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Vivian Campbell: A Life in Rock with Dio, Def Leppard and Last in Line (Q&A)
Decades after the release of Dio’s early ’80s albums, in particular, Holy Diver and The Last In Line, those recordings are widely recognized by music fans and critics alike as towering achievements in ’80s hard rock.
Helping carve out the metallic fury of those landmark alums was Northern Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell, whose tough and strident playing and fierce acrobatic solos helped him garner acclaim as a shining new talent on the hard rock scene. In 1985, creative and personal differences between Campbell and Ronnie James Dio led him to depart from Dio after the group’s third album, Sacred Heart, and he found a permanent home in Def Leppard.
Through the years, Campbell has enjoyed a particularly productive and creatively fruitful six-string telepathy with fellow Leppard Phil Collen.
Away from his day job in Def Leppard, Campbell is part of a new outfit named Last In Line, a troupe featuring former Dio drummer Vinny Appice, bassist Phil Soussan (Ozzy Osbourne/Vince Neil) and vocalist Andrew Freeman. The group’s debut album, Heavy Crown, issued early this year, reaped major chart action and buzz among the hard rock community.
Their mission is simple: they keep the spirit of the late Ronnie James Dio alive by paying faithful tribute to the ferocious sound and style forged on those timeless Dio records.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell us about this new project, Last In Line, and how something that started as a jam session turned into its own worthy project.
Vivian Campbell: It grew out of a jam. There were a couple of things that went on. In early 2011 I was a stunt guitar player for Thin Lizzy for a few months. Def Leppard took all of 2010 and by the middle of 2011 Scott Gorham called me and asked if he could borrow me for a while to do a European tour with Thin Lizzy, and I jumped at the chance.
Thin Lizzy were a favorite band of mine in my formative years. When I was a teenager and really honing my craft and finding my style as a player, Thin Lizzy’s music was probably what I disseminated more than anything else and the guitar players in Thin Lizzy were hugely influential to me; Scott Gorham himself, Brian Robertson and in particular through my love of Thin Lizzy I discovered Gary Moore for the first time.
Gary was probably my ultimate guitar hero. So being onstage for a few months with Scott Gorham and Brian Downey and playing the songs and riffs of my youth, it really reconnected me with my instrument. I’ve been with Def Leppard going on 25 years and Leppard is a great band.
The challenge for me in Leppard is less about the guitar and much more about the vocals; we sing every song and I’ve gotten so much better as a singer in the last quarter century but I haven’t had a chance to challenge myself as a guitar player quite as much.
So it was really great to get back to that. So I came off of that tour and coincidentally, right around that time as well I’d become familiar with the guys in Steel Panther. (laughs) Just as an aside, they had a residency going at the House of Blues in L.A. and they’d given me an open invitation to come along and jam and I took them up on it a couple of times. I got up onstage around the same time as the Lizzy tour and I was up onstage with them playing early Dio songs, which I haven’t played since Ronnie fired me in 1985.
It all kind of happened around that time. So I came off the Lizzy tour and I really wanted to play guitar again and to reconnect with that passion I hadn’t felt for so many years. So I called up my fellow Dio members, Vinny Appice and Jimmy Bain … since we were still friends. We didn’t see each other very often but we’d run into each other every year or two at functions and we were still close.
I asked them if they wanted to go into a rehearsal room and just jam, and fortunately they did. This is around the middle of 2011 and it had been 27 years since we played together. I swear, the chemistry of the original band was absolutely instantaneous. As soon as we started playing it was if it had been 27 minutes.
It was so exciting and we all were smiling. I got goose bumps. It was so dynamic and exciting. So we all felt the same. We played for an hour or two and took a break and it was Vinny who suggested that it would be so much better if we had a singer, which would make it complete. He said, “I know this guy, Andy Freeman, he lives close by. Let me give him a call and see if he can come down.”
And he did and Andy came right down and when Andy started singing that was when I had a bit of an epiphany. It was a bit of a light bulb moment. Andy came in and started singing. He’s a really powerful, passionate rock singer and you need to be strong to sing on top of the volume that Jimmy and Vinny and I put out because Vinny is the loudest drummer I’ve ever played with.
He really sets the bar. When I play with Vinny I play louder than when I play with anyone else. You just kind of have to. So you need to be a really strong singer to sing on top of that and Andy had the pipes to do it. But more importantly to my ear, Andy didn’t sound like Ronnie (Dio). It would have been creepy if he had come in and been a Ronnie clone.
He had the power and the passion but he had a whole different tonality to his voice. So that got me thinking, here’s the unmistakable sound of the original Dio band, the sound that Jimmy, Vinny and I made together was the sound of the Holy Diver, The Last In Line and Sacred Heart albums. You had a singer who sounded nothing like Ronnie but who was powerful and could take it in a different direction. I would have never done this if Ronnie was still alive but he had a passed away a year before this so there was no Dio band anymore.
It occurred to me that this was the original Dio band, Dio is no longer, why don’t we just play some shows for fun? Right off the top of my head I said, “Let’s call it Last In Line.” Obviously it was the name of the second album we did with Ronnie and the fact that Ronnie had passed away and Jimmy, Vinny and I were literally the last in line. That was it. It was a fun thing.
We thought, “let’s play a local club show and play songs from the first three Dio albums!” and that was really the only agenda we had and it continued that way for intermittently a couple of years. I should add that after we decided to do some shows, I called Claude Schnell, the original keyboard player in Dio, and brought him on board. We just went out and played some local and regional shows and it grew from there.
From there we were offered a chance to go to the UK in 2013 and later that year off the back of that we were offered a festival and Tokyo so it kind of grew. After we played in the UK and we played in Japan, we got a call from Frontiers Records asking us if we’d be interested in writing and recording an album of new material, which honestly to that point we hadn’t considered ‘cause everyone had a day job.
What was the thinking behind the sound and direction of your debut album, Heavy Crown?
Vivian Campbell: We wanted to embrace the sound and chemistry of our work in Dio. Together with Jimmy and Vinny we discussed it and we wanted to approach the writing of the record very much in the same spirit that we had approached Holy Diver with Ronnie.
Even in the recording we didn’t set out to make it sound like early Dio record, but that’s the sound that we make. When we play together that is the unfiltered sound; it’s guitar, bass, drums. When we wrote the early Dio records with Ronnie, more often than not the ideas would start from a jam session. Jimmy would have an idea for a riff or I’d have an idea for a riff or even if we had nothing Vinny would lay down some monster groove. I have always found Vinny Appice to be the most inspiring drummer that I’ve ever played with. When I show up empty with no ideas, Vinny will just play something and I’m inspired to play something on top of it. We find stuff; we’re not afraid to explore with each other.
The three of us spent many hours in the rehearsal room, sometimes with Ronnie and sometimes without and in the same case with the Heavy Crown record it was sometimes with Andrew and sometimes without. We’d just throw ideas out there. It’s a fearless kind of environment with us. We don’t hold back. We’re not afraid to laugh at each other, I suppose. (laughs)
We’ll try shit and we’ll throw shit at the wall and sometimes it is shit and we’ll have a laugh about it and move on. There’s no embarrassment with it. It’s always been that way.
It’s a fearless creative environment and from that we tend to get some good results. We’ve never labored over writing songs. It was never that with Dio ether. The only time it became slightly labored was by the third album with Ronnie, the Sacred Heart album, because we really were trying a little bit too hard.
Why is Dio’s Holy Diver album so revered by hard rock fans?
Vivian Campbell: It was a fresh sound because it’s so organic. It really is a simple record, there was not much going on in terms of production. It’s a very honest record in that way, and it features very raw and very real performances. We didn’t spend a lot of time doing it. We didn’t spend a lot of time starting it up. If it were up to me at the time I would have spent months and months and months redoing my guitar solos, trying to perfect them — but when I listen back to it now I take it for what it is. But at the time I didn’t have that kind of perspective.
I think it got the best of all of us at the time Ronnie had written “Holy Diver”: that was the only song that had been completed when we first got together. He had half an idea of “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” everything else we went to L.A. and we wrote. A lot of the songs were reworked versions of riffs that I had with my first band Sweet Savage back in Ireland; a lot of it was Jimmy Bain riffs.
It was the first time the four of us had gotten together and I guess each of us had a basket full of ideas. We were very hungry and we were very very much on the same page. We were creating as a unit. There was very much that sort of band mentality. When the band formed at that time, Ronnie told us, even though it was his solo record deal, he was leaving Sabbath and this was gonna be a band project. He was gonna present it as a band even though it was gonna be named Dio for obvious name recognition reasons.
So we were in it together and working for a common goal. There was none of that separation of Ronnie and his backing band. That came later. (laughs) That’s kind of the cancer that set in and tore the original band apart. But at that time we were all very very much on the same page and we were working for the same goal so I think that translates on the Holy Diver album.
You had a contentious relationship with Ronnie Dio. What drew you together and what pulled you apart?
Vivian Campbell: For me it was never easy, but it wasn’t always contentious. It was always a little bit difficult because of the respect I had for Ronnie. He was so much older than me and he was one of my heroes. The cassette that I had in my car that was on constant play was Black Sabbath’s Heaven & Hell album, which featured Ronnie on lead vocals. This was up until a couple of days before Jimmy Bain called me asking if I could fly to London the next day to audition with Ronnie.
So this was a guy, a hero of mine, and all of a sudden to go from listening to his records and a couple of days later you’re auditioning for him in London and then a few weeks after that you’re flying to L.A. to write a record with him (laughs), I was starstruck.
I was kind of dumbfounded and I was a little bit uncomfortable around him because of it, but it was my own thing. It wasn’t anything that Ronnie was putting out; it was my own issue and I’m very much aware of that and I own that but it kind of set the tone for what was an awkward kind of relationship. It was a bit like being in a band with your stepdad. Ronnie had that kind of protective feeling towards me. He knew that I was a green as the grass and I was fresh off the boat and in L.A. in the ’80s and there were all sorts of things going on around me that he knew I had no experience of and I kind of did get the sense that he was wanting to protect me from some of it. So it was a weird kind of thing and a really weird relationship that he and I had. We didn’t talk a lot but we did have a very sympathetic musical understanding of each other. We kind of instinctively knew what each of us were looking for. He didn’t have to tell me a lot about what to play; I kind of instinctively found it and I think that’s what attracted Ronnie to my playing in the first place.
What did you draw from your experience working with Ronnie and how did you apply it toward your tenure with Def Leppard later on?
Vivian Campbell: Well, between Leppard there were a bunch of other projects. The Dio thing didn’t end well. A lot of people think I turned my back on that band and I left, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I was fired in the middle of a tour, between the first leg of the American tour and the start of the European tour. I was replaced by Craig Goldy. It was a seamless transition and it had obviously been planned for some time. Craig was the guitar player for Rough Cutt, another one of Wendy Dio’s management projects.
It was very painful for me and it left a bad taste in my mouth and I actually turned my back not only on Dio and then work that I had done with Ronnie, but that kid of music in general. It left such a bad taste in my mouth and the way that it happened that I wanted nothing to do with that kind of music for years and years and years. In fact at the time I got together 27 years later with Vinny and Jimmy in the middle of 20011 and we started jamming, to that day I still didn’t own any Dio records.
I hadn’t listened to them and if they came on the radio I’d turn the radio off; such was the issue with me the way that it went down. Between being fired from Dio I went on to play for about 25 minutes with Whitesnake. It was a fun time and it also didn’t end well. I didn’t see a future for that band for me in the long term so it didn’t work out, but it was fun for the brief time it lasted. Then I went on to do a project with Lou Gramm and I did a record with a band called The River Dogs. So by the time Joe Elliot called me about joining Def Leppard I’d been around the block a couple of times so it was very easy for me to walk into Def Leppard for a couple of reasons.
Number one, I’d had the experience of being in and out of bands so I was used to walking into these situations and assimilating with these different groups of musicians and making it work. I’d also had a lot more experience in the studio and on tour as a singer and becoming more rounded as a musician, not just focused on being a guitar player. So it was certainly a lot easier for me to join Def Leppard than it was for the others to accept me — because for all the early years of Def Leppard’s career Steve Clark was an original member, and all of a sudden he was gone and they had to deal with someone else. So it was much much more difficult for Joe and Sav and Rick and Phil to get used to playing with me as it was for me to get used to playing with them.
Plus I was always a huge Def Leppard fan right from day one. Back when I was in Sweet Savage we looked up to Def Leppard. They were part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement as we were, even though Joe will deny it (laughs). We in Sweet Savage looked up to Def Leppard because they went out and initially did it on their own. They released their own independent single, they managed to get it to John Peel and it got played on Radio One and they managed to get an interview with the music publication, Sounds with Geoff Barton.
All these things started to happen for them so they were much kind of a home grown thing and had a kind of D.I.Y approach to making it and personally I was very inspired by that. Not only was I a fan of the music, but I was very very much watching there gradual ascent through the music business and the way that they were just clawing at it and making it happen and creating their own opportunities.
Lastly, you’ve been valiantly battling cancer, what is your current health status?
Vivian Campbell: My health is good, thank you. It’s an ongoing concern and it’s as good as it can be and it’s the least of my concerns, to be honest. It’s routine for me; I continue to do the cancer treatments. It keeps coming back and I continue to deal with it. It’s nothing that I was ever really that concerned about. But it certainly realigned my priorities in life.
It sort of lit a fire under my ass and made me more hungry for life that I ever was, you know? (laughs) I like to think I always had a positive outlook on life but I certainly do now if I didn’t before. It makes me really appreciate things a lot more. I did appreciate playing again with Jimmy Bain; he’s gone now sadly. But getting back to my first passion in life which was beating the shit out of my Les Paul is great, just playing really aggressive, angry guitar.
That’s what I do best in life and to reconnect with that has been really joyous. And that’s definitely being fueled more by dealing with the cancer. I’m doing immune therapy and I have been doing that for a year and a half. I can do it for another six months and it’s very slowly shrinking the tumors. I don’t think in another six months by any means is it gonna cure it but at the very least it’s allowed me to continue my life and my work with absolutely minimal side effects.
These new drugs are absolutely amazing and several of them are part of FDA-approved clinical trials so I’m taking a drug that’s the same one that Jimmy Carter took which cured his melanoma. It’s doing really really well for me but it’s one of those things that I’ll be dealing with for the rest of my life, which is fine. I’m one of the lucky ones; I caught it pretty early. I have good health insurance and I can afford good health care and good doctors.
I’m very thankful for what I have and I’m not at all concerned about my health. But that’s been another thing to throw in the mix that made me want to do this Last In Line project.
August 6, 2020