Phil Collen: VIVA Def Leppard!

By Jeb Wright

On October 22, 2013 Def Leppard will release several versions of their concert experience titled Viva! Hysteria, which was filmed and recorded over two nights in March of this year during Def Leppard’s residency at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas.   Fans can purchase a DVD version, a Blu-Ray or a combo 2CD/DVD package of the concert.  While any and all are sure to satisfy, it is the Blu-Ray that really is fantastic.  The sights, sounds, and even the bonus footage come to life when this disc goes in the player! 

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with our longtime friend, Def Lep guitarist Phil Collen, to discuss Viva! Hysteria in detail, as well as some of the cool things that happened during their residency, including meeting fans from across the globe who gathered to be part of Def Lep History and how Rick Allen needed to rethink his playing during songs he had not performed since he had both arms!

Phil speaks openly about how much Hysteria means to him, personally.  He also lets us know what is going on with his side projects, Manraze and Delta Deep and the story behind why he needed to have surgery on his guitar finger. 

Jeb:  The last time we talked you were preparing for the Vegas run and now it is coming out as a movie.  Set the music aside for a second, the video quality of this thing is awesome. 

Phil: It’s outrageous and it is amazing.  It is HD and all of that stuff.  We actually saw it on a movie screen and it was really amazing.  It’s great.  This is going to sound weird, because I am always on stage playing, but this looks as good as I would imagine it to look.  It is like coffee.  You smell the fresh ground coffee and it smells so good, but it never tastes quite as good as it smells.  With this, however, it tastes as good as it smells.  We are very happy with this. 

I am looking out so I can never really see what it looks like.  It really is how I imagined it would look like to fans.   It sounds odd, but that really is what my impression was when I first saw it.  

Jeb:  How cool is it that you were able to have all of these people come from all over to see you? 

Phil: I would talk to people and they would tell me they came from Chile, or Singapore, or Japan, and all over the States, and England, and Europe; it really is crazy. 

We did these great opening sets where we played stuff from High ‘n’ Dry, On Through the Night and Adrenalize.  We did songs that we had not done for a long time, but as soon as we started Hysteria, and the curtains dropped, it felt different. 

One really weird thing is that we would not run the songs from Hysteria in that sequence in a normal show.  To play “Pour Some Sugar on Me” that early in a set would not normally work and we would save it for later, but for this, it worked fantastic.  It showed how rich and kind of expensive the album was.  I don’t mean that money-wise, because it cost a fucking fortune to make, but the sound of it is rich and expensive in nature.  The quality of the songs, and what Mutt did, really hit home when we played it in sequence. 

Some of those songs we had not played ever before, or we had not played for over twenty years.  They were some of the harder ones to sing and play because it had been so long.  It was actually challenging to play them. It was more fun to make them like the album version and not go off the beaten track; we tried to stick to the original versions. 

Jeb:  Hysteria had a lot of layering; it must be hard to play live. 

Phil: We worked the arrangements out and you have to give credit to our sound guy, Ronan McHugh, because he has been doing this for something like sixteen years…he does our albums and he does our lives shows.  He knows what everyone should sound like and he did a wonderful job of mixing this.  It sounds perfect and not abrasive.  A lot of rock guys mix stuff and it sounds harsh. 

I’ve been using the same amplifier for about fifteen years for live shows, a Marshall.  Some of the guitars are the same ones.  I actually used some of the guitars on this that I used in the 80s.  I am using this thing that is a Fractal Axe-Fx guitar processor. Everything processes through that and it does make it a little clearer.  That is the only thing I did differently on my part.  All of this stuff, these patches and stuff, is updated all of the time and Ronan McHugh did a great job getting it all done right.  It was down to the fact that Ronan is fucking great. 

Jeb: The fans get nostalgic when they go to see Def Leppard.  But this go around, you must have got nostalgic as musicians by doing the entire album. 

Phil: Yes, it was very nostalgic.  It was actually really strange.  We play up to seven songs off of Hysteria on tour every year, but when you play it like this, in sequence with gaps in between, there is an expectation, even for us, that is a little different than just the rock and roll thing.  There was something different playing it in sequence.  This album was so special, and it had such an impact and that made it feel different. 

It wasn’t necessarily nostalgia…it was just so rich and different.  It was classy.  It had a class to it and we respected the album for what it was.  It felt really good to be such a part of a classy entity.  It was more like that than nostalgia, which I found to be really interesting.

Jeb:  The footage that was on the screens was really cool.

Phil: The credit goes to Phamous Mac Mahon, who, when I joined the band, had already been the lighting guy for three years.  He used to be our lighting guy and now he is our stage and production manager.  He put all of this stuff together.  He rented some stuff and he bought some stuff and he really made it happen. 

Chris Keating, our video guy, got a lot of the great footage as well.  It turned out brilliant and was really great.  We just approved it and said yes or no.  We wanted it to be a certain way and he would bring it to us and show us the footage and we would approve it.  Phay and Chris had a lot to do with that. 

Jeb:  I love that you added that footage of Steve Clark during “Gods of War.”   

Phil:  Me too.  It really, really was important that we did that.  I really wanted to do that as he was such a huge part of Hysteria.  It was great to give him props.  We had that footage already, so it was perfect to have him open that song off. 

Jeb:  The Hysteria portion is great and it is for your main-stream Def Leppard fan.  For us rock nerds, the opening sets are pure heaven. I know in the past that not everyone in the band, like Joe, has been comfortable playing some of the very early songs.  Did you have to twist his arm?

Phil:  For some reason, when we did this thing, all of the rules changed, including people’s ideas about doing songs.  We wouldn’t have done “Good Morning Freedom,” as it was a B side off of the first album.  Joe actually suggested we do that.  We did it in rehearsal and it sounded fucking great. 

It was the first song we did in Vegas.  Again, it took on a totally different energy, as Viv and I were not on the original song, so it had a different energy that it never had before. 

We didn’t really stick to the original type of thing.  I was playing one thing and Viv was playing another and it had a really cool energy to it almost like a punk band.  Viv and I didn’t play on the songs for On Through the Night, when it was recorded, so we gave the songs a different energy.  We were suggesting songs and we would try them and we would see what happened. 

One thing that was really interesting was that when we got to rehearsal and Rick [Allen] said, “I just had a really weird thought.  I went to play this song and it didn’t really freak me out, but the last time I played this song I had two arms.  I couldn’t naturally do it, so I had to think about it and change it.” 

Something that he had done thirty years ago, all of the sudden, he had to change it on the fly.  He needed a moment.  It wasn’t an emotional thing, it was just like, ‘wow, this is really fucking weird.’  He now had to approach it with one arm and that was actually a very big deal for Rick, as he had to adapt the song.  He had to put in a little more work than the rest of us. 

From a physical point of view, we had to sing these songs, and we are known for these harmonies, but on the first album there were no harmonies.   It was just so easy.  Even the stuff on High ‘n’ Dry was easy.  When we started singing the song on Hysteria we were like, “Fuck, this stuff is really hard to sing.”  We had a different approach than Rick on the early stuff.  He had a completely different approach because he has only one arm now. 

Jeb: Wow, that didn’t even click with me.  I never even thought about that. 

Phil: Me too, we actually started rehearsing and he started playing a song and we stopped and we were like, “What’s the matter?”  He said, “Fuck, do you realize the last time I played this song I had two arms?” It was a big deal. 

Jeb: You were in Girl before you joined Def Leppard.  You came in during the third album.  You were not on the first two albums, but I am wondering if you were aware of them at the time?

Phil: Oh yeah, you would hear all of the bands that were coming out at the time and I had listened to Def Leppard. They were lumped into this New Wave of British Heavy Metal thing.  I actually thought they were not really part of that because they sounded a lot different than the other bands at the time that were part of that like Iron Maiden and Saxon.  I think they had a different take on things.  Even on the first record, they sounded different than that and it was a different approach. 

Jeb:  It is cool for me, as I remember buying that first album, so to hear you guys play stuff like “Rock Brigade” and “Wasted” again was really cool. 

Phil: It was actually really fun doing that, I’ve got to say.  We don’t know where that will be on the next tour.  I am not sure what we will be doing next.  I have to have surgery next week on my finger.  My tendon fell off the bone.  I was playing and I heard this funny kind of pop and it didn’t really hurt, but I couldn’t play guitar for like a week. 

We went on tour and my finger would pop out of joint while I was playing.  The first couple of shows were really quite crap, my playing, that is.  It was like me trying to copy me; it was really bizarre. 

I have to have my finger opened up and have it stitched back on my knuckle and then I have a three to six month waiting period before I will be playing live.  I won’t be able to play guitar even during that time.  I will be out of action for a few months.

Jeb:  Will you fully recover?

Phil:  Yes, even now, since we finished the tour that we just played in Europe and Upstate New York, I have figured ways of playing around it where my finger wouldn’t pop out.  You wouldn’t even know right now; I actually sound like me again.  When it first happened, I actually sounded like a beginner that learned a few Def Leppard songs. Viv had to play one of my solos.  I couldn’t play the “Rock of Ages” solo because there was a lot of pulling on that finger on that solo and my finger kept popping out. 

Jeb: If Rick can do it with one arm then you just need to sling that guitar over the other shoulder and use the other hand!

Phil:  I hear that!  I am worried about one finger down and I’ve got three left and he has one arm down and he makes it work.  I can’t complain. 

Jeb:  What is up with Def Lep for when you get recovered? 

Phil: We are going to go in and record.  We didn’t really want to tour again next year.  I know there has been some talk already, as people are always throwing things at us.  Our plan, at the moment, is for my finger to get healed and then record somewhere around March…I don’t actually need a guitar to write songs as I can tell Viv, Joe or Sav [Rick Savage] “Play this” and that is really the easy part.  I can computerize stuff so that is no problem at all, lyrics, melodies, solos.  That is the plan. 

I won’t say that we are going in the studio next, but we will probably go over to Joe’s house and put some stuff together.  We have got a bunch of ideas.  We are not planning an album, but if one comes together then that’s great.  If not then, we can do an EP of a bunch of songs.  We are going to be recording though. 

Jeb:  I love your side band, Manraze.  What is happening there?

Phil: I’ve got to text or phone Ger McDonnell, who is mixing the new single.  The new single is fucking killer.  We finished it and his wife just had a baby, so he should be okay now. I didn’t want to push it, but he should be okay to mix it. 

I am also working on something called  Delta Deep, which is a blues thing.  It is Debbi Blackwell-Cook who sang on “Take on the World” and she is on the new Manraze single.  We have been doing some recording.  Paul [Cook] played drums on one of the tracks as well. 

You know the Paul Rodgers song “Muddy Waters Blues?”  We played that live at this Warped music thing.  Debbi and I went up and covered that song.  There are a couple of things on YouTube floating around. 

You need to hear her voice as it is brilliant.  She has a soulful voice that is somewhere between Tina Turner and Chaka Khan, if you can imagine that.  We’ve got a couple of tracks down and I played as much guitar as I could before the operation.  I will still be able to play slide and I will be able to sing.  I have a few of the backing tracks down, maybe four, or five, of them down.  It is going to be really cool. 

Jeb: Is that the name of the band or the album?

Phil: It is both at the moment, as that is what we are calling it.  My wife, Helen, came up with the idea Delta Deep.  It is funk and it is blues. It is high energy charged, nasty blues. 

Jeb:   I love “Answer to the Master” from the first album.  Did you even try that one?

Phil: No, we didn’t.  We nearly did all of High ‘n’ Dry one night.  There were only like two songs that we missed off of that one. 

Jeb:  You changed Def Leppard when you came onboard.  Is that a true statement?  

Phil: I think one of the things that they wanted was that kind of change that I brought.  Certainly, Mutt wanted a different type of thing.  He wanted it a bit edgier and nastier.  My guitar playing was nastier and it gave it a punch and an edge.  It was cool.  I did notice that when I joined.  All of a sudden things sounded different.  The singing even changed the tone of the songs.  It was really cool to make a mark at that time. 

I think there is a lot of class on Hysteria.  In retrospect, it is the most amazing piece of art that I’ve ever done.  It is our best album, regardless of everything else.  I have some favorites on other albums and things, but this one really did the trick.  You listen to it now and you realize there is a reason that it really took off so big. 

Jeb: It actually almost didn’t take off at all.

Phil: It tanked at first because no one understood it.  They were like, “This isn’t a rock album.”  It was a rock album, but it crossed over.

Really huge success only happens when the music crosses over into other genres.  Thriller by Michael Jackson was an example of that.  Off the Wall had some really cool stuff on it I thought, but it didn’t cross over.  Thriller crossed over to a different audience.  Hysteria was a similar kind of thing and that is why it became what it did.  At first, people didn’t quite get it because it sounded different at the time.  As it went on and got more airplay people discovered that it was really cool. 

Jeb: Last one:  You are into the martial arts and I am wondering what you are doing there.  I heard you are going to do a fitness DVD.

Phil: We’ve been constantly working on a DVD.  We have filmed some stuff and it is a health and fitness thing. Anyone can have a program, but we want to really help people and we want to talk to people and really help them out by approaching the mental part of it and the philosophical part of it. 

It is really hard to achieve things, as if it was easy, everyone would do it.  Most people go out and they try it for five minutes and then go, “Fuck this, it’s too hard.”  I think the approach will help the way we are doing it.  I think this will be something that will come out fairly soon. 

Jeb:  Get healed up from that surgery and then we can talk about all of the stuff you will be doing next year. 

Phil:  The songs sound fucking great.  I am so pleased.  The Manraze stuff sounds great, the Leppard stuff sounds great and Delta Deep is really great.  We are just singing our asses off.   It’s good fun.  Again, blues is a different thing, as it is a feeling and a mood that is brought on by other things and it is great to be mindful of that.  We struggle with that, as it is hard work, as it is just expression but it is really cool and I love that. 

VIVA! Hysteria 2CD/DVD @ -
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