"This next song is about destruction, like all heavy metal songs": In 1979, the fledgling Def Leppard played a small club show in Sheffield, and our man was there

Def Leppard in 1979
Def Leppard in 1979 (Image credit: Chris Walter via Getty Images)

It’s Tuesday, June 5, 1979. Joe Elliott has just picked me up from Sheffield train station in a battered white Ford Escort van. After a brief stop at Joe’s parents’ house for tea and biscuits, we arrive at Crookes Working Men’s Club – the scene of tonight’s gig by a fledgling Def Leppard

The club initially reminds me of my old school dining room: unremarkable, high-ceilinged, lots of light-coloured wooden tables and chairs, little cliques of people huddled haphazardly around. But then again you could never buy a scotch and Coke for 30p at my school (let alone a double for 54p!). And so it is that those academic comparisons fade rapidly and the atmosphere becomes warm, comfortable and more than a little hazy. Especially after the passage of more than a quarter-century… 

An incredibly fresh-faced Def Leppard burst on stage at about 10pm and make an immediate impression. Their music is high-powered heavy rock played to a degree of tightness usually only achieved after a half-dozen gruelling American tours. Their recently released, independently produced Bludgeon Riffola EP, good as it is, doesn’t even hint at their live dynamism. 

Kicking off with the punchy Glad I’m Alive, the Leps cavort around the stage with wild abandon, belying their tender years by exuding confidence and professionalism. A superbly executed cover of Bob Seger’s Rosalie (made famous by Thin Lizzy, natch) follows, and before you have time to catch your breath Ride Into The Sun erupts from the PA, the hoary old ‘driving at high speed’ lyrical chestnut sounding fresh and alive once more: ‘It’s such an easy feelin’ with the wind in my hair/I’m burnin’ up the rubber and I don’t really care/Cos I’m riding into the sun.’ 

“This next song is about destruction, like all heavy metal songs,” Joe Elliott says, announcing the masterful When The Walls Came Tumbling Down. This leads into Answer To The Master, which in turn acts as a scene-setter for the evening’s highlight, Overture. So much stronger than the EP version, the song is given the full-on magnum-opus treatment. Indeed, its words – ‘The sun, the moon, the darkened sky/The morning dew reflecting in my eye/The rising mist, the dampened earth/They’re just reminders of what life’s worth’ – recall the bleak optimism of Rush’s classic 2112. Of the Leps’ future pop-rockin’ direction, there is not a sign. You’ve probably gathered that by now.

The rest of the set passes by in a flash: Beyond The Temple, Sorrow Is A Woman, Emerald (out-Lizzying the original once again), Heat Street, Good Morning Freedom, ending with my second-favourite number of the set, Wasted (“I thought you might like that one,” says Joe Elliott afterwards, “it reminds me of Kiss”) and returning to play Getcha Rocks Off as the encore.

Def Leppard leave the stage for the final time. Joe Elliott’s mum comes over to me with a glum face and says: “I don’t know how you stood the noise.” But at the same time you couldn’t help but notice the twinkle of excitement in her eyes.

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is a British journalist who founded the heavy metal magazine Kerrang! and was an editor of Sounds music magazine. He specialised in covering rock music and helped popularise the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) after using the term for the first time (after editor Alan Lewis coined it) in the May 1979 issue of Sounds.