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| 29 October 2018 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Def Leppard launch their Australian tour on Friday, 2nd November, with German band Scorpions in support – their first ever Australian tour.


Vivian Campbell, Def Leppard guitarist since 1992, is chuffed when I tell him that my American friends who’ve seen their current tour (co-headlining with Journey) say the band are as good as they’ve ever heard them.

“I would say they’re correct,” he affirms, no small deal for a band which formed in Sheffield in 1977.

“There is [a really positive vibe in the band] actually, yeah,” he says, confirming my suspicions. “I am the new guy in the band by almost 27 years, and I can tell you this is the best that we’ve ever played.

“There’s just a renewed energy about Def Leppard recently. I think there’s several reasons but I think possibly the main driving force is the fact that we crossed the generational barrier with our audience. Our audience is no longer just our generation. I would say 30%-40% of the audience on this tour that we’ve seen in North America are young enough to be our children, and with that there comes more energised feeling about the show because the audience is a bit more youthful and we really as a band we’ve always fed off the energy of the audience.

“That’s really what’s driving our show so whatever we’re given by the audience we give back in spirit. If the audience is more energised then conversely Leppard is more energised. We put a lot of thought into the production on this show as well. When you think about it, everything about Def Leppard is big. It’s bombastic, the drums are big, the guitars are big, the choruses are big, big anthems. So when we do a show the energy is big, the production, the lights, the video aspect of it. We don’t just sit around on stools and play our greatest hits. We really do put a lot of physical effort into the show and we enjoy it.

“I think more than anything else it is also the fact that we don’t take it for granted so even after all these years and we’re grateful for this renewed energy – it has been a long, hard slug for us. The last couple of decades weren’t always easy but we’re finally coming out of all of that and kind of growing into being one of the classic rock bands in the world, so it’s not a bad place to be. We’re trying to reflect on the performances.”

Surely it must be difficult year in and year out to maintain that level of energy and excitement and enthusiasm for songs which sometimes are 30 or 40 years old?

“Well it can be and that’s why I said we rely on the audience,” explains Campbell. “If you were to hear us in a rehearsal room playing Pour Some Sugar On Me, it would be dull as dish water. There’s no audience there, we need that energy of the audience and the excitement of that audience, seeing and hearing the show for the first time on a particular night.

“Even if it’s show number 100 of the tour for us, it’s show number one for the audience of that night and it’s still a joy to do this, it’s possibly even more so a joy and we’re more aware of that given our advancing years. We’re all in our 50’s and Phil [Collen]’s 60 – the oldest guy in the band, and the fittest – but we don’t take it for granted. We’re grateful that we can still do this and especially grateful that our trajectory is in ascendant. Our numbers are growing, we’re playing to a lot more people and a lot more younger people, so it’s all good. There’s nothing to be unhappy about here.”

Def Leppard are playing their mega-successful 1987 Hysteria album in full on the Australian tour. It’s one of the all-time classic hard rock albums, and one of the most successful of any genre, having sold over 25 million copies worldwide. The production of the album took years and involved cutting edge studio tech, helmed by mega-producer Mutt Lange after a short-lived debacle of an attempt with Jim Steinman at the controls. Is it a challenge tackling some of the lesser played tracks on this very intricate, layered, produced album?

“No, actually, it’s something that we’ve been doing for years with the big hit songs from Hysteria that we have played for decades,” says Campbell. “We had to approach it in the same way and that’s to listen to the album and pick out the most prominent guitar parts. I mean there’s only two of us [playing guitar] but there’s probably 15 or 18 different layers of guitar on any particular song. You have to listen to it and kind of make a comparison of those 15 or 18 guitar parts, whatever it is, and then take out the most prominent parts and then divide that by two.

“We’ve had a lot of practise doing it. The biggest challenge of any Def Leppard song, particularly from the Hysteria album and after that – it’s always been the vocals. The vocals are live, they’re intense, so that’s sometimes more of a challenge to play some of the more intricate guitar parts. while you’re singing a complicated line. Sometimes it can be a little bit right brain versus left brain, it just takes a lot of practise to be able to do it without screwing up one or the other.”

This discussion of live vocals triggers a vague memory for me – was there a quote from many years ago credited to Campbell, when he and maybe the guys in Dio [with whom he played from 1983 to 1986 before moving on to Whitesnake for two years] had gone to see Def Leppard and he and the band swore black and blue that they were using backing vocal tracks – but were quite amazed that they weren’t when you finally found that out?

“That is correct yeah,” he chuckles, before setting the record straight. “It was actually when I was playing with Whitesnake. So, myself and Tommy Aldridge, Rudy Sarzo and Adrian Vandenberg, we had a night off in Detroit and we went to see Def Leppard – and that was the first time I’d ever seen the band. It was on the Hysteria tour in the round, and yeah I swore that they were miming the vocals! I remember mentioning that to Joe – ‘cos Joe’s the only guy that I knew in the band prior to joining – and I mentioned it to Joe and he said, ‘no we’re doing it live,’ and I said, ‘yeah. Sure. whatever.’

“To this day, people still think that we mime the vocals, but we’ll take it – it’s a backhanded compliment! But for us it just shows that we’re doing it right. We do work very hard on our vocals. We’re very proud of the fact that we can do that and that we can replicate that and represent ourselves live, truly live, ‘cos not many bands do that anymore. A lot of bands are running tracks to supplement their vocals. It’s a wonderful sense of joy and pride to us that we can do that but it’s a lot of hard work.”

Having played with Sweet Savage as a young pup in his hometown of Belfast, then Dio and Whitesnake, worked with ex-Foreigner lead vocalist Lou Gramm both solo and with semi-supergroup Shadow King, as well as other projects, it wasn’t until Campbell joined Def Leppard after founding guitarist Steve Clarke died, that he found a proper home. In fact, Campbell and Ronnie James Dio had a public spat about his time in the band some years after leaving. What is it about Def Leppard that provided Campbell so much of a perfect fit that he’s still there over 25 years later?

“Because in Leppard it’s about the music and it’s about the band, it’s not about the individuals,” he says enthusiastically. “In other bands I’ve worked with there’s inevitably become some sort of personality clash, because there’s always gonna be someone in a band who thinks that they’re the most important person or more important than the music. With Leppard there’s an incredibly strong work ethic and each one of the five of us knows that the songs are gonna outlive all of us, and are the most important thing. That’s the reason why people still come to a Def Leppard concert – it’s ‘cos of the songs, not because of my guitar playing, it’s not because of Phil’s abs, it’s not because of Joe’s eyes, you know, it’s not because of Rick Allen’s amazing one-armed drumming or whatever. It’s because of the songs and that has always been the mindset of Def Leppard.

“There really is… a collective ego in Def Leppard and a tremendously strong work ethic with regard to every aspect of what we do. When that’s the focus it’s very easy to fit into it. You know what’s gonna happen, it’s predictable in that way. It’s not like when you’re in a band with someone who’s a bit of a primadonna and it’s just a question of when they’re gonna go off and that’s gonna create problems.

“I’m a very pragmatic and straightforward person. I don’t tolerate divas very well and that’s kind of been difficult for me in my earlier career because I worked with some people who were difficult and I just don’t tolerate. I’ve always been very big on principles and honesty and integrity, and a lot of musicians, a lot of rock bands strictly from the ‘80s, didn’t exhibit a lot of those tendencies or qualities. With Leppard there really is an integrity, there really is an honesty to this band that makes it much easier to navigate the waters.”

Although Def Leppard broke through alongside the likes of Iron Maiden and Sweet Savage, and were lumped in with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, they quickly moved on musically to become a hard rock – sometimes pop rock – band. Does it annoy them when some narrow minded journalists still insist on describing Def Leppard as a heavy metal band?

“Yeah!” confirms Campbell. “I mean, it’s just such a cop out. The origins of Leppard go back to that – but Joe and I have different opinions about the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and whether or not Leppard was a part of that. Def Leppard came of age during that movement where you had other bands like Tygers of Pan Tang and Iron Maiden. Maiden went on to be a huge band as did Leppard but Maiden are very much a hard rock, heavy metal band. Def Leppard has morphed and become something very different and much more complicated than that.

“I do think that – different from Joe’s opinion – that Leppard benefited from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal… even though they weren’t associated with it. But even back then, I remember as a member of Sweet Savage – my first band back in Belfast – reading about Def Leppard and hearing them on BBC, and on the radio, and buying their early music and listening to it… even back then I realised that there was a much greater ambition, musically, within Def Leppard than in any other band of that new wave movement.

“[They just had] a lot of different influences. I think I kind of always summed it up as, even early Leppard always wanted to be a cross between AC/DC and Queen. The rock sensibility of AC/DC but the complexity of a band like Queen with the vocal harmonies and the arrangements and stuff and the willingness to try different genres of music under the umbrella of rock.”

Campbell had to take a little time away from the band’s touring commitments earlier this decade whilst battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With the cancer in remission now, he is passionate about the hard work he put in to the fight, but says it didn’t engender a huge lifestyle change for him.

“Not really, no – certainly not in terms of diet or lifestyle or anything like that, not at all. But that’s ‘cos I’m stubborn and Irish: nobody’s gonna tell me not to have a drink of whiskey!” he laughs.

“What it probably has done is made me realise that more than ever… lemme back up a bit. I’d like to think that my glass is always half full, that I always approach life with a sense of gratitude but that has definitely been accelerated and magnified by having to deal with cancer. In fact, I’ve never been so busy in my life, as I have been over the last few years – not only with Def Leppard but with Last in Line, my [other] band. It’s the remains of the original Dio band, and we’re just literally mixing up and packaging our second album.

“It’s gonna be released early next year. It’s such a great record and I’m so excited about that. Last year I also released a record with Riverdogs, a band I hadn’t been in since 1990. I’ve just been busy but thoroughly enjoying it. Maybe if anything [the cancer] kind of accelerated things for me and I just said, ‘okay well, remember that project that you always wanted to do, well now’s the time to do it.”

Was the prognosis ever so bad that he started rearranging his priorities?

“No, I never for one moment thought I was gonna die from cancer and I still don’t,” he says confidently. “I got my diagnosis, I caught it reasonably early. I did chemo six months, it came back. I did more chemo, it came back. I did a stem cell transplant, it came back and then I was very fortunate about almost three and a half years ago there was a clinical trial that my wife found out about, an immunotherapy drug. The drug is not on the market, it’s released over here as something called KEYTRUDA and I was very fortunate that I’m one of the maybe 30 or 40 percent of the population who have a specific gene that responds favourably to this drug so they use it for multiple cancers.

“In fact Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. President, was the first high profile patient. He was taking it for melanoma, I’m taking it for lymphoma – but I still have to take it. I’m supposed to take it once a month, [but] I have to fudge it a bit because of the touring schedule, [so] it’s probably more like six to seven weeks that I get my treatments. But [the cancer] is absolutely benign as far as I’m concerned, with very minimal side effects, nothing like hair loss, not like chemo, so it’s just a wonderful opportunity to actually do that as part of a clinical trial for two months and I feel like I’m actually a bit of a poster boy for the drug ‘cos I responded so well [to it].

“My doctors can’t believe the schedule that I live, that I’m travelling around the world and playing rock shows and that I just fly back to them once every four, five, six, seven weeks and get juiced up and then away I go again. They just can’t believe that at 56 years of age that I can do this and not be affected by it but it’s just the stubborn Irish thing.

“I refuse to give in!”

With time all but up I slip in one final question: Def Leppard have released two very good albums in the past decade – what are the chances for new music from the band?

“We have a very heavy touring schedule this year and it continues until the end of the year,” explains the guitarist. “Next year would be less so, so there’s a reasonable chance we’ll start milling around with the idea of writing a few songs next year – but I wouldn’t expect to see a record until 2020 at the earliest, ‘cos we’re not known for working quickly…”

It is Def Leppard, after all!

“Did I say 2020? I meant 2030,” he jokes, laughing. “Sometime in the next decade!”

Category: Interviews

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