Def Leppard's Joe Elliott opens up about how they made Mick Ronson's last album

"He raided all my cassettes, and took all the bootlegs that I had of him," says Elliott on Bowie's musical partner

Published June 15, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott performs in Philadelphia, Aug. 1992. (AP/Chris Gardner)
Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott performs in Philadelphia, Aug. 1992. (AP/Chris Gardner)

Def Leppard is having a well-deserved moment in 2018. Not only are the venerable U.K. rockers currently on an arena tour with Journey, but their catalog finally arrived on streaming services in recent months — good timing, since last year brought a well-regarded, lavish reissue of their 1987 opus "Hysteria."

During a conversation with Salon, frontman Joe Elliott shares that he's noticed Def Leppard resonating with both long-time fans and younger generations alike. In hindsight, it's easy to see why: The band's sound — a heady mix of glam, power-pop, metal and hard rock — is impossible to pigeonhole, and reflects the group's deep music fandom.

"We don't want to be pigeonholed," Elliott says. "We want to be able to say, 'Yeah, okay, so we can play a Stones song, we can play a Leppard song, we can play a Bowie song,' and they all kind of work, because we have broad strokes in our palette," he says. "If you listen to a billion things, pour them all into a bucket, stir it down, you get your own special recipes, and that's all we've always tried to be. We've got our foot in many different styles of music like metal, hard rock, pop, whatever you want."

In addition to the memories of Mick Ronson he shared in connection with the recent documentary "Beside Bowie," Elliott regaled Salon with more stories about meeting and recording with the late guitarist/arranger, and how and where Ronson's influence endures today.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

On the first time he met Mick Ronson:

The first time I ever met Mick was at the Ritz in New York. It would've been the Welcome to the Club tour, I suppose — Ian [Hunter] was still kind of promoting [1979's] "[You're Never Alone with a] Schizophrenic," which had come out the year before, and I think he'd maybe recorded the live album by then. They were continuously touring, pretty much the "Schizophrenic" stuff.

We happened to have a day off on the [1980] On Through the Night tour in New York. One of the girls at our record company just happened to mention, "You know, Ian and Mick are playing the Ritz tonight." My jaw dropped to the floor. I'm like, "You've got be f**king kidding me — no, I did not." [She said] "You want to go?" So, boom — rapidly they get us passes.

Next thing I know, I'm being whisked upstairs to the dressing room before they go on. And the first thing I see is Mick Ronson with his foot up on a stool, tying his shoelaces, with his back to me. Somebody just said, "This is Joe from Def Leppard." He just turned around and said, "Hey, old mate," in this total Yorkshire accent, same as me.

It was, like, wow. This is Mick Ronson, the rock god. Now he's Mick Ronson, the Yorkshireman, just like me. It was really weird. [Laughs.]

On spending a memorable birthday with Mick Ronson:

Over the years, I'd see him occasionally. My 26th birthday, he helped me blow the candles out on my cake 'cause we went to dinner. I'd just been to see him play in London. He was playing piano for Lisa Dalbello. The pub was absolutely packed, and nobody in that pub knew who she was — but they all knew that Mick was playing piano, so they all came to see Mick. [Laughs.]

This was what, 1986, so who knows who was there. Half the Banshees probably, Siouxsie Sioux and Spandau [Ballet], I don't know. I don't remember seeing any other musicians, but you could tell it would have been full of toffee rockers who were once big Bowie fans, and they all went along to see Mick.

He found out it was my birthday, and he says, "Oh, let's go out afterwards and eat." Lo and behold, as he walks in, he must've said to the maitre d' or something, "I need a birthday cake." And we sit down and we eat, we get drunk, and this cake arrives next to Mick.

On helping Mick near the end of his life:

Finally, towards the end, I got a call from Ian [Hunter] and he said, "Mick's not very well, and he's basically struggling financially to get the treatment that he needs." So I said, "Well, okay, what do you want?" I said, "I'll match whatever Bowie puts in." So basically what happened was me, Ian, Bowie and [John] Mellencamp all threw in a lump sum of cash.

And I also said, "I'll tell you what we'll do." We had just finished a new album, which was then "Adrenalize." [I said] "We're throwing a bunch of b-sides together, because we need bonus tracks, so we'll do 'Only After Dark' off of 'Slaughter on 10th Avenue,'" which was a Ronson song. "We'll put it on the b-side, he'll get royalties off that." So we did that.

On playing on Ronson's final solo album, "Heaven and Hull":

Cut to the next year, and he was making a solo record. [Mick] was in London. I get a call from Ian and he said, "Mick wants you to do something on his record." So I'm like, "Alright." So I ring him up, and he says, "Come 'round." I happened to be in London, and he played me the demo of the song called "Don't Look Down" he'd written with a friend of his. And he says, "It kind of sounds a bit like Def Leppard, I suppose, so I want you to sing this."

I'm, like, hey, wow — this is acknowledgement of my band, and he wants me to sing on his record. How f**king cool is this? You keep going back to the album sleeve when you're 12. The music fan in me can't stop referencing back to the ground zero of this relationship.

So he played me this song and we literally started singing it into the tape recorder in his front room. And, by this time, he was well and truly on his way out. He had cancer everywhere. He's on every kind of drug, morphine, you name it. So I said, "Of course."

I had a studio in Dublin, so I said, "Let's go to my place and do this." So him and Suzi [Ronson] flew in, and he stayed with me for three days. We recorded "Don't Look Down." I did a vocal on a song called "Take a Long Line," which is an old punk song by an Aussie punk band [The Angels]. Ian sang on a chorus, and me and Mick took a verse each.

He stayed with me, and he had Yorkshire pudding and roast beef and had all this food that he hadn't eaten for God knows how many years. He raided all my cassettes, and took all the bootlegs that I had of him. Suzi Ronson's like, going, "He never does this. He doesn't care about the past."

That's when I figured, "I think he does now," because he realized that there isn't much future left. So he pulls all these cassettes out and basically says, "Can I have these?" And I said, "Well, yes, you can, but tell you what: Leave them with me for a day, and I'll copy 'em, because I want them myself." [Laughs.] So I copied them, and I posted them out to him the next day. And he got 'em. He had them for a good couple of weeks.

On finishing "Heaven and Hull":

Cut to 1994 now. Def Leppard are off the road, and I get a phone call from probably Ian again that a guy called Frankie LaRocka [is] mixing the album, and he wants my opinion on it. [Note: LaRocka, who passed away in 2005, was both a drummer and an A&R man.]

So he posts me tapes over of the mixes of what would turn into the album "Heaven and Hull." We'd spent the time in my studio with Mick, and when we weren't recording, we were talking. How he wanted the record to be, and how he'd got Chrissie Hynde on one song, and Bowie on another, and me and Ian and Mellencamp. And all that kind of stuff.

He was telling me how he wants it to sound, and I'm hearing these mixes and they were just really thin and weedy. I rang Frankie and said, "Frankie, I'm sorry, pal. With the greatest respect, these mixes are wrong, man. It just doesn't sound right."

[He said] "What do you mean?" I said, "That's not how Mick envisioned this album. You're doing this album for you, and I know this is not how Mick wanted it to sound, because I was probably the last person to talk to him about this. So without pulling ego trips or anything, I'm just saying, 'That's not how it was supposed to sound.'" [Frankie said] "OK, fine."

I get this phone call the next day and he goes, "Will you jump on an airplane tomorrow and come over and mix these things?" Then he said, "There's no money in it." I said, "Tell me about it. There never is." So they got me a fare there, I got a first-class flight out there. They put me up in a hotel for a week, and they were in this tiny little studio in upstate New York, so I'd have to drive from Manhattan every day.

We went in this studio and I said, "Okay, right. How long we got? We got five days. Right. Let's put the tapes on. . . . Boom, boom. That one's fine, 'cause that one's been mixed by Bob Rock. Nothing to do with that one — that's the Bowie one." There were two versions; we put the guitar-up version in.

Then we came to mixing the song that I sang on, and doing the one that Mellencamp did, and doing a couple other ones. [There was] one where the drummer obviously didn't know the song so he just played along, and then when Mick did all the overdubs, he was missing all the embellishments. So I actually went in there and played cymbals, even though Frankie was the drummer.

I said, "Go out there and play cymbals," and he goes, "I can't. I don't know what you mean." [I said] "So you just set up an invisible pit basically. You just have a stool and the cymbals, but you don't have any drums, and you sit there and you play air drums, and you hit the cymbals. That's what you do."

[He said] "I can't do that." "All right. So I'll go and do it." So I did that. [Laughs.]

In fairness, the one thing that I don't regret, but I had to make a decision on, without getting permission if I needed it, was the song that Mellencamp sang, "Life's a River." Mick had also sung a vocal on it as well, and it was the best vocal that Mick did. I'm like, "Well, what do we do? We need Mellencamp, so we can put on the [cover] sticker, 'Featuring John Mellencamp on the album.' So we have to do it."

So I just said, "Why don't we turn it into a duet?" We literally snipped it, it's a line each, so it was Mick-Mellencamp, Mick-Mellencamp. It became a duet. And I never heard anything back from Mellencamp that he was angry about it, so I figured he must have thought it [was] OK.

On what it means for him to have this musical and personal history with Ronson:

Nothing but pride. I mean, I could imagine somebody with a negative spin of it would say I must've been a bit of a stalker or something, but it really wasn't like that. I didn't hunt him down. It was organic. Whenever we bumped into each other, [it was] they were touring, we were touring or I was getting a phone call from Ian: "Mick's looking for you" or "Are you coming down tonight?"

Because I was in a popular band, that's what people do. This is why Alice Cooper hung out with John Lennon, or why Johnny Depp's hanging out with Joe Perry. People just gravitate toward each other because of what they do. They have a common goal or a friendship begins. Me and Brian May, for example. That kind of thing. It just happens, these things.

It was just nice, because I'm a big fan anyway if I had never met him. But it just became a bit more special that I did, and there was a mutual respect there. That was the thing that probably means the most. It went both ways. He would stay in touch with me, and I'd stay in touch with Suzi and [Mick's daughter] Lisa. They come to my gigs, and she sends me her records and all this kind of stuff. It's extended family, I suppose. I'm a long-distance cousin, musically speaking, if you like.

On whether he sees Ronson's influence in Def Leppard today as they're playing:

For sure [guitarist] Phil [Collen]'s vibrato is totally lifted from Ronson, and he'd tell you that himself. He hates people that play with fast vibrato. He likes the people that drag in slowly, and that's what Mick did.

It's not an obvious thing; you can't say that any one of us looks like Mick. [Guitarist] Vivian [Campbell] doesn't play Les Pauls because of Mick Ronson — Vivian plays Les Pauls more because of Marc Bolan and Rory Gallagher. I've traveled on a bus before with Vivian and played, like, "The Truth the Whole Truth & Nuthin But the Truth" off Ian [Hunter]'s first solo album. He'd be doing the crossword, and halfway through the solo, he just looks up and goes, "F**king 'ell, this is amazing," because he'd never heard it before. So then all of a sudden he's a Mick Ronson fan: "Can I get a copy of that?" And it's like, "Everybody's on board."

The whole Mick thing . . . I suppose he was just part of that glamour look, which for us was brand new back in those days. We'd all just gotten color TVs, so of course they were all wearing glittery bright suits. They looked better in color than in black and white. It burns into your retina when you're 12 years old, that kind of stuff. And he stuck with it. What we do on stage from a visual point of view, in fairness, has as much to do with Arthur "Killer" Kane, and Johnny Thunders and Marc Bolan or Iggy Pop as it does Ronson.

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By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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