Retold – The Tragic Death of Def Leppard’s Steve Clark

My project

How many readers of this blog have ever woken up after a big night on the town to find themselves wearing a brand new 10,000 dollar watch that they have absolutely no recollection of buying? No, me neither.

But it happened in Def Leppard, and would send the band’s 2 guitarists spinning off on 2 very different trajectories in life – culminating in the early end of one of them. The tragic death of Def Leppard’s Steve Clark – the mother of all cries for help.

Early Success

Def Leppard tasted success pretty early on in their careers. No years and years for them schlepping round dingy clubs and bars trying to get a break. The band first got together in 1977 in Sheffield, England, and soon had the line-up that would catapult them skywards. Rick Savage and Pete Willis on bass and guitar. Joe Elliott soon came along as lead singer later that year, and came up with the name.

Willis sometimes attended a local technical college, where he met another budding young guitar player, Steve Clark. The band hadn’t initially planned on a 2-guitar lineup, but when they heard Clark blast through a virtuoso performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’, that all changed, and he was in.  

Rehearsals took place in a garage, and the first gig was in the dining room of a local school. But they soon picked up a following. Missing out narrowly to Iron Maiden in the race to sign with EMI in 1979, they were picked up by Phonogram, and by March of 1980, they’d already put out their first album, ‘On Through the night,’ and it made the top 20 in the UK. Here they are in early action with ‘Rocks Off’, which had decent radio airplay at the time.

Rock Sophistication

So it was a stratospheric rise by any standards. But let’s make no bones about it, that’s because they were good – exceptional really, for guys so young, with those trademark sophisticated guitar and vocal melodies already coming to the fore.

Album number 2, ‘High N Dry’ in 1981 kick started Def Leppard’s first serious assault on the US, where it eventually went platinum. Here’s a highlight from that.

Second only to Thriller

By the time ‘Pyromania’ came out in 1983, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was all that stood between them and the #1 chart position in America.

By this time, the band had demonstrated not only their musical chops, but also their business ruthlessness. (See also: Metallica!) Original managers Pete Martin and Frank Stuart-Brown who’s bashed down doors for them early on were fired in favour of uber-manager Peter Mensch.

Founding guitar player Pete Willis was also kicked out, because his booze and drug habits were seen as holding the rest of them back. It affected his playing, and he was the kind of guy people started to think was a major dick whenever he was out of it. Phil Collen came in and the upward path continued.

Up until then, everyone liked to party, so Willis may well have felt aggrieved at being fired for that reason. Kinda like when Ozzy got kicked out of Black Sabbath for drugs – there was a whiff of hypocrisy in the air. But anyway, decision made, life moved on. Collen recorded the rest of ‘Pyromania’, sales of which duly exploded.

All change

And that changed everything. Def Leppard had been a successful rock band, but still a bit niche, and able to kick back. Collen didn’t mind a few beers himself in that early period, and could raise hell with the best of ‘em. Indeed, he and Clark became known as the Terror Twins for exactly that reason. But then, all of a sudden, they were a global phenomenon, a multi-million dollar business who could not now take their eyes off the ball.

Obviously, that type of success can affect different people in different ways. Most of the band welcomed it, and were hard-nosed about their new stats, accepted they’d be under the spotlight like never before. But not Steve Clark.  

Down to Earth

Perhaps more than any of them, Clark was only in it for the music. He was an old fashioned rocked, wore his guitar low-slung, even though it made his playing a bit sloppy at times. He loved to improvise with the guitar, concoct riffs and try stuff out. He liked the idea of the old-fashioned rock n roll partying lifestyle, but wasn’t at all into the ‘celebrity’ aspects. That made him feel like a fraud and an imposter. After all, were it not for the band, he’d likely still have been working as a lathe operator in a Sheffield factory. (And for those not familiar, Sheffield is in the UK county of Yorkshire, famous for its lack of airs and graces, where people are nothing if not down to earth.)

So Clark liked doing shows, liked hanging out with his ‘brothers’, liked to write riffs. The other aspects of the bandwagon not at all.

That Watch

But whether he liked it or not, that bandwagon was now rolling at high speed. And that’s where the expensive watch came into play. It was Phill Collen who woke wearing the sparkly new appendage. And he took it as incontrovertible evidence that he had to clean up his act. He’d been mentally heading that way anyway after the way the Def Leppard career arc had started to go, but the watch? That was the last straw.

The Terror Twins were no more, Collen quit the booze, started to hit the gym, even turned vegetarian. He was going to make sure that whatever happened, he could physically cope with the rigours of being in this band.

Not Normal Any More

Clark didn’t react well at all to this turn of events. He pined for the days when he and Collen and Joe Elliott could hang out, and mess up, and it didn’t matter so much, things felt more normal. It set him on a downward spiral.

Things then went from bad to worse when Pyromania tour finished and the band got back together to write and record their next album, ‘Hysteria.’ You can read another blog post on here about that – how it was so expensive to make that it was at risk of flopping financially. It was also of course the period of time when drummer Rick Allen tour his arm of crashing his sports car, giving the band a very in your face trauma to deal with, not like Steve Clark’s hidden below the surface depression.

Mutt’s Style

Important takeaway for the purposes of this story, though, is that having looked as though they would have to do without the legendary Mutt Lange in the production chair, they did finally get him to do it when all the other options didn’t work out.

And, whilst nobody knew it at the time, that was disastrous in its own way for Clark’s mental health. Lange was a perfectionist and somewhat of a guru when it came to rock production. His pioneering methods included things like breaking down individual chords in a song, then having the guitars record one string at a time. Which of course is one reason why it all took so long.

But improvisation specialist Steve Clark found it a hellish process, with endless takes, endless dithering. Matters were made worse by the fact that newly-minted health and fitness freak Phil Collen was the natural choice for anything complex that had to be done. Clark found himself waiting around, nothing much to do. His imposter syndrome only worsened. As did the alcoholism, drinking being at least a way to pass the time.

On the Road to Nowhere

By this point, it’s already uncertain whether there was any way back for Clark. But hitting the road for another long tour was no doubt the exact opposite of what he needed. Already depressed by his perceived lack of contribution to ‘Hysteria’, he’d then stand on stage every night feeling like his guitar partner never put a foot wrong, whilst he was letting everybody down.

Things got so bad that the rest of Def Leppard couldn’t help but notice there was a major problem. They tried to help, and Clark ended up in rehab units the world over, often with the band picking up the tab. They even asked Aerosmith’s manager Tim Collins to intervene – the same Tim Collins who had the even-more-unmanageable toxic twins of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to deal with. (Read more about their shenanigans here).

No Use

But it was no use – every intervention fell on deaf ears. Clark seemed to be beyond help. At the end of tour party, Clarke banked a bonus check for over a million bucks, and chatted with his girlfriend, the American model Lorelei Shellist. Sounds pretty sweet – but she’d soon leave him, despairing over his addictions, and obviously the money wasn’t helping in any way at all.

The end was near. Clarke got together with the others to start work on the next album, which would come out as ‘Adrenalize’ in 1992. But Steve Clark would never hear the finished version. Still in and out of rehab even as the album progressed, he was no use to anyone – a distraction who could no longer perform anyway.

Last Vacation

The band gave him 6 months off, told him to spend it in his own home in West London, try to live a normal life for a bit. Clark said he would, but spent at least as much time at his local pub. At one point, not long before his death, he was admitted to hospital following a binge, and found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.59%. To put that it context, the alcohol limit for driving in the UK is 0.08% – Clark was over 7-times over. He also beat the record of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who had 0.41% when he died.

Clark himself survived that incident, but the writing was on the wall. On 8th January 1991, he was found said on the couch at home, aged 30.

A coroner’s report gave the cause of death as ‘respiratory failure due to a compression of the brain stem, resulting from excess quantities of alcohol mixed with antidepressants and painkillers.’ Valium and codeine had been found in his autopsy as well as alcohol. He was buried back in Sheffield.

The rest of Def Leppard knew he’d been in trouble, but the death of a 30 year old man remains shocking for everyone, and Phil Collen nearly quit the band for good, but agreed to carry on in Steve Clarke’s memory.

And on they go to this day, with ex-Dio axeman Vivian Campbell as his now long-time replacement. Still belting out those famous Steve Clark riffs. Here’s one of his signatures.

Over 20 years now since Steve Clark’s untimely death and yet to The Hawk, it still has an ‘only yesterday’ feeling about it. SHare your memories of Steve in the comments below.

Leave a Comment


Company Name


Re-living the Greatest Heavy Metal Music In History