The Sheffield mob who riveted pop into metal in the 80s are still delivering those big-hair anthems, reports SCOTT KARA
Def Leppard's Hysteria, the mega-selling, hard-rock album of the 80s, was no Sgt Pepper. Nor was it a Led Zeppelin IV. If anything, when their fourth and most popular album was released in 1987, it was more like AC/DC's Back In Black dressed up in stonewashed denim and wearing a blond curly wig. Put it this way, the British quintet certainly gave the world all of their loving.
However, for Leppard's singer and frontman Joe Elliott, Hysteria was also somewhat of a creative feat. After recording it he remembers saying to the rest of the band that even if it's not successful - "It turned out to be pretty successful," he laughs - it was an "achievement".
"Because we'd done this ballad [Love Bites]. We'd done a song like Animal. We'd done Gods of War which was the big epic thing. And Rocket, a total thrash-core Whole Lotta Love updated 20 years [which had], from an arrangement point of view, this mad middle section that Zeppelin had in a totally different way. We'd achieved something, and we looked at it like a spoke coming out of the centre of a wheel, we could go in any direction after that because that album had 10 directions."
Elliott also likes the AC/DC comparison. The Australian band was one of Def Leppard's key influences when they first got together to rehearse in a spoon factory in Sheffield in 1977. Two years later Def Leppard supported AC/DC on a tour of Britain and officially became one of the leaders of the British new wave of heavy metal in the late 70s.
"Growing up our obvious influences were AC/DC and Queen. We wanted the power of a band like AC/DC but the melody and muscle of a band like Queen and in a perfect world I always wished we'd written Tie Your Mother Down because it's almost a classic Leppard song - it's got the power and the melodies."
The poppier, songwriter side to Def Leppard started coming through even more after guitarist Pete Willis, who had a more experimental musical approach, was fired for excessive drinking in 1982.
"We've never been afraid of doing pop songs, and they're all over [1999's] Euphoria, and there's Animal, Sugar. [Pop] was our true roots and if people are still judging us on our first three albums then they have to get over it because that's not the way we are.
""We were also influenced by people like Ray Davies [the Kinks] and Pete Townshend from a songwriting point of view and they would just throw in these three or four chords and come up with great words and a good melody with a great big rock band to hammer it home," says Elliott, who has a throatie, happy grumpy tone. He likes to have a bit of a laugh about his band and talks about putting songs through the "Leppard meat grinder" and how they've all "been Leppardised".
It wasn't just the songs that made Def Leppard successful. While they were no Guns 'N Roses or Motley Crue in the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll stakes, when they started out and throughout the 80s they stood out in their own way.
"We had ambition, stupidity, naivety and bravado. We had everything that you get beaten out of you as you get older. We'd wear the most ridiculous things to get attention and, okay, people laugh at spandex now but in 1979 you didn't. Plus the fact that we'd grown up on Bowie and Bolan, and all these Ziggy Stardust types, so to us dressing up, especially if you were a singer, was like wearing ridiculous clothes, big shoulder pads, and you look like a spaceman. But with us I think there was a bit of substance. We may have been wanking rather than shagging but we had something."
One person who saw Def Leppard's potential was producer Mutt Lange (also known as the former Mr Shania Twain). After seeing them support AC/DC he took the band and made them one of the biggest in the world thanks to albums like 1983's Pyromania (remember Photograph and Rock of Ages?), and Hysteria, which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
There was a four-year gap between Pyromania and Hysteria because drummer Rick Allen was involved in a car accident on New Year's Eve in 1984 and his left arm was severed. He was determined to return to the band and, using a customised drum kit, the band were back in the studio in 1986.
The result? Songs like opener Animal, the overwraught epic Hysteria, on to Pour Some Sugar On Me and Armageddon It, and, er, best of all, the ballsy ballad Love Bites.
And they haven't stopped since, recording seven albums since then, including this year's Songs From The Sparkle Lounge, which includes a collaboration with country star Tim McGraw who, along with his wife and fellow country singer Faith Hill, is a big fan of the band.
"And why not?" snaps Elliott, before informing me Chaka Khan is also a fan. "And when she sang Pour Some Sugar On Me to my face I nearly fell on the floor," he laughs.
But Def Leppard are not deluded. They know the songs the fans want to hear and when they play Vector - the first time the band have been here for 16 years - you will get the hits.
"We'll be doing what all great bands of our status do which is play a combination of our new album and our classic tracks, some of which we will get castrated if we don't play," he laughs.
"Let's be honest, people are coming to these concerts not because of our new songs. They will indulge us a new song every 25 minutes but you're going to get Sugar and Animal and songs of that ilk."
Who: Def Leppard
What: One of the biggest bands of the 80s lives on
Playing: Vector Arena, Auckland, November 14
New album: Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, out now
Classic albums: Pyromania (1983); Hysteria (1987)