Leap of Faith: Def Leppard stretches its legs on ‘Diamond Star Halo’

Def Leppard is, from left, bassist Rick Savage, drummer Rick Allen, singer Joe Elliott, and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell. They headline State Farm Stadium on Thursday, August 25. (Anton Corbijn/Submitted)

By Dave Gil de Rubio

The pandemic may have pressed an existential pause button on normal life, but for Def Leppard, it sparked a creative rejuvenation that yielded “Diamond Star Halos,” the band’s 12th studio album and first since 2015’s self-titled predecessor.

“For me and (singer) Joe (Elliott), selfishly, we had the best time ever,” Collen shares in an early June phone interview.

“We had no kids at home and actually experienced the most creative period artistically that we’ve ever had. Because of the pandemic and because we weren’t really (intentionally) making an album, there was no business agenda. We didn’t even have a label when we started. We were writing for the pure love of writing songs. Me and Joe started getting giddy (because) we were on a roll. We had to stop writing because we had to release this album. We had a few more (songs) in the can as well, so that was great.”

The result was 15 songs that dip into the ’71 to ‘74 sweet spot of music history Def Leppard has unabashedly tapped into since the band was founded in Sheffield, England, in 1977. And while Collen only came aboard after being asked to replace founding member Pete Willis in 1982, he shared the same love of glam rock that continues to this day and can be experienced on this latest outing, which borrows its title from the T. Rex 1971 hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”

Powerful guitar-driven harmonies dripping with hooks erupt on the anthemic opener, “Take What You Want,” which is quickly followed by “Kick,” an earworm adorned with hand claps and an infectious chorus that reverberates with the kind of hooky pop nuances of vintage Sweet.

The glitter connection is further enhanced by the contributions of pianist Mike Garson, who cut his teeth working with David Bowie and plays on the string-kissed ballad “Goodbye For Good This Time” and the soaring “Angels (Can’t Help You Now).” Garson got involved after Elliott brought the pair of songs to the band, knowing piano-based songs had never been Def Leppard’s stock and trade.

“Joe had written these two wonderful songs on piano, and he played them for me a while ago,” Collen recalls. “I said they were great, and I asked why we couldn’t do them. He said they were piano songs, and I said ‘Angel’ sounds like an Elton John (tune) that turns into Pink Floyd in the end. He said what if he asked Garson because he was speaking with him all the time. Mike was straight away in for it. He’s my favorite piano player, so that was an obvious thing. He really added a dimension that we wouldn’t have had.”

While the Leps’ self-described “Queen-meets-AC/DC” sound can be heard on other notable tracks like the arena rocker “Fire It Up” and driving riff machine that is “SOS Emergency,” the band took the opportunity of not having label oversight to take radical chances like tapping Alison Krauss to contribute to a pair of cuts — “Lifeless” and “This Guitar,” the latter a gem Collen had been sitting on for 17 years. The Krauss connection, the guitarist says, came out of a soccer rivalry Elliott shared with Robert Plant (who has recorded a pair of albums with the bluegrass superstar).

“Joe was talking to Robert Plant about whose soccer team sucked the most,” Collen explains. “Robert asked Joe what he was doing, and he said we were doing an album. Robert had worked with Alison Krauss and said she’d love to do (something with us) because Def Leppard is her favorite band. We thought she’d perhaps like to sing a line or two. We sent two songs that we thought would be suitable, and she loved them both. She had done all of these vocals — lead and backing vocals on the whole. It was like a Queen version of Alison Krauss with counter melodies and a beautiful duet with Joe. We kept it all on there. It was another dimension that we loved.”

As someone who grew up in London and was bitten by the guitar bug after seeing a Deep Purple concert in support of “Machine Head” (“I was in the front row and got to touch Ritchie Blackmore. He smashed his Strat. I could hear him playing all this right in front of me and right in front of the cabinets. It blew my mind”), this kind of musical risk-taking is nothing new for Collen. Reggae, ’70s funk, and catching seminal artists like jazz guitarist Joe Pass at Ronnie Scott’s in London all shaped his musical worldview. But it was the Thin White Duke who became a major game changer.

“I saw Bowie doing ‘Starman’ on TV when I was 14,” he says. “I was already into guitar playing since I’d seen Deep Purple, so I was already smitten. Then my world went from black and white to color just that quick.”

And now with Def Leppard embarking on a twice-canceled stadium tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett, Collen is thrilled with how his own crew sounds.

“We were actually in Pennsylvania for production rehearsals, and I realized this was the best live band I’ve ever heard in my life,” he says.

“This is us. We recorded it and played with the lights, lasers and God knows what other production stuff. We’ve never sounded this good. Joe has never sung this good. Rick Allen has never played the drums as well, and we’ve played this well as a band. It’s easier to play guitar. The singing part is always hard — you have to do warmups, and it’s such an important thing. The band — everything about it — we’ve just raised the bar. That’s really exciting more than anything else. And these new songs just blend straight in with the set, so it’s totally exciting.”

Fans can expect a set chock-full of hits with a few surprises thrown in along the way that may or may not have come out of Def Leppard’s pre-pandemic Vegas residency. In the meantime, Def Leppard (which also includes guitarist Vivian Campbell and bassist Rick Savage) continues to plow on and enjoy longevity that Collen credits to that most un-rock ‘n’ roll of reasons.

“It really comes down to our parental influences,” he explains. “We loved our parents. They were so great, so helpful and so accommodating. They were World War II survivors. The Nazis were trying to blow our city up, and so our parents were in air raid shelters. (Our folks) had a value system that they shared with us. I’m from London, Joe is from Sheffield, Rick is from Northern Ireland, so it’s slightly different. But we all had that experience from our parents. When they did their first EP, Joe and his mum sat up all night sticking 1,000 labels on the records. It’s stuff like that. And that really helped, and we still have all that. We haven’t ticked all our boxes yet — we’re getting there. We still have a lot to go.” 

Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

WHEN: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, August 25

WHERE: State Farm Stadium, 1 Cardinals Drive, Glendale

COST: Tickets start at $69

INFO: statefarmstadium.com, ticketmaster.com