To a certain generation of rock and roll fans, live albums are sacred ground, conjuring up images of both time and place in an era when the internet didn’t place that info a quick click away.
For artists like Cheap Trick, KISS and Peter Frampton, live cuts double as the most radio friendly and recognizable renditions of some of their biggest hits.
Growing up as a rock fan, Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott is well-versed in the lore that often surrounds the famous albums that chronicle the live concert experience.
“The first live album I ever owned was Mott the Hoople Live ‘74. And then it was Frampton Comes Alive,” said Elliott over the phone on a rainy June day in Dublin. “As a kid, I think everybody at my age, my generation, the first live album that really blew out our universe was Frampton Comes Alive. I wasn’t aware it impacted America until a long time after. But to actually become a big record in the U.K. was a monster surprise. ‘Show Me the Way’ was a big hit single in the U.K. These kinds of things just didn’t happen in England. A live song going into the charts was just unheard of. But for some reason it just worked,” said the singer.
“There seemed to be this plethora of fantastic double albums. In no particular order, we’d be looking at Live and Dangerous by Thin Lizzy – absolutely one of the best ever. Strangers in the Night by UFO. And, just because it’s a great record, Cheap Trick at Budokan,” Elliott explained. “But, yeah – I’m a huge fan. My current favorite live recording is The Who. Quadrophenia Live in London in 2013 recorded at Wembley Arena. It is so good. It’s so brilliantly produced. Great performances by the band. But the sound of it is just beyond reproach. It’s just stunning. Absolutely stunning. And it’s The Who – so, you know, what’s not to like?”
The new live set features two concert performances. The first, recorded in December of 2018, showcases Def Leppard live on stage at the O2 Arena in London, a full performance of the group’s seminal 1987 album Hysteria.
Whether it’s Cheap Trick at Budokan or The Who Live at Leeds, the right venue can have a profound impact on a live album. London to Vegas captures Def Leppard’s first ever performance at the O2.
“We’d always played Wembley Arena. But it was amazing. I’ve seen a bunch of bands there. I saw Mott the Hoople there. Queen. I think I saw AC/DC there as well,” said Elliott of O2 Arena. “It’s home country – home town for [guitarist] Phil [Collen]. Birth town at least. But it is a big deal, London. Whenever we did the British tour, no matter how successful it was, we always got to London and felt this enormous pressure to not screw up. But over the years we just kind of let it go. And we went out and did that gig like a rehearsal. I don’t mean we didn’t try – but there were absolutely no butterflies, no raging heart palpitations or nerves. We just went out there totally confident that we have this.”
Following 1983’s Pyromania, Hysteria marked Def Leppard’s second diamond release, signifying American sales of over ten million copies, putting the group alongside The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen as one of the only five rock groups in history to achieve diamond status on more than one original studio album.
Worldwide, Hysteria has sold in excess of 100 million copies, crossing over into the pop zeitgeist.
The album carried forth the hugely successful partnership with producer Mutt Lange that began with 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry and continued with Pyromania, marking Def Leppard’s most commercially successful period.
The group spent nearly three years in the studio, intricately crafting a dozen songs while exploring new electronic sounds on the group’s first music since the infamous 1984 auto accident which led to the amputation of drummer Rick Allen’s left arm.
Pyromania was kept from the #1 spot by the breakout success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and its seven singles, giving Lange a mission heading into the Hysteria sessions.
“Mutt Lange was such a ringleader. He was like, ‘This is going to be huge!’ The whole thing about Hysteria was when we sat down to piece it together and write it, we hadn’t seen Mutt for the whole of 1983. Because we made Pyromania with him, finished it in January, went on tour and we were on tour until February of 1984. And that’s the next time we saw Mutt,” said Elliott. “So there was a lot of catching up over coffee. And he’s like, ‘Well, why can’t we have seven hit singles?’ And we just looked at him like a three-headed monster. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And half an hour later, he’s convinced you that you can absolutely do it,” said the singer.
“So we sat down to write songs that were going to be at least given the opportunity to be hits. Because they were those kind of songs. We weren’t going to be writing twelve ‘Kashmirs,’” said Elliott, noting the artistic bombast of the Led Zeppelin hit. “We were going to be writing twelve songs that were rock songs that infiltrated the pop chart. And then mixed in was a lot of the stuff that influenced us: Slade, Sweet, Roy Wood’s Wizzard, ELO, David Bowie, Marc Bolan – anything that was like guitar rock. Suzi Quatro. That kind of stuff that really was three minutes long with big guitars and huge choruses. Not necessarily metal but certainly hard and heavy rock – but pop rock. We set out to write those kind of songs.”
Def Leppard grew alongside the then fledgling idea of music television. MTV launched in August of 1981 and the group’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” a video which featured the band performing live, became one of the first hard rock videos to be aired in heavy rotation on the new cable television channel just three months later.
Music videos helped fuel the stratospheric rise of Hysteria as well, an album which fulfilled Lange’s goal of charting seven hit singles.
Clips showcasing Def Leppard’s famed concert performances in the round supported tracks like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Armageddon It,” further driving the album’s success and cementing the group’s reputation as a great live act.
“The live thing was something we grew up watching and were aware of. Me and my mates, we bought records every weekend. Midweek as well if we could. But the major thing was when a band came to town,” said Elliott. “You had to have a ticket to the show. And when we became a band, we were just pre-tuned to know that we were going to be one of those bands that toured. So it was incredibly important to hone our performance skills. Because that’s what made a great band,” said Elliott.
“With hindsight, it was a bit like being in the eye of the hurricane. It was nuts at the venues. Especially because we were playing in the round,” said Elliott, looking back on the Hysteria tour. “We had to go through the crowd to get onto the stage. And we were pushed through in laundry baskets. And that’s when you could tell how weird it was. Not dangerous – but on edge if you like. Because they were frenzied. It was nuts,” he continued. “The show was in the round and we were playing for two hours. You have to be like a professional athlete to do that show. I quit drinking. I stopped and it gave me a lot more energy to do it. I used to have to just rest up after gigs. I wouldn’t be able to sing the next night if I didn’t go straight back to my room and shut up. There was no bar hopping for me. But that didn’t bother me. I wasn’t really into it for that. I wanted us to be the biggest band in the world.”
In addition to the Hysteria set, London to Vegas also chronicles the final two shows of the group’s 2019 residency at the Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, performances recorded shortly after Def Leppard’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The “Hits Vegas” residency saw the group dig deep into it’s catalog, unearthing songs not performed in decades.
“What we did do – and a couple of the guys were like, ‘Are you kidding?’ – But I said, ‘We have to play every song the last two nights and get them on the film. To get the ultimate set.’ So every single song that was rehearsed for that residency got played at least once so that we could build this enormously huge set for the DVD,” said Elliott. “We were bringing out songs that we hadn’t played live for so long that I don’t think [guitarist] Vivian [Campbell] had ever played them – and he’s been in the band for 27 years. It was really cool opening with ‘Die Hard the Hunter.’ That was great fun. It was brilliant to be bringing back ‘Billy’s Got a Gun’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’ or ‘Paper Sun.’ And then doing the acoustic set in the middle gave us all a breather. We did songs that we’d never played ever, like ‘We Belong.’ And then ‘Let Me Be the One’ we had never played live either. So we were really wanting to mix it up.”
With a Zappos Theater capacity of just 6,000, London to Vegas captures rare intimate moments for the stadium sized band without losing any of the technological bells and whistles thanks to massive arena ready staging.
“I’m just happy that we were able to capture all of this stuff. To put London and Vegas both out together as a package, it feels like it’s current. Like it’s a current thing. We were just living the dream – that we had been living for 40 years but with all of the experience of 40 years. We walked on stage knowing that it was being filmed, knowing that it was like, ‘Well, don’t mess up.’ But it was fine,” Elliott said. “I will put my hand on the bible in front of my mother’s life: this is 100% live. Not a note replaced. Everything’s real. Obviously, it’s being mixed to enhance everybody. But it is what it is. It’s warts and all. I’ve sung better, I’ve sung worse. But it’s a great representation of what this band sounds like live,” said the singer.
“Our sound guy Ronan [McHugh], he’s just getting better and better at doing them. Each time he mixes one of our records, he just peels off another layer of shine and sheen that makes it just sound so big and polished – but, at the same time, raw when it needs to be. Because we’re not Supertramp. And we’re not Deicide. We’re somewhere in the middle. Which is good. It’s rock and roll. And that’s what we’ve dreamed of doing since the first time we took a breath.”