Steve 'Steamin' Clark was one of the great guitar masters of the 1980s. Known as 'the Riffmaster', he was responsible for some of Def Leppard's most memorable guitar riffs, including songs like 'Bringin' on the Heartbreak', 'Gods of War', 'Wasted', and his incredible guitar masterpiece 'Switch 625'. His work continues to influence musicians today, years after his death.
Stephen Maynard Clark was born on 23 April, 1960, to Barry and Beryl Clark in Sheffield, England. He was the oldest of three sons. Showing an interest in music at a very young age, his mother took him to see Cliff Richard and The Shadows at Sheffield City Hall when he was six years old. His father gave him his first guitar at the age of 11, under the condition that he take lessons to learn to play it properly. Steve took classical lessons for a year, providing him with a musical background that would be instrumental in his later success.
A pivotal moment came when Steve heard Led Zeppelin for the first time while at a friend's house. Up until this point, he had been unsure of what type of music he wanted to pursue, but after listening to that record, he know he wanted to play rock music. He got an electric guitar and spent hours learning to play Zeppelin songs note for note, using his classical training to pick them out by ear. During this time he joined his first band, believed to be called Electric Chicken.
Joining Def Leppard
By 1978, he had finished school and was working as a lathe operator at a local factory. He met Pete Willis and they began talking about their shared interest - guitars. Pete mentioned that their band was looking for a second guitarist and invited Steve to come to one of the band's rehearsals, which took place in an old abandoned spoon factory in Sheffield. Steve never showed up.
Luckily, Steve ran into Pete again at a Judas Priest concert, along with the band’s singer, Joe Elliott. He was invited to audition once again, and this time he came. The band, consisting of original members Pete, Joe, bassist Rick 'Sav' Savage, and drummer Tony Kenning (later replaced by Rick Allen), were immediately impressed with Steve's ability to play Lynrd Skynrd's 'Freebird' all the way through, including the extended guitar solo at the end. He was welcomed enthusiastically into the band. Steve was impressed that Def Leppard was a band that wrote their own material, unlike any of the other bands he had been in.
The Road to Stardom
After being with Def Leppard for a short while, however, Steve realized that the band wasn't getting anywhere. Though the band rehearsed frequently, they had not yet played a single gig. By June 1978, Steve was getting frustrated with just rehearsing, so he told Joe that if they didn't get a gig soon, he would quit the band. Joe, afraid of losing such a vital part of the band, set up their first gig at Westfield School, earning them £5.
After the first gig, their popularity began to grow. They did a series of local gigs. Then, using money borrowed from Joe's dad, they made their first recording, The Def Leppard EP. They received airplay on BBC Radio One, and the EP became a success, due in part to Steve's trademark riffs on songs like 'Getcha Rocks Off'. Not long after releasing the EP, Def Leppard was signed to Phonogram Records. Over the course of the next three albums, they became international rock stars.
Along with fame came all the pressures of being in a rock band. While recording their groundbreaking third album, Pyromania, it became apparent that founding member Pete Willis was drinking so much he was no longer contributing to the band. After several warnings to stop drinking so much, the rest of the band made the difficult decision to fire Pete.
Guitarist Phil Collen was chosen to replace Pete. Phil's technical style of playing was a perfect compliment to Steve's sloppier, more laid-back style. The two guitarists soon became close friends. They became drinking partners, and their various pranks and bar brawls earned them the nickname 'Terror Twins'. However, on one occasion, after a night of drinking, Phil woke up to find he had been at a jewellers the night before and had bought a Rolex watch worth thousands of pounds. Steve had also bought a watch and an earring. Alarmed by the fact that he didn't remember buying the watch, Phil stopped drinking for several months after the incident, and eventually stopped drinking completely.
Unfortunately, Steve continued to drink heavily. He was found one night unconscious in the streets of Minneapolis with a blood alcohol level of .59 - double the amount that killed Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. Luckily, he escaped death on this occasion. Throughout the late eighties, he went into rehab several times, but he was never able to break the habit.
The Downward Spiral
Following the tremendous worldwide success of their fourth album, Hysteria in 1987, the band went back into the studio to work on their next release, Adrenalize. Steve, who loved playing live more than anything else, had a hard time coping with the perfectionist recording style the band used. He had also been suffering from depression for several years. He began drinking more and more heavily, to the point that his playing was impaired. Concerned for their band mate and friend, the others gave him a six-month break from recording to concentrate on getting well. He was to return in February 1991. He never came back.
On 8 January, 1991, after a night of drinking, Steve was found dead in his home in Chelsea by his girlfriend. He was 30 years old. A coroner found the cause of death to be respiration failure due to a mixture of alcohol, antidepressants, and painkillers (which he was taking because of some cracked ribs). He was buried in Sheffield’s Loxley Cemetery in a private family ceremony.
After Steve's death, the rest of the band had to decide whether to continue without him. Agreeing that Steve would have 'been annoyed' if the band called it quits, they resolved to finish the current album as a four-piece, giving Phil the task of interpreting and playing the guitar parts written by Steve before his death. The finished album was dedicated to their late friend. Though none of Steve's guitar playing is heard on Adrenalize, he did co-write six out of ten songs on the album. The album also includes a song written for Steve called 'White Lightning', which was another one of his nicknames.
Guitarist Vivian Campbell, formerly of Sweet Savage, Dio and Whitesnake, was chosen to be their new guitarist in 1992. Def Leppard continues to record and perform with Vivian.
'He could really fill the stage. He used to do the Chuck Barry thing, strutting across the stage. And where Chuck Barry would do it at five miles an hour, Steve would do it ninety in reverse. You had to get out of his way or you were going to get knocked offstage.'
--lead singer Joe Elliott
For the fans watching Def Leppard perform live during their tours in the eighties, Steve was often the most entertaining member of the band. The quiet guitarist who often suffered from stagefright before a show would transform into an energetic rock star, running around the stage and posing, with his trademark Les Paul slung superlow. That image, along with the many songs he co-wrote, is still what many fans remember him by today.
Steve's memory lives on in his family, band mates, and his millions of fans all over the world. Steve 'Steamin' Clark may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.