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Def Leppard's Low Profile Helps Guitarist Overcome Adversity, Shop in Laguna Hills : Happy to Be Faces in the Crowd

August 28, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For about 10 years beginning in 1983, Def Leppard was among rock's elite when it came to selling records. All four of the British band's albums during this period landed in the top 10 in the United States, two of them topping the 9-million sales mark.

But despite its popularity, the pop-metal quintet--which appears at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre tonight--has never possessed a particularly compelling visual image. Like Pink Floyd, the group's music and name are much more recognizable than the individual faces.

This suits guitarist Phil Collen just fine. He'd much rather live in quiet anonymity in Laguna Hills.

"I've lived there 6 1/2 years," Collen said from a tour stop in Oklahoma. "Even if we've had an album that has been a huge No. 1 album and a single that's all over the place, it's always been consistent; I've always been able to go into the store and push the cart around Lucky's or whatever and never get hassled. A lot of people draw that on themselves. If you dress up in dark clothes and sunglasses on a really sunny day, people are going to look at you, regardless. I don't need to attract attention. [The anonymity] has been cool because it's allowed us to live fairly normal lives."

Collen said Def Leppard has endured for 19 years largely because its members haven't let their egos expand along with their bank accounts. As evidence of this, he cites their mode of transportation: The group has always preferred riding to its shows in vans rather than plush limousines.

"A lot of [popular musicians] think that they're a lot more special than they really are, purely because the industry allows that," the 38-year-old Englishman said. "People tell you you're [great] and before you know it, that person thinks they're a demigod. It's been mainly our attitude that has made the difference [in longevity]."

Indeed, Def Leppard has had to rely on an uncommon level of determination to survive numerous travails accompanying its success.

After 1983's "Pyromania" album made the band a star attraction, drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident. Instead of replacing him, though, the group constructed a special electronic drum kit that allowed Allen to continue to play.

In 1991, guitarist Steve Clark died after overdosing on alcohol and drugs. (According to Collen, Clark had been battling serious substance abuse about five years.) But even in the wake of that tragedy, Def Leppard continued to rack up monstrous sales. With Collen playing all the guitar parts, 1992's "Adrenalize" was a smash album. Former Ronnie James Dio and Whitesnake ax man Vivian Campbell was added to the lineup for the subsequent world tour.

Los Angeles-based percussionist Allen again made news in June 1995 when he was charged with attacking his wife during an argument at L.A. International Airport. Earlier this month he was sentenced to spend 30 days on a graffiti-removing work crew and undergo a year of counseling.

Through everything, the band--which also includes singer Joe Elliott and bassist Rick Savage--has endured, though its days of multiplatinum albums may finally be winding down. The group's latest effort, "Slang," hasn't nearly matched the consumer response of its predecessors. But Collen said band members are not discouraged.

"This is our most creative album," he said. "Whether anyone accepts it . . . that's a bonus. I can understand that there's peer pressure [among rock fans]. If someone says, 'That's not cool, you have to like an alternative band,' they're like, 'OK.' It's funny, we see that all the time."

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The melodic hard rock that has long defined the Def Leppard sound is still very much in evidence on "Slang." But the album also finds the band exploring musical styles it was previously reluctant to tackle. A longtime soul fanatic, Collen credits the more liberal musical mind-set engendered by the alternative rock scene for helping to embolden the group. "Slang" contains traces of soul, funk, industrial and even traditional Indian music.

"In the past, the bass guitar used to be the last thing that went on the tape," he points out. "It was the least important [instrument]. On this album, due to some of the alternative bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bass is almost like a lead instrument. That was exciting for us to take it out of its regular context. We gave ourselves a new dimension."

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