Phil Collen talks Journey tour, punk, grunge and surviving in Def Leppard

By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One band rose out of the UK in 1980 as part of the new wave of British heavy metal. The other formed in San Francisco in the early ’70s as a jazz-fusion group before evolving into slick, sonic-rock hitmakers.

And wardrobe wise, they are nothing alike.

Def Leppard and Journey may be worlds apart, but the common thread between the two bands is their way with a big melodic hook, keeping fans coming back for decades.

Following The Stadium Tour two years ago with Motley Crue, Def Leppard is partnering with Journey for one of the biggest stadium tours of 2024, stopping at PNC Park on July 27.

Def Leppard, which formed in 1976, is two years removed from 12th album “Diamond Star Halos,” which celebrated the glam-rock side of its influences. Yet, as guitarist Phil Collen explains, it’s a challenge to squeeze those new songs into a playlist packed with such ’80s hits as “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” “Foolin'” and “Animal.”

On top of that, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band recently freshened the playlist with “Just Like 73,” a retro-glam-rock single with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello that topped the classic rock chart.

In its nearly 50-year run, Def Leppard has had only eight members, and five of them are still in the band. Three (Joe Elliott, Rick Savage and Rick Allen) played on the first album. The 66-year-old Collen, who played in several previous bands, joined in 1982 after the departure of Pete Willis, and was on board for the recording sessions of third album “Pyromania,” which turned Def Leppard into global superstars.

In 1991, during the demo stages of the band’s fifth album, “Adrenalize,” his guitar partner Steve Clark died as a result of his problems with substance abuse. Collen considered leaving, but stayed on to honor Clark’s songwriting contributions on “Adrenalize” and has created sparks with Clark’s replacement, Vivian Campbell, ever since.

In a recent interview from his home in Orange County, Calif., Collen had this to say about the band and the tour.

Before we get to this tour, I just wanted to get your impression on how The Stadium Tour went.

Obviously, we were bummed that it got pushed back year after year, for like two years. Post-COVID, it finally got out there and we had the best time ever with Motley Crue, especially.

We'd done South America, we all had this giant plane. It was both bands, both crews, all the equipment, and we flew around South America, and we were children. It was amazing. Talk about arrested development and kind of goofing off in these cities, but we had a real blast, I gotta say. We really enjoyed their company. The fact that we could bring very different versions of rock to people around the world, and everyone dug it. That was a nice thing, the whole tour.

I guess touring with Motley Crue in 2022 or 2023 would be a lot different than in 1982.

I think so. Yeah, everyone's got kids, like Nikki Sixx’s daughter Ruby was 3, and my son Jackson was 4, and they were dancing and cuddling with each other, which was really cute. You wouldn't have had that back in the day. The whole thing was just a delight.

I was surprised to see a bill of Journey and Def Leppard. I'm wondering how you guys match up and whether you have a history with Journey?

We have. We actually first toured with them in 2006 and our manager, who since passed away, Howard Kaufman, said, “Yeah, you and Journey.” And we're like, “Really?” We didn't see it working. And the first gig, it was like 23,000 people, sold out, and 3,000 people couldn't get in. That was kind of indicative of the whole tour.

It's like three hours of people singing along to every single song. So that was the great thing, a bit like two different faces of the same coin. Obviously, very different, but they've got these just amazing songs and melodies. And you see the audience joyfully singing along to them, as they do with us, but it's obviously a slightly different approach. So it really works.

Then we toured with them in 2018 as well. And again, great. You know when we get on stage, whoever it is, people have a blast.

There's only a few years difference between the two bands, but there's a big difference in sound and style.

There are. A few very different things happened, like the brand new medium of MTV. You know, with Journey, Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie were originally in Santana's band. Neal was like 16 years old, so they developed to that. And then when they got Steve Perry, it completely changed, with one of the classic rock singers of all time, who had this beautiful voice that would convey these great melodies. It was just a perfect vehicle.

When we came along, it changed because we were a rock band but we looked more like Duran Duran than we did, say, Judas Priest. So you would have this, like I said, this new medium, which was MTV, and these very kind of catchy songs, but they were still rock. And then you also had this visual element, so that's what made it very different, although it's only a few years.

I mean, it's only a few years that Journey hit after the UK punk scene, you know, the Pistols and The Clash, and that was only four years after Bowie and T Rex. So they're very short amounts of time. Certainly, when I look back, I’m like “That’s 10 years,” but it’s not. Its only three years in between.

Obviously, now, it's different again. There is no MTV, and it went from vinyl to cassette to CD to download to stream and vinyl, so it’s really weird. And then you've got the whole TikTok/YouTube kind of thing as well, so it's great to exist within those parameters.

In the States, the punk thing didn't really hit until after Journey. It was The Clash in 1980 where I think it really got popular. It had been around in England for a while.

Yeah, when they came out, in ’76-77, they were doing stuff like “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” and you can look back and go, “Oh, that was just theater, and that was Johnny Rotten just being that.” But it had a very political message. The people were upset with what was happening, socially and musically, in England. It got very staid and stale, and you needed that kick.

I think with America, it didn't really happen as much until the grunge thing. Nirvana came out and that kind of changed it. Slightly different thing. It was a whole thing about the self and the personality: “I'm depressed, I'm not right.” So it was a very interesting thing, a reflection of what was happening, a social commentary, if you like.

So what steered you in the direction that you went in, which was more the pop-metal direction, than in the punk direction?

The glam-rock thing. It was Bowie and T Rex, but also, I had Zeppelin albums and my first concert I ever went to was Deep Purple on the Machine Head tour. So there was a certain amount of performance stuff that you wouldn't really get with some of the other rock bands, and you would get them with glam bands.

Then the punk thing, it was very much theater, you know. The Pistols, it was just amazing. They were kind of scary. And that would influence bands like Guns ‘N Roses who were actually dangerous. It was a dangerous thing, and people didn't really want their kids listening to that stuff, because they thought it could affect them. So again, hindsight.

I was just a fan of everything, you know. I saw Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson at the Royal Festival Hall in England. You know, this jazz and funk. My favorite music of all time is ’70s funk, like Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, which is, you know, great, beautiful songs, and Prince.

What was it like coming into Def Leppard when you did, on the third album?

Well, I knew the guys, and I actually thought I was just helping them out, because they got rid of their previous guitar player, Pete Willis. And Joe said, “Hey, do you want to come down and play some solos?” And I'd already been down to the studios. I lent them one of my old Marshalls, and they'd lent me an amp as well.

So we were friends, and we knew everyone. I thought I was just helping them out, and then we finished the album off, did some singing on it as well. And then before you knew it, we're on tour at The Marquee Club in London, their first gig, and then the album just blew up like crazy, blew up like nothing that we'd ever expected like that.

So, I went from having to push my car to start it to, all of a sudden, living in Paris. I mean, really weird, very weird kind of extremes happening all at once. But it was amazing. I’d been working at it for a while and actually understood why it was happening. And like I said, the MTV thing was really important.

The fact that we had Mutt Lange, our producer, who said, “Look, we can't be like everyone else. Let's change this. Let's make the vocals kind of like a Queen thing,” almost like crossing Queen with AC/DC. That was the kind of blueprint, and that's really what we did. Before you know it, you've got something that's gelling. And with the album after that, “Hysteria,” it just that blew up even more, 13 million copies in the U.S. Just insane.

At one point, you almost left the band. What kept you in Def Leppard for all these years?

Steve Clark, who was my best friend, was obviously also in the band. And after he died, there was like a gang thing. I got really depressed, and that was it. And then Joe said, “Yeah, but we wrote all these songs with Steve. Surely we got to see it through.” And we did, and the next album that came out was just the four of us — the “Adrenalize” album — and it went to No. 1 for six weeks in the U.S., and shortly after it, the whole grunge thing happened.

So it kind of knocked a lot of the rock stuff away and just into a different place. So that's what happened. But that's really why I did it, because he was, still is, a part of the band. And that's how I felt about that. And then we just moved forward and onto strength to strength, really.

What was it like for you to go through that grunge period? Were you sort of questioning what you were doing at all?

Yeah, you do a bit. I mean, I welcomed it because it was refreshing. It was like everything else. There were some really lame bands that were pale versions of us, and that's what happens with every genre of music. You had the Pistols and The Clash, you had Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and then it's kind of watered down.

Even boy bands, you know, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, and everything else is a pale version. Then, it's the paler versions that kind of put everyone off, you know, and people stop making great music. And it kind of changes.

So that's what happened with every genre, and that kind of happened with us. You know, you'd have these bands that would really suck and they'd be compared to us. So all of a sudden you got this brand new music. They're wearing flannel shirts and Dave Grohl is playing drums, and it's like, “Whoa, this is so exciting and awesome!”

So that's pretty much what happened. And I think if you're a fan of music and pop culture, you see trends and patterns in everything. I've certainly seen that for years in pretty much everything you know, whether it's politics or music. And so you can kind of base your next move, if you like, around those kind of parameters.

Can you talk about playing with Vivian all these years and what's kept it fresh for you?

Again, as me and Steve Clark were very different, me and Vivian are very different players. His time, and everything about his playing, it's like really cool. I'm really sloppy in comparison, so it kind of works. I like doing, you know, wild bends. I always say, you know, the Johnny Thunders thing, but then I kind of mix it with, say, someone like Al Di Meola. So there's a weird kind of difference in my own playing as well.

Some of it's really technical and cool, and other parts, it's sloppy as hell. So, yeah, I've got that. And Vivian, it's a different style of playing, different approach and pretty influences. Some of them the same. I like Mick Ronson, Michael Schenker, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, my favorite. So we're very different. Viv does like Eric Clapton and does like Stevie Ray Vaughan and stuff, as I do, but again, the things that really turn you on are very different, which makes it brilliant when you play together.

He's been my guitar partner for over 30 years, and we click. Our voices, actually me, Joe, Vivian and Sav, there's a blend in our voices that gives me goosebumps when I hear us sing, that you can't get just from practicing. This is something that comes after years and years and years.

I used to know Phil Everly, of the Everly Brothers, and I asked him about that once, and he said, “Me and my brother Don, we learned from the same person, we have the same body type, and at a certain point, the voices become one.” I understand exactly what he meant.

You know, we learned from Mutt Lange how to sing properly. And then when Vivian joined the band, he actually brought another thing that we didn't have. He was really precise and really great, his voice, so it blended. And before you knew it, we're as one, and that's such an amazing feeling as a musician. Some people never have that experience, and we get it every night.

That brings us to Tom Morello and this single, which is really cool. How did that come about?

Well, Tom heard my original demo of the song with just me on it, and maybe Joe doing a vocal. And he's like, “Oh my God, this is great.” So he told our friend Brian Monaco, who is actually president of Sony Music, and Brian's like, “What do you think about Tom being on it? He loves this thing.” And it was like, “Yeah, that'd be awesome.”

You know, I love Rage Against the Machine. I think Tom's really, really cool and his guitar style is so unique and he really didn't let us down. I remember talking to him about it. He said, “Well, what do you hear?” and I said, “Well, you gotta do your Tom Morello thing.” And he did. You heard it back and said, “This is absolutely perfect.”

The song is about us discovering the music that kind of shaped our lives, you know, the Bowie/T Rex period of the very early ’70s, and he totally got it, and kind of nailed it. So we’re overjoyed about that.

So with that single, is there more to come?

There is. That was kind of left over from the “Diamond Star Halos” thing, and we actually hadn't finished it off. We only finished it off this year with everyone playing and singing on it. So, yeah, it was like almost there but not quite for that album.

We've got this thing now where we write. I was on with Joe on Sunday in Dublin. I was in California, and we were writing a song together and coming up with backing vocal ideas for something else. We are so excited about new stuff. So, it's growing, you know, it’s expanding, our whole thing, as opposed to people getting writer’s block or something. We're having the complete opposite experience. We're just getting more excited about what we're doing.

Is “Diamond Star Halos” part of the show? Are you working that album into it?

We are, but we have so many songs that we have to play, and we are leaning on the “Pyromania” album a little bit more than we would normally because it's the 40th anniversary. It's 41 years now but when we started the tour, it was celebrating 40, and the boxed set had come out. So, yeah, we'll be doing that.

We're definitely doing a couple of songs from “Diamond Star Halos” and we’re including “Just Like ’73” because it's part of that, that kind of feeling and vibe. It's No.1 this week on the classic rock chart, so we’re thrilled about that.

The show is at 6 p.m. July 27 at PNC Park with the Steve Miller Band. Tickets are $73;