By many estimations the ultimate hard rock band of the 1980s, Def Leppard were an intrinsic part of two distinct eras and ideologies of rock, just a few years apart. The five lads from Sheffield emerged in the late 70s as part of the latest wave of British Heavy Metal, then shifted their focus from intense riffs to heavy melodies—and capitalized on their photogenic qualities—to conquer the pop charts and explode on MTV via a series of exhilarating videos.
The band formed in 1977 by guitarist Pete Willis, bassist Rick Savage and drummer Tony Kenning became known as Def Leppard when Yorkshire native Joe Elliot joined as lead vocalist. The quartet started rehearsing in a cheap spoon factory, and soon asked guitarist Steve Clark to join. Clark agreed as long as they would play some “proper” shows, and in July of 1978 the band debuted at Westfield School for an audience of children. A few gigs later, however, the band dismissed Kenning in favor of Frank Noon, who played with the Sheffield group, the Next Band.
In 1979, they recorded their debut EP for Bludgeon Riffola Records, which included "Ride Into The Sun", "Getcha Rocks Off" and "The Overture". Noon then returned to the Next Band, and Rick Allen became Def Leppard's permanent drummer. A handful of short UK tours behind Sammy Hagar and AC/DC launched them to prominence, and their first album on Vertigo Records, On Through The Night hit #15 in the UK in 1980.
After an initial headlining tour of Britain, some fans accused them of selling out when they visited America for the first time, going so far as to throw cans at them during their appearance at the Reading Festival that summer. They recorded High ‘N’ Dry with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, which hit the Top 40 in the U.S., setting the stage for the massive success of their first defining album, 1983’s Pyromania. This recording featured a key lineup change, with Pete Willis being fired for missing meetings and arriving drunk at a session and ex-Girl guitarist Phil Collen taking over. The excitement of hitting #2 on the U.S. album chart was tempered when Allen lost his left arm in a car crash.
Not wanting to lose their anchor, Def Leppard did not resume work until Allen had mastered a specially designed kit that allowed him to play drums with his feet. The long awaited Hysteria, released in 1987, sold 15 million units, topping both the American and British charts, and produced two Top 5 singles, “Armegeddon It” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and the #1 hit “Love Bites.”
The band’s 14 month world tour in support of Hysteria turned out to be Clark’s last with the group. Just as they began working on their next project, he overdosed and died in London. This tragedy prompted the other members to make public their ongoing efforts but ultimately failed efforts to halt Clark’s self-abusive lifestyle. Pressing on, their fifth album, Adrenalize (a fan chosen title), immediately raced to #1 in both the U.S. and UK.
Def Leppard celebrated this release by performing at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, an event that introduced replacement guitarist Vivian Campbell, who had made his debut at a small gig in Dublin. A greatest hits package and a new studio collection, Slang, followed, and in 1996 Elliott appeared in the soccer-inspired film, When Saturday Comes. 1999's bestselling Euphoria was anticipated as a return to the band’s classic sound, but upset some with its dated sound and cliché ridden lyrics. This made them one of the few big 80s metal groups to survive the subsequent decade.