Lisburn Rock Star Sings the Blues

Emma Heatherington gets a glimpse into the rock 'n' roll life of Vivian Campbell

One of Northern Ireland’s finest musical exports, Vivian Campbell has played guitar with many of America’s legendary rock bands such as Dio and Whitesnake - despite never having had a proper guitar lesson in his life.

Born in Belfast in 1962 and raised in Lisburn, Campbell's lengthy musical career and huge talent led him to join Sheffield rockers Def Leppard in 1991.

Last year, he took what some might describe as a u-turn by launching a debut solo album which is influenced heavily by a more mellow, blues style.

Campbell began his musical career aged sixteen in Belfast with rock band Sweet Savage. It was 1978 - a time when music was dominated by major players such as the Rolling Stones and Thin Lizzy.

Sweet Savage set the scene for bands such as Metallica and Budgie, the former recording one of Campbell’s own songs. While on tour with Motorhead, Campbell was spotted by Jimmy Bain, a bass player on the look out for a powerful guitarist.

On Bain’s recommendation, Campbell, then only aged nineteen, went on to record two albums with Ronnie James Dio who had just left heavy metal veterans Black Sabbath to form his own band. Campbell remembers fondly his teenage days with Dio.

'When I was a teenager, I was really only motivated by the guitar, the guitar lick, the guitar solo and the guitar sound. You get into playing rock and heavy metal because those are the genres that glorify the instrument.

'My first original band, Sweet Savage, sounded a lot like Metallica, but when I started playing with Dio I found Ronnie’s method ... he was really into old-school metal.

'This was the early 80's and there were a lot of younger bands coming up that actually had a sense of humour about themselves and Ronnie didn’t. He was very serious about his genre.

'Having said that I go back and listen to the early Dio records and it’s only now that I can appreciate what I was doing then. I didn’t have a lot of technique, but I had a lot of fire and I was willing to be inventive.”

Six years later Campbell was invited to share the stage with Whitesnake. With David Coverdale (ex-Deep Purple) on lead vocals, they soared up the US and UK charts with hits such as ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Is This Love?’

Campbell was now well and truly living the rock and roll lifestyle, driving a red Ferrari and hanging out with other big players such as Bon Jovi and touring all of Europe and America’s major venues to hundreds of thousands of screaming fans.

But he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with his role in Whitesnake and before long, he found himself making a move again.

'When I was with Whitesnake, David Coverdale taught me a lot and that’s when I started taking vocal lessons. But it was a situation I never really was at home with.

'It wasn’t a band. Whitesnake was as it still is today – a revolving door of musicians. We had a successful couple of years, but I didn’t have a future with that band. So, I got edged out and that was OK.

'I recorded one guitar solo on a track that I had nothing to do with, so it’s not like I got creatively involved. That door was firmly shut and that’s when I decided I had to leave.'

Having fallen almost accidentally into the genre of hard rock, leaving Whitesnake presented Campbell with an opportunity to explore his own musical interests, taking in his early influences such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello and Northern Ireland’s other guitar hero, Rory Gallagher.

A four piece called Riverdogs was formed with a blues singer up front and they recorded an album with Epic. But Campbell's desire to improve on his vocal contributions led him on the road again; this time to a solo project with a Motown twist, and with Epic Records, he began to pen an album of original songs with himself as lead vocalist.

Just before the album was recorded, fate stepped in. Def Leppard had tragically lost their guitarist and were on the lookout for a replacement. When the call came in Campbell’s direction, it was an offer he couldn’t resist.

Rumours circulated on the amount he signed his contract for, and he made his live debut on the UK stage at the famous Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1991.

He was now part of a band he could contribute to both creatively and vocally, and subsequent tours led him back to his native Northern Ireland where he played to capacity crowds at Belfast’s Ulster Hall and King's Hall in the nineties.

Under the influence of legendary producer Mutt Lange (husband of country/pop singer Shania Twain), Rock of Ages in 2005 followed the success of a Greatest Hits compilation. Fifteen years on with Def Leppard, Campbell still feels most at home when in a live environment.

'Ask any guy in Def Leppard - I’m the one who hates being in the studio making Def Leppard records. I believe in the magic of the first take and that really doesn’t gel with the Def Leppard philosophy.

'We’re becoming more open to accepting the possibility that the first two or three takes might actually be the best, as opposed to trying to beat it out.'

To satisfy an obvious yearning to make his very own music, Campbell did eventually release a solo album. Whilst he hasn’t given up the day job, Two Sides of If allowed him to explore his passion for the blues with himself as lead vocalist.

Campbell has always described his guitar style as more blues-based than technical, and as he enjoys magnificent success right across the musical spectrum, this Lisburn lad can be extra proud of the fact that as far as playing guitar is concerned, he taught himself everything he knows.  

Topics