Life, Def Leppard and Beyond – An Interview with Phil Collen

As guitarist with heavy metal heroes Def Leppard, Phil Collen lived through some real bits of rock history. Unlike many rock stars though, being a non-drinker, vegan, healthy living type, he can actually remember quite a lot of it. He has recently put some of this down in his autobiography, “Adrenalize – Life, Def Leppard and Beyond” (read our review here). Phil spoke to Pure Rawk’s resident Leppard obsessive Karl Eisenhauer about the book, Pyromania and Noam Chomsky…

Hi Phil, thanks for taking the time to speak with Pure Rawk. How’s it going?

It’s crazy busy. We’ve just started a world tour, but we’ve been on tour for eight months before that! We’re in a very unique position now in that we still love playing and we’ve got loads of songs to choose from, and we’ve got this new album out which we didn’t expect. So it’s really refreshing, it feels like we’re doing something new, when we should be really jaded. That’s why a lot of other bands are disappearing because they’re jaded and they don’t like doing it anymore, but with us we feel like we’re just getting going.

So let’s talk about the book: Adrenalize – Life, Def Leppard and Beyond. How did it come about? I read in Billboard you were initially a bit reluctant?

Yeah, I meet these book bores all the time, these guys who say “Oh and in my book I said this on page… so and so”. I didn’t want to be that guy!

Anyway, I was doing a charity event for the Gerson Institute playing acoustic guitar for Debbi, the singer in my other band Delta Deep. I got talking to Chris Epting (co-writer) who tried to convince me I should write a book. My initial response was no, they’re too egotistical, too egocentric.

But Chris said “No, no, you’re really interesting. You’ve met such amazing people, and you don’t drink, you’re a vegan, you’re not the rock star stereotype”. All very flattering, but really, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. All of a sudden though, he got all these interviews with publishers, and people were interested, so I agreed.

Now it’s written and out there, how do you feel about the book? The cliché is people find it cathartic, but in the book you say it’s not about that.

No, not even slightly. I think a lot of people have a problem speaking or looking at themselves in the mirror, and I never had that problem. Pretty much anything I’ve spoken about in the book, I’ve said in interviews over the last thirty years anyway. There’s no “Oh my god, I’m a crossdresser!” confessions, it’s all out there already.

Have the rest of the band read it? What’s the feedback been?

That’s what this box is for! Joe said (mimics Yorkshire accent) “Where’s my bloody book?”, but we’ve just done Japan, Australia and Singapore, and I had to pack for three seasons, so I couldn’t bring any books. That’s what this box is, that’s their copies.

Phil Collen 1

Let’s go right back to being a kid in Hackney, was there a single moment when you decided I’m going to be a guitarist?

I think it was seeing Richie Blackmore. I could understand he was playing different notes to the blues guys, there was an aggression that he had that was really cool. I think seeing that in the flesh made me go home and ask my mum for a guitar.

Were you focused from then on, or was there a chance you might do something else?

No, I was pretty single-minded, I didn’t want to do anything else and even school suffered. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do the same, but this was it – there was no plan B. I say to everyone try to have a plan A,B,C,D and beyond if you can, because usually Plan A doesn’t work, that’s been my experience. But guitar was the first thing I ever did and it worked, so I never had a plan B!

Before Leppard you in more glammy bands like Dumb Blondes and Girl. Was there ever an opportunity for you in the punk scene?

The thing was, I could already play guitar. A lot of the guys I knew in punk bands couldn’t play. There were only a few really great punk bands, The Pistols are one of my all-time favourite bands, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, I just loved the way they approached it. It was pure adrenaline and vibe, which was great, but I had learnt blues stuff and Zeppelin, so I would have sounded completely wrong in that kind of band.

You joined Def Leppard in 1982 for the Pyromania album, which absolutely skyrocketed in America. How did that feel, having the second biggest selling album of the year behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller?

We didn’t have time to stop. We didn’t actually realise we’d had all of that success, because we were so constantly touring, and then we came off tour and did Hysteria. It was non-stop. It wasn’t until we got the Diamond Award (for 10 million album sales in America) that we realised. We found ourselves in the same room as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elton John and Billy Joel, and we couldn’t really believe it.

If you had to pick one highlight from your success, what would it be?

It would have to be Hysteria. Taking every influence that was out there at the time, and putting it together on one record. It was rock plus, it was all of the above and, I think, we did achieve something with that record.

As a band are you always looking forward, or is there anything in the back-catalogue that you look back on and think you could have done differently? You reflect a bit on the poorly received Slang album in the book.

I love Slang, I think it’s a great record, but at that time people just didn’t like us! We could have done Dark Side of the Moon or Sergeant Pepper’s and it wouldn’t have made a difference. We were not to be loved at that point.

You’re in a couple of other bands now, tell me a bit about ManRaze, a power trio you’re in with Simon Laffy and Paul Cook from Sex Pistols.

Someone described it just recently as the itch you couldn’t scratch. When Def Leppard wrote Slang, we tried to go out and do something a bit different, but we found our fans and the public wouldn’t really accept it.

I still write songs all the time, my phone is jammed with ideas, riffs and lyrics. So I’ve got all this stuff, and I think if you didn’t get it out, you’d go nuts. It’s artistic expression. It’s very different to Def Leppard, even lyrically the songs are very different in ManRaze.

Phil Collen 2

You also have Delta Deep, tell us about that.

Delta Deep is more of a bluesy thing. It’s my wife Helen’s godmother Debbi Blackwell-Cook, who has an amazing voice and has sung on loads of records, and done sessions with Luther Vandross. She sang at our wedding and she’s always at the house, so we just goof off playing motown and funk stuff.

Before we knew it, we wound up doing this charity event at the Gerson Institute, and everyone’s asking us about it, and where they could buy the record! So that’s where it started off. Helen actually writes as well, and people think it’s really corny that I write with my wife, but we just create this amazing stuff.

What it’s like working with a variety of different musicians after thirty years with Def Leppard?

I think it helps with Def Leppard. Joe has said this with the Down n’ Outz stuff, he does that and then he gets back into this. It makes us better, in the Def Leppard context, it keeps us fresh, we get new ideas, you’ve have musical experiences you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

To jump back, the book’s all about not being the cliché. How you’re a vegan, gave up meat and drink at the height of the decade of debauchery. Was that a hard decision to make or to stick with, is there a pressure to conform to a drinking culture?

There is, but you ask have to yourself “Am I trying to impress someone?” or “What’s my goal here?”. I did this really interesting interview once on this rock radio station out in the midwest and asked me to choose from a list. ‘“Hard-pack or soft-pack cigarettes?” “I’ve never smoked!”, he said “Hard liquor or beer?”, I said “Well I don’t drink!”. He said “White meat or red meat?”, I said “Vegan!”. “Blonde or brunette?”, I said “I only go out with black women!”.

So many people succumb to peer pressure, I never really did that. If I wanted to go do something I would, but not just because I thought I should. It’s the same with influences or reading. I’ve got about five or six books on the go at the same time, it takes me ages sometimes, but they’re all so drastically different. Life is more interesting that way, you come out knowing a lot more than you did the day before.

You mention authors you love in the book, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky. It’s not something that you’ve really spoken about before. Do you think that will surprise readers?

I first heard of Chomsky years ago from a friend of mine Owen, who is pretty much a genius. He has these theories about stuff and why it goes down, and they all seem to come true. After 9/11, I saw Chomsky get thrown off a TV station and I thought that was interesting, and I wanted to know why, so I ended up reading all of his books. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s another perspective that I think people deserve to know. Even if only a bit of it is true, that’s still amazing.

Then you’ve got Howard Zinn’s – A People’s History of the United States, which is just a brilliant book, it’s not the normal propaganda that we read. I like to listen to everything. I watched the Republican debates recently, that was more like reality TV!

So, final question, as a bit of fun… Have you ever seen the Def Leppard TV movie and what did you think of the guy that played you?

I have seen it, I’ve met his Mum! I was in Vegas she recognised me, because when he was preparing for the film he was watching our videos and had a poster up of me, so she knew my face. I invited her to a show, and told everyone my mum was coming – not my real mum, my fake me’s mum!

Phil Collen Karl Eisenhauer