Campbell had already carved out a successful career in rock prior to his role in Def Leppard. He’d enjoyed stints with Dio and Whitesnake, as well as contributing to Lou Gramm’s solo work. The guitarist had also forged a friendship with Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott well before they became bandmates.
“Joe Elliott would call me when he came to L.A. looking for a pickup football game on a Sunday morning,” the Irish-born Campbell explained during a 2019 conversation with Loudwire. “When I was in Dublin, I’d see Joe, we’d go out for drinks or dinner or whatever. So, our relationship had nothing to do with music. I knew the kind of person that Joe is, and I think that he kind of knew the person that I am.”
The guitarist credited that friendship with giving him a foot in the Def Leppard door. “Def Leppard probably wouldn’t have called me to ask to join their band, but it was only because Joe knew who I was as a person,” Campbell recalled. “He thought, ‘Well, I know this guy, I like this guy, I think he’d be right in Def Leppard.'”
The reason the band had an opening in the first place is a much sadder story. Steve Clark, who had served as the band’s lead guitarist and a principal songwriter, died in his sleep on Jan. 8, 1991, the result of a long and tortuous battle with alcoholism.
After mourning the loss of their friend and bandmate, Def Leppard decided to push forward, completing their Adrenalize album and auditioning new guitarists. Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith, former Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake member John Sykes and guitar player Gary Hoey were among the other musicians to try out. Eventually, the band determined Campbell was its man.
“Everything about Leppard, every aspect about the band, is thoroughly unique to Def Leppard,” Campbell later noted, comparing the group to his previous endeavors. “There’s a very, very serious work ethic within the band. That was the first thing I noticed.”
Roughly six weeks after joining Def Leppard, Campbell would make his onstage debut with the band. The performance took place April 15, 1992, in his hometown of Dublin, a warm-up show for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, which Def Leppard would participate in five days later.
For the Dublin show, the band opened with “Stagefright” and “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop),” two tracks from their massively successful Pyromania LP. From there the group rolled into “Women” off their Hysteria album.
Listen to Vivian Campbell’s First Show With Def Leppard
About halfway through the set, Elliott put the spotlight on Def Leppard’s newest member.
“You probably read in the music press. It’s been pretty much, pretty well documented over the last few months. What’s happened to us over the last few years,” the singer said, addressing the crowd. “And we lost a very good friend. And I don’t know how to say this, but I guess as one flame dies, another one rises. We’d like you to welcome to our family Mr. Vivian Campbell.”
The guitarist was greeted with rousing applause. Even though expectations were high, Campbell felt immediately comfortable with his new group. “I was excited, but I wasn’t at all nervous,” he’d later recall of the gig. “That show was absolutely steaming. The band was really, really good.”
The feeling was shared by the rest of Def Leppard. “When we played our first gig, it was like Vivian had always been in the band,” Elliott later admitted. “It was very strange, in fact, because I didn’t expect it to be that comfortable, especially since we were replacing a guy who died, not one we fired and all hated or something. I would be very surprised if the fans didn’t accept Vivian. I mean, what do they expect? We can’t bring Steve back. Steve was loved very much by everyone in the band, but we had the advantage of having 18 months since he died, so time had healed some of the wounds.”
Campbell’s role in the band was further solidified on April 20, 1992, when Def Leppard played three songs as part of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. The performance placed the guitarist on the world’s stage, a place he’s occupied ever since.