The Original Def Leppard, LIVE In 1980 Perform Almost The Entire On Through The Night LP
Def Leppard Was Once A Heavy Metal Band: Then They Started Writing Pop
Their Main Hard Rock Songwriter & Guitarist Was Fired
Can We Forget About The Past?
Here is Pete Willis and the original Def Leppard performing almost in its entirety, one of the ten greatest debut rock albums of all-time.
When Def Leppard recorded their first major label album, they were a heavy metal band though they never called themselves that.
It was 1980 and Def Leppard had just been signed to a deal with Mercury Records. They were signed on the basis of what three years of honing and craft perfection had wrought – On Through The Night. Previously in 1979, the band printed its own EP and sold an astounding 18,000 copies.
Within the music industry, in order for any band to get a record deal, the band must put forth only their best material. And that is what On Through The Night is. Eleven mostly blistering songs played at a frantic pace with songwriting that displays an ear for catchy and memorable songs.
Here’s the most incredible thing about this video performance of that first album — singer Joe Elliott is 21, guitarists Steve Clark & Pete Willis are 20, bass player Rick Savage is 19 and drummer Rick Allen is – are you kidding me? — 16!!!!
The difference between this and most other debut albums is that they are performed with a professionalism well beyond their years. First time you hear them the songs are in your head. It Don’t Matter, Answer To The Master, Satellite, It Could Be You, Wasted, Rock Brigade titles that belie their heaviness. Practically every song on the album is a tour de force of hook laden riffs, done in a hard rock / metal way.
Because of that hard rock metal edge, like a palimpsest, the band has tried their hardest to bury On Through The Night and rewrite their own important part in hard rock history.
It’s like it was never even recorded. Whenever the On Through The Night album is brought up by an interviewer, the band dismisses it and quickly changes the subject.
The “catchy song” part was the direction Def Leppard took and ran with. They mostly left the “heavy” part behind. With the help of superstar producer John “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC Highway To Hell; Back In Black; Foreigner; The Cars; Michael Bolton etc.) the band and its music was hijacked into pop rock. Hard pop rock, but still pop rock. It appears that is what Joe Elliott and the other members of the band wanted.
Def Leppard & Pete Willis, Heavy Metal Maniac
But what sort of Def Leppard was this group, the 1980 version? The co-founders of the band, were Pete Willis and bassist Rick Savage. Willis was a physically small, yet crazy talented guitarist with a skill for writing guitar parts in songs that were difficult to reproduce live. Willis invited singer Joe Elliott and guitarist Steve Clark to join his band.
Joe Elliott has been asked many times about Pete Willis. Most revealing are Joe Elliott’s comments from a 2000 interview with Philip Anderson:
Pete was a really nice guy when he didn’t drink, and he was a really good guitar player. Pete probably still is a really good guitar player, and he probably still is a really nice guy when he’s sober. The problem is that he was very rarely sober after 7pm. When he was drunk, he went from 5’2″ to 8’2″. He would be picking fights, setting off fire extinguishers, he’s be drunk before he’d go out onstage. He’d throw the best shapes you’ve ever seen, but played the lousiest guitar you’ve ever heard. He would start fights between the band. He would be obnoxious and uncooperative. Just generally hard work to be around. He’d alienate himself. We didn’t hang out with him until he was sober.
Pete, yeah, sometimes he was funny, most of the time he was annoying. He’s the only time I’ve come close to physically beating the shit out of somebody.
With Steve (Clark), he’d just fall over you, and started crying and hugging you, and telling you how much he loves you. I think Steve just had a real problem with the pressures. Pete had exactly the same problems, but he dealt with them in a way more obnoxious way. Nobody liked him. The management hated him, the record company hated him, people who met him hated him. He was drunk, then the next day they’d see him, it was, “Wow, he’s OK when he’s sober.” Yes.
He’s a self-destruct button. He brings it all on himself. He can’t blame the industry or bad luck or bad timing, which we can all do when things don’t work. Everything that went wrong was totally and utterly Pete’s fault, and he accepts that. But recently he’s been getting pissed off at being blamed as a bad guy. But as I kept saying, “You know what? You can’t unwrite history.” Attila The Hun and Adolph Hitler are never going to have good things written about them, because you can’t look back and tried to find a reason why they were the way there were. Nobody would want to read it. Nobody wants to know about Pete’s good stuff. Whenever I get asked about Pete, the only thing that I ever get asked is, “Was he as bad as he really was?”
Philip Anderson: Well, if you have something good to say, I would like to hear it.
Well I’ve said what there is good to say about him. When he’s sober, he’s really OK, he’s a nice guy. He was always the odd one out, but he was a nice enough guy. He was a great player, a fantastic rhythm player. He had a brilliant right hand. He could do “chuk-chuk-chuk” and never go out of time.
But Joe Elliott had to admit to some aspect of Willis’ immense talent. And he still got to dissing Willis. When discussing who took lead guitar duties Elliott said:
It was 50/50. It always was. You can tell the difference. Pete’s stuff is way more funky. Pete used to want to be Pat Travers. If you listen to the first album, there’s a lot of “wah” stuff in the Pat Travers’ style. The stuff that sounds like Brian Robertson and Jimmy Page is Steve. The open “wah wah,” the manic “wah wah,” that’s Steve. Like Steve does the solo in “It Don’t Matter,” which is great. The end solo, in “Answer To The Master,” there’s a breakdown section, that’s Steve, and the solo following that is Steve. The other lick is Pete. Pete wrote that. He wrote that and played it. Steve couldn’t play it. He would always say, “I can’t fucking play this shit.” That side of the songwriting that we were dealing with then, with Steve and Pete, was the side of the songwriting that none of us were really interested in.
Philip Anderson: That’s why it’s my favorite album. I could never figure out how to play half the stuff on that album back then. It was always a challenge.
Yeah, well the thing is, you can’t figure it out because it was written to be clever. What I mean by that is that Pete really wanted everybody to know what a great guitarist he was, not what a great songwriter he was. So, consequently, we had all these really difficult riffs, like the riffs to “Get Your Rocks Off.” Steve could never do that. He could play a version of it. His fingers just couldn’t get around it. I tell you, on the stage, and on the record, it wasn’t that important that those “diddly-diddly’s” were in there, but it was important to Pete. That’s all well and good, but it was detrimental to the song and detrimental to the furthering of the band. It was always a sticking point as to why everything has to be so precise in the riff department. It’s like, other riffs are all good and well, but “Smoke On The Water” is pretty simple to play and it’s the most memorable song. Things didn’t have to be so bloody complicated. We were verging on going jazz rock. It was like, “Fuck that!” I wanted to be Hanoi Rocks, not Santana.
Pete Willis has seven of the eleven songwriting credits for the music of On Through The Night. On the second LP High n’ Dry (1982) Willis has five of the ten songwriting credits.
After Willis was thrown out of the band during the recording of Pyromania, Def Leppard would achieve superstar status and go on to be one of the world’s most popular bands for the next decade. The hard and heavy music disappeared with Willis’ departure.
Pete Willis still has four songwriting credits on Pyromania including the blockbuster hits Photograph and Too Late For Love and he played on every single song that made it to the finished LP. Willis did not agree with the direction Def Leppard was going in.
Willis’ problems with performing, alcohol, and most importantly Mutt Lange, led to Willis’s exit from the band. The band was concerned Lange would walk out during the Pyromania sessions.
One must go. It was either Willis or Lange. No problem. It would be Willis. After meeting with his bandmates, and conferring with manager Peter Mensch, Joe Elliott was told “You’re all big boys, do it yourself.”
Willis was fired from the band he founded. Ten years later, Steve Clark, the other talented guitarist with alcohol issues died in 1992 at age 30.
Def Leppard have virtually erased their earliest years. Adding it all up, Pete Willis co-wrote 16 of the songs on the first three LPs. Go to the official Def Leppard web site. Pete Willis is omitted in the biography section.
A Masterpiece – On Through The Night
I didn’t think any footage existed or if it did Def Leppard would ever allow it to be released. Yet here it is and it’s wonderful.
Apparently there are audio recordings from this debut tour. Def Leppard recently announced there soon will be an official release of a show done in 1980 at the Oxford Theatre. If there is any other live video from 1980, the band is sitting tight on it.
But to say Joe Elliott despises this album is an understatement. The singing. The songs. The performances. The producer of On Through The Night is Tom Allom. Joe Elliott even can’t stand the production. That’s pretty incredible when you realize this is the same producer who the same year produced Judas Priests’ most popular album, British Steel.
This is what Joe Elliott told Philip Anderson,
The fact of the matter is that we don’t like our first record. And I totally accept and appreciate anybody saying that I’m full of shit, but they have to accept my [opinion]. It’s my record. I made it. I don’t like it anymore. You buy a shirt and say, “I can’t wear this anymore.”and people think it looks really good on you. You’re sick of it. You don’t want it anymore. You want a new one. It’s the same with music. Maybe in three year’s time, we’ll all hit a spot where we’ll go, “Why don’t we do ‘Hello America’ or ‘Overture’ again?” We might all go, “Yeah, let’s do it.” But until that moment happens, it’s been jettisoned.
It was good for its day but it didn’t last. It didn’t stand up. It didn’t come close to Van Halen’s first album. It didn’t come close to Boston’s first album or the first Montrose album. It’s like, my singing is terrible, the production is weak. We speed up half way through the songs and change directions. It was out of our hands. We dropped out guard for a moment and let people dictate how it should be. We were signed to a big, major record label and we thought that’s the way it was. It was only afterwards that we thought, “Bullshit! We got this far on our own. We shouldn’t let these people take over.” We tried to get Mutt to do our first album but we couldn’t get him, but we managed to get him for the second. As soon as we got Mutt, the decision was, “Nobody interferes with this record except this guy.” That was it. If they don’t like it, we’ll take it somewhere else. We didn’t have to do that. To this day, we have never had an A&R man interfere with our music. They can bugger off.
Philip Anderson: I respect your opinion, but still I was wondering about that comment you made on VH1. (Joe had made reference to the fact that the band didn’t need the first album because it was “like a booster rocket” that dropped off and wasn’t needed anymore. Also he said that it wasn’t worth playing anything off of that album for “the 12 of you out there who like it.”)
The only way that I can really describe it is, and I know it’s not a good comparison, but imagine if you go on to your parent’s and your mom pulls out a school annual, from when you were 12, and there’s a review that you did, and you think, “Holy shit. This is really embarrassing.”
Philip Anderson: Yeah, but as a musician, I’ve got music from when I started playing that I may not like now, but I do think it’s workable and should be released just so that it’s out there.
Well, that’s where the comparison is equal. I can tell you right now that if the incentive, and I don’t mean financial, to rerecord that first album ever reared its head, I wouldn’t object. The only way that I would ever feel comfortable listening to that record, sober, is if I rerecorded all my vocals and we remixed it and all that kind of stuff. And I dare say that if they were both in the band, Steve and Pete would want to redo some of the stuff and Sav would want to redo some of the stuff, and Rick would want to redo the drum sound. I have rough mix tapes of that first album that shit all over that finished version, because Tom Allom tried to make it sound too American-radio friendly. He took all the power out. He just took all the energy out of the record. On “High And Dry,” we went probably over the top, because we were so intense on making a record that was so much more in the direction that we wanted to go. We wanted all the power there and all the energy of the guitars and the drums to sound massive and not polite. We didn’t want to sound like REO Speedwagon. We wanted to sound like “Kashmir” and “Rock And Roll.”
Philip Anderson: For your age at that time, you were a huge inspiration for all of us growing up.
Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. The one good fact about that record is that it inspired a whole generation of people that it is possible for five kids 15 to 19 to actually make a conciseive attempt at an album with songs that were are original and very unique, as much as they may be faulted, they were very unique. There were bits that sounded like certain bands. There were obvious influences. You can hear Rush, UFO, Thin Lizzy, and Judas Priest. But overall it sounded like a new act. It was, for its time, what Nirvana was in 1991. It was very much based on previous works.
We all have to admit that if “On Through The Night” had been made by seasoned veterans of 32 years old, it wouldn’t have done shit. My point is that it does get judged for its youth, not for its content and how good it is.
My big argument back then is that back then people would always say, “God, you guys are so young.” I would get so annoyed at that. I would say, “That’s not the point. Listen to the music.” Then when people started saying, “You’re old.” I would say, “You know what? We had the same problem when we were young.” So, nobody’s listening to what we’re doing, they’re just looking at our birth certificates. That’s bullshit.
By the time Pyromania was released Def Leppard was saying On Through The Night is not the kind of a band we are. Don’t clump us in with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands.
Unfortunately they were right. Since the departure of Pete Willis, they have been an irrelevant pop band that alienated their original heavy metal fan base. All 12 of us.
Do they care? Hell no! Especially not Bowie and Mott The Hoople fan, Joe Elliott. Pop music pays the bills when you sell millions of albums.
Without Pete Willis, Def Leppard went onward and upward with Mutt Lange selling over 100 million albums with more pop. Pyromania was the mass market breakthrough. Hysteria and Adrenalize netted the band (and Lange) millions of dollars and security for life. Hysteria had an unprecedented nine songs that were top 40 hits on American radio, a feat never previously accomplished and never since duplicated.
But don’t ever confuse quantity for quality.
Remember this: pop music sells. It sells big time. Joe Elliott must be right, because as of December 2019 there’s less than 7,000 views for part one and two of this concert which plays nine of Def Leppard’s debut album’s songs.
Mention the name Def Leppard to a music fan under 30. Most likely they’re only familiar with Leppard hits like Pour Some Sugar On Me. That’s the Def Leppard people know and that’s the only Def Leppard the band wants you to know.
Now just cross your fingers that Def Lep’s lawyers and publishers don’t force these videos off YouTube.
Here is part 2