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Def Leppard: To Hell & Back

They say they’re not jinxed, but the members of Def Leppard have had to endure a string of tragedies that would have destroyed most bands

Def Leppard

Def Leppard (L-R Vivian Campbell, Rick Savage, Rick Allen, Joe Elliott, Phil Collen), perform on stage at Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley, London, 20th April 1992.

Michael Putland/Getty

“Are we any more of a sob story than the Grateful Dead? Those guys have really had it bad! Talk about Spinal Tap! Twenty-six years together and three keyboard players die on ’em.”

An exasperated Joe Elliott is discussing, and wearily denying for the umpteenth time, the existence of what he calls in a mock-horror-flick voice “the Curse of the Leppards,” the apparent pox of bad luck ‘n’ trouble that has dogged his band for nearly 10 years. The evidence is grimly convincing – drummer Rick Allen left with only one arm after an auto accident on New Year’s Eve, 1984; guitarist Steve Clark found dead in his London home on January 8th, 1991, from a fatal mixture of alcohol and drugs.

There have been other, less-publicized calamities, as well. Founding guitarist Pete Willis was fired for alcoholism during the sessions for the group’s 1983 breakthrough album, Pyromania. The band’s producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, was seriously injured in a car accident during the making of the star-crossed follow-up record, Hysteria, and Elliott himself was laid up with a nasty case of the mumps during the vocal overdub stage.

“Maybe we didn’t pay our dues properly,” Elliott says with a shrug, leaning back on a couch in the Los Angeles apartment he’s subletting while the Leppards are in town overseeing the final mixdown of their new album, Adrenalize. “Maybe if we’d done 10 years around the clubs, this wouldn’t be happening to us. I don’t know.

“But I don’t know if the amount of things that happen to us don’t happen to everybody else,” he adds with renewed impatience. “They just don’t get reported, because they’re not as big as we are. When Rick lost his arm, we’d sold 6 million records. When Steve died, we’d sold 15 million records. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s that many people who know that I had mumps or that Mutt had a car crash. And there’s not that many people who know that Pete Willis was ever in the band.

“They’re not band-born tragedies,” he insists. “They’re just human things. They could have happened to a milkman.”

Unlike most milkmen, the Leppards – Allen, lead singer Elliott, bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Phil Collen – can at least take comfort in their success. Life has not been easy for the band, but it has been good. Pyromania has sold 10 million copies worldwide; Hysteria, released in 1987, has globally eclipsed the 14 million sales mark. Formed in Sheffield, England, in 1977, Def Leppard is not the most prolific rock group in the world – Adrenalize is only its fifth album in 15 years together – and the only kind of headlines it seems to make are of the bad-news variety. Yet in its own low-key, catastrophe-prone way, the former teenage Wunderkind of Britain’s late-Seventies heavy-metal renaissance has struck multiplatinum with its trademark brand of soaring guitar chorales and sumptuous vocal harmonies, becoming one of the biggest-selling bands in the world while leading a monastic, studio-intensive lifestyle in its search for Hard Pop perfection.

“I’d rather be in Def Leppard than Big Audio Dynamite,” Elliott says flatly. “You go through hell, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s a big feeling of self-elevation at the thought of getting somewhere, finally achieving it. We’re prepared to go that extra yard. And sometimes you don’t know where that extra yard is, which is why it takes such a long time to get there.”

More importantly, Def Leppard is a band that in spite of all the trauma and tragedy, literally does not know when to quit. Despite the conspiracy of events over the last 10 years, the Leppards have never been in serious danger of breaking up.

“At one time or another,” says Savage, “everyone in the band has said: ‘This is nonsense. It isn’t worth it. I’m leaving.’ The one thing we’re fortunate about is that no two or more members have said it at the same time.”

Even to the disaster-hardened members of Def Leppard, the news of Steve Clark’s death came as a shock. But, Savage admits, it came as no great surprise: “Joe said to me sometime afterward that it was almost like having an elderly grandma that you know is going to die sometime, but you don’t think it’s going to be today.”

Clark was only 30 years old when he died. But he had been drinking his way to oblivion for years. The guitarist had undergone treatment for alcoholism as far back as 1982 – at the same time Willis was getting his pink slip for over-boozing. Clark had played little on Hysteria; Collen, who had replaced Willis in the band, did most of the guitar work. In September 1990, the other members of the band – already frustrated by two years of nonprogress on Adrenalize – suggested that Clark take a six-month sabbatical to get his drinking under control and his life in order. Clark died before the six months were up.

Yet it was not his death but the slow dying of his spirit that hurt the Leppards the most. The son of a Sheffield taxi driver, Clark was a seventeen-year-old guitar hotshot, equally adept at playing Vivaldi and Jimmy Page licks, when he first joined the band. He wrote some of the most memorable hooks and riffs in the Leppard canon, and his shyness offstage belied his dynamic guitar-hero behavior under the lights. But by the start of the 18-month Hysteria tour, liquor was blurring not only Clark’s vision but his ambition.

“He would begin to hate the things he loved most because he felt tied to them,” Savage says. “He was always the one who wanted to get out of the studio and on the road. But when we were in Glens Falls, New York, rehearsing for the big American tour, the one that he always wanted, he tried to smash his hand in the bathroom of his hotel room because he didn’t want to do it.

“It really drives you mad to the point of desperation,” he adds sadly. “Because he was such a nice person, you tried to protect him and look after him. It’s only after he died that I realize how much energy we spent worrying about him and trying to care for him. I kind of get the idea of what it is like for a wife or a husband to be married to an alcoholic, to have that co-dependency. Because it consumes everything you do.”

For Joe Elliott, Def Leppard effectively became a four-piece in December 1989, when Clark was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Minnesota after he was found lying in a gutter, comatose. The alcohol level in his blood was 0.59. “That didn’t mean anything to us,” Elliott says, “until they explained that 0.41 killed John Bonham.”

Elliott, along with Collen and Lange, flew to Minneapolis, where a doctor treating Clark asked each of them to write the guitarist a letter, explaining their feelings about his situation, and then to read it to him aloud. “It was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Elliott says. “It was awful. I wrote: ‘I can’t understand why you’re doing this to yourself. I also can’t understand why you’re doing it to me. You must realize you’re killing yourself.’

“I actually believe that we lost him then,” Elliott says. “Mutt turned around to me when Steve left the room, after we’d all done the letter bit, and he said, ‘He’s got dead man’s skin.’ He was right. His skin was like orange peel, that texture. He looked great other than that. He was skinny, had his cowboy boots and jeans, his hair was brilliant. But you looked close up at his face, and he looked like a guy that was dead.”

The rest of Clark’s life was a tragic alternating series of drinking binges and hospital stays. Ironically, at the same time Clark was drowning in double brandies, Rick Allen was recovering from his own battle with substance abuse and delayed psychological reactions to his physical handicap. Allen’s 1984 car accident was the result of an ill-timed high-speed argument with another driver on a winding rural road outside of Sheffield. Trying to pass the other car, Allen slammed his Corvette Stingray into overdrive, hit a sudden curve too fast and crashed into a brick wall. Allen’s left arm was severed; doctors attempted to reattach the arm, but it became infected, and they reluctantly amputated it.

“The biggest shock was when I actually came around and realized what had happened,” Allen told me just three months after the accident. “Sitting there, looking out the bloody window, looking at myself, listening to my music. That’s the thing that upset me the most at first, listening to music. I had my usual supply of tapes in the hospital. But I’d hear the drums and couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, I used to be able to do that.’

“I was never aware that they tried to put the arm back on,” Allen added. “They kept me under anesthetic the whole time. I’m glad I didn’t find out about it until later, though. That would have started me thinking – about drumming again, about being normal.”

By the summer of 1986, Allen was drumming again, playing a special customized electronic kit. But the healing, he later discovered, was far from complete. “I never went through any kind of rehabilitation,” he says now. “I automatically assumed that I could do everything on my own. A few years down the line, I realized that I could have done with more help than I gave myself.

“I never gave myself any downtime. I was constantly busy with the idea of the band. I never really gave the real me the time to get to know myself again. I spent the downtime during the making of this record trying to fix that. And that was important.

“The main thing I learned was that everything does not revolve around Def Leppard,” Allen adds, laughing. “That was a big revelation, because I always felt this weight of having to prove myself all over again with the band, to prove that I can do it. And I don’t have to do that now.” Unfortunately, Allen’s belated attempts to come to grips with the permanence of his own situation isolated him from much of Clark’s alcoholic crisis, something that Allen now regrets. “I was involved enough with my own problems, with drugs and alcohol,” he admits. “Whenever I tried to talk to Steve about his situation, he’d come back at me with ‘What about you?’ I found it difficult to get through that barrier. And the last thing I wanted to say to him was ‘I lost my arm. I got through all that. I conquered it.’ Because I wouldn’t have been honest. At that time I don’t think I really had conquered it. I almost felt like I found out about Steve a bit too late to help him in the way he deserved.”

Yet the other Leppards were prepared to carry on with Adrenalize after Clark’s death largely because of their experiences coping with Allen’s accident six years earlier. “When Steve died, we recorded the album again,” Collen says. “And we did it real quick, because we didn’t have that thing hanging over us. We just got on with it.

“And that was something we learned from Rick’s accident – not to dwell on it, not to get depressed about it. Of course, he had a great attitude: ‘OK, no left arm. So what? I’ve still got a left foot.’ We used that as a yardstick and carried on.”

The Adrenalize years have not been all tears and sweat. Joe Elliott, Rick Allen and Phil Collen all found time to get married. Collen became a first-time father, and Elliott built a recording studio at his home in Dublin; most of Adrenalize was cut there. But the time and emotion the Leppards invested in trying to save Clark from his own overindulgence – and their eventual failure – will not be soon forgotten.

“It was trying to keep something together that was rapidly falling apart,” says Elliott. “And I’m not talking about the band. I’m talking about the stability of a human being. This is human nature we’re talking about, not a career. It had nothing to do with money or music. It was about a childhood friend who had grown up to be a young man.”

Elliott pauses thoughtfully. “So many people think that when you turn 30, life’s over,” he says. “You die at 30, and life ain’t even started.”

This is our real roots,” Joe Elliott declares excitedly as he pops a cassette into his VCR. The tape is a video souvenir of his one-off performance with Rick Savage in Glam Slam, an ad hoc Seventies-cover band, at a charity concert in Dublin last Christmas. With a crew of local celebrities, including singer Maria Doyle from The Commitments and the saxophonist from Van Morrison’s road band, Elliott and Savage blasted their way through a hilariously shambolic re-creation of their childhood Top Forty: “Ballroom Blitz,” by Sweet; Mott the Hoople’s “Roll Away the Stone”; “20th Century Boy,” by T. Rex; “Dynamite,” by the British glitter-pop band Mud; and of course Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

Elliott wore a top hat with a silver lamé feather boa, Savage wore black lipstick, and they got to play David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” together for the first time since Def Leppard’s formative days in Sheffield. It was, in fact, the first song Def Leppard played at its inaugural rehearsal in November 1977. “For 45 minutes,” Elliott says as he watches the Glam Slam video, “I was everybody I ever wanted to be.”

Def Leppard originally made its name in 1979 as cherub-faced heirs (average age: 18) to the British heavy-metal throne, bringing brattish energy and a spirit of independent enterprise to a genre suffering from a surfeit of musical clichés and middle-aged superstars. The Leppards’ debut EP, Def Leppard, issued in January of that year on their own Bludgeon Riffola label, was a bracing amalgam of their most obvious influences – Rush, UFO, Thin Lizzy and, to a lesser degree, Led Zeppelin. But the surprising emphasis on melody and vocal interplay betrayed their less apparent but equally crucial love for Seventies British pop, a romance heard in full flower on Adrenalize, particularly in the Gary Glitter-style boot-heel stomper “Let’s Get Rocked” and the Sweet-Queen thrills of “Heaven Is” and “Stand Up.”

“We didn’t like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal tag,” Elliott insists. “We resented it, and we still do to a point. You look at Iron Maiden, Samson, Angelwytch, Tygers of Pan Tang, and we didn’t sound like any of them. They sounded like they’d been listening to Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ and Black Sabbath IV. We sounded like we were listening to Queen II.” Actually, Elliott didn’t buy his first Black Sabbath record until three years ago.

“It was pop with guitars,” says Savage of the Leppards’ teenage glitter diet. “I was still listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. But they didn’t have the melodies the glam bands had. Yet the glam bands still had the guitars. Very much like we do. We’re just making it more of a Nineties thing. It’s guitars, but not just guitars. It’s guitars and melodies.”

“And judging by the number of records we sell,” Elliott says emphatically, “people are hungry for it.”

The members of Def Leppard were barely out of their teens (Rick Allen was still only 19) when their third album, Pyromania, went into platinum-sales overdrive in 1983. Yet Elliott, now 32, claims that he was pleased but hardly shocked by the album’s meteoric success: “From the day I first saw Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ And in a while, we were doing that, playing little clubs for 15 pounds a night. And then we did the EP – because we didn’t want to do the clubs the rest of our lives.

“That’s the way it’s always been,” Elliott says. “We’ve always put a lot of hard work into everything we’ve done. So when Pyromania did take off, even though we were still young and hadn’t paid our dues like John Lee Hooker, we had worked hard in our own way as far as we were concerned.”

They don’t always learn from their labors. Def Leppard spent almost four years and $5 million recording (and twice re-recording) Hysteria and then toured behind the record for almost a year and a half. Nevertheless, when they came off the road in late 1988, the Leppards went right back to work on a new album after only three weeks’ break – in the very same studio in rural Holland where they’d just finished sweating blood over Hysteria. The band even had two Hysteria leftovers ripe for retooling: “Tear It Down,” an atomic rocker first issued as the B side of “Women,” and the power ballad “Tonight,” which in its original form had been a prototype for the smash single “Love Bites.” “It was the slave-driver attitude,” says Elliott. ” ‘ We’ve got to make a record quicker than the last one.’ ”

In fact, it was “the worst case of déjà vu,” in Phil Collen’s words. “I remember sitting in this room for 15 hours, playing this one guitar riff over and over again. The other guys just stood outside. They thought I was mad.” Of the eight weeks they booked at the studio, the Leppards only used six, and they didn’t finish a single song. For a change of scenery, the band moved to a studio in Amsterdam; after six months’ work, the only things it had on tape worth keeping were Collen’s guitar solos on “Tear It Down” and “Tonight.”

Savage contends that Def Leppard’s slow-motion work habits are not a superstar indulgence: “I’m sure when we spend two and a half years in the studio, people think, ‘Well, they did a couple hours every day and took weeks off.’ But when we did this album – I’m not lying – there was one of us in the studio every day for 12 hours a day. We only took weekends off.” Which was a minor luxury in itself; when they made Hysteria, the band members worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week.

Elliott makes no apologies for the Leppards’ bizarre recording history. Nor is he bitter about the hard knocks they’ve taken along the way. “We’ve had a lot of stressful things happen to us,” he says. “But what are we going to do? Go back to work in a factory? I’d go through it all again, apart from Steve dying and Rick losing his arm – the two main things,” he adds with an uneasy laugh. “We knew it wasn’t going to be all bimbos and limos. We knew there was a lot of hard work to be done.

“One of the greatest qualities in this band is willpower, much more than talent. It’s not really brawn over brains by any means. But some people won’t sing a top C, because it’s hard. I say: ‘I don’t care if I get a headache. If the song demands a top C, I’ll do it, because the melody is more important.’ I do it until I get it right. And if you practice long enough, you get there in the end.”

For Savage, though, Def Leppard’s success has come with at least one irrecoupable cost. “When we went in to record Pyromania, in April 1982, I was 21. I’m 31 now.” Between the highs and hells of making the Leppards’ last three albums, he says with a wistful sigh, “I missed my twenties. I missed that whole period of growing up.”

Everything we do is an event,” Says Joe Elliott, fierce pride glittering in his striking almond-shaped eyes. “The album is an event. The tour is an event. Because it’s been four years since we’ve been out there.

“And I don’t mind,” he insists. “Because everything the Rolling Stones do is an event. Even us getting into a rehearsal room is an event.”

That is no exaggeration. Today’s Def Leppard practice session at Mate’s, a small rehearsal facility tucked away in a pocket of low-lying industrial buildings in Burbank, California, is one of the few times since October 1988 that Elliott, Collen, Savage and Allen have all played together in the same room. The first time was just a week ago, when they commenced auditions for a second guitarist to replace Clark.

But this session is real history – and hysteria (so to speak) – in the making, because Def Leppard is going into virgin territory: It’s going to jam. The band decides to have a crack at Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to give guitar candidate Hewey Lucas, a talented young unknown from Birmingham, England, a chance to flash his solo chops. “We are definitely not God’s gift to jammers,” Allen says later, “because we spend so much time in the studio producing and reproducing our records.”

It shows. “Rock and Roll,” a heavy-metal jamming standard, sounds like a train wreck in the Leppards’ hands, the guitars and rhythm section hammering away out of sync and the whole song finally ending with a couple of bantamweight power chords. When co-manager Cliff Burnstein, one of a handful of observers in the room, exits to make a phone call, Elliott remarks wryly, “There’s only three people in the audience – and one of them has left.” The Leppards then proceed to make guitar goulash out of “Honky Tonk Women”; nobody knows what key it’s in. They fare a little better with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” with Elliott doing his best Bon Scott screech, although Collen has to show Lucas the chord changes as they go along. “God, I hope nobody was next door listening,” Allen cackles afterward. “What a sorry bunch.”

Later in the day, the band gamely tries again with another guitar hopeful, 29-year-old Vivian Campbell, an accomplished Belfast-born arena-rock vet who’s done time with Ronnie James Dio and Whitesnake. For the jam number, Campbell suggests “The Rocker,” by Thin Lizzy, an astute choice since the Lizzies’ twin-guitar blitz was a seminal influence on the young Leppards. Elliott knows the words, too, but Campbell has to teach Collen the chords, and the group hits the abort switch halfway through the second verse. It turns out this is the first time Def Leppard, as a band, has ever played these songs.

“If we were all in a bar and we wanted to get up and have a jam, we’d have to play a Def Leppard song,” Savage says the next day. “We don’t really know many other songs. We’d feel more comfortable playing our own songs than anyone else’s, because we’re so blinkered from making these records.”

“The point is that there’s no point in us rehearsing if we don’t have a record that’s good enough to go out and try and emulate,” Elliott counters. “We are a better band for spending all that time in the studio. We’re better musicians for it, and when we’ve made such a great record, we can’t just go out and slapdash a tour – two days’ rehearsal and off we go. We have to be great.”

When you consider its work methods, it’s easy to forget that Def Leppard is a rock & roll band, not an anal-retentive cabal of studio fiends obsessed with the minutiae-driven production style of Mutt Lange, its longtime Svengali. Hearing the Leppards live at Mate’s with Lucas and Campbell, kicking life back into hits like the glam-pop gem “Animal” and the brisk bubblegum march “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” confirms that their Dr. Frankenstein approach to recording has not sucked the spunk out of their sing-along thunder. The stage muscle that made Def Leppard the toast of the British hard-rock community in 1979-80 is still there, jazzed up with the diligent songcraft and meticulous harmonizing that has long distinguished it from run-of-the-mill riff merchants. Too bad the fans only get to see and hear it in the flesh every four or five years.

“The reason everybody got into the band was purely to play,” Allen says. “It kept us off the street corners and out of trouble when we were youngsters. It was more fun, a lot more satisfying, to be involved with a band than anything else I could think of.

“All I ever wanted to do was play,” he says, rolling his eyes skyward in feigned resignation. “I guess I picked the wrong band.”

Two days after that milestone jam session, Def Leppard picks its new second guitarist: Vivian Campbell. In retrospect, he’s an obvious choice – a fine guitarist with solid touring experience and the vocal chops to step right into the Leppards’ trademark boys’-choir harmonies. He’s also a graduate, like the Leppards, of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal; his old band, Sweet Savage, achieved minor notoriety with a song called “Killing Time,” recently covered by Metallica as a B side. And although he’s not British, Campbell – who now lives in L.A. – is a native of Northern Ireland, which, sectarian strife notwithstanding, is close enough.

But the Leppards make decisions the way they make records – the long, hard way. It takes several hours’ worth of meetings over those two days for the band to make up its mind. During one powwow after Campbell’s audition-jam at Mate’s, the Leppards debate the guitarist’s merits for more than two hours with no results.

“If you thought that was bad,” Savage says later, chuckling, “we have had some band meetings on far more trivial matters that went on for hours and hours, to the point where I mentally would just leave the meeting. I would sit back and let my mind wander. I would come back, and they would still be talking about the same thing.

“A good one was the album title. I wanted to call the album Dementia. I liked the idea of having a trilogy of albums ending with ia. Phil thought it was cool but wondered if it was a little contrived, like we were running out of good ia-sounding words. Joe hated it with a passion. After two and a half hours of discussion, he was so pissed off that we were still talking about this one word that he just turned around and said, ‘Well, as far as I’m concerned, you might as well call the album Bob!’ ”

There was considerable discussion just about the basic notion of recruiting a new guitarist to replace Steve Clark. The Leppards recorded Adrenalize as a quartet, and for a time Phil Collen wanted it to stay that way. “I thought it was in good Def Leppard tradition to carry on as a four-piece,” he says.

“We thought he was round the bend,” Elliott says. “It’s a five-piece band; that’s what we’ve always been. We need to challenge each other. Two guitar players will push each other, and that will be a positive thing for the band. When Phil came in, he absolutely challenged Steve Clark. I’d like to think that can happen again.”

At what pace? Elliott has already done some calculating about Def Leppard’s immediate future, and the results are all too predictable. “If Adrenalize is still selling at the beginning of 1993, we’re still going to be touring for a lot of that year,” he says. “So we won’t be in a position to start thinking about a new record until the fall of 1993. We’ll want to take some time off. Then we start writing at the beginning of 1994. If we’re lucky, we can have an album out by the end of 1995.”

That’s more than three and a half years from now. Still, the Leppards live in hope. When asked what he’d like Def Leppard to be doing five years from now, Savage can’t help breaking into a grin.

“The same thing,” he replies. “But quicker.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Def Leppard

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