Def Leppard started out as a bunch of talented, naive but ambitious, English northerners and ended up as the rockers who almost single-handedly sparked off the 'hair metal' craze that, for better or worse, rocked the world (and particularly the US) in the 1980s. Eventually, however, these guys had it all: the famed angular logo, the macho posing, the 'bludgeon riffola' trademark guitar sound, the mullet hairstyle, the excess, the Lear jet... the one-armed drummer.
Sheffield, England, saw the formation in 1977 of a schoolboy group, Atomic Mass, with Pete Willis on guitar, Rick Savage on bass and Tony Kenning on drums. They soon recruited ambitious singer Joe Elliott, who renamed them 'Deaf Leopard', though Kenning soon changed that. The band to this day have consistently denied that Led Zeppelin had any influence on how their name is (mis)spelled. The band went on to recruit another guitarist, the classically-trained Steve Clark, to complement the tight riffer, Willis.
Getcha Rocks Off
The band lay about writing and rehearsing songs in an old spoon factory, eventually going out and playing a few gigs in 1978 when the restless Clark threatened to quit. Soon enough the band acquired a steady local following to rival that of 'southern' metallers like Iron Maiden. Kenning soon left the band to spend more time with his girlfriend, and Frank Noon temporarily joined them for the independent recording of their first EP, Getcha Rocks Off, inspired by Maiden having released their own The Soundhouse Tapes earlier that year. 15-year old prodigious schoolboy Rick Allen, with both arms then intact, would soon take his place.
Getcha Rocks Off got noticed, got a bit of airplay, and soon enough the band was enjoying modest levels of success. Def Leppard always aimed to reach a wider audience than just dirty headbangers, and that meant appealing to the girls as much as they did to the guys. The harmonies in the backing vocals and the band's youthful good looks and polished dress sense certainly did them no harm in this regard. The band drew its inspiration as much from the 1970s glam scene as from the crop of metal at the time. Soon, Def Leppard were heralded as the band to forefront the 'New Wave of British Heavy Metal', along with Iron Maiden, Samson, Saxon and a host of other acts. Of these, the friendly rivals, Leppard and Maiden, would prove to be the most enduring.
The band soon secured a major record deal and embarked on a successful US tour, putting out their first album On Through The Night, and two hit singles in 'Wasted' and 'Hello America'. The band distance themselves from this Tom Allom-produced first effort now, but the crunch of the riffs and the harmonies give a good indication of the direction the band were heading in. However, the British metal press decided it didn't like the direction the Leps were taking and proceeded to heavily criticise the band, which resulted in the them being canned at their appearance at the Reading Festival in 1980.
Things Looking Up
Licking their wounds, the band set about recording their second album, High 'n' Dry (1981). With master producer Robert John 'Mutt' Lange1 in control now, the band proceeded to craft a more chart-friendly sound with riff-laden rockers in 'Let it Go' and 'Another Hit and Run' and even a prototype ballad in 'Bringin' On The Heartbreak'. Sales weren't spectacular to start with, but soon enough a new video channel called MTV would play their video for 'Heartbreak' in heavy rotation. Suddenly, sales for High 'n' Dry were picking up and would eventually hit two million.
The Leps Hit Big Time
Now came the killer. High 'n' Dry had basically been Mutt Lange producing songs already written by the band. For their next effort, Pyromania (1983), he would participate in the songwriting process and pack Elliott off to voice coaches to improve his singing and breathing technique. The result of his input would pay off immensely - Def Leppard would now conquer America with the album staying for months in the top 10, and three major US hit singles in 'Photograph', 'Foolin'' and 'Rock of Ages'.
The slick production of tight, well-written songs was a sure success. Michael Jackson's Thriller was the only reason Pyromania didn't hit the top, but ten million in worldwide sales was still very impressive. Still no success back home in Britain, though.
The dark side of this tale of success was guitarist Pete Willis' firing midway through recording, mainly due to his drinking problems and his inability to cope with the band's changing lifestyle. Phil Collen, more at ease with being in the spotlight, would come in to replace him, taking over most of the lead guitar duties from Steve Clark. Willis has sadly since faded into obscurity. Pyromania would, however, pave the way for bands like Motley Crue, Poison, Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses to take their share of the pie.
After a triumphant world tour, the band settled down to record their fourth album. Mutt Lange, who had previously taken part in songwriting sessions with the band, declined to produce the album, citing stress and tiredness. Rock star and drumming sensation Phil Collins expressed an interest in taking over, before calling it off. An abortive attempt to record with Jim Steinman - the man behind Meat Loaf's success - followed, before the band to decide to produce the album themselves.
Disaster struck on 31 December, 1984. Drummer Rick Allen crashed his Corvette Stingray on the A57 outside Sheffield. His left arm was torn off at the shoulder and could not be reattached. To his credit, though, Allen would make an inspired comeback to rock drumming, using a custom-made electronic kit with foot pedals so he could use his left foot to do what his left arm would have previously done.
Meanwhile, Lange returned to rescue the band from its woes. Hysteria (1987) would go on to be a worldwide smash. 'Animal', the first UK single, would reach number six in the charts, propelling the band to UK sales of a million and stardom at home at last. Meanwhile, in the US, initial sales were healthy but soon levelled off at three million, still leaving the band in massive debt.
However, the rousing 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' had become a Florida stripclub anthem and was soon receiving massive amounts of airplay, turning into a smash hit single. The anthemic 'Armageddon It', the melodic 'Hysteria', 'Rocket' and the band's only US number one, the tender ballad 'Love Bites', would follow as single followed single up the charts. The band would eventually rack up 18 million in sales - 12 million of which were made in the US - making Hysteria the largest selling hard rock/heavy metal album of all time, and Def Leppard the first band to sell more than seven million copies of each of their successive albums in the US.
Steve Clark Dies
Following another triumphant world tour, the band set to work to release their next album. By now, new guitarist Collen was firmly a part of the songwriting process, and the band had matured enough in confidence to let Lange go off and produce Bryan Adams' 1991 smash, the Def Lepp-soundalike album Waking Up the Neighbours. Guitarist Steve Clark was, however, now having his own problems with the bottle, and Phil Collen was increasingly having to record Clark's guitar parts along with his own. Sadly, Clark eventually died, after time in rehabilitation, in January 1991 in London.
1992 saw the band release Adrenalize, which leapt into the charts at number one, spawning hit singles in 'Let's Get Rocked', which was then the band's biggest UK hit at number 2, 'Make Love Like A Man', 'Heaven Is', 'Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)', yet another ballad in 'Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad?' and 'Tonight'. Irishman Vivian Campbell - formerly of Dio and Whitesnake - was recruited for the world tour that followed. Adrenalize sold over seven million copies worldwide but the backlash against melodic hard rock had already begun.
Def Leppard would soon, in 1993, step back from their traditional gloss to release an acoustic ballad 'Two Steps Behind' on the soundtrack to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero. This was followed by Retro Active, an eclectic collection of B-sides and outtakes that was a firm reminder to critics that Def Leppard's songs could stand up well, even in the absence of the glitzy production.
Vault, the band's Greatest Hits collection, was released in 1995, appropriately enough with the band's biggest UK hit to date, 'When Love and Hate Collide'. This was followed in 1996 by Slang. Slang was an attempt by the band to update its sound to a more contemporary post-grunge and industrial feel, but bombed in spite of widespread critical acclaim. It did well in Asia, though, where the album still racked up healthy sales of almost three million, with hit singles in 'Slang' (UK top 20), 'Work It Out', 'Breathe A Sigh', and 'All I Want Is Everything'.
The Return of Mutt Lange
Recent form having seen them shunned by fans and non-fans alike, the band returned to their trademark bombastic sound for Euphoria (1999). Former producer Mutt Lange returned to lend his expertise for three of the songs, and Formula 1 driver Damon Hill guested as lead guitarist on opener 'Demolition Man'. The album fared better than Slang did, with 'Promises' hitting number one on the US Rock charts.
Today, Def Leppard are widely considered an anachronism by both popular and metal press alike. With the 1980s now regarded as an era most people wish had never happened, it's increasingly unlikely that Def Leppard will ever achieve the status of the legends they aspire to. Nonetheless, the band have maintained a healthy following and in light of the periodic resurgences of groups like Iron Maiden and their own show-stealers Bon Jovi, they might yet have a chance.