DEF LEPPARD’S JOE ELLIOTT ON HOW TO WRITE A SONG: ” [MY MOTTO IS] NEVER GO TO BED WITHOUT [A] PEN AND PAPER”
Songfacts: How do you write your best songs?
Joe Elliott: To be quite honest, songs percolate in your head first, and normally when you’re too far away from an instrument to get to one. You’re in an airplane or you’re on the back of a bus, or you’re in bed. “Never go to bed without [a] pen and paper” is my motto, or these days an iPhone. Sometimes you get up in the morning and there’s a melody going around annoying you like a bee in a jam jar.
Now, most people, Phil [Collen – Def Leppard guitarist], for example, would just pick up a guitar, because that’s all he knows. He doesn’t play the piano. Sometimes I just sit at a piano and I’ll start trying something and go, “Well, this is a piano song.” And I might try and do it on the guitar and go, “Hmm, could work both ways, but it sounds better as a piano song.” And I will leave it that way.
Two Steps Behind, for example, I wrote on a guitar. Obviously, because that’s what it is. But other stuff that I’ve written, like Undefeated off the Mirrorball album, was all written on guitar. But the new Down ‘n’ Outz material for album three – God willing it gets made – was all pretty much written on piano. But there’s going to loads of guitars all over it, as well.
It’s horses for courses. It really is that varied. Angus Young you wouldn’t need to ask that question to, because you know exactly how he writes all his songs. But with somebody that’s a bit more varied, like a Bowie or a Freddie Mercury or Ian Hunter, will write on both. I like the idea of being able to do that because it gives you a broader scope.
Songfacts: One of my favorite Def Leppard songs is Too Late for Love, and I was surprised that it was released as a single but never as a video, which I think prevented it from being a true hit in the US. (The song didn’t chart on the American Hot 100 and made just #86 in the UK.)
Joe: Here’s why: because Photograph is the first single off Pyromania, and it went through the roof because of MTV. Once people started getting cable all over the States, this fledgling MTV thing took off. We got fantastic bounce-back from people watching it on MTV and then asking the radio stations to play it. The two started bouncing back from each other request-wise, and the song just went crazy.
It was in the middle of that year that I think we released Rock of Ages, and then towards the end of the summer maybe I think Foolin’ came out. And we’d shot the video for Foolin’. I remember doing it – I think we did it in August of ’83. So that kind of covered the end of the tour, which finished in September.
By the time we went back to Europe to do the end of the world tour, they decided they wanted to go to radio with Too Late for Love, but we weren’t really in any kind of a position to make a video for it. Plus, there was this feeling amongst us like, “It’s a fourth single, but it’s just being put out there for the sake of it. It’s only being released because of the success of the first three.”
It was never a game plan in January of that year. It was a on the spur-of-the-moment decision made maybe in August or September that we would go with a full single, to which we responded, “Well, okay, fine, whatever you want. But there won’t be a video, because we’re too busy touring.” It was just the record company trying to prolong the length of the album and see if that song was going to fly.
But as great a song as it is, I believe that any success that it achieved was based on the fact that the first three did so well. It’s a fantastic album track, but it’s not a single. To me. You know what I mean? To me, it’s like putting Kashmir out as a single. [Many of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs, Kashmir and Stairway To Heaven among them, were not released as singles.]
It’s like, “Are you kidding me?” It’s just a great album track. It’s not a single. It doesn’t have the hook. It’s a brilliant piece of arrangement, it’s a good bit of writing, it’s a great lyric, it’s a brilliant piece of music. But it’s a rock track. It’s never going to challenge Thriller or Billie Jean. Whereas, Photograph and Rock of Ages were, because they were anthemic in a lyrical and a vocal way. They were a call to arms. And Too Late for Love is a bit more “lamentable,” if you like.
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