ForewordFrom 'Pyromania' through to `Retroactive (and beyond)', Def Leppard have left an indelible paw print on Rock's golden landscape. Through their sheer determination and talent they built upon their successes and were able to move swiftly from the Working Men clubs of Yorkshire to the stadium arenas of today. However, their initial rise was caught in the full glare of an inconsistent (and sometimes a dubious) music press. And therefore, Def Leppard was far from becoming a protected species. They banded together, each with desires to match and ambitions to fulfill. Whilst the distant spectre of personal tragedies were far away in the future.
First however, five fresh faced teenagers had something to prove to themselves and the music world.
In the BeginningMy first contact with the embryo that was to be Def Leppard began in September 1977. Richard Savage, Tony Kenning and I had just started working for British Rail, as Trainee Technicians in the Signal and Telecommunications department. This mutual move from the security of the school yard into the working world produced a camaraderie between us, which was re-enforced with our interests in music (featuring the likes of Queen, UFO and Thin Lizzy [for starters]).
Initially, Sav and Reuben (Tony's nickname because of his classical looks) were a little reluctant to talk about the band that they were putting together. This was partly due to the current declining interest in Rock music (the media was currently obsessed with Punk) and also their modesty.
Sav liked the energy and the rawness of Punk, but had no intention of following these bands that had sprung up in its wake. For him Punk music was too limiting to last and the bands rose sharply like skyrockets, only to fizzle out before the night ended. However,it was also a welcome breath of raucous air to the popular sterile disco oriented charts. Sav's self confidence made you realise that if anything was going to happen for them that he was strong enough to wait for the right opportunity. For the time being, he was content to watch the other bands just come and go with varying frequency, whilst his band practised and perfected their art.
One day in the works mess room, Sav told me that they had finally come up with a name that they all could agree on. "Def Leppard," the name was unusual and it was certainly different and very distinctive. The name was both a conscious reference to Led Zeppelin (and why not think big!), but its misspelling showed their rebellious punkish roots. In effect, 'Def Leppard' symbolised a merger of the great rock traditions with youthful vitality.
The winter of '77 passed Def Leppard by, as they were content to forge out their brand of music through intensive rehearsals. Every time I talked to Sav it seemed that they were rehearsing (and this at a time when Sheffield was alive with talented local bands and impressive gigs. Def Leppard were in no immediate hurry to play alongside them, and any thoughts of performing publicly were suspended until their confidence and skills grew.
The following summer finally brought them out of their lair, but only for a few small gigs to test the waters. The response from these initial dates was quite encouraging. They even received a return booking at the newly opened Limit Club (which usually played host to the punk movement). As their popularity began to rise, their fortunes however were headed off in the opposite direction. After receiving a fee of £5 for their debut gig at Westfield School in July, the 'Young Kings of Rock' as they were later billed, played their second night at the Limit club two months later and finished up out of pocket. But their enjoyment couldn't be measured in money alone.
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Bludgeon Riffola EP
In November '78 during one of the many BR Training courses at York, Sav told me about their impending studio visit. After many months of endless rehearsals, Def Leppard were now ready to jump into the fray with their own single. For sometime now this had been a frequent topic amongst them, as it was a known short-cut for recognition, but one that was usually with punk bands and not rock bands.
They were booked into Fairview Studios in Hull, which boasted (at that time) a sixteen-track desk and already had a vast pedigree of Yorkshire bands to its name. There were only a handful of 'cutting edge' studios outside London at the time, and Sheffield didn't even figure in that list until 1984. The current personnel crisis1 (Reuben's swift exit) and the recent disjointed rehearsals due to Sav's constant long days of travelling to and from York, would all be forgotten in the excitement of recording. Def Leppard had a full weekend to prove themselves and were now more than ready to do so.
The following Monday I saw Sav at Sheffield station, as we were due to be training in York all week. Although he looked completely shattered, having lived the whole weekend in the studio on excitement and adrenaline, you could see that the joy of a successful weekend was there too, in his broad smile.
However, the weekend had also been tinged with sadness, as Reuben had been forced to leave the band the previous week. During this period at BR, an imaginary barrier separated Sav and Reuben, which was affecting their close friendship, and if it wasn't for Reuben's diplomatic and unselfish approach they could so easily have parted under a cloud. For his part, Sav reluctantly accepted the band's democratic decision for the need of total commitment.
Sav was living on instinct and knew where he wanted to go. Reuben though was confused about his commitment, was it a hobby or more? A missed oppurtunity? He didn't know. He was having problems trying to balance his life; the band, home and his personal life. But the punishing routine of continually rehearsing themselves into the ground week after week witrh no end goal in focus (an intensity that most professional bands wouldn't agree to) finally saw Reuben snap and go AWOL. Def Leppard were eager to succeed and they believed that this was all part of the `blood, sweat and tears' price that each entrant has to pay. Usually time off from rehearsals came in the form of going to gigs (or was this studying?). They were still fans but with a lot to learn. Quite soon afterwards Reuben left the Railway to become a Technician Officer with British Telecom.
Without a drummer just days before the recording, Frank Noon stepped in to help them out. As Def Leppard saw themselves as a guitar-orientated band, being temporarily drummer-less seemed to have caused them no obvious problems. It was only later with the arrival of Rick Allen that they found out the true worth of a strong, committed powerful drummer and what they could add to the whole sound.
Due to their limited budget they quickly pressed up 1000 copies hoping that they'd get a chance to have a second pressing, so that they could at the least break even. If anyone in the band was dreaming of an instant hit, they were certainly keeping it to themselves. Once the vinyl was in their hands, those little quirks from its recording rose to the surface. After several run-throughs, Joe had sung "Time is on 'arr' side" in his best Sheffield accent, which now bruised his own professionalism. Also by the time Pete came to over dub the acoustic guitar onto 'The Overture' the day was already long, and nobody had noticed his guitar was going out of tune towards the end of the song. These little quirks however had given the EP a some-what personal and rough edge: full of terrific riffs, fond memories and the promises of tomorrow.
When I first heard the EP I was stunned, it was brilliant and vibrant, everything that music should be. It was an incredible first attempt in a studio. Def Leppard had mastered the sixteen track with ease, whilst keeping a check on their heady mix of enthusiasm and nerves (which most young bands would fall foul of). They had literally thrown themselves into the recording, and had succeeded in producing a live sound that belied their inexperience and age. Their long evenings of rehearsals had paid off with abundance. It was released in January '79, and would eventually be re-pressed twice, but for now . . .
At work, Sav became a bit of a celebrity and was able to sell quite a few copies of the EP, even autographing them when asked to, but was genuinely embarrassed by the commotion caused. He'd already been quite a 'star' at work as he'd once been signed on with Sheffield United Football Club, while still at school. As with most workplaces soccer was the main topic, and Sheffield was a city torn between two teams. Now he was further elevated, as he might become a music star!
With Rick Allen now setting the band's foundations they became rock solid and were now ready to venture forth onto the live circuit to support their EP's arrival with a splash of local dates where possible.
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Sheffield PolytechnicTheir first major gig was the Polytechnic in February '79 (having recently played the city's famed rock pub, the Wapentake), and was secured by the EP's prowess, which was by now selling extremely well by word of mouth around the city. This prestigious date (previous Wednesday night offerings that month had included Ian Gillan and Cheap Trick) was well attended, partly because of the fairly cheap student bar, but mainly due to the large crowd at the front waiting in anticipation
They came onstage at 11 pm opening up with the thunderous Glad I'm Alive. Joe, seemingly relaxed, was strutting around in his skin tight black PVC trousers and wearing a white casual jacket. Only in his quieter moments did his confidence seem to falter, and then in front of a sea of unfamiliar faces, he stepped back and clung to the band for support.
For their part the band initially hid behind their tight sound, and only with growing confidence did they relax enough to come forward, throwing themselves into guitar hero poses (which would later become the staple fodder of their stage show). Although the drunken element of the crowd was shouting rip-off, they were here to play Rock at its most vibrant, displaying a heady mix of originals alongside Thin Lizzy songs to great effect.
Def Leppard proved that the EP was only a starting point and by the end of the gig, many new converts were left wanting more. After their previous sporadic gigs, they had now arrived as a sharp and tight unit, which they would continue to build on. As for Sheffield, Def Leppard were unconcerned by the wrath they were incurring from the local New Wave bands, as it was now time to admit that the city was big and bad enough to enjoy all styles of music.
One month later, it was quite a surprise to find out that Def Leppard were playing at a nearby Working Mens club. This was a venue that usually played host to failed hopes of times gone by. But here in the middle of nowhere, twelve miles from Sheffield and five from Barnsley, they came to play in Wombwell in March.
Thanks to the co-operation of the landlord, they were allowed to play one set rather than the customary two short sets that band's normally had to do. Their only concession though was that Rick Allen, being underage, had to stay inside the dressing room before they played (this would become a fairly common frustration for Rick to overcome).
We spent the early evening talking together before they disappeared from the bar twenty minutes before stage time, to prepare and psyche themselves up. The band arrived onstage dressed extravagantly (ignoring the fashionable 'street-look' trend that most current bands adhered to). This was definitely neither Punk, post-punk nor new wave but Rock to be glorified!
The band onstage at the Reform Club
The Set included powerful versions of Thin Lizzy's 'Boys are Back in Town', 'Jailbreak' and UFO's 'Doctor, Doctor'. These songs crackled with vibrant electricity. Their treasure trove of original songs stood their ground amongst these rock classics, occasionally eclipsing them as happened with Getcha Rocks Off. Even though some of their songs were quite derivative, they soared with high bursts of energy. They played as if they were at Wembley stadium, and not some tin-pot venue with around 100 people there. This fairly small crowd was literally gobsmacked and most found themselves on the dance floor. After I'd finished photographing them, I too was dancing like an idiot with my camera flying around me on its lead!
After the gig, their dressing room door remained open to everyone. They were only too happy to make new friends. If their music was firmly rooted within the rock tradition, then their attitude was of the day, as captured within It Could Be You.
They also did a roaring trade selling the EP's. The first pressing had now dwindled down to a handful, and thanks to their newly acquired management team MSB, its second pressing was very imminent.
Another successful evening and all that was left was to re-pack the transit van. An hour later and with Joe at the wheel they sped off homeward bound, exhausted. If only I hadn't ran out of film then, but hey, it's just an ordinary 'rock-god' at the wheel!!
John PeelIn April, thanks to an over enthusiastic Joe at a John Peel Roadshow, he thrust the EP into Peel's hand (and who in their right mind wouldn't do this for your band) and asked him to listen to it. Within days, both Getcha Rocks Off and Overture were aired on his radio one show and were frequently played on the show over the next few months2. The door was opened . . . and suddenly everyone was interested.
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