Joe Elliott is something of a rock and roll historian. Talking to the Def Leppard frontman finds him to be a veritable fount of information on rock and roll history, able to wax eloquently on ‘70s U.K. rockers Slade and Mott the Hoople as easily as he references Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Mick Jagger solo singles from the ‘80s.
Speaking on the phone in 2018 as he and the band geared up for their summer tour with Journey that year, Elliott gamely fielded the requisite questions about his favorite Journey song (“Chain Reaction,” for those wondering) and thoughts on his band's catalog finally going digital. The singer really lit up, however, when given a chance to talk about the deeper aspects of Def Leppard's rich history (they do have their very own drama-filled Behind the Music episode), and the group's first forays across the Atlantic to America.
While the band would go on to make two diamond albums (more than 10 million copies sold) Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987), the group's earlier discography is also impressive. Def Leppard's second full-length, High 'n' Dry, can sound like a revelation on a first-time listen. The album marks the band's debut with producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, who would help the band craft the wide-reaching sound that turned up the pop hooks and dance-floor aesthetics behind the massive hits on the those two diamond LPs.
High 'n' Dry is also notable for featuring the single, "Bringin' on the Heartbreak," an epic power ballad that would be the first Def Leppard song to have significant impact in America.
When asked to recall what it was like for Def Leppard to tour the States on the back of the album's initial release, Elliott says they landed in the U.S. with something of a thud: "When we first came to America for High 'n' Dry, there was no traction on the record. The traction came after we finished touring. It was really frustrating for us, because it was the first album we'd made with ‘Mutt’ Lange. To this day, we still really love it," Elliott remembered. "You could argue that my singing on it, albeit better than on the first record, was a little shouty.
"We toured Europe first, with Richie Blackmore's Rainbow,” the singer continued. “We finally made it to [tour] the States in the summer, playing clubs opening for Blackfoot. Great guys—Rickey Medlocke is a wonderful man. But they're like southern rock, and we were out there trying to be like UFO or whatever (laughs). To the Blackfoot fans, we looked like the New York Dolls. It was a little weird. Luckily, we got to spend a few weeks playing arenas opening for Ozzy Osbourne."
Elliott detailed how management and record company execs had pumped up the band's hopes with projections that High 'n' Dry would generate huge sales and catapult Def Leppard to stardom. The actual results were far less impressive.
"The album did OK. It sold maybe 250,000 copies. We were expecting it to do much better," Elliott remembered. "We get home to prepare to record what would become Pyromania, and we starting getting telegrams from America saying there was this new cable channel called MTV, and they were playing our 'Bringin' on the Heartbreak' video. Since they only had like 17 videos at the time, and three of them were ours, because we'd shot promos for 'Heartbreak,' 'Let it Go' and the title track. They were playing all three of them in medium rotation, and then 'Heartbreak' ended up going into heavy rotation."
The singer went on to share how MTV hadn't even become ubiquitous in American households yet, but the repeated spins of "Heartbreak" on the cable channel generated new fans who eagerly started requesting the song at their local radio stations.
"We get wind of this happening back in America, and by the time we were wrapping up the recording of Pyromania, we get a telex saying that High 'n' Dry had gone gold," Elliott laughed. "So while we busted our n--- touring it and getting nowhere, MTV took a three-minute clip of us miming to the song in front of a fake audience and turned it into a gold album," the singer laughed. "The album went gold around December of '82, and the next album, Pyromania, came out in January of '83. The first single was 'Photograph,' and the rest is history. Everything just went ballistic from that moment on.”
As the interview wound to a close, Elliott seemed to ponder this twist of fate that helped make him a huge rock star in one of the biggest bands in the world: "High 'n' Dry was a weird one. It was one of those happy accidents. For all the great planning that you do and the wishes and putting everything into place, it didn't really happen that way. But I'm forever grateful that it did."