Steve Clark died 16 years ago today. He was the co-lead guitarist for Def Leppard, a tortured soul who drank himself to death at age 30.
Adrenalize was Def Leppard’s first album without Steve. He died midway through production after an accidental overdose of mixing prescription pain killers and liquor. On the album, the remaining four members of DL recorded the track “White Lightning.” Clark’s nickname was “White Lightning” but the term is also used to describe booze and other drugs. While treated as an anthem to their fallen comrade, lyrics to “White Lightning” also include a warning for others riding the addiction train:
“You wanna leave but you can't let go
You wanna stop but you can't say no
(You never laugh about it, you just can't live without it)
You've had enough but you just want more
You never get what you're looking for
(You never laugh about it)”
And later, after the bridge:
“The White Lightning - On a dead end street
White Lightning - Where the deadbeats meet
White Lightning - It's a one way ride
White Lightning - Oh, there's nowhere to hide.”
Instead of replacing Clark during the Adrenalize sessions, the band forged ahead as a quartet, later hiring Vivian Campbell on guitars. On the official website www.defleppard.com, Steve Clark retains a biography under the band section.
This, beyond any recording or songwriting capabilities, speaks volumes to the talent Clark oozed during his time with the British supergroup. In short, Clark knew the true essence of the 1980s musical zeitgeist and was able to transform that mold into power cords, strong riffs and gigantic album sales.
Personally, I think “White Lightning” is the best track on Adrenalize. The 50 second guitar intro literally makes the song, and the entire track isn’t overproduced like so many DL hits. Interestingly, the song was never released as a single, and I can only assume this was out of respect for Clark. The band didn’t want to look like it was profiting off the death of their famous guitarist. For this reason, “White Lightning” will be our underappreciated song obsession of the week.
For Def Leppard, success is a mixed bag. Personally, I award DL the title of the biggest band of the 1980s. They sold more albums, played more shows and stayed on the charts longer than any other glam band. In the middle of the grunge hey-day, Adrenalize simultaneously debuted at number 1 on the U.S. and U.K. Billboard charts, remaining in the top spot for several weeks. Sales-wise, this was Def Leppard’s last big success, save for the many greatest hits compilations (Rock of Ages: The Definitive Collection was certified platinum in February of 2006). Critics say that when Steve Clark died, so did Def Leppard. I don’t know if I agree with that statement, but I do think the band lost a certain edge that will never be replaced. It’s a certain quality every band loses when an integral musician leaves the fold.
[“White Lightning” lyrics by Def Leppard, for the 1992 Mercury/Universal release Adrenalize]