Def Leppard’s “happy metal” makes Vancouver smile

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By Steve Newton

The first time Def Leppard played Vancouver was in July of 1983, on a coheadlining date at the Pacific Coliseum with ’70s-rock holdouts Uriah Heep. This was six months after the release of its breakthrough Pyromania album, which spawned four singles–“Photograph”, “Rock of Ages”, “Foolin'”, and “Too Late for Love”–and to date has sold over 10 millon copies in the U.S. alone.

The youthful British band (average age 21) was near the peak of its popularity at that time, although it would actually soar way beyond that peak four years later with the release of Hysteria, which boasted a whopping seven singles–“Animal”, “Women”, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, “Hysteria”, “Armageddon It”, “Love Bites”, and “Rocket”–and moved over 12 million copies in the States.

Yes, the ’80s were good to Def Leppard. Whether or not Def Leppard was good to the ’80s is a matter of taste, as it has been viewed as a major catalyst of the decade’s hair-metal movement. Lead vocalist Joe Elliott might dispute that claim, however. “We weren’t a big-hair band,” he told me during a 2003 interview, “we were a longhair band. Our hair was no bigger than Zeppelin or Sabbath, and nobody ever called them big hair.”

At any rate, big- or longhaired, the group never got anywhere near as popular again. In fact, back in 1995 it played the Commodore–as part of a three-continents-in-one-day promotion to help sell a greatest hits CD–and the crowd went mild.

But nostalgia is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to loud rock–or “happy metal!” as my old buddy Stick would joyfully describe it. That’s why the band is still making the rounds of the arenas in 2015, and packing ’em in like they did at Rogers Arena last night (April 18).

It came as no surprise that, of the 11 songs listed above, Def Leppard performed nine of them. They opened with Pyromania’s “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)”–which got the vast majority of the crowd on its feet, where it would stay for good–and closed 17 tunes later with “Photograph”. The biggest lull in the proceedings came during the set’s most recent song, “Paper Sun”, which, being from 1999’s Euphoria, isn’t that recent at all.

Lead singer Joe Elliott still sounds allright at 55, and what he lacks in the ability to hit those high notes he makes up for with showmanship and charisma. All he had to do was stand there in the spotlight with his arms outstretched and the crowd would roar its approval.

Guitarist Phil Collen is the oldest band member at 57, but somehow he’s managed to hang on to the same sleek torso he had back in ’83. His six-string counterpart, Vivian Campbell–who first rose to prominence in ’82 as guitarist for Dio–can still tear up the frets bigtime. He sounded (and looked) particularly sharp on a sparkly red Les Paul during the frantic solo for “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)”.

Nothing against Elliott, but the musical high point of the show for me came when he hung up the mike and Campbell and Collen went to town on “Switch 625”, a driving instrumental from the 1981 High ‘n’ Dry album that was written by original guitarist Steve Clark, who died of a drug overdose in ’91 at the age of 30.

The band had also almost lost its drummer on New Year’s Eve 1984 when 21-year-old Rick Allen was thrown from his Corvette, losing his left arm. But he battled back, learned how to play a specially designed electronic kit with one arm, and still propels the band today. Every time his face flashed on the massive video screen at the back of the stage he looked happy as hell. It’s pretty obvious that he’s the type of guy who will rock rock till he drops.

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