Q&A: Def Leppard guitarist ready to pour some sugar on Jiffy Lube Live

Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen dishes on the band’s career, from a one-armed drummer to a stripper song that became a rock anthem in "Pour Some Sugar On Me."

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Def Leppard at Jiffy Lube Live

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — You know their songs. You’ve seen their T-shirts. Now you can see them live.

Classic rock gods Def Leppard will electrify Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia, on Friday, June 8, as part of their six-month nationwide tour alongside fellow ’80s rock legends Journey.

“We toured (together) in 2006 and it was so phenomenally amazing that we promised to do it again,” lead guitarist Phil Collen told WTOP. “We’re really looking forward to it. If it’s anything like the last time, it’ll be amazing. Ticket sales suggest so. Just the fact that everyone’s got all these great songs that everyone can sing along to, it’s just a really good night. It’s amazing.”

Will there be any combo performances between the two bands?

“There was last time,” Collen said. “One of the highlights was in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. We all had these adjoining dressing rooms, all hanging out, and Jonathan (Cain) said, ‘I wrote ‘Faithfully’ on that piano.’ Then he got on it, started playing it and we all started singing along. It was before everyone started recording stuff and I really wish I had it. Def Leppard and most of Journey sitting around singing! It was like, ‘Whoa! Who’s recording this?'”

While Journey formed in San Francisco in 1973, Def Leppard formed in Sheffield, England, in 1977. Their debut album “On Through the Night” (1980) reached the Top 15 in the U.K., while their next album “High ‘n’ Dry” (1981) featured the MTV hit “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.”

“Mutt Lange, our producer, was really instrumental,” Collen said. “He was just an amazing visionary. … He’s done the most successful AC/DC album, Shania Twain, who he was married to, Bryan Adams, The Cars. It was just incredible what he added and his concept for what the band was. … We made a hybrid of rock and pop music. … We didn’t look like other rock bands either. It was more in line with how Duran Duran looked than Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.”

Collen joined the band as the lead guitarist in 1982, just on the cusp of worldwide fame.

“It was so perfect because I came in as the lead guitarist,” Collen said. “All of the heavy lifting, all the rhythm guitars and grunt work had already been done. I joined the band and Mutt Lange said, ‘Be a lead guitar player.’ I got solos, then he found out I could sing, so he had me singing on everything, as well, backing vocals, all the fun parts. … It was a great introduction.”

With the new lineup solidified, their monster third album “Pyromania” (1983) was a smash success, featuring a string of hits with “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’.” The album sold six million copies, only denied from the top of the charts by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“It was a very exciting time,” Collen said. “Our first gig was a tiny club in London, The Marquee Club, which The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Sex Pistols had played. It was a 400-seater, and within a year, we ended up playing Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego (for) 55,000 people!”

But the highest of highs always come with the lowest of lows. The band was dealt a blow when drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm during a 1984 car crash in Sheffield, England.

“Me and Steve Clark were in Paris on like New Year’s Eve and we get this phone call from our manager Peter Mensch: ‘Rick’s had this accident and his arm’s been severed.’ We said, ‘What do you mean his arm’s been severed?’ We couldn’t understand what he was talking about. He said, ‘His arm came off and he’s in hospital and we’re worried he might not even make it.”

Instead, the band turned a negative into a positive, as Allen showed his resiliency.

“Lange had been to see him and said, ‘Hey dude, you can do this! With technology, you can use your left foot with foot pedals,” Collen said. “He took that and ran with it. He just practiced dawn to dusk. It was amazing how he got into it. It really paid off. … It’s an amazing feat.”

Together, they roared back with “Hysteria” (1987), featuring the hit title track and the career-defining anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which was a last-minute addition.

“We’d actually come to the end of recording that album. Joe Elliott was sitting in a corridor on the floor with an acoustic guitar just strumming away singing something. Mutt Lange was like, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Play that again.’ Ten days later, we had the song finished. The rest of the album took two and a half years; that song took ten days.”

The song’s biggest push came from strippers who loved its barely hidden sexual innuendo.

“The album came out and hadn’t done that well. It had done OK, but we hadn’t broken even,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, strippers in Florida — this is the God’s honest truth — would dance to it in their routine and they’d request it on the local radio stations. So it became a hit on local radio stations in Florida and then it snowballed around the rest of the country.”

In 1991, the band lost Steve Clark to a drug overdose. Since 1992, Def Leppard has consisted of Joe Elliott (lead vocals), Phil Collen (guitar, backing vocals), Rick Savage (bass, backing vocals), Rick Allen (drums, backing vocals) and Vivian Campbell (guitar, backing vocals).

“We’ve kept that trajectory going,” Collen said. “I can still run around the stage at 60 years old better than I did when I was 25. … We’ve always got something to prove. We love doing this. This resiliency we learned from our parents. They were being blown up in World War II. I’m from London and my parents would have all these crazy stories and positive affirmations because they’d been through all of this. … I think we learned some valuable lessons.”

Just recently, the band finally agreed to make its entire catalog available for digital download.

“We held out because one of us lost a limb, one of us lost their life, and we’d spent millions of dollars and so much energy on all this stuff that it seemed only fair,” Collen said. “We felt it had more value than everyone else just giving their stuff away. We had a clause in our contract also that we didn’t have to do that, which was pretty amazing. So we held out until the time was right. … It’s just been amazing. People have the Def Leppard T-shirts but they’ve never heard the band! So now the people can connect the T-shirt to the sound of the band.”

Today, the band’s T-shirts are everywhere and “Rock of Ages” has become a hit Broadway musical and movie. Will this legacy get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

“Better ask them!” Collen joked. “We don’t really care about that stuff, because we have the integrity to keep going. It’s not really about accolades or Grammys. We never had a Grammy. We’ve never even been nominated. They didn’t even have a category when we were selling a million albums a week. … All of that stuff doesn’t bother us. It’s more about making the music and having a value system. We love what we do and we have fans who love what we do.”

Find more concert details on the Jiffy Lube Live website. Hear our full chat with Phil Collen below:

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