Interview: Rick Savage
Call me Sav, Aaron.
They say never meet your heroes. I’d like to meet those people and ask them what sort of people they’re picking as heroes. I’ve met mine and they’ve all been warm, generous with their time to a fault, and entirely approachable.
Take Rick ‘Don’t call me Rick, Aaron’ Savage, one-fifth of Def Leppard.
Now, Def Leppard are a curious beast. They scaled the sort of peaks that other more critically-acclaimed bands can only dream of. They’re Sheffield’s most successful musical export to the rest of the world by a country mile. Sorry, Arctics. You’ve got some great tunes and you made a splash, but Def Leppard first created and then defined the sound of an entire decade, selling tens of millions of records and bestriding the globe like a colossus along the way. They were looking good on the dancefloor when you’d yet to be mardy bums. Def Leppard’s success made and makes them not just one of South Yorkshire’s or Britain’s biggest bands, but also one of the world’s.
They were also sonic innovators to a degree only paralleled by the greats: The Beatles, The Floyds, and the like – and nowhere is this more apparent than on the Hysteria album; a leviathan that’s seeing its thirtieth anniversary this summer. A contentious point? To some, perhaps. It remains a masterpiece, however: a killer combination of sonic sheen, songwriting smarts and sheer punch that saw them top the success of 1983’s 10-million selling Pyromania and conquer America and the world all over again. Its sound defined the decade – a sound achieved long before the days of push-button vocal stacks and VST plug-ins, and one that ranks alongside any achieved by their musical peers in that decade and before. It’s a rare band that creates the sound and template that everyone then follows. Def Leppard achieved that. Hysteria is a high-water mark of found sound meeting musicians meeting technology to rival anything achieved by say, Kate Bush on The Hounds of Love album; Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden; or anything Peter Gabriel did before he founded Real World Studios.
And yet they’ve never been critical darlings. Other far more generic and forgettable acts have come to define the eighties, mobilized by critics to support a particular world view in the same way that some deluded souls seek to reduce the fertile, vibrant smorgasbord of the seventies and view the decade solely via the prism of punk and the spirit of ’76. They’re dismissed as hair-metal and cock-rock, lumped in with the sort of crass bands that borrowed their sound without every achieving their nimble inventiveness. Why this is, I don’t know. I do find it puzzling, though.
I’m a pretty eclectic guy. I’m as happy in a mosh-pit with Metallica as I am an orchestra pit with Mozart. I’ve done scuzzy indie noise terrorism in the back rooms of dive pubs as readily as I’ve done opera at Glyndebourne. As a musician, I’ve played the blues in Edinburgh; Manouche in Spain; pop in Manchester; and trad folk guitar with a classical harpist who liked John Cage patterns. They’re all just colours on the palette, after all. By any personal and objective measure, Hysteria is a classic. In the interests of full disclosure, I can reveal that it was the first album I bought with my own money. I can also state that Hysteria would always make a top ten list of albums I wish I’d made or been involved in the making of because its genesis was so interesting and unique. But it isn’t celebrating its 30th anniversary this year just because I rate it. There’s a far simpler reason:
It’s a stunning piece of work.
(If you don’t believe me, put it on in your car, point yourself at an open road, and turn it up. Or just put it on and turn it up anyway)
And so, after all of that, to Rick ‘Honestly, Aaron. No-one calls me Rick. Call me Sav’ Savage.
Three times we try to hook up. Three times there is a problem with the PR Company’s ‘phone syncing. PA’s panic. Phone connections die. Very well-heeled voices lay blame over crackling lines while your correspondent and an international rock-star say ‘hullo, hullo is anyone there?’ In the end, during a brief moment of telephonic clarity before we get cut off again Sav says:
“Here, Aaron (He pronounces it Arran, as the Scots do, but he’s sold 100 million albums so who am I to correct him?). Give me a call on this number.”
I do so, and with no panicking PA’s in the background we get to it.
Sav: Aaron! Can you hear me?!
Bloody hell. I’m finally talking to Rick Savage. Hysteria was the first album I bought with my own money.
At last! How are you doing, Rick? You must have done a thousand of these today. How are you holding up?
Sav: Call me Sav, Aaron. No-one calls me Rick anymore. I’m good, mate. I’ve got no throat left, but there you go. Hey, that was a bit rubbish, wasn’t it? Me and you trying to talk via a PR company in London when we’re just around the corner from each other in Sheffield. Bloody hell, we’ll not be doing that again, eh?
Rick Savage! My first girlfriend once admitted that she thought about kissing Rick Savage when we were snogging. This is, admittedly, a little bit weird given I’m now talking to him but on the upside it meant that I got kissed like a rock star at an age when most boys were wondering if moving past holding hands was possible.
Definitely not. Pick a bar next time and I’ll meet you there.
Sav: Absolutely. Hey, what part of Sheff are you in, mate?
Sav: Ah, smashing. I sometimes get out up there. Hey, next time you see me in The Ranmoor or West 10 come and introduce yourself. Don’t be shy.
Okay, then. So, what are you up to besides doing a thousand phone interviews?
Sav: Enjoying a little downtime. We’ve just been out in the States, and we’re going back out in South America in the autumn with Aerosmith. So, just relaxing. Not that there’s much chance of that. I spend all my time ferrying my teenagers around Sheff. Welcome to my life, Aaron. Rock star one day, taxi driver the next…
Comes with the territory. So, 30 years ago since Hysteria was released. It’s one of the great albums of any genre and one of the great albums of the decade. Did you get the feeling that you were creating something special at the time?
Sav: Even though we’d just come off the back of Pyromania which had been mega-successful we felt a weird mix of confidence, but that we still had it all to prove – a sense of mission if you like. We weren’t finished; we weren’t done. We’d had success, but we wanted more. We wanted to make our definitive record.
That’s an interesting headspace to be in: successful but hungry …?
Sav: Absolutely! But we came off the road one month and went straight back in the studio the next. We’ve always had a good work ethic, and there was a sense of let’s keep the momentum going …
And then life happened. Rick had his accident and …
Sav: Listen. We didn’t set out to spend nearly four years making an album but in life things happen. In four years, a lot happens. Rick’s accident – well, some people look at that as being a tragedy, and it was, and it hit him and us hard. But any life has ups and downs. It’s how you come through them. When Rick had his accident, we already had our blinkers on. We were already determined to make the best album we could. Our mate is fighting for his life? Right, well, we’ll get down in the trenches with him and we’ll fight with him. He thinks he can drum again? Okay, then. Let’s make that happen, and make this record. We really were incredibly focused. That’s not to say that we didn’t have moments were we hit the wall. But that’s why you’re in a band with your mates. One of you is struggling, the rest muck in. It helped that it felt like a lot of things were clicking into place. We were all on the same page as a band, for a start. We felt everything we’d done to that point had put us in a position to make the album we’d always wanted to make; a real definitive statement. We had a record company that was backing us, so we didn’t feel pressured into rushing something out. We had Mutt (Lange: producer) and a great team around us. Mostly, when a musician sees success, they tend to play safe. What do I think people want? Let’s give them that. Let’s not push hard. We were the opposite. We’d produced a great record in Pyromania. Now we were all on the same page with the same goal in mind: let’s make a definitive record. Let’s push everything. Let’s go as far out as we can. Let’s aim for triumph … and if it’s a disaster, well, at least we won’t die wondering, you know?!
It turned into a triumph, but the album, and Def Leppard themselves, are often dismissed unfairly I think. You’ll have heard it all before, I’m sure: cock rock, hair metal, and pop metal, whatever. But under the sheen it was a very innovative album in a lot of ways.
Sav: (Laughs) Nothing wrong with being popular! Are you in a band because you want people to enjoy your music or not? Were we pop? Yes! Nothing wrong with that. The Beatles were pop; Michael Jackson was pop; everyone you’ve ever liked was pop – or you wouldn’t have heard of them. As for the sound of the record … Look, we like guitars, and we like drums. That’s what we grew up on. But for us it was always about the songs. And what we wanted to do was make those songs the best we possibly could. Frankie Goes To Hollywood are doing interesting things with programming? How can we use that and make it ours. How can that help our songs? Human League are doing really interesting things with synths? How can we use that and make it ours. How can that help our songs? There were elements of rap, elements of classic rock, elements of country music… Listen to Armageddon It where you’ve got Steve Clarke playing Andy Summer’s style arpeggios over a country-style riff with a rock beat and Queen-style stacked vocals – but as an aggressive chant rather than sweet harmonies. Put it all on the table, throw it all at the wall, let’s see what sticks. Let’s see how we can make these songs better…
Reading about the album’s production, what struck me was how painstaking you were, but how inventive too…
Sav: Well, we had Mutt. Mutt was the train. Do it again Do it again Do it again Do it again Do it again Do it again Do it again… We weren’t averse to plugging a guitar into a Marshall if the song needed it, but that was the point: what does the song need? We had Rockman walkman amps with the mic plugged into the headphone socket or a little Gallien-Kruger that we’d stuff with someone’s jumper, turn to the wall, and mic from behind… Not to be arsey. Because we were looking for sounds. We’d use anything to get the effect that we wanted – and if that meant we took a month to track one guitar part in one chorus of one song … then that’s what we did. (Laughs). To hell with the expense!
And it was expensive. I believe you needed to sell three million copies just to pay the record company back.
Sav: Four! At the time it was the most expensive album ever made, I believe. But that’s the arrogance of youth. Blinkers on, heads down. When we released it, well, we knew it was good, but we wondered if anyone would remember us. Well, it went big in the UK straight away but in America we hit and then dipped. We’d sold around 3 and half million albums so we were on our way, but then MTV picked up on Pour Some Sugar On Me and it almost rebooted the album in people’s consciousness. We were ten months at that point and the wave just built, and built, and built…
And the rest is Hysteria?
Sav: (Laughs) Pretty much!
You’re still an active band. You still write and release material; and you tour heavily. With Hysteria, you took Queen’s approach to harmonies to their zenith. Cheeky question: thirty years on, can you still hit all the high notes?!
Sav: You’re right. It is a cheeky question. But yes, absolutely. We’ve been accused of using tapes and auto-tune in the past, but listen: we’re a live band. Everything you hear, the good, the bad, and the ugly comes from the five of us onstage and nowhere else. We pride ourselves on that. Come and hear us warming up and doing our vocal exercises before a show and I’ll tell you it sounds nothing like music then (laughs) but we do it the hard way because you can tell the difference. We like polish as much as everyone else, but we won’t ever ‘phone it in and use tapes. We do it live – always have, always will.
Mutt Lange rings up. He says ‘Lads, thirty years ago you made your definitive statement of youth and young manhood with Hysteria. I want to go back into the studio with you, take everything you’ve been through in the last three decades, and make the definitive statement of where you’re at now.’ Would you sign up all over again?
Sav: Ha! You’ll get me shot, answering for the rest of the band. I’d have to say yes, though. You hear all sorts of horror stories about Mutt from other artists: how hard he pushed them and so on. Does he work you hard? Yes, he does. But he works just as hard, if not harder so do you want to make a great record or not? If you do, great. He’ll help you. If you don’t, fine. Make an okay one instead. The devil is in the detail, and Mutt is all about the details because they add up to the bigger picture. As a producer, he has a way about him where you want to perform for him. He’ll pull things out of you you didn’t know you had. As a producer, he’s a genius. But I’ll tell you this too, he’s one of the nicest, wisest men I’ve ever met. I learned so much from him about life. We all did. If called tomorrow, yeah, I reckon we’d be up for it again!
When you think about the album now, what comes to mind?
Sav: Oh, that’s a tough one. Listen, we were mates before we were a gang; and we were a gang before a band. When we were growing up we wanted to write great songs, be a great live band, and we wanted to be the biggest band in the world. We’re still the same today but Hysteria saw us tick all of those boxes. Maybe it was only for six months or so, before bloody U2 got into their stride with The Joshua Tree but biggest band in the world: that’s not bad for a bunch of lads from Sheffield, you know? I’m proud of that. Not a bad album to lose your crown to either (laughs)!
And not a bad album to have to your name, either? We’ll see you in Sheffield soon?
Sav: I’m in Sheffield now, mate! But we’ll be playing their next year. Can’t wait!
* * * *
I don’t often wax lyrical. But booked to talk to Rick Savage for twenty minutes, after all of the shenanigans with the PR Company the man ended up staying on the phone with me for the best part of an hour. We talked Hysteria, sure, but we also roamed far and wide over the state of the music business; musicianship; being back in Sheffield; and just general chat about life. Even though he’d probably done a hundred ‘phone interviews before getting to me; even though it was Friday night and he was due to drop his kids off for a night out in Sheff, Rick Savage was warm, charming, and accommodating.
So, I’d like to point him out to the Mariah Carey and Kanye’s of the business, and few others besides, and say: look, here’s living proof that you can sell 100+ million albums and not turn into an arsehole. You can still be friendly, down-to-earth, and approachable. You can still have a lust for life and what happens next. Maybe they wouldn’t get it though. Maybe it’s a Sheffield thing. Top bloke, top band, top album. Nuff said!
Def Leppard’s 30th Anniversary edition of Hysteria is available from August 4. More info here.