January 8, 1991 – Stephen Maynard Steve Clark was born on April 23rd 1960 in Sheffield, England. From a very early age, he showed an interest in music with one such example being his attendance at a concert held by Cliff Richard and the Shadows aged 6. At 11, he received his first guitar from his father, a taxi driver, on the condition that he learned to play. Clark studied classical guitar for a year before one day he discovered Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin at a friend’s house.
When Clark left school his first employer was an engineering firm called GEC Traction where he worked as a lathe operator under a 4 year apprentice contract while first playing in a local band, Electric Chicken. Around that time, he met Pete Willis (Def Leppard’s original guitarist/founder). Clark asked for a spot in the band and joined Def Leppard in January 1978. According to Joe Elliott in Behind the Music, Clark auditioned for Def Leppard by playing all of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” without accompaniment. It was Steve who threatened to quit, right as they started out, unless the band stopped rehearsing and actually went out and played. Singer Joe Elliot went out and scored them a gig that paid the princely sum of £5.
While a guitarist for Def Leppard, he contributed substantially to the band’s music and lyrics. Clark and Pete Willis shared lead guitar duties, and Clark was nicknamed as “The Riffmaster” according to the band’s lead vocalist Joe Elliott in VH1’s Classic Albums series featuring Def Leppard’s Hysteria. When Willis was asked to leave (ironically for drinking), guitarist Phil Collen was recruited into the band.
Steve Clark made some telling contributions to the success of a band that has gone on to sell 100 million albums. He contributed both music and lyrics for the bands first four albums including the worldwide hit albums Pyromania and Hysteria. Musically, according to the other band members in interviews, he was more likely to contribute riffs and guitar parts, although he did write all the music for some of the bands songs, including ‘wasted’ on the bands debut album On through the night.
Clark and Collen quickly bonded, becoming close friends and leading to the trademark dual-guitar sound of Def Leppard. He and Clark became known as the “Terror Twins,” in recognition of their talents and friendship.
Part of their success as a duo was attributed by Collen (on the BBC’s Classic Albums show) to their ability to swap between rhythm and lead guitar, often both playing lead or both doing rhythm within the same song. Lead singer Joe Elliott told the same program that Clark was not a technician, he was a guitarist who wore his instrument a few notches too low, and his style was a key part of the band’s chemistry. Elliott referred to Clark as the “creative one” and Collen as a “total utter technician”.
Whereas Collen quit drinking alcohol during the 1980s in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, Clark never managed to escape his addiction to alcohol.
And as time went on all was not well with Steve Clark the person, despite the money, fame and travelling the world. He developed a drink problem, and suffered it seems with bouts of depression. Not a happy drunk either according to many, this would often push him over the edge with his mood swings. He began to suffer with shakes when trying to play because of his alcohol abuse, which upset him, and he would storm off and have a drink, taking things full circle. Rehab was attempted and failed, and as a last resort Clark was given, unofficially, six months off the band. He never went back.
The night before his death Clark promised girlfriend Janie Dean he was only popping out for ten minutes and definitely wasn’t drinking. Four hours later he arrives back to their Chelsea ad smashed with one of his drinking buddies in tow. Dean had pleaded with him not to drink and take prescription drugs, which he was taking for cracked ribs, the result of one of his other drunken nights out.
The next morning on January 8, 1991, Janie Dean showed an interior decorator around their plush London pad, not knowing that her boyfriend, Def Leppard’s Steve Clark was lying dead on the Sofa. She hadn’t bothered to wake him as after he rolled up drunk the night before. After all ‘nothing woke him after a night on the drink’ she later commented. A couple of hours later she realized the horrific truth, finding him blue in the face with blood coming out of his mouth. Screaming ‘wake up’, it was left to the interior decorator, still in the house, confirmed he was dead. Steve Clark then became, sadly, probably Sheffield biggest Rock n Roll casualty.
His autopsy report stated that he had died from an overdose of codeine and Valium, morphine and a blood alcohol level of .30, three times the British legal driving limit. There was no evidence of suicidal intent.
He had already contributed to half of the songs on the band’s 1992 album Adrenalize prior to his death, which was released in 1992.
Steve Clark was 30 years 8 months 16 days old when he died on 8 January 1991.
In 2011, Collen revealed in an online series of web videos that both he and Clark began working on what would become the song, “White Lightning”, during the recording sessions for the 1992 album, Adrenalize. Completed after Clark’s death, the song ironically described in great detail the effects of Clark’s alcohol and drug addictions.