When you look at bands that have truly stood the test of time, Leppard is most certainly up there. It's been the same line-up for 23 years, and they've shifted more than 100 million albums worldwide, with two of their releases selling 10 million a piece in the US alone. Add to that, their number seventy ranking on VH1's 'Greatest Artists of All Time', and it becomes easier to understand why they're not finished yet. Far from it, in fact. They're just completing a new album ('the most enjoyable we've ever made,' according to Joe Elliott), and are in the midst of a sell-out tour of Canada, after which, they will hit the US, Europe, the UK, Japan, and Australia… So where did it all go right?
“I would have ummed and aahed at that question ten years ago, but you actually reach a point where being older becomes cooler, so we're more popular now at fifty-five then we were at forty-five, which is pretty funny,” Elliott smiles, as I ask him about the band's evolution. “Evolution? Everything that's evolved in this band has been organic. We've only had two line-up changes ever, and when we have made changes, it's been down to absolute necessity. Pete [Willis, guitarist, '77-'82] had to go, and with Steve [Clark, guitarist until his death in '91] there was no choice. When Phil [Collen] joined, the band got better. Vivian [Campbell, guitar] brings something to the band from a live perspective that Steve never did. Steve was an alcoholic, he had his illnesses, and his level of performance could be stunning, followed by unbearable, but with Viv, it's always totally and utterly reliable.”
Elliott speaks so refreshingly openly, and adds that Campbell also sings, which Clark never did, which has added a totally new dimension to the band's vocals... And it hasn't gone unnoticed.
“We used to get annoyed when people said we were miming, but now we take it as a compliment,” Elliott laughs, adding that it's 'just ridiculous' to think anything by Leppard would ever not be live. “I like to think any evolution has been natural. Maybe one of us nudges it along when necessary, with a new idea for a record, and then everyone else goes, 'eureka!', and we'll try that idea, and it will either work or it will fall flat on its face, which I also accept as a good thing, because it means we're not stagnant. When we did [the album] Slang, we were well aware a year before it came out how it would go down; we were telling people that we were going to call the album 'Commercial Suicide', because that's what it was! From an artistic point of view, we'd never felt so elated in our lives, and that's what an artist is supposed to do; that record wasn't about supply and demand, it was, 'if you don't like it, don't buy it', which is the only way art should ever be.”
One thing that has changed over the years is Elliott's attitude to making records. A process that he and the band have traditionally found 'a pretty tough slog', is now far more enjoyable.
“You always have to suffer for your art, and when we made All Through the Night, we had the best time we ever had, but I just can't listen to it; and with some of the albums we made with Mutt Lange, I would never want to relive what we did to get them, but after we listened to the records, we always thought, 'wow, that really worked',” he remembers. “But with this new album, it's the first time I've actually enjoyed making the record start to finish. In the past, I've never found the need to re-sing anything, but on this one, I have done that, and it made me realise, 'wow, we are making this record and actually having fun tweaking it and improving it'. It's a new experience for me, and it's been a more organic approach. I was more relaxed, I breathed easier, and sang better, and the process was more pleasant. We basically broadened our horizons.”
This album is also the first that the band have funded themselves, without the backing of a record company. But who needs record companies, Joe, right?
“Most people who work at record labels are fucking idiots,” Elliott insists. “They don't know what they're doing, so let's at least be honest about it! Guy Stevens was a fucking idiot, but he was a great fucking idiot; he was a maverick, he produced Mott the Hoople, Free, London Calling for the Clash, but he would set studios on fire just to get the band fired up, you know? Those are the guys that you go, 'God, he must have been a bit of work', but everyone's all sushi and coffee machines these days, and all the record companies are run by bean counters.
“We made our new record for the five of us, completely mentally and physically free of the shackles of making an album, and that's why it was such a blast to do. When we went in, we were going to do an EP, but once we saw what we all had, by the end of the month we had twelve songs done!”
So life is good for Leppard, but what would Elliott change if he could, about our music business today?
“Well, the fact that the industry doesn't really exist any more is the biggest thing I'd change,” he says. We both laugh. “It'll never be the way it was, will it? And there is good and bad in that. Do I prefer taking my iPod with 22,000 songs around the world in my pocket, compared to packing three suitcases full of CDs? Of course I do, it's fantastic! Neither am I a snob that thinks MP3s aren't listenable; I think they sound totally fine. If you're listening to them and going, 'ooh, it sounds dodgy compared to vinyl', I always shout out, 'Really? And how does it sound when you go jogging, then? How does your vinyl sound in the car?' I'm not knocking vinyl, but it's a medium that's limited to your front room. I like the idea of taking my music around the world with me, as it's what I do for a living.”
Read the full article in Headliner Issue 10, due out at the end of May.