After selling over 65 million records, Def Leppard decided the time was right to pay tribute to their musical heroes on their new cover album Yeah!. The boys from Sheffield, England, are staying busy these days: They were recently saluted by VH1’s Rock Honors and on June 23 they’ll kick off a U.S. tour with fellow ’80s stalwarts Journey. PEOPLE caught up with frontman Joe Elliott, 46, about the band’s cringeworthy moments and what really happens behind the scenes at a Def Leppard concert.
You guys have been kicking around the idea of doing a covers album for 20 years. Why now?
The timing was never right. We grew up in an era when pop-rock was on the radio. We decided to do those songs to put to bed the myth (that has) always lumped us with British new wave or heavy metal.
Have any of the artists you covered given you feedback on your versions?
We got a thumb’s up from Bowie for “Drive-In Saturday.” Rod Stewart asked if we could send a copy (of the album) up to his house.
How do think Simon Cowell would rate your renditions of other people’s music?
I don’t watch American Idol. Those programs annoy the hell out of me. I don’t know much about Simon Cowell other than he should be strung up … like a piñata.
Def Leppard has never received much critical acclaim. With the VH1 honors, do you feel your detractors are finally starting to come around?
We’ve never been (critical) darlings and it worked in our favor. It makes us look like a multiplatinum underdog.
A recent Entertainment Weekly feature shows a picture of you guys from 1984 in matching Union Jack tank tops and short shorts. Do you look back at photos like that and laugh?
You look at them the way you look at wedding photos: You giggle and cringe at some. It doesn’t embarrass me because it’s what we were then. There are photographs out there of us with long hair, short hair, ripped jeans, leather trousers – it’s just the time period. It’s part of the capsule.
What can expect to see backstage these days at a Def Leppard show?
Everyone in the band is married but we’re certainly not all sober. (Guitarist) Phil Collen hasn’t had a drink in 23 years. I haven’t had a drink in 23 minutes. (Drummer) Rick Allen doesn’t drink. The rest of us are what you call “polite drinkers.” We’re certainly not dead drunk like we used to get.
It’s not the wild party days of 25 years ago?
We do have our moments. We have pajama parties on the bus where we insist that our road crew wear nightgowns and ladies’ attire. We don’t join in but we’ll take photos and laugh at them. The emphasis has always been on the music. We were always pacing ourselves very well. It’s like the old cliché about the tortoise and the hare – we’re definitely the old tortoise. That’s why we’re still going.