When Def Leppard faced the challenge of replacing guitarist Steve Clark following his death in 1991, their global stature meant they could call on anyone they wanted to. In the end they chose Vivian Campbell, who’s remained with the band ever since – but Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith recently said things might have gone differently.

Asked if he was “in contention” to replace Clark, Smith told EonMusic, “I was, yeah. Yeah, I was.” But he chose to remain tight-lipped about the experience. “I want to write more books," he said. "That might be in my next one! There’s a whole story about that.”

At the time, Smith was taking a break in his career. He left Maiden as they began work on their 1990 album No Prayer for the Dying, feeling that the record's stripped-down sound was a “step backward” after its polished predecessors Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It could be argued that Smith was leaning in a more Def Leppard direction with his musical ambitions. The Somewhere in Time song “Stranger in a Strange Land” stands as a good example.

“My playing, I like to think, I try and feel stuff, and I like the space to play in it, and that was probably one of the first songs I was able to do that,” he reflected. “A lot of the Maiden stuff up until then had been very fast and aggressive and heavy, but that actually allowed me a little bit of space to stretch out a bit. It was nice, you know. So you’ve got more scope in the writing then.”

Watch Iron Maiden Perform ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’

Add Smith’s indulgence in guitar synths and his interest in “bombastic production,” and you have something that’s closer to Leppard than Maiden during that era. On the surface, perhaps it would have been a good match – but maybe Joe Elliott’s band was looking for something else on top.

Noting that both Smith and former Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes had tried out for the gig, Elliott said in 2018 that "John could sing his ass off, … Adrian I adore, and in the end it worked out well for him because he’s back in Maiden where he belongs. We also tried out a young unknown kid from Birmingham, Huey Lucas. Great player, but his voice wasn’t that strong. ... Vivian was always the number-one candidate. For us it wasn’t about how well you could play, it was more about how well you can sing. And more importantly, we’ve got to get on with this person.”

Bandmate Phil Collen echoed that view: “There was no formal audition with John and Adrian. They just came and played with us for a while. It was more about us getting a sense of what they were like as people.”

In 2015, Collen noted t hat Def Leppard had more in common with Earth, Wind & Fire than Iron Maiden, and speculated how Smith may have fit in, "He’s coming into our house, so it’s still gonna be the Def Leppard sound," he said. "When Vivian Campbell joined, a lot of people asked how he would change our style. What Viv brought was some really killer vocals. I think that’s more noticeable than the guitars.”

Smith provided backing vocals for a number of Maiden songs; he even took over lead vocals for the 1986 B-side “Reach Out.” He also sang on his 1989 debut solo album, Silver and Gold. “I actually started off as a singer-guitarist,” he told EonMusic. “I was more of a singer because I hadn’t really played a guitar. I kind of blagged my way into [Iron Maiden guitarist] Dave Murray’s world – he was already quite competent – by saying I was a singer. So we started jamming, and I learned as I went along.”

Former Whitesnake and Dio guitarist Campbell reflected on how he had landed the role in 2019. “Joe Elliott would call me when he came to L.A.," he recalled. "When I was in Dublin, I'd see Joe, we'd go out for drinks or dinner or whatever. So, our relationship had nothing to do with music. I knew the kind of person that Joe is, and I think that he kind of knew the person that I am. ... Def Leppard probably wouldn't have called me to ask to join their band, but it was only because Joe knew who I was as a person. He thought, 'Well, I know this guy, I like this guy, I think he'd be right in Def Leppard.'"

Def Leppard haven’t had a lineup change since Campbell’s arrival 28 years ago; Iron Maiden haven’t switched their lineup since Smith returned alongside singer Bruce Dickinson 21 years ago. But it’s a thought-provoking twist to reflect that it could have been different another time: Collen was invited to audition for Maiden in 1980.

“They asked me to come down, and I wasn't really interested,” the guitarist said in 2008. “I used to go to school with the original singer Paul Di'Anno, who I have known since I was six. All the guys grew up in the same area as me … they're lovely guys, I love 'em, but it's a different type of music. I was in a glam-rock band and now I'm in Def Leppard … which is more up my street.”

His refusal of the invitation left the door open for Smith to join Iron Maiden. And the rest is history.


Iron Maiden Albums Ranked

More From Ultimate Classic Rock