DEF LEPPARD (1978–PRESENT). Joe Elliott (vocals), Phil Collen (guitar), Vivian Campbell (guitar), Rick Savage (bass), Rick Allen (drums).
Along with Bon Jovi, Def Leppard were the quintessential rock band of the 1980s. Emerging initially as part of the New Wave of British heavy metal, and with roots in glam metal, the band eventually traded in their more aggressive AC/DC-influenced sound for a more polished, pop-informed sound. This is somewhat ironic since the polish came largely from their association with uber-producer Mutt Lange, who was perhaps best known for his work with AC/DC. The band ultimately became one of the most successful hard rock bands of the era, selling over 65 million records worldwide.
The band first came together as students of the Tapton School in Sheffield, England, when bassist Rick Savage, guitarist Pete Willis, and drummer Tony Kenning started a band in 1977 called Atomic Mass. Vocalist Joe Elliot auditioned as a guitarist for the band but had soon taken over lead vocal duties. It was Elliot who contributed the name Deaf Leopard, which was soon given its well-known misspelling, Def Leppard. After adding second guitarist Steve Clark in 1978, the band worked on developing their sound. By the time they recorded their debut threesong EP, drummer Kenning had left, to be replaced by fifteen-year-old Rick Allen.
Leppard’s burgeoning career got off to a good start when the song “Rocks Off” was played extensively on BBC radio. In addition, the band began to develop a British following by playing the club scene, eventually gaining the attention of AC/DC manager Peter Mensch, who took them on, helping to secure a recording contract with Phonogram/Mercury records. The band’s first album, On Through the Night, was released in March of 1980 and helped to establish their individual style, which was as rooted in the glam rock of Mott the Hoople and T-Rex as it was in the hard rock of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. The album helped to solidify the band’s following and to establish them as one of the foremost bands of what became known as the New Wave of British heavy metal.
At the beginning, however, the band’s aims at superstardom were off-putting to some British fans, who saw the track “Hello America” and the band’s subsequent American touring priorities as offensive. And this displeasure marred their performance at the Reading Festival in the summer of 1980 when audience members pelted the band with garbage and verbal insults. Such unpleasantries notwithstanding, however, the band was off to a running start and the album charted in the top 15 of the UK charts.
Before long the band had attracted the attention of producer Mutt Lange, who had recently helped AC/DC to superstar status with their Back in Black album. Working with Lange on their second album, High ‘N’ Dry, Def Leppard was able to realize their vision for the band, and Lange’s meticulous attention to detail helped them to craft an album that gave their rock-style power a more precise and radio-ready polish. Released in July of 1981, High ‘N’ Dry also benefited from the presence of the new music channel MTV, and their video for “Bringin’ on the Heartache” was one of the first metal videos aired and was given heavy rotation. The band also toured heavily, winning opening slots on tours with Ozzy Osbourne and Blackfoot.
Going into the studio to follow up on the success of High ‘N’ Dry, the band faced the unpleasant task of firing founding guitarist Pete Willis, whose excessive drinking was affecting his performance (Berelian). Guitarist Phil Collen, formerly of the band Girl, stepped in to take his place.
With 1983’s Pyromania (and with the help of producer Lange), the band’s formula of strong, hook-laden songs with larger-than-life production hit its stride. And with help again from MTV, the band became worldwide superstars and their songs became ubiquitous on the radio. “Photograph” was the album’s first single and became the most requested video on MTV. The song also dominated the U.S. rock charts for six weeks, and crossed over to the pop charts rising as high as number 12. It was followed by the singles “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin’,” which ultimately helped the album to sell six million copies in 1983 alone.
In preparation for Pyromania’s follow-up, Def Leppard relocated to Dublin (for tax purposes) and began working again with Mutt Lange. However, the overworked Lange backed out of songwriting sessions due to exhaustion, and songwriter/ producer Jim Steinman (of Meatloaf fame) was temporarily brought in to help out. Toward the end of the year, the band faced its most trying moment when drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm when his Corvette hit a stone wall at a high rate of speed. During Allen’s recovery, he was determined to try to continue drumming and practiced using his right hand, combining it with his feet. Ultimately, the rest of the band supported his efforts, and Allen contracted the Simmons electronic drum company to customize an electronic kit for him. When the band went back on tour, drummer Jeff Rich was initially hired to augment Allen, but was soon let go since Allen proved able to handle the job on his own.
Shortly after Allen’s recovery Lange returned and the band resumed work on Pyromania’s follow-up. Hysteria was finally released in August of 1987. The album proved a blockbuster for the band, and ultimately produced a record seven singles that made it into the U.S. singles charts. Led by the singles “Animal,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Armageddon It,” the album ended up selling
over 18 million copies. Def Leppard also embarked on a hugely successful 15-month tour and cemented their position as the most commercially successful rock band of the era.
After the success of Hysteria, the band began work on their fifth album. Tragically, however, guitarist Steve Clark, who had been on leave from the band to deal with issues related to his alcoholism, died when he accidentally mixed alcohol and prescription drugs.
Instead of replacing the guitarist, the band resolved to complete the album as a four-piece. The resulting album, Adrenalize, despite debuting at number 1 and featuring a number of hit singles, ultimately failed to generate the sales or excitement of its predecessors. Prior to touring for the album, ex-Dio and Whitesnake guitarist Vivian Campbell was added to the fold.
In something of a concession to popular tastes, the band issued Slang in 1996, which featured a sparer sound and alternative rock feel. But despite generally positive critical reviews of the album, it failed to attract many new fans while somewhat alienating their old fans.
1999’s Euphoria marked a return to their previous arena rock style and to commercial success, albeit on a more moderate level. Several successful albums have followed. Like Bon Jovi, even after the emergence of grunge and alternative rock signaled changes in the public’s taste, Def Leppard’s fan base has been so large and loyal that they have been able to sustain their career even as their album sales have decreased from their eighties peak.
Discography: On Through the Night (Mercury, 1980); High ‘N’ Dry (Mercury, 1981); Pyromania (Mercury, 1983); Hysteria (Mercury, 1987); Adrenalize (Mercury, 1992); Slang (Mercury, 1996); Euphoria (Mercury, 1999); X (Universal, 2002); Yeah! (Bludgeon Riffola/ Island, 2006); Songs from the Sparkle Lounge (Bludgeon Riffola/Island, 2008).