An Interview with Tony Kenning of Def Leppard

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Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Though often overlooked and relegated to a mere footnote in the band’s illustrious history, drummer Tony Kenning played a vital role in laying the foundation for world-renowned Rock act, Def Leppard.

A student at Tapton School in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Kenning joined forces with classmate Rick Savage to form a band called Atomic Mass and began rehearsing at the school’s youth club. The budding Rock act also included a talented young guitarist named Pete Willis, but still needed a singer to complete the quartet.

In a case of serendipity, Willis happened to cross paths with a singer named Joe Elliott — who had missed his bus and opted to walk home — on his way back from rehearsal. Elliott would later appear at an Atomic Mass rehearsal and was subsequently offered the opportunity to front the band — a title he’s held prominently for 44 years.

I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Tony to discuss the evolution of Atomic Mass into Def Leppard, his earliest memories from his brief, albeit integral tenure with the band, his recent endeavors, and much more.

Andrew:
I appreciate you carving out some time to do this, Tony. To start, I first would like to hear about your backstory. What was your earliest introduction to music?

Tony:
My earliest introduction to music was probably the BBC TV program, Top of the Pops. It lead to me buying my first record which was My Friend Stan by the UK band, Slade. My mates at school introduced me to lots of stuff later on and the first LP I bought was the Queen album, Sheer Heart Attack. I wore the grooves off that one. The second album was Deep Purple, 24 Carat Purple. The third was On the Level by Status Quo. After that, I would buy something every week by working a paper round – Zeppelin, Sabbath, Lizzy, Yes, Uriah Heep, UFO, etc.

Andrew:
Who do you consider to be some of your most prominent drumming influences?

I would say Ian Paice from Deep Purple and Brian Downey from Thin Lizzy.

Andrew:
Can you provide a background on the Tapton School, where you and Rick [Savage] met Pete Willis?

Tony:
Tapton was a pretty decent school in the Sheffield 10 area. It was also the school of long-distance runner Sebastian Coe. Three of the Original Def Leppard line-up went to Tapton School. Sav was in my class at school and we would quite often go back to my house at lunchtime and listen to music, as I lived very close to school.  That’s probably where we decided to start a band – Atomic Mass. We met up with Pete Willis, who was in the year above when we started to rehearse at the youth club at the school as Atomic Mass.

Andrew:
What is your memory of meeting Rick and Pete and what was it about the dynamic that enabled you guys to connect so well?

Tony:
I got on well with Sav because we shared a love of Rock Music. He introduced me to Queen and I played him some of my Purple stuff. We would lend each other albums to listen to. Pete appeared at the youth club and the following week brought along his guitar and amp and joined in. He was a pretty good guitarist even back then.

Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Andrew:
What can you recall about the origins of Atomic Mass?

Tony:
After I saw Black Sabbath play at the Sheffield City Hall, I spoke to Sav about starting a band. He already had a guitar and mini amp, bought through his mother’s catalog, I think. We talked to other guys at school and just got together in Nick Mackley’s mum’s basement. It took off a bit when we started to rehearse at school during a social club one night a week.

Andrew:
How did Joe Elliott enter the picture and what is your recollection from his audition?

Tony:
Joe met Pete on his way back from rehearsal apparently, it was a chance meeting as Joe has missed his bus and decided to walk home. After that, we went to Joe’s house for a chat and to see his record collection. Sometime after that Joe appeared at a rehearsal and was given a chance as the singer in the band.

Andrew:
Is there a memory from your first gig that stands out?

Tony:
This was at Westfield School in Sheffield, organized by “Laser Bill” who was a guy that Joe knew and who latched on to the band for a while. It was full of school kids and went down pretty well from what I remember. We had a bit of a false start in the first song as Steve had left his amp on standby. I just remember that we were not at all nervous as we had rehearsed for about a year before this first gig.

Andrew:
What was the club circuit like at the time and how was the following?

Tony:
At the time Punk was emerging and there was a battle going on for attention. Def Leppard quickly picked up some very loyal followers and we had a road crew, consisting mainly of Joe’s friends. I even had my own drum Roadie, Russ Major. I remember that we played a free gig at The Limit Club the same night as The Human League, and we were the ones to get an encore.

Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Andrew:
What were some of Atomic Mass’ early songs during your tenure?

Tony:
These were the songs written whilst I was in the band:

— “Get Your Rocks Off”
— “See the Lights”
— “Overture”
— “Misty Dreamer”
— “Beyond the Temple”
— “Heat Street”
— “War Child”
— “Wasted”

Andrew:
Atomic Mass famously morphed into Def Leppard. Who came up with the name and what inspired it?

Tony:
Joe used to make posters up for bands whilst at school and started making up band names and then making posters for them. He suggested the name “Deaf Leopard,” and brought a poster to rehearsal with him. We thought the name was pretty cool and later I suggested changing the spelling to “Def Leppard,” which remains to this day. You would have to ask Joe what inspired the name, I have no idea.

Andrew:
What prompted you to tweak the spelling?

Tony:
It’s a bit hazy after all these years, probably down at the rehearsal room. I used to mess about drawing logos for the band and just decided that “Def Leppard” looked better.

Andrew:
I think guitarist Pete Willis is an unsung hero as a player/songwriter and a crucial component to the band’s origins. What can you tell me about Pete and his impact?

Tony:
Pete had been playing guitar for a while and was a pretty accomplished guitarist even when we first met him at Tapton School. The rest of us were just starting out so had some catching up to do. Pete was very influential in the early days, a great guitarist, and wrote some decent material.

Andrew:
What led to your departure?

Tony:
The short answer would be a perceived lack of commitment on my part, although the long answer is a lot more complicated as detailed in my book.

Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Andrew:
Given the magnitude of the band’s success, were there ever any regrets?

Tony:
My main regret was not playing on the original EP, that we had rehearsed for. That would have at least acknowledged the work I had put in up to that point. Although my drum kit appeared on it (borrowed by Frank Noon). As I’ve said in my book, fame and fortune don’t necessarily give you a happy life. And ALSO, not copywriting the Spelling of “Def Leppard.” [Laughs].

Andrew:
As a founding member of the band, how do you view your legacy?

Tony:
I was instrumental in getting the band up and running along with Sav and Pete. Finding the rehearsal room probably enabled the band to get up to speed a lot quicker than would have been possible without one. It is what it is, I was there at the start but fell along the way…there are only two of the original five Leppards left in the band. My contribution was less than the others as I was only there for fifteen months or so.

Andrew:
You wrote a book entitled, My Time With Def Leppard and Other Bands. Tell us about that.

Tony:
I remember Joe saying that Def Leppard would be inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and that all the previous members of the band from 1977 would be included. So, I was a little disappointed when I was left out. Also, some encyclopedia-type websites had lots of incorrect details, and some have just airbrushed me out of history altogether. So, I guess I just wanted to put my side of the story forward, and I suppose leave something for my kids to read and remember me by. It also details what I did after I departed from Def Leppard. I wasn’t sure how the book would be greeted but it’s had some really nice reviews so far.

Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Andrew:
What are you up to these days?

Tony:
I still work in Telecoms; before the pandemic, I worked in London, but for the last 18 months I have been working from home in Sheffield, England. Back in 2019, I decided that I wanted to start playing in a band again, having had some thirty-five years off! I decided on a Def Leppard tribute band as I thought it would be fun to recreate what I had been doing all those years ago. I wanted to concentrate on early material but also include some of the later hits too. When I say later stuff, we only currently play material up to and including Adrenalize.

The band is called Shef Leppard, featuring five guys from Sheffield like the original one. My favorite album is High ‘N’ Dry. We currently play five tracks from that album. Last year, all our gigs got canceled, but we have now started playing live, which is a real buzz. We have hooked up with a couple of other tribute bands, Mötley Crüde and Poizon, and we will be doing our own version of The Stadium Tour starting on September the 24th. Currently, we are just playing in the UK but might look to play overseas in the future.

Images courtesy of Tony Kenning.

Interested in learning more about the early work of Def Leppard featuring Tony Kenning? Check out the link below:

Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Shredful Compositions, by Andrew DiCecco, here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/shredful-compositions-archives/

About Post Author

Andrew DiCecco

Predominantly known for his NFL coverage, Andrew DiCecco is a Pennsylvania-based journalist with a profound passion for Rock music and its illustrious history. What initially began as a childhood hobby collecting CDs eventually evolved into a full-blown absorption into the world of Rock and Roll. An aspiring rock historian, Andrew seeks out every autobiography and documentary on Rock artists imaginable to further his knowledge to go along with a growing collection of vintage albums and magazines. Andrew’s musical preferences include, but are not limited to, Def Leppard, Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, and Journey. An innate appreciation for guitar heroes, Andrew cites Vito Bratta, Eddie Van Halen, John Sykes, George Lynch, Dave Meniketti, and Neal Schon as some of his personal favorite players. Andrew is also a regular listener to SiriusXM’s <i>Trunk Nation</i> with Eddie Trunk, his primary source of inspiration.
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