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Rock of ages; Def Leppard were the epitome of 80s rock excess. Emma Pinch reports on how they are cool again.

Byline: Emma Pinch

DEF Leppard are set to have another moment. In truth, they've never stopped touring and grafting, but the last decade has, to all but the most obsessive 80s metaller, seen their bleached manes, spray-on jeans and white trainers look, and bombastic, effects-heavy brand of rock consigned to the hall of extinct 80s tales of excess.

But guitarist Phil Collen is feeling the winds of change.

Def Leppard are one of a slew of heavy metal acts to hit the 80s nostalgia trail this year, including Whitesnake, Kiss and Metallica. The Leps have got an arena tour under way and their first studio album of six years is in the pipeline.

It's easy to forget just how huge Def Leppard were. In 1987, thanks to the diamond-selling Hysteria, they were the biggest rock band on Earth.

Time and fashion seems to have been unjustly harsh.

"If you get anything successful, as soon as a parody of it arrives, it becomes really uncool," contends Phil.

"We had great songs, that were produced really well, which still sound classic.

Then you got all these dreadful bands that were all about flash and image and completely missed the point.

"You got that from the Punk era to the 90s Alanis Morissette vocal thing, to all these girls yodelling. All these bands copying someone to an extreme and driving you nuts.

"Fortunately, that stuff they slagged us for just doesn't exist any more."

Now 50, Phil has lived in Orange County, California, for the past 18 years. He's kept his Hackney accent - still eats beans on toast and knocks about with English people - but some of his "t"s slide into transatlantic "d"s, as behoves a rock musician who has cracked the States.

Phil Collen joined the band in July, 1982, during production of the Pyromania album. He replaced Pete Willis, who was fired because of excessive alcohol consumption on the job.

Collen and the band's guitarist and lyricist, Steve Clark, quickly bonded and were even dubbed the Terror Twins for their ability to tear up the town. But Collen quit drinking 20 years ago, stopped eating meat, and adopted a healthy lifestyle; Clark did not.

In 1991, he was found dead on his couch, a mixture of antidepressants, painkillers and alcohol in his blood.

Collen says he's never smoked a cigarette in his life - but tried pretty much every drug on offer during his younger days.

"We just used to drink all the time on tour," he says. "The worst part during the Pyromania tour was there wasn't a lot to do apart from go out and get drunk.

It was a pathetic situation to be in where there's nothing to do but that.

"Some people can deal with it and be blissful alcoholics and they're not even aware of it. I just wasn't a very good drunk. And obviously it killed Steve Clark."

It wasn't hotel-trashing rock and roll glamour.

"Anyone who drives when they are drunk . . . it is the most selfish, irresponsible thing you can do, I ended up doing things like that. Blacking out and waking up going 'Where am I?'. I remember waking up and feeling my ear and thinking 'God, I've got another earring - that wasn't there yesterday'. No tattoos thank God, that was it."

Headlining the biggest stages in America, Collen lived the life he dreamed of as a teenager, when he posed with a tennis racquet in front of the mirror, in his case to the strains of Slade and T Rex.

His ability with the guitar sprang out of "expression, teenage angst and stuff," he says.

"It was my way of communication. Anything like that is a healthy outlet when you have problems expressing yourself. It's very personal and unique and very you. Getting on stage is exciting and fun, it really is. It never gets old. And it's partly ego. At large shows, you get that audience feedback straight away."

In America, they were huge.

Hits like Animal, Armageddon It and Pour Some Sugar on Me might not have had the subtlest lyrics, but they shifted 65m albums.

"Nothing too deep in any of that," agrees Phil. "It was fun stuff, it never really got too dark.

The Animal thing was about a touring band and about what we do really and just of its time.

"If you go back to the 60s or 70s and write a song, it's a time capsule, and people relate to it.

Some songs go beyond that and take on a life of their own. For example, Pour Some Sugar On Me, which is still a party anthem, that became a hit because strippers in Florida were pole dancing to it and kept requesting it from the local radio station.

"Being an artist or songwriter, you can't just do that all the time.

As you get more experienced, you want to share stuff and you put in your own ideas or theories about stuff and get a bit more unique and a bit more cryptic."

Songs like Paper Sun were more serious, taking the Omagh bombing as subject matter, but by now grunge was taking hold and the backlash had begun.

They've never stopped playing smaller gigs, but this will be the first full bells and whistles arena tour for 14 years. They're teaming up with Whitesnake, and join the likes of Kiss, Metallica, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

"We're going through a retro thing at the moment, but you always have that. The 70s were really uncool in the 80s, but in the 90s the 70s thing was great.

Def Leppard are going through a bit of that." With a trace of that 80s bombast, he adds: "We're really cool right now."

DEF Leppard perform at the Echo Arena Liverpool on July 15, and tickets start at pounds 37.50. Tel 0844 576 5483 for details.

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Getting on stage is exciting and fun - Phil Collen, second right, with Def Leppard
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jun 6, 2008
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