When front man Joe Elliott declared that “It’s better to burn out than fade away” on the intro to his band’s smash 1983 hit Rock Of Ages, he had no idea that, 24 years later, he’d still be making the same statement to crowds in excess of 20,000 people.
In those days, Def Leppard were in the early stages of what has now become a mammoth 30-year-and-counting career, reaching its zenith with the release of their signature album Hysteria in 1987 and a subsequent 18 million copies sold, only to have the momentum that carried them into the 1990s crushed by the emergence of grunge.
Despite that declaration on Rock Of Ages and the threat of becoming a rock footnote as bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice And Chains dominated radio before all but disappearing from mainstream play, Def Leppard never did fade away.
Instead they continued to release records — diverging from their signature sound on the 1996 release Slang before returning to the fold with 1999’s Euphoria — and toured relentlessly.
Now Def Leppard’s five members are not only regarded as rock survivors, but as innovators and icons, and perhaps more importantly for the legacy of the band, as a major concert draw as they continue to jam venues and sell out shows across North America.
The double-platinum success of the greatest hits package Rock Of Ages: The Definitive Collection has undoubtedly fuelled that demand, but mostly for the band’s pre-Slang material.
The fact that few fans want to hear songs from Def Leppard albums such as 2002’s X doesn’t phase Elliott.
“When I go to see The (Rolling) Stones or The Who, most people go off to buy the beer or the shirt when they hear the new song, that’s just life,” the 47-year-old lead singer says when asked if he’s bothered by his fans’ late-’80s preferences.
“The bittersweet thing about it is that we’re an elite group of people to be asked that question. To be asked that question, you have survived. What you are doing is you’re surviving and fighting your own past and you have to make yourself relevant.”
While Hysteria-era domination may be a thing of the past, with a new album of original material tentatively titled Songs From The Sparkle Lounge due out next year, the band is challenging the notion that they’re strictly a greatest hits act.
“Any band hopefully gets the opportunity to keep writing, recording and releasing new material. It’s kind of a crap shoot as to whether it goes or it doesn’t go,” the native of Sheffield, England, says.
“You look at a band like The Rolling Stones. They keep putting records out. Does anybody buy them? I don’t really know ... Again, having suffered the wrath of grunge like everybody through the ‘80s did, some of us do our best to stand tall through it, but others fall by the wayside.”
Luckily for Def Leppard diehards, that means Elliott and his band mates have no plans to hang up their Union Jack-laden guitars any time soon.
“I think it’s better for a band to burn out,” Elliott says, “but I still think you can burn out when you’re 70.”
- Def Leppard plays the Molson Amphitheatre tonight.