In the beginning a chart-breaking debut album, tours with more established heavy-metal bands, and pinup good looks made Def Leppard one of the leaders of the '80s British heavy-metal renaissance. The members, barely out of their teens when their first album debuted, soon became one of the most consistently successful pop-metal groups of the decade and beyond, becoming, as one Goldmine article put it, "The Heavy Metal Band You Can Bring Home to Mother."
Pete Willis and Rick Savage started the group in Sheffield in 1977. Joe Elliott had coined the name Deaf Leopard before joining them; Willis and Savage changed the spelling. As a quartet with a since-forgotten drummer, Def Leppard built a local pub following, and in 1978, after being joined by Steve Clark and hiring a temporary drummer, the group produced its first record, an EP called Getcha Rocks Off, released on its own Bludgeon Riffola label. The record got airplay on the BBC and sold 24,000 copies.
The members' self-made success and precociousness (Elliott, the group's eldest member, was 19, and Rick Allen, who became their permanent drummer after playing with several professional Sheffield bands, was 15) brought them the attention of the British rock press. AC/DC manager Peter Mensch added them to his roster and got them a contract with Mercury. Their first album was a hit in the U.K. and reached #51 in the U.S. The group toured Britain with Sammy Hagar and AC/DC, played the 1980 Reading Festival, and first toured the U.S. opening for Ted Nugent, Pat Travers, Judas Priest, and AC/DC. A second U.S. tour, with Blackfoot, Ozzy Osbourne, and Rainbow, coupled with heavy coverage in the U.S. metal press, created a growing American audience.
The group's second album, High 'n' Dry was the first of a string of platinum and multiplatinum LPs, hitting #38 in 1981 and selling over 2 million copies. (It was remixed and rereleased in 1984 with two more tracks, a remixed "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" and "Me and My Wine.") By early 1982 the group had reentered the studio to record Pyromania, which would eventually sell a phenomenal 10 million copies. Midway through the recording, founding guitarist Pete Willis was fired for alcoholism and replaced by Phil Collen, formerly of Girl. At the same time co-lead guitarist Steve Clark was beginning a slide into the extreme alcohol addiction that would eventually kill him.
Shortly after Pyromania's release, the band embarked on its first world tour. MTV, undeniably a factor in the band's U.S. success, began airing "Bringin' on the Heartbreak," and within the next few years virtually all the band's videos (beginning with Pyromania's "Rock of Ages," "Photograph," and "Foolin'") would go into heavy rotation. When producer Mutt Lange, with whom the group had recorded since its major-label debut, was unavailable to work on their next album, Def Leppard turned to Jim Steinman, most famous for his work with Meat Loaf. When Steinman proved incompatible, High 'n' Dry engineer Nigel Green stepped in. Just one month later, drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a New Year's Eve car accident after he attempted to pass another driver at high speed. Surgeons reattached the limb, but after infection set in, it was amputated. Def Leppard's future was in doubt, but by the spring of 1985 Allen was learning to play drums again with the help of a specially adapted Simmons kit. (For a while he performed with special electronic equipment, using prerecorded tapes of his drumming for some parts, then returned to a regular acoustic kit with customized foot pads in 1995.) The band continued recording, but when Lange heard the tapes, he suggested the band scrap them and start again. In August 1986 Allen performed for the first time since his accident on the European Monsters of Rock Tour.
In early 1987 the band finally completed work on the long-awaited Hysteria, which spun off six Top 20 singles: "Animal" (#19, 1987; and their first Top 40 hit in the U.K.), "Hysteria" (#10, 1988), "Pour Some Sugar on Me" (#2, 1988), "Love Bites" (#1, 1988), "Armageddon It" (#3, 1988), and "Rocket" (#12, 1989). Though longtime fans and some critics found it disappointingly poppish, on the verge of bubblegum, that change in direction no doubt contributed to it selling over 16 million copies worldwide and topping the U.S. LPs chart for six weeks.
Tragedy struck the group again when on January 8, 1991, guitarist Steve Clark died of a fatal mixture of drugs and alcohol. Beginning in 1982, he had undergone treatment for his alcoholism several times. His addiction was so disabling that Phil Collen had done most of the leads on Hysteria, and later the group forced Clark to take a lengthy sabbatical. Once in 1989, after being found comatose in a gutter, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but he seemed beyond help. The group continued recording and even made the video for "Let's Get Rocked" as a foursome.
Clark's replacement, Vivian Campbell, who had previously played with Ronnie James Dio and Whitesnake, joined in 1992, weeks after the release of Adrenalize. Another #1 LP, Adrenalize spawned a flurry of hit singles: "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad" (#12, 1992), "Let's Get Rocked" (#15, 1992), "Make Love Like a Man" (#36, 1992), and "Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)" (#34, 1992). Retro Active (#9, 1993), a platinum collection of B sides, rarities, and covers, yielded the hit singles "Two Steps Behind" (#32, 1994) (also on the Last Action Hero soundtrack) and "Miss You in a Heartbeat" (#39, 1994). The album also included one Mick Ronson song, "Only After Dark." As the band wanted to explore new directions on its next studio album, it decided to release a greatest-hits collection before embarking on the next stage of its career; Vault (#15, 1995) went on to sell close to 2 million copies. Unfortunately its successor, Slang, which added industrial and even touches of soul to the musical mix, did not fare as well and peaked at #14. The band retreated to its classic '80s pop-metal style on Euphoria (#11, 1999).
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).