Interview: Phil Collen talks 30 years with Def Leppard, Rock Of Ages film

Phil Collen shreds on stage with his Jackson PC Supreme. © Helen L Collen

"The first show we played with Pyromania was at the Marquee Club in London," says Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen. "We started that tour at a 500-seat place, and we finished up at the Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego - 55,000 seats. Pretty incredible."

What's also incredible is the fact that it's been 30 years since Collen joined Def Leppard and played a vital role in turning the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal upstarts into a global behemoth, one which has sold over 100 million records.

This June, the music of Def Leppard will rock multiplexes when the big-screen treatment of the hit Broadway musical Rock Of Ages opens. The all-star cast includes Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti and Mary J Blige - and for a little added wattage, there's Tom Cruise, belting out Pour Some Sugar On Me, no less. "It's going to be something else," Collen says of the Adam (Hairspray) Shankman-directed spooler.

To mark his 30th anniversary as a member of Def Leppard, MusicRadar caught up with Phil Collen to share some memories. In addition, we talked about his home recording setup, what the summer holds for the Leps and, most important of all, we asked that burning questing: What's it like seeing the world's biggest movie star singing your song?

Take us back to the time you joined the band. Was there an audition process?

"No. Nothing like that at all. I already knew the guys. What happened was, Pete Willis was having some problems with the band - things were just not going well - and one day, during the High 'n' Dry tour, I got a phone call from Joe Elliot, who was in the States at the time. 'Can you learn 16 songs in two days?' he asked me. 'Uhh, yeah,' I said. 'Why is that?' And then he told me that things weren't great with Pete, that it wasn't working out.

"Funny thing is, Joe called me two days later and told me that things were OK again. But when they started the next album, the one that would become Pyromania, they called me up and said Pete wasn't in the band anymore, and could I come to the studio to play a couple of guitar solos?

So it wasn't stated that you were joining the band.

"No. I went to the studio and was asked to play a solo to Stagefright. I did a first pass and everybody loved it - that's the take that's on the album, actually. From there, I played on Photograph, Foolin', Rock Of Ages, and then I started singing - basically, I finished the album off with the guys. From that point, we went on and on. There was no real joining process."

But still, you had to quit Girl, the band you were in at the time?

"Actually, I had already left. When I was going to go on tour with Def Leppard, I had to leave the other band. It worked out, though - we had kind of come to the end of our thing in Girl. Creatively there was a lot of potential in it, but we never really followed it up. There were lots of problems with management, our record label, all sorts of things. It would have imploded whether the Def Leppard thing happened or not."

Soon after you joined Def Leppard, the band suffered a massive tragedy when Rick Allen had his car accident.

"That's right. And what I soon learned about the band was that it was always about the people in the band, not just about the business. When bands lose that personal element, when they stop looking out for one another, that's when they run into all kinds of problems. We were a team - still are. We don't have egos and any of that crap.

"When the thing happened with Rick, it was shocking. To have somebody you know go through something that terrible… I remember I was with Steve Clark when we got the phone call: 'What do you mean severed?' And they told me his arm was off. I couldn't comprehend it; I never had any experience with something like that.

"We were all stunned. The guy was fighting for his life, you know? So we never really thought about us personally, the band and all that - it was all about Rick as a human being. And then, once we found out he was going to be OK, we were worried about him psychologically, how he was going to be when he got out of the hospital.

"I remember when Steve and I went to see him. We were so scared. Again, we had no idea how to act, what to say. But we walked in and he was like, 'Hey, guys, what's going on?' It was great to see him that 'up.' And then, of course, he worked his ass off. To do what he's done, psychologically and physically, what can you say? It's beyond impressive. Rick has made us work harder, really."

Thirty years ago, could you have imagined Rock Of Ages - the film?

"No. I don't think anybody could!" [laughs]

You were on the movie set when Tom Cruise sang Pour Some Sugar On Me. What was that like?

"It was surreal. What happened was, we were in Florida on tour, and we got a phone call telling us that they were filming just up the road. They were literally shooting that sequence that day.

"We went to the set and met Tom Cruise, who was absolutely great. Brilliant! I really appreciate when other people do such hard work - it's inspiring. We were just knocked out by his singing, which he was doing for real. We said, 'We didn't know you could sing.' He smiled and said, 'I couldn't - I just learned five months ago.' He was having lessons and practicing five hours a day - crazy stuff. Extremely impressive. But you know, that's the kind of guy he is, swinging from cables and jumping off buildings. It's pretty nuts!"

OK, now you've seen people cover Def Leppard songs on YouTube clips and on American Idol and the like. But what's it like when the biggest star in the world is singing your song?

"You think about it in a totally different way. You get over the song and the subject matter, and all you can focus on is that somebody so iconic doing it. With a lot of people, their 'iconic-ness' gets in the way. Take Beyonce, for example: She's a really good singer, an amazing singer, but nobody even notices how good she is because they're so focused on her being Beyonce. Her whole aura gets in the way.

"It was a little bit like that with Tom Cruise. You're like, 'Oh my God, it's Tom Cruise!' But he's got it down. He looked a little bit like Iggy Pop and some… I don't know, some cool rock star! [laughs] It was trippy. But what's great is that he can really sing. On his track, he sings the backgrounds, so he's doing my parts, as well."

When you first heard about the idea for a Broadway musical called Rock Of Ages, what did you think?

"When they first mentioned the play, I thought, Oh God, this is going to be hideous! But then I went to see the play and I was really surprised. It was kitsch, it was camp, and it was really funny. I thought it was going to be some tragic '80s rock thing, and it wasn't that at all. There's a bit of a West Side Story-esque thing to it, but it's fun. When we were told it was going to be a movie, we were all for it."

Adam Shankman is directing. Given what he did with Hairspray, he's got the right sensibilities.

"Absolutely. Some people miss the balance you have to strike, finding the humor and the heart, but Adam knows what he's doing. I can't wait to see the whole thing."

Recently, you collaborated with Bret Michaels for a Supercross dirt-bike racing song, and last year your band Man Raze put our their second record, PunkFunkRootsRock. You did both in your home studio, right?

"Well, it's my laptop. It's great working like this. Def Leppard stuff, the track I did with Bret Michaels, most of the Man Raze album - yeah, I have Logic on my Mac.

"It's very easy. I can get a Phil Collen sound, and it's killer. There's a band called Oedipus, they're from LA - a little 311 meets My Chemical Romance in sound - and I played some stuff on one of their songs. I did that on the laptop, too."

So if we wanted to do a pictorial of your home studio, it'd just be a picture of your laptop.

"That's about it, yeah! [laughs] I'll send you a photo. I do vocal things upstairs - I've got some stuff set up there - but a lot of tracks I record in my kitchen. No one would even know."

Phil Collen's home recording studio. Hits are born here. © Helen L Collen

Because one can dial up sounds so easily these days, do you ever miss that time when it was you, your guitar, your amp and some pedals?

"No. Not even slightly. I've spent so many hours working with amps, fucking around and trying to get sounds. You waste so much time. What's funny is, I always go for the same sound, which is my live sound, and that comes from a JPM Marshall and a Randall solid-state power amp. So with technology, if I can get what I want from just hitting a switch, why not?"

Any plans for the next Def Leppard record?

"Recording, yes, but it'll probably be a Def Leppard song or two. We're going to go on tour this summer, so we're going to try to have a new song together. Coming up with material shouldn't be a problem - I wrote two new songs this week.

"A whole album won't happen this year, I can be pretty sure on that. There's so much involved with putting a record together, and the demographics for the people who buy albums is shrinking. We'll do a record next year, but it would be cool if we could do it differently. I'd love to do what we did with the Man Raze album, recording the entire thing in two weeks."

Why couldn't you? Everybody in Def Leppard must have laptops.

"Yes, but not everybody in the band records that way. I'm the only one who does that. If they could do that, it would be killer. It'd be really good."

Thinking about the summer, the tour, Rock Of Ages… what would you guys do if Tom Cruise showed up at a gig and wanted to sing?

"We'd let him! [laughs] Absolutely. That would be amazing. Him singing Pour Some Sugar On Me? Totally! Hey, he knows the words…"

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.