Vivian Campbell Discusses Cancer, Dio, Def Leppard and His Last In Line Tribute to the Late Jimmy Bain

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Last In Line. PHOTO SUBMITTED.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Vivian Campbell has amassed one of the more impressive musical pedigrees in the annals of hard rock music. His body of work reads like a who’s who of legendary artists and bands – from Dio to Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, to Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy and his current primary gig – as a member of one of the most successful hard rock bands of all time, Def Leppard.

But Campbell has never been one to rest on his laurels and be satisfied with where he is at. Always looking for a new opportunity to strut his stuff as a master of the six string and as a composer of memorable, melodic hard rock music, Campbell reunited with the surviving members of the original Dio band to form Last In Line. That agglomeration of amazing rock talent, including drummer Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell) and the late Jimmy Bain (Rainbow), was joined by powerhouse Los Angeles-based singer Andrew Freeman (Lynch Mob) to write and record the album Heavy Crown, which was released recently by Frontiers Records.

The band’s name comes from the second of three albums that what Campbell calls the ‘original’ Dio band recorded together – some would say the best and certainly the most commercially successful of all the albums that Ronnie James Dio put out under his own name. But, and he stressed this point more than once, the band was not created as a tribute to Dio, nor was it even intended to be a band at all, let alone a band that recorded an album and planned to tour.

“I had gone on tour in early 2011 with [Irish rockers] Thin Lizzy, which was a dream come true for me. I loved Thin Lizzy and always have and always will. They were so influential on me as a young guitarist. When I was in my formative years around 15 or 16 years old, I was really honing my craft and really knuckling down and I knew the Thin Lizzy catalogue inside out. And it was through Thin Lizzy that I discovered my ultimate guitar hero, Gary Moore. When I came off that tour I felt that I had really reconnected with my first passion, which was to play aggressive rock guitar and I just wanted to play more. So that’s what led me to call Jimmy and Vinny and ask if they would go into a rehearsal studio with me,” said Campbell, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland who now lives in L.A.

“So that was the middle of 2011 and it had been 27 years since we had played together and as soon as we started playing it was absolutely instant. It was like it could have been 1983 all over again. We got so excited we were almost giddy and we all had goose bumps. We played for a couple of hours and then Vinny said he thought we should bring in a singer. He knew this kid named Andrew Freeman who lived close by, called him and within half an hour he was there.

“When he started singing we all had that lightbulb moment. I had this epiphany that this would be a great project. You have the unmistakable sound of the classic Dio band and you have a singer who is as strong as Ronnie, as powerful as Ronnie and as passionate and melodic, but the tonality is completely different. I thought it would be an interesting thing and that people might actually want to hear it. So I suggested we do some gigs. And we gave absolutely no thought whatsoever to the name. I just said that Ronnie had passed away about a year before, so Jimmy, Vinny and I were the last ones standing, the last in line, so let’s just called it Last In Line after the second album we did.”

After a few sporadic dates when each member’s schedules would permit, the band played some shows in England and Japan in 2014 and created enough buzz that it drew the attention of Frontiers who offered them a record deal.

“It wasn’t really on our radar at the time, but if someone was offering us the chance to do some original music, we decided to take that next step. So here we are. And, sadly, Heavy Crown was ready about a year ago, but we didn’t release it because we were waiting for what we thought was the right time. Then Jimmy passed away [on Jan. 24, while on the Def Leppard Hysteria on the High Seas Cruise where Campbell was doing double duty]. It really is a bittersweet experience for us, because the album has been getting great reviews and we all wish Jimmy had lived long enough to see it all,” Campbell said, adding that even though his split from Dio in 1985 was very acrimonious, he and Bain and Appice all stayed on good terms.

“The album is now more of a tribute to Jimmy than anything. We never saw it as a Dio tribute band, even though we were paying tribute to the music we created on those first three Dio records [Holy Diver, Last in Line and Sacred Heart]. There is nothing contrived about this project. When Jimmy and Vinny and I play together, that’s the sound. It’s the same three musicians who played on those records, so it’s always going to have that feel and sound. But we didn’t go into this project trying to write songs and make them sound like they were Dio songs. We didn’t give it any thought at all, we just started playing and the songs came together. And we delivered a great record and Jimmy knew that and we all knew that. It’s a fitting testament to his abilities and legacy.”

The death of Bain was originally attributed to pneumonia, but it was later revealed during the autopsy that he actually was in the final stage of lung cancer – but it was undiagnosed. That revelation hit home with Campbell who is in the midst of his own, well-publicized battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer is also what killed Ronnie James Dio in 2010, as well as Motorhead’s Lemmy and David Bowie in recent months.

“What those losses reminded me of was to take more joy in the little things in life. You don’t know what day is going to be your last. Lemmy got his diagnosis just a couple of days before he died, but obviously he didn’t contract cancer 48 hours before he died. The same thing happened with Jimmy Bain. If Jimmy had gone to the doctor and someone had actually cared enough to look they would have told him he had cancer,” Campbell said, explaining that he wouldn’t settle for what his doctors were telling him initially.

“I had a cough that wouldn’t quit for about two years and I kept going to my doctor and I really advocated for my own health, which is something I advise everyone to do. He kept telling me I was fine and that sometimes these coughs linger and take time to go away. I was going to see a respiratory specialist and he just kept giving me nasal sprays and inhalers and stuff. And I said no, this is not going to work. You’re going to x-ray me. You would think that it would have been one of the first things a respiratory doctor would do, but it took eight months before he got me an x-ray. So I could have been diagnosed eight months earlier. And this was in June of 2013.

“I am part of a phase 2 clinical trial and taking this reasonably new drug called Pembrolizumab, which is one of several drugs out there under clinical trials. It’s the same thing that [former U.S. President] Jimmy Carter took for his melanoma and it worked for him. I have been taking it since late June. It’s a form of immunotherapy. I get scans every three months and in fact I just did some CT and PET scans and the doctors were very pleased with what they saw. There’s a lot less cancer activity in the tumors. So it appears to not just be holding the line, but the drug appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do, which is bolster the immune system to fight the cancer. It’s a whole new approach to dealing with cancers, which is very different from chemotherapy. That’s like carpet bombing – this is a smart bomb.”

Like anyone receiving a cancer diagnosis, there is a whole host of emotions that flooded over Campbell. And even though there have been a couple of times when he thought the disease was in check, only to see it return, he has maintained a very proactive approach and a positive, almost defiant attitude.

“It’s an ongoing thing now. When you first get diagnosed, you freak out and start thinking the worst. But now it’s part of my routine. It’s like going to the doctor or the dentist. It’s just something I do, it’s maintenance, essentially. It’s managing the illness. I have done chemo three times and had a stem cell transplant and the cancer keeps coming back. So that’s the bad news; the good news is that I was diagnosed fairly early, so I am one step ahead of it – I always have been and I will continue to be. And I refuse to capitulate to this disease and alter my lifestyle in any way at all or allow it to affect my happiness. When I think of Lemmy and Jimmy, and all the other people who didn’t even know, I cannot complain about the position I am in.”

In the early days, Campbell admitted that his biggest worry would be his appearance, knowing that chemotherapy would mean the loss of his hair – after all, he is playing in a band where most of the members still retain their long, flowing 1980s-style rocker locks.

“I actually ordered a wig because my first thought was I don’t want people to know I have this and I am going to do chemo and my hair is going to fall out. There’s no way I can go onstage bald. I was afraid, you know, so I spent $2,000 having a custom wig made and I wore it for 10 minutes and have never worn it since. It’s in my closet somewhere, and it’s pretty creepy looking,” he said with a chuckle.

“Aside from the fact that it was physically uncomfortable, more significantly it was mentally uncomfortable. I started wondering when do I take it off. Do I take it off in the airport, in the hotel – where do I become the real me? And that realization took 10 minutes and I realized the real me is not going to wear this wig. I am just going to go public with my diagnosis.

“And I am so glad that I did. It was so cathartic for me and it turns out for a lot of other people too, to be able to talk openly about cancer. I couldn’t imagine having to go through all that I did wearing a wig and trying to hide and pretend that I wasn’t sick. It seemed so disingenuous. And if you think about it, if you’re denying it on a physical appearance level, you are denying it on some other levels too, and that can’t be good for your recovery. And honestly I don’t look upon it as one big bad experience. I have learned a lot of very, very important life lessons. It’s really made me much more comfortable with who I am.”

And he is also comfortable in talking about one of the most debated and most controversial aspects of  his prolific and acclaimed career – the nasty split from Dio in 1985 and the ongoing tension that existed between Campbell and Dio himself up to the latter’s death, and which continues with Dio’s widow Wendy, who is the keeper of her husband’s musical legacy.

Campbell almost blithely and matter-of-factly lays much of the unpleasantness over the last 30 years at her feet.

“I haven’t spoken to Wendy Dio since 1985. There has always been no encouragement to do so. Vinny still talks to Wendy on occasion and her response when she first heard what we were doing with this band was not encouraging, and certainly not positive. I really do see Wendy as the reason why the band broke up in the first place. She is the one who came between Ronnie and the band. She never viewed it as a band, as a creative entity. She always viewed it as Ronnie and whoever was behind him. Whereas Ronnie knew that we created this unit and he knew the value of that. When the band first formed it was in a studio in London called John Henry Rehearsals and there was only four people in the room – Ronnie, Jimmy, Vinny and myself,” Campbell asserted, adding that Dio explained that he was the one who got the record deal and that the band had to be his name because they were banking on his pedigree as a successful former member of Rainbow and Black Sabbath to create interest in the new project.

But Campbell insists that during this meeting, it was put forward that once the band became successful – and profitable – each band member would be given an equity stake in Dio. He insists Dio said this should happen by the third album.

“We all looked each other in the eye and signed onto this plan. That was the formation of the Dio band. So we had great success and fast forward to the third album and I kept asking Ronnie about the agreement we had and that we needed to talk about it. But he kept putting me off and putting me off, saying we need to wait until Wendy came out on tour. But it never happened. We finished the American leg of the Sacred Heart tour and I went to Ireland to visit my parents and I got a FedEx package with a contract from Wendy Dio, offering me another couple of hundred bucks a week and a letter saying that failure to return the contract by a certain day would constitute my no longer being in the band. I picked up the phone and tried to call Ronnie but he wouldn’t take my call. The next thing I know, Dio shows up in the UK with Craig Goldy on guitar. Obviously the whole thing had been engineered. They knew it was coming and they decided to write me out of it because I was the squeaky wheel,” Campbell explained.

“With me it was a matter of principle. Ronnie had made an agreement with me and I wanted to hold him to it. It wasn’t about the money, although money was what brought the principle to a head. It could have been about a cheese sandwich for all I care, but it’s about the principle of the cheese sandwich. I have always stood up for myself and I have refused to be treated like shit. When someone makes me a promise, I expect them to deliver, because I deliver on my end – I gave blood, sweat and tears to that band.”

The rancour went public with accusations and insults flying through the press from both camps.

“I admit that I took the bait. I went on record and said some stupid things about Ronnie. It’s never a good idea to air your dirty laundry in public. And Ronnie, in return, said some very ugly things about me. But I still honestly believe that if we had bumped into each other on the street, without Wendy, we could have gone into a pub and had a pint and worked out our differences and made another record,” he said.

“And I get it, to a point. Ronnie had been treated very badly by Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow and also when he left Sabbath, and he told me all sorts of stories about those days. And I think he and Wendy’s way of operating was shaped by those experiences. But instead of adapting and wanting to do things differently, they ended up doing the same thing. What I was saying as a member of Dio was exactly the same as what he was saying in Rainbow. The way he was treated by Ritchie was the same way he treated us. I found it to be a very archaic and destructive way to engage people.”

In Def Leppard, Campbell’s roles is not as pronounced as it was in Dio, or especially in Last in Line. Within this group, it’s actually his ability as a vocalist that’s most appreciated by bandmates Joe Elliot, Rick Savage, Rick Allen, and Phil Collen.

“In Def Leppard I am actually exercising very different muscles. It’s about being a singer, not this guitar monster. That’s the challenge for me when I go onstage; it’s much more about the vocal parts than the guitar parts. When I first went to play with the guys they knew I could play guitar. It wasn’t an audition to see if I could play, it was to see if we could work together and if the personalities would gel. But what was a pleasant surprise to all of them was when I started singing and they said, ‘whoa, this guy can sing too,’ because that wasn’t known to them,” he explained.

And even though his tenure with the band will hit the quarter century mark in 2017, Campbell said he still feels like the proverbial ‘new guy.’

“It’s always been a slightly difficult situation because there was so much history in Def Leppard and so much success before I was even part of the band. And furthermore, I am not just joining the band, but I am there to replace their friend [founding member Steve Clarke] who died [in 1991]. So that’s always going to be strange. I have always felt like a little bit of an outsider because there’s always a point in the conversation on any given day where they are referring to a situation or experience that I didn’t share. And it’s okay; it’s totally natural and normal and I don’t begrudge that in any way shape or form. They have been great and it’s been a wonderful 24 years,” he said.

After the commercial and critical success of the band’s 2015 self-titled album, Campbell believes Def Leppard will return to the studio sooner rather than later.

“I do believe that album is the best Def Leppard album that the band has made in my tenure. And the irony is it’s by far the one I’ve had the least to do with. So I think the universe is telling me something, like I need to just let the other four get on with it and just not interfere with their magic,” he said with a laugh, admitting that his creative process is more organic and less structured than theirs which, again, he does not begrudge. Last In Line is his opportunity to let loose on an artistic level.

Def Leppard has extensive touring plans in North America this summer, headlining a bill that also feature REO Speedwagon and Tesla. When that is done, Campbell said the band will most take a break from touring and focus on recording in 2017.

For Last In Line, there are a couple of dates set for later in the spring and summer, but Campbell said he, Freeman and Appice have not decided on a fill-in for Bain. And because of the loss of Bain, the long-term future of the project is also up in the air.

“I hope it’s not over because it’s very joyous to play the music we made in Last In Line. It would be nice to go beyond that.”

For more information on Last In Line, visit http://www.lastinlineofficial.com/

  • Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com.

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