I first caught wind of Def Leppard back in 1978. There was a local record store (anyone old enough to remember those?) who stocked all sorts of great stuff from the burgoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. Yes, believe it or not, Leppard was once considered a metal band, and before Iron Maiden eventually took the title, Lep was the leader of the NWOBHM movement.
I bought both their early demos which featured tracks like “Getcha Rocks Off” and Overture”, and salivated for the release of their debut On Through The Night, which landed in March 1980.
At the time the band recorded the demos and debut album, they were all in their teens. Drummer Rick Allen was only 15 when he joined the band, and was the last addition to their official line-up which featured vocalist Joe Elliott, bassist Rick Savage and guitarists Pete Willis and Steve Clark.
To this day, On Through The Night stands as my favorite Def Leppard album, though sadly, the band, and Elliott in particular are dismissive of it in its entirety. Its raw and youthful freshness is still powerful today. The song “Wasted” is still a classic anthem with a signature guitar riff. Still you won’t find this album represetend by the band live or in hits packages or the new live CD.
In 1981 the band would release their first album produced by legendary Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, who produced many of AC/DC’s great records among others. High and Dry would become, at least in the band’s eyes, their debut album, and the beginning of their trademark sound. It would also launch the band’s first hit “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” and be the last record with founding guitarist Willis who would be booted from the band due to excessive drinking. He also wasn’t much of a guitarist.
Willis was replaced by Girl guitarist Phil Collen. As a side note, his former singer in Girl, Phil Lewis went on to front Los Angeles glam-metal band, L.A. Guns. Bassist Simon Laffy is also in Phil’s current side project Man Raze. Collen wazsted no time in staking his place in the band bringing an inspired an unique guitar style that complimented Clark’s. The 1983 release of Pyromania would showcase Collen’s playing, notably on the debut single/video for “Photograph”.
This would begin Def Leppard’s ownership of the radio airwaves for much of the 80′s. They became a household name almost instantly. And while it took four long years for their 1987 follow up, Hysteria, the wait proved worth it as the album has gone 12 times platinum selling more than 20 million copies. The record was a veritable hit machine, and still considered the band’s seminal album.
The reason’s for the delay included Allen’s car accident and subsequent loss of an arm, multiple changes in producers (including Mutt Lange and Meatloaf writer/producer Jim Steinman), and almost the entire album scrapped and started from scratch. Rick Allen’s tale alone is inspirational, building a drum kit which he could play primarily with foot pedals and a lone arm. His accident however, would not be the band’s only tragedy as troubled guitarist Steve Clark would die from a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs in 1991. The band would record their Adrenalize album as a four piece, prior to the addition of Dio/Whitesnake guitarist Viv Campbell in 1992. This is the line-up that has existed for near 20 years.
Despite changes in the musical climate of hard rock and pop culture, Def Leppard have remained popular and relevent. From their experimental Slang album, to the under-appreciated Euphoria and X, to last month’s release of their first ever live album, Mirror Ball. The band even crossed over the aisle reaching out to country artsist Tim McGraw with whom they recorded and co-wrote their 2008 hit “Nine Lives” with, and Taylor Swift whom they performed live with on CMT’s famed Crossroads program.
This year, aside from their live album, the band played the monster Download Festival, and will be coming stateside for a tour with Heart. Phil Collen’s band Man Raze will release their new CD this summer, and he and Campbell both recorded a guitar based lullaby album of classic Leppard tunes, for babies. Joe Elliott is still keeping busy with his side project Down ‘N Outz.
Rock and roll’s light alloy boys have made a name for themselves a hundred times over, and while they could easily be Mojo Radio’s Artist of the Year, we’ll give them July 2011.