(David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
You don’t need to be bonked in the head by a massive piece of Broadway scenery to figure out that something is going on.
As AC/DC’s surprise double-platinum No. 1 “Black Ice” album and the success of the Broadway musical (and future motion picture) “Rock of Ages” would suggest, ‘80s hard rockers of all sorts are once again at the peak of pop culture.
And Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott says he knows why.
“I think the ‘90s let everybody down,” says Elliott, calling from Philadelphia, where the band’s summer tour launched. “The ‘90s generation can look back with complete disdain that the only band that’s still around is Pearl Jam.
“God bless him, but (the late) Layne Staley didn’t last, and Jerry Cantrell is doing his best to resurrect Alice in Chains,” Elliott continues. “Soundgarden have gone. Kurt Cobain blew his head off. I could go on. Soul Asylum — one hit, ‘Runaway Train,’ gone.”
While arena-fillers Radiohead, Green Day and Rage Against the Machine may quibble with Elliott’s premise, they probably wouldn’t argue with his reasoning: It’s not the music. It’s the music business.
“The potential bands that could have made it, I’m thinking of a band like Candlebox, who were signed to Maverick, never got to make their fourth album because their third album didn’t make any money,” Elliott says. “That’s the sad thing. It’s all bean counters these days. The road map got torn up somewhere in the ‘90s.
“You didn’t have bands getting signed for five or six album deals,” he says. “And when you don’t have growth as part of your DNA, you don’t get ‘The Unforgettable Fire,’ (Bon Jovi’s) ‘Slippery When Wet,’ (Def Leppard’s) ‘Hysteria’ recorded if they don’t let you get past your third album. ... We were allowed two albums that didn’t sell, so were R.E.M. — all these bands that are, coincidentally, still around. Even a reformed Spandau Ballet are going to be playing arenas around Europe. They’re all still doing it — I hate to use this phrase — the old-fashioned way. They’re doing it the tried-and-trusted way, the way they knew when they were successful. I’m sorry, but it appears to be proven that it’s the only way to go.”
Def Leppard certainly has the sales to back up that theory.
It wasn’t until its third album, “Pyromania,” with the hits “Photograph,” “Foolin’” and “Rock of Ages,” that the band broke through. The album, which was repackaged and re-released last month, has sales of 10 million and counting. Def Leppard’s follow-up, “Hysteria” — which boasted seven hit singles, including “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Love Bites” — has sold more than 12 million copies.
That success was due, in part, to the band’s understanding of the changing music business. “We did MTV and everything we could to be in everybody’s front room 24 hours a day,” Elliott says. “That’s how we got popular. In fairness, that’s what everybody wanted. All the ‘70s bands who were still around in the ‘80s were fighting tooth-and-nail not to do that, and we couldn’t understand why. What’d you mean, you don’t want to make a video? Why not?’ (They’d say,) ‘Well, because we’re a live band.’ Well, you carry on then, playing The Stone Pony. We’ll be off to Madison Square Garden for a week, thank you.”
Def Leppard — Elliott, guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, bassist Rick Savage and drummer Rick Allen — is continuing to try new things, as its recent collaboration with Taylor Swift and appearance at this year’s CMT Awards — yes, Country Music Television — shows. The band also will try new things businesswise, adapting its experiences to today’s world — whether it’s with the current tour, which puts them with Poison and Cheap Trick, bands that necessarily wouldn’t have fit together back in the day, or with future album releases.
“I’m sorry about the demise of Virgin, and I’m sorry about the demise of Tower and the little shop like in ‘High Fidelity,’” Elliott says. “But the only difference with AC/DC is that they sold their record through Wal-Mart and had a fantastic marketing campaign, as everybody should. Marketing campaigns should go hand-in-hand with major artists.
“If to get my record into 2 million people’s hands, it means putting it next to the dog food in Wal-Mart or next to the cash register, more importantly, that’s where I want it placed,” he continues. “That’s why bands who had their heyday in the ‘80s are still around. They’ve got more savvy. Only an idiot would say, ‘I don’t want to do that because it defeats my art.’ I’m afraid Bob Dylan would do it, too.”