get enough time to work on it, like chorus-wise. The verses are great, but we get to the chorus and it’s too… I don’t know, that’s just my opinion, although Joe thinks the same thing.
“It went a bit too poppy, a bit too happy. The vocal melody was a little too major scale. It should’ve stayed more rock ‘n’ roll, especially with the title. I remember I came back from Paris to do the solo, and I fumbled it and made some mistakes. I used to really cringe when I heard it, but it’s been 25 years now, so I’ve let it go.
“Actually, now I like mistakes here and there. You play something, you struggle, you leave a few hiccups in – it’s cool.”
“An epic song, that one. We put so much into it. Rick Savage had this idea on guitar, and I literally sang the first verse over the top of it. I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this bit – I gotta know tonight…’ We took it to Steve, Joe and Mutt, and they added their parts.
“Rick Allen had suggested that we called the album Hysteria, so we decided to call the song the same thing. Once we had the basis for it, it was just a matter of getting all the parts down.
“On the ‘gotta know tonight’ part, we recorded every guitar string separately so that there would be no arpeggiating. Mutt said, ‘I don’t want a keyboard doing it, I want it on guitar.’ It had to sound non-arpeggiated. Because even if you hit a power chord, there’s a certain amount of arpeggiation. But if you hit every note separately, it sounds totally different. It’s a brilliant sound.
“Steve and I played the solo live together in the studio. We did the same notes, but our vibrato techniques were quite different. We both went through Rockmans. I was playing a Strat, and Steve played a Les Paul.”
“We wanted Prince meets Michael Jackson. There was also a song called State Of Shock, which was Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. So we were trying to get all of these dance things together.
“I think Sav came up with the idea and we hammered it out. The big thing on this song was, we didn’t want it to be too obvious. We were bringing in all kinds of genres and moods and mixing them up. I think it came out great. I’d like to play it live again one day.”
Love And Affection
“I sat around my apartment in Paris and came up with the idea for this song. We actually played it live before we recorded it. It almost became a single; a lot of people were calling for it, in which case we would’ve had eight singles. [laughs]
“It flowed very easily. A very fun song to record. Why it wound up last on the record, I really don’t know. I think if we would have put it in the main section of the album, it would have made everything lean too commercial-poppy. So it ended the record, which is fine. I like putting a song like this as the closer. It takes you out real well.”