Phil Collen: More than Meets the Eye

PhilCollen-2014-HelenLCollen-JacksonPhotos curtesy of Helen L. Collen

When Troy asked me to write about Phil Collen of Def Leppard for Collen’s birthday today, I warned: “It’s going to be fan-girly.”

But first: it truly was about the music.

No really! It was! Let me explain!

I was 12-years-old going on 13, and I was hearing the siren song of the musical dark side: rock & roll. I had been raised on (mostly) classical music. At 12, I was making room in my life for Duran Duran; for singles like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart;” and for Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” from the “Flashdance” soundtrack.

But Def Leppard was more intriguing, and more dangerous. I often heard the singles from ‘Pyromania’ on FM radio while I was waiting to hear other songs. ‘Pyromania’ grew on me. I liked what I heard, though I did not actually buy the album until 1984, when I was 13.

The back of the vinyl jacket of ‘Pyromania’ included a small-ish snapshot of each of the band members. They looked like scary rocker dudes to me. But even more, the danger was in the band’s sound. Def Leppard was a hard rock band. I was not a person who liked hard rock. But I loved every song on ‘Pyromania,’ and that blew my developing teenage music brain.

In hindsight, I know why I loved ‘Pyromania.’ It was Def Leppard’s inherent rhythmic and melodic genius. It was their use of vocal harmony, which was authentic: they can reproduce those harmonies live. It was their gut-pleasing guitar sound. (Every time I hear the beginning chords of “Photograph” I get the same indescribable and awesome feeling as the first time I heard the song.) But at age 13, I couldn’t have told you any of that. At 13, I simply loved the way the record made me feel.

We did not have cable TV at home, then, so I never saw any of the videos from ‘Pyromania.’ I couldn’t have picked out the different band members in a photo; I doubt that I even knew the individual band members’ names.

However, all that changed when my parents divorced and my mother remarried. I ended up living with a new family in a new household, and in the new household, we had cable TV.

When Def Leppard came out with ‘Hysteria’ in 1987, I was beyond excited. The fact that the band had gone on together despite Rick Allen’s loss of his arm was heartening. I was 16, now, and I already knew what a rare and precious thing loyalty is.PhilCollen-2014-HelenLCollen

(I know this is a blog about Phil Collen. I’m getting there.)

So I bought ‘Hysteria,’ this time on cassette, and I loved it. But now, I was living in a house with cable TV. That meant MTV. And that meant (drum roll): Def Leppard videos!

So. I could pretend. I could pretend every time 16-year-old me watched the video for “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” that my eyes did not follow a bare-chested Phil Collen across the stage-in-the-round that was used for the ‘Hysteria’ tour. I could pretend I did not stay up late watching the Headbanger’s Ball, hoping to see older Def Leppard videos from ‘Pyromania’ so I could capture those videos on VHS tape. I could pretend that I did not then watch the same videos over and over (and over), paying special attention to Phil Collen in each clip.

I could pretend this, but that would be silly, because, I did all that. Phil Collen was my secret 1980’s crush. I’m pretty sure I never confessed my crush on Phil Collen to any of my friends. But I was crushing on him pretty damn hard.

At 16, I DID know who all the band members of Def Leppard were; I knew their names. I knew Collen was one of Def Leppard’s guitar players, and I assumed he was good at his job. I also knew I really liked him in the “Hysteria” video (the vest); in the video for “Photograph” (the jacket); and, of course, in the video for “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (no vest, no jacket.)

That was me at 16 (and 17, and 18.) Now, however, I actually care about guitars and about the skills of guitarists. So, over this past week, I watched a ton of Def Leppard live performance clips so I could observe Phil Collen as a guitarist. (I had to…Research.)

Here’s what I learned: Collen is virtuosic, and yet, he is someone who can hang back and let another guitarist have the spotlight. He can do the “shred” thing, and he can also play a sweet-ass melodic solo. Clip after clip, I noticed how he often appears to be losing himself while he plays, which is always a cool thing to see any musician do. He’s no slouch on an acoustic guitar. (I found that VH-1 Storytellers episode with Def Leppard, yes I did. I found that acoustic show in Sheffield. Yes I did.) He has a fantastic sense of time. He sings really well. Basically, Collen has all the qualities I admire in a musician. He’s inspiring.

This week has been a chance to come full circle and discover that a person I once got all fan-girly and stupid about is also a person who inspires me as a musician.

Bonus: I’m listening to Def Leppard’s music in a new way and I dig it even more than I did as a teenager. I love it when that happens. And, finally: Phil Collen still looks great. (Lying is a sin. Not mentioning that Collen still looks great would be a sin of omission.)

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