Vivian Campbell has been talking most of the day. He’s been talking about Dio and Def Leppard, touring and guitar playing, the new Last In Line record and the death of his bandmate Jimmy Bain. “It gets confusing,” he replies with a laugh. “I can’t remember if I said something to you or the person before or the person before the person before.” But when lots of things are happening in your world, you become high in demand.
For Campbell, it’s Last in Line’s recent release of Heavy Crown, an album of songs created by the musicians in the original Dio: Campbell, Bain and drummer Vinny Appice. Coming together one day to jam, ideas started formulating and eventually singer Andrew Freeman, whose current musical home is with the Vegas show Raiding The Rock Vault, was brought in to bring those tunes vocally to life. The chemistry worked yet the release of Heavy Crown was put on hold until a time was more feasible to give it the attention it deserved. Sadly, Bain passed away a month shy of seeing his record go public.
Although Last In Line had planned on touring, they have decided to do only a handful of shows to celebrate the album, their history together and, more importantly, Bain’s contribution and musical legacy. What happens later is up in the air. Campbell has to get back on the road with Leppard, Freeman has Rock Vault and Appice is “playing everywhere!!!” as he posted on social media a few days ago.
“Vivian and Vinny and Jimmy playing live in a room is amazing,” Foreigner bassist and Last In Line’s Heavy Crown producer Jeff Pilson told me early in 2015. He had been working on the record when we talked in January last year, finishing tracking in his home studio, where Pilson could feel the electricity sparking. “The chemistry of the three of them is still so much intact and then you add this dimension of the singer, who is just a monster, it’s really great,” Pilson exclaimed. “And you know how hard it is trying to capture a vibe that happened thirty years ago and yet put your own spin on it and yet feel like it’s authentic and everything else. But it’s just so natural and the music sounds like it could have been Dio stuff.”
“I didn’t want a Dio clone, I didn’t want to draw comparisons to the singer, I didn’t want it to be about that. I wanted it to be about the original songs and the original band and just have a singer who could do it justice,” Campbell explained during a 2013 interview with Glide. “We’ve got a great singer who doesn’t sound anything like Ronnie Dio but he has a similar power in his voice and a real passion and he can certainly hit the notes.” At the time, the band was just getting itself into the groove of being a band, and Campbell was reacquainting himself with songs from his past. “That’s been a great thrill for me to play with those guys again and to challenge myself to play those guitar parts because they are not easy to play.” “Getting to hear Vivian just wailing again, it’s really, really cool,” Pilson added with a smile.
Although Leppard had to take a short sabbatical from touring following the band’s Hysteria On The High Seas Cruise earlier this year to allow Joe Elliott’s throat to rest from a lingering irritation, they will restart their tour on May 2nd in Pensacola, Florida. Campbell has been with the band since the early nineties, following stints in Dio, Whitesnake and Sweet Savage. “Because we could never replace Steve [Clark], it was cool that Vivian could bring a different dimension into the band with his voice,” Phil Collen wrote in his autobiography, Adrenalized, about the decision of bringing the Irish guitar player into their group. “The vocal blend that Vivian, Rick Savage and I have developed along with Joe freaks me out to this day.”
In 2013, Campbell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma but has battled it into remission on several occasions. Last week, when I spoke to him during a busy day of interviews, he was feeling good, happy and certainly excited about the music he had created with some of his oldest partners.
I am very sorry about Jimmy. I know it was a very traumatic time for you guys.
Yeah, it’s particularly bittersweet because this album was actually ready to be released a year ago and we opted not to. We elected to sit on it for a year because we were all waiting until we had an opportunity to tour behind it because we all believed in it that much. Then it’s particularly sad that Jimmy passed away at the eleventh hour. He died pretty much exactly a month before the record came out. We had a tour planned and we’ve cancelled the tour but we’re going to do a couple of shows. We were supposed to tour immediately after the record came out for a couple of months and that just didn’t seem right.
What made Jimmy so special as a musician?
He was just good. I mean, he wasn’t flash but his timing was impeccable, his tone, his writing ability. He was a great all-around musician, arranger, writer, singer. But as is so typical of so many bass players, particularly in rock music, they are kind of the unsung hero. Nobody really notices them, you know. But Jimmy had an immense tone, perfect timing and pitch. I’d say if you asked many young rock bass players, they would agree that he was definitely one of the best in the genre.
Your choice of Andrew was such a good one. How did he get into your radar?
All of this happened by accident and not designed. It’s not like we decided to do this and started auditioning singers. This all grew out of a jam that we had back in mid-2011. I had been on tour with Thin Lizzy just prior to that. At that time, Def Leppard were very inactive and on hiatus and I got a call from Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy asking me if I’d be interested in going on tour. So I jumped at that chance. Lizzy were such an influential band for me as a teenager when I was in my formative years. I was just really honing my craft as a guitar player and they were my go-to band.
So I came back off that brief tour just so inspired and so reconnected to my instrument again and to my youth and my first love, which was playing angry rock guitar. So that led me to call Vinny and Jimmy. We’d always remained close through the years. We’d always been good friends, even though we didn’t see each other too often. But I called them up and just asked if they wanted to go in the rehearsal room to play and that’s what we did. At that point when we first got together to play in mid-2011, I believe it had been twenty-seven years since we’d played together. And as soon as we started, it was just immediate, the chemistry was there just like it always was, the energy was electric and we got so excited about that that we played for a couple of hours. Afterwards it was Vinny Appice who said, “This would be so much better if we had a singer to work with.” He said, “I know this young guy Andrew Freeman that lives close by. Let me give him a call.” He called Andrew and Andrew came down and as soon as Andrew started singing, that’s when I had a bit of an epiphany to do something more with this because when Jimmy and Vinny and I play, it’s the unmistakable sound of early Dio but yet you had this singer who sounded nothing like Ronnie and that’s what made it interesting to me.
Also, there were a couple other factors that played into it. At This point it had been about a year since Ronnie passed away so the band Dio no longer existed. It was also on that same day, ironically enough, that Vinny told me about this band called Dio Disciples that I had never heard of and it’s all of the guys who were never the original Dio guys but all the people who came after us who were out there playing our songs. So I think the combination of all of those things made me think, well, if people are going out to see this band, Dio Disciples, playing songs that we wrote, surely they’d want to see the original band. That’s when it kind of made sense to me and I said, “We’re the last in line.” And obviously it references the second album we did with Ronnie in 1984. “So let’s just go ahead and play these songs from the first early Dio records that we were involved in and we’ll call it Last In Line.” And it’s an interesting kind of thing because the singer doesn’t sound anything like Ronnie. He’s not trying to sound like Ronnie and that’s what made it interesting to me.
But it happened, like I said, organically and by accident and our ambition was solely to play those songs that we had written and recorded with Ronnie. We weren’t thinking about any new music.
When Andrew came in, how did that feel? Did it harken up those days in Dio or was it more fresh and new?
It was a bit of both. Andrew definitely brings a different energy. When we were writing for this record, a lot of it was done with just Jimmy and Vinny and I. Andrew had moved to Las Vegas and the rest of us were in LA so it was just the three of us kicking around ideas that we’d record on MP3 and send to Andrew and he would write back saying, “This is great,” or he’d make suggestions of changes. But other times he would travel from Vegas to LA and he’d actually be in the rehearsal room with us while we were writing and that was a very different energy and certain songs were born out of that that might never have happened had Andrew not been with us. So it’s a bit of both.
We had no preconceptions when we started writing for this record. We didn’t think, “Oh, we’re going to make a record like this, we’re going to make a record like that.” The only thing that we did do was that we set it up that we were going to write it and record it in the style that we had approached the Holy Diver record. That’s not saying we were going to try and write it to make it sound like Holy Diver but we were going to follow the same methods. The songs on Holy Diver all started that same way with Vinny and Jimmy and I kicking around musical ideas and then Ronnie would come down in the evening and we’d play him what we had and he would make suggestions and look at his lyric books and then listen to it a few times and then step up to the mic and start singing. It was a natural flowing kind of process and that’s what we wanted to do for this record.
Did you record it all at Jeff’s studio?
Yes, it was all recorded at Jeff’s home studio but not all at once. We did it in about three different installments over a period of several months. We’d get together and write three or four songs over a period of a couple of days and then for the following three or four days we’d go into Jeff’s studio and record them. Then we’d not see each other for a few months and then we’d do the same thing again.
What was Jeff’s golden touch on this record?
We’ve all known Jeff for years and years and he’s a lovely, lovely guy. He’s got great energy, just a very bubbly person, and he brings that energy to the session and keeps it all very upbeat. He’s a marvelous technician. I had no idea he was actually technically that gifted as an engineer. As a producer he’s incredibly musical. Where he really stood out in my mind was with how he worked with Andrew, because Jeff himself is a great, great singer. Because he’s so good, he really understands the mentality of the singer and he really got inside Andrew’s head and I think he brought out the very, very best Andrew had to offer as a singer.
Which new song would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
The song “I Am Revolution” was the one that changed the most. We actually had that riff for months and months but at the end of the song the very last few bars, it’s in half-time. It’s a slow part and that’s what we were playing for months and months, Jimmy and Vinny and I, and then at one of the few sessions, like I mentioned, where Andrew was actually in LA and came in the room with us, we were playing and it was Andrew who suggested – because Andrew is a little younger than us, he was equally influenced by punk as he was by hard rock – he picked up my guitar and he started playing it like it is on the record, like in double-time, real flashy and punk-y, and suggested, “Why don’t we do it like this.” Jimmy and Vinny and I would never have thought to do that. We were playing it in half-time for months and months, thinking, this is boring (laughs). Then Andy comes in and he had a whole different look to it, a whole different thought to it. So that song would not have happened without Andrew.
Is there a song on the record that you feel really captures the spirit of the original Dio the most?
I always felt, and I could be wrong, but to my ears, “Devil In Me” was the one that I think could absolutely have sat on the Holy Diver record; followed very closely by “Starmaker.”
Which guitar did you use primarily to record Heavy Crown?
72987537. It’s the only guitar I ever knew the serial number of and I bought it when I was fifteen or sixteen back in Ireland. It’s a Gibson Les Paul and it’s the same guitar I used when we wrote and recorded and toured Holy Diver. It’s been in storage for years and years cause I have so many other Les Pauls with Def Leppard that I just never bothered to use it, you know. So it seemed appropriate when I started playing with Jimmy and Vinny again to go back to using my original instrument, which I did. I used several guitars on this record but primarily I used that one. I did all the rhythm tracks with that and all the guitar solos with that.
How did it sound when you pulled it out of storage? Did you have to tweak it any?
You know, over the years it had been modified on certain things. I sent it to a very good guitar tech friend of mine and I had him restore it basically back to the spec it was back in the early eighties. I would say 72987537 is not technically the best guitar that I own but it’s the one that means the most to me. If the house was on fire that’s the one I would grab. And I have a lot of guitars (laughs).
When you first started learning to play guitar what was the most difficult part for you to get the hang of?
Well, when you’re first learning to play it’s always a technical challenge. That’s the hurdle you’re overcoming and that just takes years, literally thousands of hours of playing to where that becomes second nature. But it’s phase one of learning to play guitar. Phase two is finding your own voice and that’s the more difficult thing. That takes a lot longer and takes a lot more experience to recognize it and be comfortable with it. I was always very frustrated in my early years, my early twenties. I was never happy with the way I played guitar. Now, I am very content with the way I play guitar. But nothing has really changed. I don’t play that different to how I did back then. The difference is that now I recognize it and am more comfortable with it, you know. You kind of grow into your own skin and I grew into my own guitar style and I learned how to embrace it. Sometimes it’s our limitations that define our style. My limitations as a guitar player frustrated me immensely when I was in my twenties but now I realize in recent years that it’s my limitations that actually helped shape my style and makes me who I am. So I embrace that.
You said earlier you played angry rock guitar. So how did Rory Gallagher become someone you admired so much?
My two major influences as a guitarist were, in this order, Rory Gallagher and then a year or two later I discovered Gary Moore. I learned a lot from both of them and I still do learn a lot from them. But they both play very, very physically, as indeed I do. We physically assault the instrument. That’s why I say getting angry with my Les Paul. It is a very intense physical interaction between me and my guitar. I often refer to it like wrestling a tiger cause it’s constantly on edge and you don’t really know which way it’s going to go.
But yeah, Rory had a very heavy right hand, as did Gary Moore, so I’ve picked up that particular habit from both of those guys and it’s helped shape the way that I play. I think even if you didn’t know that those two guys were my biggest, most influential influences in my formative years, I think it’s pretty apparent in my playing. A lot of the pinch harmonics that I hit with my right hand, a lot of the heavy palm muting that I do with my right hand, are very, very indicative of both of those guitar players. The heavy palm muting comes from Gary Moore, the pinch harmonics comes from Rory. There’s a full-blooded assault in the way that they play guitar, to my ears, and I think that’s what originally attracted me. Something in me was always attracted to that and it’s manifested itself in my playing as well.
What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
There were a few. With Sweet Savage, we did a lot of shows with Thin Lizzy. There were a couple of those shows that were big for me but obviously my first big moment like that was when I was playing with Ronnie Dio for the first time. Jimmy Bain was the guy who got me my audition with Dio so I kind of owe my career to Jimmy. At the time when Jimmy called me, the cassette that was in my car’s cassette deck was the Heaven & Hell album. I was never a Black Sabbath fan. It was only when Ronnie joined Black Sabbath that I became a fan of Sabbath. Prior to that I had the Long Live Rock N Roll album by Rainbow and I was familiar with the other Rainbow albums even though I didn’t own them. So I was very much a Ronnie Dio fan and was actually listening over and over again to the Heaven & Hell album when Jimmy Bain called me and asked if I’d like to come to London the next day and audition for this new band with Ronnie Dio. So that was definitely one of those moments, cause within the space of twenty-four hours I went from being a fan listening to Ronnie Dio to actually joining his band.
Phil Collen wrote his memoir last year. When are you going to write yours?
I’ve kind of been dragging my heels on that and I kind of berate myself about it because I really feel like I got a lot to tell. I guess the thing is, I’m not sure just exactly what kind of book I want to write and I know the only way that question is going to answer itself is once I start writing it’ll become apparent. But I don’t really want it to just be another book about, I did this and then I did that and then I met so-and-so. I don’t want it to just be a chronology of my life. I actually really, really enjoy writing and I think that I express myself better in written words than through spoken words and I’ve always felt that way. So I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to write one of those sort of books or what sort of book it would be.
Then there’s the other added complication of, I’m very, very big on principle and truth and sometimes telling the truth gets you in a lot of trouble. It’s gotten me in a lot of trouble in my life and all I’ve ever wanted to do is try and be upfront and candid. And I feel if I write, if I’m going to be true to myself and I really write things that are truthful, then I think I might piss some people off (laughs).
You’re not going to tour but will do a few dates. Is that the end of Last In Line?
I honestly don’t know. We’re not in a position where we have to make that decision yet, fortunately, because we only have this opportunity to do these handful of shows. It would have been wrong to just go out on tour a month after Jimmy died with some guy playing bass. That would have been very disrespectful. So we’re just trying to find the right balance now between doing nothing and giving up and doing something to help this record and consequently further Jimmy’s memory cause Jimmy really believed in this record and this band. In fact, so much so, last year Jimmy got a Last In Line tattoo on his arm. When he died it was the only tattoo on his body, the Last In Line logo. He believed in this project so much and he was so involved creatively in this record, and it is a great record and a great bookend to his career.
Like I said, we’re fortunate we don’t have to make that decision yet. We’re just going to do these handful of shows and then I’m on tour with Leppard until mid-October. So if anything does happen further with Last In Line, it wouldn’t happen before the end of the year. So we have a lot of time to think about it and I guess, more than anything else, our decision on our future would be determined by what happens with the record. And so far it’s very encouraging, the reviews and the responses have been tremendous. With that in mind, and if it continues that way, if there’s enough of a desire for people to hear us play, then we probably would.
Would you try to keep Andrew?
Absolutely, yeah. It has to be. Right now it’s Andrew and Vinny and myself. If Andrew quits then we’re done. If Vinny quits, we’re done. I’m not about trying to put band-aids on this and salvage a sinking ship, you know. I really, really believe in the chemistry of human interaction and that’s why the original Dio band sounded so good because it wasn’t just the fact that Jimmy was a great bass player, it wasn’t the fact that Vinny is a great drummer or wasn’t the fact that I was a reasonable guitar player. It was the connection we had together that made it sound so great. Now that Jimmy is gone, it’s never going to be the same and I’d be lying to myself if I thought it was. But we have found someone who I can’t mention yet but who is a very seasoned, well-known pro and friend of Jimmy’s who will do a very, very good assimilation. But Vinny and I know it’s never going to be quite the same. So yes, for us to proceed, it has to be Vinny and Andrew and myself. If either of those guys bail, I’m done.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough & Vera Harder