Consider my vote for Coolest Guitar Player Ever cast for the late, great Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s doomed riffmaster. Like a blonde Jimmy Page, he stalked, sauntered, and stomped around the world’s stages, Les Paul slung impossibly low, stopping only long enough to lean back and spit out occasional sparks of tasteful lickage. He’s been gone 20 years, and though his band has soldiered on, in many ways they’ve never quite recovered from his loss.
By the time Clark’s self-prescribed medications took his life in 1991, Def Leppard had moved from making hard rock records the masses enjoyed to making rock music aimed squarely for the mainstream. The band that had blasted out of Sheffield with tracks like “Wasted,” “Rock Brigade,” “Let It Go,” “Lady Strange,” and “High ‘N’ Dry (Saturday Night)” would probably have sneered at the band that sent “Animal,” “Hysteria,” and “Love Bites” up the charts. It was all good stuff, though, and Clark was an essential component of the band’s sound, as both soloist and creator of the inescapable hooks and riffs that practically defined the golden era of melodic rock.
Clark shines particularly brightly on Def Leppard’s first (and arguably best) contribution to the power ballad arts, 1981’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” It’s a classic piece of slow-burning rock balladry, a song that stands with some of the early examples of the genre (think “Dream On” or “Free Bird”) as a timeless standard bearer.
First, you have the opening guitar figure, played in harmony by Clark and original co-lead guitarist Pete Willis. The two of them sound like they’re standing on Mount Olympus, handing down a directive from Zeus himself. Realizing the cumulative power of such a sound must be parceled out in small doses, they back off, deciding to arpeggiate through the verses, and save the real fireworks for the chorus, where such fireworks belong.
You also have lyrics, which, like “Bringin'”‘s proto-power ballad forbears, mean very little, yet seem to encompass the whole of love itself. The sentiments are simple. A young lady has smitten our Def Leppard spokesperson. She is quite comely, a bit of a rabble-rouser, but one who seems to have her thoughts set on finding emotional satisfaction somewhere in this crazy world of ours. Only the Def Leppard spokesperson doesn’t explain it like that. He explains it like this:
Gypsy, sittin’ lookin’ pretty
A broken rose with laughin’ eyes
You’re a mystery, always runnin’ wild
Like a child without a home
You’re always searching, searching for a feeling
But it’s easy come and easy go
Couldn’tcha just imagine Robert Plant singing something like this, maybe on Zeppelin IV? Or Paul Rodgers wooing some wanton maiden on the first Bad Company record? The mythologizing of women in classic rock songs is an oft-employed ingredient of the genre; big-willied rock stars have long declaimed the mysterious nature of the fairer sex, even as they’ve coerced said sex into fellatio, or three-ways, or congress with mud sharks. Those canny lads in Def Leppard learned their lessons well, and managed on just their second album to add to the canon of legendarily enigmatic 16-year-old groupies.
Yet, somehow, the fair maiden has done the Def Leppard spokesperson wrong, so much so that in the chorus he repeats, ad nauseum, that she has brought down upon him heartache and/or heartbreak. Has she left him? Pouted about his body odor? Refused the advances of the mud shark? It’s difficult to tell, but she’s done a number on him (a number one, probably, while he’s shackled to the bedposts), and he screams the fact up to the heavens, up to Zeus himself. And he is joined by a chorus of his fellow Leppards, and probably a half dozen or so Mutt Langes, too, all multi-tracked and echoed into a glorious choir of power ballad-worthy voices.
These voices were joined by a phalanx of likewise multi-tracked guitars in the original 1981 version of the song, and by those guitars and some oddly placed synthesizers on the remixed 1984 re-release of the song, put out to capitalize on Def Leppard’s post-Pyromania profile. The synths on the latter mix are superfluous to the point of being distracting; not until the “radio edit” of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” in 1987 were keyboards employed in such an unwise fashion.
But the song, in either mix, is saved by the solos—those expert runs and fills that keep things moving, and keep the real rawk dudes interested when they get confused by the imagery of gypsies, laughing eyes, and the like. The solos were Steve Clark at his most tasteful, his most expert. How do you perfectly compliment the perfect melody of the perfect power ballad? You get Clarky to weave his magic around that perfect melody, then punch into the final chorus with controlled fury, until the whole thing comes to a halt and fadeout (though, on the album, it fades into a Clark-penned instrumental, “Switch 625”).
Yeah, back to Steve Clark again. Coolest Guitar Player Ever. Dead at 30 years old, 20 years ago. All groupies and gypsies and mud sharks aside, that’s the real heartbreak.