15 Years Ago: Def Leppard Release ‘Euphoria’
Once a band has made a point of evolving away from its signature sound, how do they go back without sounding like they’re retreating? If such a feat is even possible, the keys might lie in the cheerfully bombastic strains of Def Leppard‘s seventh studio LP, ‘Euphoria.’
Released in June of 1999, ‘Euphoria’ arrived on the heels of 1996’s ‘Slang,’ an album that dialed back the heavily multi-tracked sound of the band’s smash ‘Pyromania,’ ‘Hysteria,’ and ‘Adrenalize’ LPs in favor of a more experimental, stripped-down approach that didn’t always sit well with fans. While ‘Slang’ charted respectably, breaking the Top 20 in the U.S. and reaching the Top 5 in Def Leppard’s native U.K., it wasn’t up to the world-dominating sales standards of its predecessors, and it left the band at a creative crossroads.
When singer Joe Elliott, guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, bassist Rick Savage, and drummer Rick Allen reconvened following the ‘Slang’ tour, they spent some time taking stock of where they stood after their massive rise and relative stumble — and the answers weren’t necessarily easy to find.
“We didn’t know what direction to go. We were sort of stuck somewhere between the Spice Girls and Oasis,” laughed Collen. “I literally asked a few people in the business, as well as fans, ‘What would you like to hear?’ and everyone said unanimously, ‘There is a huge void and it would be f—in’ great if you sounded like Def Leppard.’ So that is what we did. We went back and literally we sort of did another ‘greatest hits.'”
Of course, returning to that old sound wasn’t as simple as pressing a button. “It was funny, when we actually went to record some of this stuff — as soon as it started sounding like that, we were like, ‘Wow!’ It was almost like we forgot how to do that,” continued Collen. “We tried to get away from it before because it got burned out. I mean, literally … God knows how many bands sounded like us … and what happens is that people just get fed up. That is what happens with all movements after a while, like the grunge thing became a parody of itself. I think throughout the ’90s we were afraid of doing anything that sounded like Def Leppard up until this point.”
“‘Slang’ was just something we’d been craving to do and we got it out of our system, but then we were happy to go back to making classic Def Leppard again,” explained Elliott. “In 1996, I don’t think we could have made ‘Euphoria’ — we would have been laughed off the face of the planet. I suppose people can say we’ve gone back to what we used to do, but I think it’s more a case of nobody makes records like us, and if anybody’s got the God-given right to do it, it’s us.”
As Def Leppard fans are well aware, their biggest records bore the production stamp of Robert John “Mutt” Lange, whose meticulous approach to sound and songwriting wasn’t easily imitated. Although Lange hadn’t been hands-on with a Leppard record since ‘Hysteria,’ he was lured back into the fold for a few songs on ‘Euphoria,’ helping his former proteges remember how they’d pieced together their greatest hits.
“It was a huge, huge education,” said Allen of Lange’s return to the fold. “It was like a refresher course to remind us how we used to do it. He’s very creative, a great musician, a great singer. He really is the perfect person to work with.”
“Going into the record there was never a conscious effort to say, ‘Let’s get Mutt involved,” insisted Campbell. “It was just we’d gotten to the stage on one particular song where we’d gotten to a rut, and that went on for weeks and months; we couldn’t get beyond were we where and with this tune, so we sent him out a tape, and he mailed the tape back and it had a lyric and a melody on the back, and from there it was just, ‘Well, let’s call and see if we can get him to come over for a weekend.’ Which he did — a long weekend, very long, ’cause he works, you know, a 20-hour day or whatever it is.”
Although Lange’s involvement was restricted to a handful of songs, none of which he’s credited with producing, Collen was quick to admit that the record’s overall Lange-like sound was absolutely no accident. “It is a process of elimination; once you’ve got the direction, the song is either good or it’s bad. It’s a process of elimination,” he said, explaining the band’s recording technique. “So it’s like, ‘Is the song too slow? Does the vocal bridge? Is the chorus strong enough? Is the bridge strong enough?’ It’s just stuff like that…what we learned from Mutt. That is what we did in the past. I think on ‘Slang’ and on ‘Retro Active’ it was like, ‘Okay, let’s write a song and let’s record it,’ like most bands do. But on this album, we went back to the old method, if you like.”
That method yielded effective results. “We were going to call the album ‘Def Leppard,’ because it sounds typically Def Leppard,” said Collen. “I think that I was the one that suggested ‘Euphoria,’ then we all thought, ‘Wow, this would have been a great title for ‘Adrenalize,’ ’cause we were looking for something that ended in ‘ia’ for ‘Adrenalize,’ but we couldn’t think of one. Now, eight years later…”
Much as Collen’s story might seem to indicate that the band members were pursuing a formula, he quickly made it clear that they didn’t put as much thought into that kind of thing. “We didn’t name it ‘Euphoria’ because it ended in ‘ia’ this time, but because we thought that it was a cool word, and it kinda summed up everything about it,” he insisted. “The record company heard that we were toying around with ‘Euphoria,’ and they were like, ‘This is great, we gotta use that!’ So we said okay.”
Still, no matter how eagerly ‘Euphoria’ revisited Def Leppard’s glory years, or how effectively songs like the Top 40 hit single ‘Promises’ might have recaptured that classic sound, times had changed; much as the execs at their record company may have wanted another kajillion-selling album out of the band, it just wasn’t going to happen in the late ’90s. The groups of Lep’s generation that weathered the decade intact had seen the grunge craze fade, only to give way to nu-metal and a rapidly multiplying crop of synth-fueled teen pop acts. In terms of crossover success, that big ’80s rock sound was more or less permanently out of vogue.
Not that the band members seemed to care. “If somebody likes it, they’re going to say, ‘It’s a return to form.’ If they don’t, they’re going to say, ‘It’s a return to formula,'” shrugged Elliott. “Look, if people don’t like it, then f— ’em! I really don’t care. We like it, and we’re not trying to tailor a record for anything other than something that makes us feel good.”
“I think that we’ve made a damn fine record,” he continued, “and I honestly believe that there are people out there that want to hear this kind of music again. We have come up with an album that is so not what is going on that it’s either going to fall flat on its face or it’s going to burst through the roof — hopefully, the latter.”
Ultimately, ‘Euphoria’ ended up waving politely at the roof rather than bursting through it; its sales, while respectable, were a definite comedown from a decade previous, and in the end, the album served as a pivot point between Def Leppard’s multi-platinum era and their second act as a sporadically recording veteran band. Still, once you’ve tasted the level of success they achieved in the ’80s, life after MTV has its own rewards.
“We don’t need to do it for the money,” pointed out Elliott. “We do it because it’s what we do, and why should we stop? We work well as a team, and we’ve never got on as well as we do now. It just gets better and better.”