Millions of records sold. Stadium filling tours. How could a band like Def Leppard not be successful when one looks back at their storied career? The truth be told, if one only remembers the high points, then they were a ‘can’t miss’ band, but when factoring in the low points, it is a wonder that they survived their first few years let alone four decades. Part of their longevity stems from the fact that when they started out, they were so very young. A young band is bound to make mistakes along the way and the band that learns from their mistakes just might hang around for a while. Having an insatiable need to succeed certainly didn’t hurt them, either.
Lead singer Joe Elliott clocks in at 58 years these days and by virtue of his job fronting the band, he has always been the vocal leader. In an extensive cover story in Classic Rock Magazine published in early 2018, he pointed out that his enthusiasm for being the band’s mouthpiece in the early years outweighed his actual talent for singing. In the early years he was acting as the lead singer but it would take a few years, a couple of albums, and some tough love from record producer Mutt Lange to make him the real deal. They did their due diligence on the pub circuit and endured their fair share of line up changes, yet the band struggled to hold things together. Deaf Leopard (yes, this was the original spelling) knew where they wanted to go, but they were green around the gills and were managed by a group who knew less about the rock and roll business than they did. Failure was imminent until the last few key pieces were replaced.
The first change came with the departure of lead guitar player Pete Willis. Willis had talent but he also had a fondness for drink and mood elevating substances that made it a constant struggle for the whole band. When he was good, he was very good and when he was on a toot, he could be the poster boy for the ugly side of alcoholism. He wasn’t the only one. Co-guitarist Steve Clark also self medicated with alcohol, the difference being in the timing and duration. Clark wouldn’t get a buzz on until after the show, session or rehearsal whereas Willis might show up incapacitated to the point that he couldn’t play. After two albums and touring behind the second one (High ‘N’ Dry), the band gave Willis his walking papers on the run up to the album Pyromania. He asked for another chance, suggesting perhaps a stint with a shrink would help, but as Elliot told him, “You’ve had chance upon chance to change and if seeing a shrink would have made the difference, you would have done it by now.” Willis exited the band and was replaced by ex-Girl guitar player Phil Collen. The management team was replaced by former Mercury Records A&R executive Cliff Bernstein and his partner Peter Mensch. Their handling of bands like Aerosmith, AC/DC, and the Scorpions was critical in the band’s plan to dominate the global music scene (which can be loosely translated here as “make it in America”).
Def Leppard’s fortunes were on the rise and their association with Mutt Lange began to pay big dividends as they assembled their break out album Pyromania. The problem was getting anyone in England to take notice. The BBC’s tightly controlled broadcast policies found young bands fighting for a scant couple of hours of air time per week to get their music heard. When they began to get substantial airplay in America, they finally started to see some payback for their efforts. Elliot claims that America was much easier to break into than England because it seemed every town had at least two radio stations programming rock 24/7, not to mention the fledgling MTV network. The English music press and BBC programmers were not impressed with Leppard’s wooing of American radio. Media and fans chastised the band for ‘selling out’. Leppard felt they had paid their dues so the criticism was taken with a grain of salt. How important was America to Def Leppard? Elliot sums it up: “The first gig we did with Phil in the band was at the Marquee club in London in February of 1983 (a venue that holds a couple of hundred patrons). Seven months later we did Mac Murphy Stadium in San Diego, the last show of the American tour, in front of fifty-five thousand people.” America got it and England would eventually fall in step.
With the success of Pyromania fanning the flames of their career, Def Leppard was poised to take 1984 by storm but as sometimes happens, life intervened. Mutt Lange was not available to work on their next album, so they began the pre-album planning with producer Jim Steinman (yes, the same Jim Steinman who had taken Meatloaf and Bat Out of Hell to the top). Realizing that Steinman’s idiosyncrasies were costing them a ton of money with nothing tangible to show for it (like having the carpeting changed in the studio and his hotel room because he didn’t like the color), they made plans to move on without him. Then on New Year’s Eve, drummer Rick Allen was involved in a horrific car crash that cost him his left arm. The triumph and promise of 1984 had been replaced by something more akin to doom and gloom.
Lesser bands would have folded their tents at this point, but Leppard had worked too hard to get this far and they weren’t going to give in quite so easily. Sheffield drum tech and electronic genius Pete Hartley assembled a drum kit that would allow Allen to trigger drum sounds with his feet to augment what he could play with his remaining arm. While the band worked on arrangements with the newly available Lange, Allen locked himself away in another part of Amsterdam’s Wisseloord Studios for a full five months to work out the mechanics of being a one armed drummer. As brutal as Lange had been pushing Allen (to become a better player) during the recording of the High ‘N’ Dry and Pyromania albums, he now saw Allen’s accident as an opportunity for him to become a different drummer. Having joined the band at the tender age of 15, Allen was determined to not let his near fatal car accident be his last contribution to Def Leppard. When they toured again, Leppard took the precautionary measure of bringing along a second drummer just in case, but by the end of the first shows, it was obvious that Allen was up to the task. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing as Allen had also gained an addiction to some pretty potent drugs during his rehab, but he dug deep and found the strength to overcome that hurdle, too. With all the craziness attendant to his accident and the recording of the new album, it was Allen who suggested they call it Hysteria.
Alcohol wasn’t quite finished with the band. During the making of Hysteria, Collen gave up the bottle after a hard night out with Steven Clark but he has never explained why. Clark, unfortunately, did not follow suit in the temperance movement. Elliot also set the bottle down during their fabled tour in-the-round when he realized that we was not going to be able to keep up the athletic stage show he was performing for more than two hundred shows. The Hysteria in-the-round tour was followed by an extensive break that saw Clark continue his downward spiral. The band began recording a new album and suggested that Clark take a six month sabbatical to take care of himself. He didn’t and a fatal combination of painkillers and booze put him to sleep permanently in 1991. The band took it hard but in some ways they were relieved: Steve Clark was a proverbial train wreck waiting to happen and when it did, nobody was exceptionally surprised. They hoped he would come back from his leave of absence a new man but deep down, they weren’t convinced that it would happen. The album they finished after his death (Adrenalize) was difficult and while it wasn’t quite on the level of Pyromania and Hysteria, it was a remarkable accomplishment in view of what the band had endured. The fly in the ointment here was the change taking place in the music business: Grunge was on the rise and bands like Leppard and Bon Jovi were being cast aside as ‘the old guys’.
Rather than trying to recreate their biggest albums or just going with the flow by joining the flannel shirt crowd, Elliot said, “We needed to cleanse ourselves and do something different. So we lost all the big, mad harmony stuff, just made it sound like it does when we bang out live in the rehearsal room. We jokingly called the album Commercial Suicide when we were writing it.” When people pointed out that Slang didn’t really sound like Def Leppard, that was exactly what they were trying to achieve. They might not have been going with the flow, but they weren’t remaking High ‘N’ Dry, either. By the time they recorded Euphoria, they had decided that they could just be themselves and let their muse take them in whatever direction they wanted. Leppard didn’t necessarily need to write new music or put out albums as the new millennium dawned, but they did remarkably well for a bunch of old guys who wouldn’t just go away. Their album output (X (2002), Songs from the Sparkle Lounge (2008), and Def Leppard (2015) were all solid sellers. Newer fans who may never have heard an album or CD by the band began discovering them, one of the factors leading the band to finally release their back catalog online in 2015. Paying for their own studio time means they have no record label to please or pressure them; they can now record what they want when they want because they want to pay for it.
Vivian Campbell (Dio, Whitesnake) came on board when Clark died and this lineup has been rock solid for over twenty five years. They continue to sell out tours and have done the Las Vegas residency thing. Their least successful album (Yeah! (2006) was just them having some fun with other people’s songs yet nobody was going to tell them, “You can’t do an album like that.” David Bowie loved what they did with Drive-in-Saturday and Paul Rogers raved about their take on Free’s A LIttle Bit Of Love. They have opened some of their shows as the faux Def Leppard tribute band “Ded Flatbird “ just because they could. Leppard’s members keep themselves busy with other projects such as Collen touring with Joe Satriani’s G3 tour, Campbell recording with his old Dio bandmates as The Last In Line, and Elliot’s side project (The Down and Outs) is working on a new album. Retirement is not in the plans as long as they can play music that meets their own lofty expectations.
Look at the box score: Def Leppard have survived more bumps and bruises than any band should be dealt and they are still standing. Death, dismemberment, changing musical climates, and age have all conspired to put them out to pasture, yet 2018 and 2019 will see them celebrate their 40th year with a massive tour. Neil Peart of Rush framed part of their ‘lemons to lemonade’ ride to Phil Collen as the uber drummer prepped for Rush’s final round of touring: “If it wasn’t for your drummer, Rick, electronic drums would not be where they are today.” Having seen Allen’s original 1985 one-armed drummer set up in their traveling Viva Hysteria! Tour museum, Elliot commented, “Oh my God! It looks like Jurassic Park compared to what he is playing now!” Nothing has been able to bring the dinosaur called Def Leppard to extinction in 40 years and it certainly hasn’t been for a lack of trying.
Top Piece Video – Hysteria performed live in their Viva Las Vegas residency