At 55, Vivian Campbell doesn’t quite seem old enough to have spent 35 years treading the boards with some of the world’s most famous rock and metal acts. Thrust into the spotlight at 20 when he joined Ronnie James Dio’s signature vehicle Dio, he made three of metal’s seminal albums with them before going on to ever wider fame as the guitarist with one of the biggest selling rock bands of all time, Def Leppard.
“I don’t take it for granted. I feel very fortunate,” he says on the phone, the faint lilt of his native Belfast in his voice. “I’ve had a very colourful career and I’ve enjoyed almost all of it!”
He laughs, but he’s certainly not kidding. Discovered by late Dio/Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain playing in his teenage band Sweet Savage, his speedy and dextrous lead guitar work helped cement Holy Diver as one of the metal’s greatest albums; later, he was teamed alongside the equally scintillating Adrian Vandenberg in the 1987 touring line-up of Whitesnake, but neither of those relationships ended well.
“I’ve gotten to play with many, many, many great musicians,” Campbell says without reservation. “That in itself is a great blessing, but it’s also great to be part of a solid band which Def Leppard is. 26 years since I joined Def Leppard back in 1992.”
While it’s a role he’s had now for almost half his life, he wryly notes that he’s still the newcomer in a famously stable band.
“Even though 26 years seems like a long time, the band’s been together even longer than that so I’ll always be like the Ronnie Wood of Def Leppard – the new guy. Ronnie’s been in the Stones for 40 years or something, but he’s the new kid. But it’s all good. I’ve been very fortunate in my career, no doubt.”
Coming into the band following the sad passing of Steve Clark – one of the others who auditioned for the role was Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith – Campbell played no part in the creation of Def Leppard’s monster release Hysteria, their meticulously-constructed 1987 album that spawned an incredible seven hit singles, stayed in the US Top 40 for two years straight and went on to become one of the 100 best-selling albums in history. Costing more than $US5 million and taking three years to make, Hysteria revolutionised rock album recording with its dense layering and digital recording techniques employed by producer Matt Lange, who is also credited as one of the song writers.
Like so many others who heard it and bought it, however, Vivian Campbell couldn’t stop listening to it.
“It’s a landmark record, undoubtedly,” he says of it. “I remember distinctly the first time I heard it. I bought a cassette and I stuck it on and I literally did wear it out. Hysteria was also one of the first CDs that I ever bought. It was really an album that was made for that era. There’s so much detail in it, so much depth and clarity. I think it was just an assembling of really incredible talent at the right time. Mutt was at the zenith of his creative talent at the time and Leppard were a young band just in their ascendancy and the result was just an absolute seminal record that to this day really holds up. All I can say on behalf of the other four guys in Def Leppard is that they are, rightfully, incredibly proud of the record.”
On a personal level, Campbell notes he’s very proud that the band it able to replicate it in the live arena, something the line-up to record it never got the chance to do. During a Las Vegas residency in 2013, Def Leppard performed Hysteria in full for the first time, a feat documented by the double live album Viva! Hysteria released later that year.
“I am incredibly proud of the fact that we five can replicate it as well as we do in the live arena and I think a lot of people will be – hopefully – pleasantly surprised by that. We do not rely on recorded vocals or backing tapes or anything. We absolutely perform this record live, and the vocals are one of the strong suits of Def Leppard, so we’re very proud of the fact that we can go on stage and do a very, very decent replication of these songs as a live band.”
In November of this year, Campbell and Leppard will return to Australia to perform the album here. The guitarist is quick to establish that they will be as faithful to the recording as they are capable of being.
“When we do [these songs] as part of a regular Def Leppard set, we might extend them or enhance them in some way or another,” he explains, “but in performing the Hysteria album in full – No, we play it exactly like the record, in the same sequence and exactly as they were.”
It’s a significant achievement considering the level of digital trickery involved in the production of the album in the first place, but Def Leppard can do it. Local audiences should be excited.
Campbell himself is excited about sharing the bill with Scorpions, who will be on their very first complete Australian tour as part of the November package. The Leppard guitarist, who says he’s never been on a bill with the German veterans before, has a warning for Matthias Jabs: “I’ll be stealing his licks. You can tell him to watch out because I’m coming for his licks!”
“I can remember listening to Lovedrive when I was still in Sweet Savage in my teenage years and now here we are. It’s funny how life leads you down a certain path. Now we’re sharing a stage, so I’m excited about that.”
He concedes that it’s possible one of his bands played festival shows with the Scorps at some time in the past, but he can’t be sure. In his younger days, he admits, he was so fixated on playing that he often didn’t even know which other bands they were playing with. He cites a time on tour with Dio in the early 80s when he missed out on seeing one of his heroes because he hadn’t bothered to find out who he was sharing a bill with.
“Quite a few years ago back in my parents’ old house,” he begins, “I was going through a drawer of old tour itineraries, and I found an old itinerary from the Holy Diver album with Dio in the US back in 1983, and it said we shared with bill with Stevie Marriott! I had no idea! And had I known at the time, I would have been out there watching Steve Marriott, but I hadn’t read the itinerary! I didn’t know! I got ready to go on stage ten minutes before we went on and the rest of the time I just had my head in my guitar or on stage somewhere. So I was kind of oblivious to things like that!”
Keeping his head down turned him into the sought-after gun guitarist that got him the job he has today, laying down those classic melody lines and harmonising with Phil Collen. Even living with lymphoma hasn’t stopped him or done much more than slow him down since he began a treatment regime three years ago. Even at its worst, his illness was “the least of my concerns,” he says. Music, and his ability to play it, is still what drives him.
“I think of myself as a guitar player, and even when I’m onstage playing something that’s really really simple as a part, I still find some way to improve it and I still judge my performance every night and try and improve it in incremental nuances. But that’s really for my own edification and my own satisfaction. I don’t think anyone ever really notices, but to me it’s important. It is a craft, and I like to get better at it.”
For those who desire a follow-up to Def Leppard’s 2015 self-titled release, Vivian Campbell has some good news.
“I know there’s a small percentage of our worldwide audience that’s hungry for new music,” he says, “and there’s a lot of people who, you know, couldn’t care less! But it’s important for the five of us that we remain creative individually and collectively. That’s important for the lifeblood of any band. You’ve got to stay vital. So I would imagine that next year at some point we’ll venture into the studio and start putting a record together. It’s anyone’s guess as to when it’ll be finished, but we’ll definitely get started on it.”
Def Leppard are, of course, notorious for taking a long time with their albums, though, which Campbell acknowledges with a chuckle.
“But we’re getting a little bit quicker at it, you know?” he says.