Def Leppard - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Over their more than 30 years of existence, Def Leppard have evolved from a fairly standard heavy metal band into a million selling pop-metal outfit that ruled the airwaves during their 1980s heyday. Though the band will probably be forever associated with that decade, they have continued on as a musical unit, even through circumstances that would have stopped just about any other band.
All of the members of Def Leppard grew up in the industrial northern English city of Sheffield. Original members (bassist Rick Savage, guitarist Pete Willis and drummer Tony Kenning) met each other while attending the Tapton School. Formed in 1977 and originally called Atomic Mass, the three soon met aspiring guitarist Joe Elliot. Once in the band, he suggested that they change their name to Deaf Leopard. The new band were defiantly heavy metal and Kenning thought that Deaf Leopard looked and sounded like the name of a punk band. Most likely in homage to Led Zeppelin, Kenning suggested the band keep the name but change its spelling to Def Leppard. Though Elliot originally joined the band as a guitarist, it soon became clear that he should be the lead vocalist. They also added guitarist Steve Clark as a second guitarist. The group were all still in their teens when they began gigging in the Sheffield area and soon built up a sizable local following.
They made plans to record a few of their songs for a self-released EP, but just before they entered the studio, Kenning left the band. The group enlisted drummer Frank Noon to play on the sessions that would produce their first release, the Def Leppard EP, released on their own Bludgeon-Riffola label in early 1979. The group financed the initial run of 1000 copies of the EP with a loan from Elliot’s father and Elliot made copies of the lyric sheet on the copier at his work. He and his mother hand-glued all of the sleeves together at home. The group sold the record for one pound at their gigs, and gave them out to anyone who could help publicize the band. One of those people who received a free single was the influential BBC DJ John Peel and he obliged the band by playing the single on his show. Because of the national exposure, the EP began to sell and eventually made it to #84 on the British singles chart.
Just after the band recorded the EP, Noon returned to his regular band, The Next Band, and the group recruited 15-year old wunderkind drummer Rick Allen. Through regular gigging, the group became a favorite of young, British heavy metal fans. For a while they were even considered to be at the forefront of a movement that came to be called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Soon the major labels were expressing interest in the young band, and they signed with Phonogram/Vertigo Records (and Mercury Records in the US) in late 1979.
Phonogram sent Def Leppard into the studio almost straightaway and their debut album, On through the Night (Mercury), was released in mid-1980. Though the band had been popular in Britain, their record company insisted on sending them to the US to open for such bands as AC/DC and Ted Nugent. When they returned to Britain later in the year, many of their fans had turned against them, going so far as to pelt the band with garbage when they appeared at the annual Reading Festival that summer. The band were generally not happy with how the album came out so when AC/DC’s producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, contacted them about producing their next album, they jumped at the chance.
With Lange they recorded High ‘n’ Dry (1981 Mercury). Due to his ear and superior production skills, as well as the band’s maturation as songwriters, the album was a critical, if not commercial, success. Even though the album didn’t initially sell well, the template was set for what the band would sound like for most of the rest of their career, a combination of crunching metal guitars with massed vocal harmonies and big production values. The group’s video for the song “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” became one of MTV’s early favorites and helped increase the band’s exposure in the US. After touring through America and Europe, the band was having increasing problems with guitarist Pete Willis’ drinking problem and he was fired from the band in July of 1982.
The group had started work on their third album with Lange again producing. They hired Girl’s former guitarist, Phil Collen, to take over Willis’ spot in the band. Both Willis and Collen ended up contributing parts to what would become Pyromania (Phonogram/Mercury), released in January of 1983. Though the band had tasted some success before, it was nothing on the scale of the success they would find with Pyromania. Fueled by the strength of the first single and video “Photograph,” ( the video would knock Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” out of the most-requested slot on MTV). Pyromania went on to spawn two more hit singles and videos with “Foolin’” and “Rock of Ages.” The record went on to sell an astounding six million copies in 1983 alone. The group toured relentlessly in the US, quickly graduating from opening slots to headlining stadiums by the end of the year. The group was enormously popular in America but the album failed to catch fire in their native UK, a situation that bothered the band a great deal.
It seemed in many ways that Def Leppard was on top of the world as 1983 turned into 1984. The group decamped to Ireland to record their next album. Originally Lange was supposed to again produce but he dropped out while the band was writing songs due to exhaustion. Jim Steinman, who had helmed Meat Loaf’s acclaimed Bat out of Hell album, was brought in as Lange’s replacement. The band spent most of the year recording a new album but was waylaid further when tragedy struck on December 31st. Rick Allen, the group’s drummer, was involved in a car wreck near his home in Sheffield that cost him his left arm. Even though this could have easily meant the end of the band or at the very least the end of Allen’s career as a drummer, Allen vowed to rejoin the band. The band stuck together behind Allen and decided not to replace him. Allen figured out that he could play some of the parts he used to play with his left hand with his feet, using a special electronic kit designed for him by the electronic drum company, Simmons. Allen and the band made an emotional return to the stage at the 1986 Donington Monsters of Rock festival in England.
They finished work on their new album with Lange on board again as producer. Hysteria (Phonogram/Mercury) was finally released in August of 1987 and the group enjoyed their first real taste of success in their home country when the album debuted at #1. The album was more of a slow-building success in the US, but eventually spawned an incredible seven singles that spent time in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, becoming only the third album in history to earn that distinction. Hysteria went on to sell a mind-bending 18 million copies worldwide and stayed on the Billboard charts for three years. The group toured around the world for 15 months promoting the album, often playing “in the round” – that is, placing themselves on a circular stage in the middle of the arena with the audience all around them. At the end of the ‘80s it was calculated that Def Leppard had sold more records in the US than any other band, with the exception of Van Halen.
Wanting to avoid the massive delays that went into the making of Hysteria, the group got right to work on their next album after they returned from the road. During initial sessions for the album, however, it became clear that guitarist Steve Clark’s alcohol problem was worsening to the point of his not being able to contribute to the band. Rather than firing him, he was granted a six month’s leave of absence to get his life back together. Unfortunately and tragically, Clark died from an accidental mix of alcohol and prescription drugs in early 1991.
Rather than replace Clark, the group soldiered on as a four-piece in the studio, with Collen playing the parts that were originally meant for Clark. This time the group produced the album themselves with Mike Shipley, though Lange served as executive producer of the sessions. The resulting album, Adrenalize (Mercury), was released in March of 1992. Even though it was released in the thick of the grunge explosion, the album debuted at #1 in both the US and UK, selling over 7 million copies worldwide. The group realized they needed another guitarist to replace Clark in both their live and studio work and asked former Whitesnake and Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell to join the band in April of 1992.
The group again embarked on another successful world tour, but taste in the hard rock and heavy metal world was starting to divert away from the formula that Def Leppard had perfected over the years. The group released a collection of unreleased tracks and B-sides collected from the years 1984 through 1993 titled Retro Active (Mercury) in late 1993. They followed that release up two years later with the hits collection, Vault: Def Leppard Greatest Hits (1980-1995) (Phonogram/Mercury), which included the new track, “When Love & Hate Collide,” a #2 hit single in the UK.
Def Leppard paid heed to the changing musical climate around them and also dug deeper into aspects of their own lives for their next release, 1996's Slang (Mercury). In between the release of Retro Active and Slang, the members of Def Leppard had to deal with many problems in their personal lives; both Allen and Elliot were arrested for spousal abuse, Collen got divorced from his wife, and Savage had to deal with the death of his father and a battle with Bell's palsy. The resulting album was darker in its themes and much more stripped down musically. The group recorded most of the tracks all together in a room as a band, something they had not done in many years. Though the album didn't do very well in the US, the band scored 4 hit singles in the UK and the album performed better in other parts of the world as well. The group followed up the album release with another world tour, this time visiting some places they had never toured before, such as South America, South Africa and Southeast Asia.
Def Leppard's profile was once again raised slightly in the US in 1998 when they were featured as one of the first bands profiled on VH1's documentary music show, Behind the Music. Because of the show, the band received lots of feedback from old and new fans, wanting the band to return to its pop-metal sound. Heeding the wishes of their public, the band again got “Mutt” Lange to produce their next album, 1999's Euphoria (Mercury) Though the album didn't sell in the range of Hysteria, it was a bigger success than Slang and went gold in both the US and Canada.
Def Leppard entered the new century assured of an audience and veered even farther towards pure pop on their next album, X (Universal), released in 2002. Though the album leaned heavily on the power ballads the group had become known for, the album failed to sell well, becoming the band's least successful album to date. The band toured in support of the album and the tour ended up being more successful than the record itself. X was followed by another greatest hits collection, Rock of Ages – the Definitive Collection (Mercury) in 2005.
Before Def Leppard formed, all of the future members had been music enthusiasts. Elliot had been an ardent follower of Mott the Hoople and T. Rex. In 2006, the band decided to pay tribute to some of their favorite bands and songs by releasing the covers-only album Yeah! (Mercury). The band covered favorites from their childhoods by the likes of The Sweet, ELO, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Thin Lizzy and T. Rex, to name a few. The band toured again across the U.S. and Canada.
Def Leppard returned to the studio to craft another album, 2008's Songs from the Sparkle Lounge (Mercury). The new album is a return to Def Leppard's more rocking sound circa Hysteria, though the sound is more natural and not quite as “produced” sounding as that record. The group again embarked on another world tour to support the album, playing shows with such other ‘70s and '80s stalwarts as Whitesnake, Styx and REO Speedwagon.