Photo: Kazuyo Horie

Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott Interview: Breaking America with ‘Heartbreak’

February 23, 2018

By Scott T. Sterling

Joe Elliott is something of a rock and roll historian.

Talking to the Def Leppard frontman finds him to be a veritable fount of information on rock and roll history, able to wax eloquently on ‘70s U.K. rockers Slade and Mott the Hoople as easily as he references Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Mick Jagger solo singles from the ‘80s.

Speaking on the phone recently as he and the band gear up for their 2018 summer tour with Journey, Elliott gamely fields the requisite questions about his favorite Journey song (“Chain Reaction,” for those wondering) and thoughts on his band’s catalog finally going digital.

The singer really lights up, however, when given a chance to talking about the deeper aspects of Def Leppard’s rich history (they do have their very own Behind the Music episode), and the group’s first forays across the Atlantic to America.

While the band would go on to make two diamond albums (more than 10 million copies sold) Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987), the group’s earlier discography is also impressive.

Def Leppard’s second full-length, High ‘n’ Dry, in particular, can play like a revelation on a first-time listen. The album marks band’s debut with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who would help the band craft the wide-reaching sound that turned up the pop hooks and dance-floor aesthetics behind the massive hits on the following two albums, Pyromania and Hysteria.

High ‘n’ Dry also features the single, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” an epic power ballad that would be the first Def Leppard song to have significant impact Stateside.

When asked to recall what it was like for Def Leppard to hit America on the back of the album’s initial release, Elliott says they landed in the U.S. with something of a thud.

“When we first came to America for High ‘n’ Dry, there was no traction on the record. The traction came after we finished touring. It was really frustrating for us, because it was the first album we’d made with “Mutt” Lange. To this day, we still really love it,” Elliott remembers. “You could argue that my singing on it, albeit better than on the first record, was a little shouty.”

“We toured Europe first, with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. We finally made it to [tour] the States in the summer, playing clubs opening for Blackfoot. Great guys—Rickey Medlocke is a wonderful man,” the singer shared. “But they’re like southern rock, and we were out there trying to be like UFO or whatever (laughs). To the Blackfoot fans, we looked like the New York Dolls. It was a little weird. Luckily, we got to spend a few weeks playing arenas opening for Ozzy Osbourne.”

Elliott details how management and record company execs had pumped up the band’s hopes with projections that High ‘n’ Dry would generate huge sales and catapult Def Leppard to stardom. The actual results were far less impressive.

“The album did OK. It sold maybe 250,000 copies. We were expecting it to do much better,” Elliott says. “We get home to prepare to record what would become Pyromania, and we starting getting telegrams from America saying there was this new cable channel called MTV, and they were playing our ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak’ video. Since they only had like 17 videos at the time, and three of them were ours, because we’d shot promos for ‘Heartbreak,’ ‘Let it Go’ and the title track. They were playing all three of them in medium rotation, and then ‘Heartbreak’ ended up going into heavy rotation.”

The singer goes to on to detail how MTV hadn’t even become ubiquitous in American households yet, but the repeated spins of “Heartbreak” on the cable channel generated new fans who eagerly started requesting the song at their local radio stations.

“We get wind of this happening back in America, and by the time we were wrapping up the recording of Pyromania, we get a telex saying that High ‘n’ Dry had gone gold,” Elliott laughs.

“So while we busted our n— touring it and getting nowhere, MTV took a three-minute clip of us miming to the song in front of a fake audience and turned it into a gold album,” the singer adds.

“The album went gold around December of ’82, and the next album, Pyromania, came out in January of ’83,” he continues. “The first single was ‘Photograph,’ and the rest is history. Everything just went ballistic from that moment on.

High ‘n’ Dry was a weird one,” Elliott says finally. “It was one of those happy accidents. For all of the great planning that you do and the wishes and putting everything into place, it didn’t really happen that way. But I’m forever grateful that it did.”

With over thirty years of touring already logged, Def Leppard starts their next U.S. tour on May 21 in Hartford, CT. Head over to their website for all details and dates.