Rock has more tragedies interrupting the careers of successful musicians than examples of overcoming. The history of the genre is full of priceless losses, masterpieces existing in limbo, impossible for the public to hear. In the midst of all this, there is Rick Allen.
The Def Leppard drummer was taking advantage of his band’s recent success in the United States with the album “Pyromania” (1983). Until a car accident on the last day of 1984 robbed him of something seen as vital for a musician: his left arm.
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Even so, he didn’t allow himself to become another tragic rock casualty. Instead, it became her greatest example of perseverance.
Let’s tell your story.
The prodigy Rick Allen
Rick Allen was born in Dronfield, located in central England, but close enough to the city of Sheffield where Def Leppard emerged. At the age of nine, he started playing the drums and soon became a member of several bands in his city.
However, despite proving himself a great drummer in his surroundings, Allen needed a push from his mother to venture beyond the bubble. He told the story to SiriusXM (via Ultimate Classic Rock):
“When I was 14, I had decided to give up on the music world, on being a drummer, because I was fed up with the bands in Sheffield. I was in three or four bands at that time… I remember throwing some drum cymbals down the stairs because I was angry and frustrated, since all the bands I was playing with were only interested in doing covers. And my parents who pointed out this thing in the newspaper saying ‘Leppard Loses Skins’ [‘Leppard perde a pele’, jogo de palavras com a pele da bateria]… within a matter of minutes, we got in touch with Joe (Elliott, vocalist) and a few days later, I met Joe and Steve (Clark, guitarist) at a nightclub.”
Def Leppard at this time was experiencing the departure of Tony Kenning, the original drummer and responsible for creating the characteristic spelling of the group’s name. When it came time to test Allen, his predecessor showed up too, wanting the position back. There was still another guy at the audition, but Rick had so much confidence in his own bat that he waited until he was the last one to play.
Bassist Rick Savage told the story of Rick Allen’s audition on the band’s official website:
“We asked Rick if he knew ‘Emerald’ by Thin Lizzy. We started playing and suddenly the band sounded six times better than it normally did. We were in the company of a real drummer. Even at 15 he was incredible.”
In November 1978, at just 15 years old, Rick Allen became the drummer for Def Leppard. All other members of the group were of legal age. The ambitions were aimed at the large market on the other side of the ocean.
The Growth of Def Leppard
Over the course of five years, Def Leppard developed a strong reputation among hard rock audiences in England. Along with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, they became one of the leaders of the movement dubbed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), changing the sound of the genre to something beyond Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.
However, while their contemporaries had an anti-establishment stance and pride in being part of the local scene, Def Leppard had different plans. As soon as they released their first album, “On Through the Night” (1980), the group wanted to conquer the USA. The desire was so evident that there was a song called “Hello America” on the album.
A big reason for the English public to support this new crop of heavy metal bands was precisely the fact that the pioneers of the genre had left the UK for the USA. So, when one of the biggest exponents of this nascent scene revealed the fact that he wanted to do the same, British fans reacted as well as could be expected.
A poorly received performance at the 1980 Reading festival even prompted a story in Sounds magazine questioning whether the band had sold out. What Def Leppard were about to do, however, was change heavy metal forever.
The group had caught the attention of mega-producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, famous for producing AC/DC – and who now wanted to work with them. The initial result of this partnership were two albums responsible for the invention of the radio heavy metal standard of the 1980s: “High ‘n’ Dry” (1981) and “Pyromania”.
However, amidst celebrations of the overwhelming success of “Pyromania” (six million copies sold in the US when it came out in 1983) and initial difficulties in producing material for the follow-up (which made the band cancel their show at Rock in Rio 1985), the tragedy occurred.
Rick Allen’s accident
It was December 31, 1984. Rick Allen was behind the wheel of his Corvette Stingray on a country road in the United Kingdom. His then-girlfriend, Miriam Barendsen, was in the passenger seat.
An Alpha Romeo ahead on the road continually slowed down, as if allowing him to overtake, only to accelerate at the last moment.
Annoyed, Allen stepped on the Corvette’s accelerator, trying to resolve the dispute based on engine power. What he didn’t count on was the sudden arrival of a curve. He lost control of the car, which hit a wall and headed into a field surrounding the road.
Upon impact, the musician was thrown out of the vehicle through the sunroof. However, his left arm caught in the seat belt and was severed. Miriam Barendsen, interestingly, only had minor injuries.
Despite emergency assistance at the scene and an attempt by doctors to reattach the arm, an infection sealed the limb’s fate on January 4, 1985. Allen required a complete amputation of the shoulder. During all this, the drummer was in a coma, only waking up two weeks after the accident.
In an interview with Forbes, Rick Allen spoke about his first thoughts when faced with his condition:
“I wasn’t understanding things right. He was confused as to why he was in the hospital. But then things began to reveal themselves through a series of experiences and days. When they first changed my dressing they gave me a lot of nitrous oxide [gás do riso]which was great [risos]. It was there, in that comical state, that I realized: ‘my God, I really lost my left arm’. It was then that everything started to come back in terms of what had happened. And that was when I didn’t want to make music anymore. I felt defeated, insecure, I wanted to disappear.”
Go back to the top
Despite being initially informed that he would need to spend six months in the hospital, Rick Allen was discharged at the end of January 1985. He would need to relearn how to balance standing up and walk, due to his lack of an arm. Going back to playing drums wasn’t even a possibility.
While in the hospital, however, Rick was already planning to defy those odds. He told Classic Rock:
“I’ve since learned that certain people asked the rest of the band: ‘You’re not going to let this freak play with you, are you?’. Fortunately, I didn’t hear any of that. Even so, I heard all the time that I would never play the drums again. And it was only when Steve Clark and Phil Collen (guitar) visited me that I started to believe the opposite. They were completely drunk, but I was practicing on a piece of foam at the foot of the bed. With the help of a guy named Pete Harley, who made me an electronic kit and is no longer alive, I learned to play again.”
Allen was fortunate to lose his arm at a time when technology had reached the point where a drum machine could be manufactured that accommodated his condition. With Pete Harley and the Simmons company, the musician reconfigured not only his technique, but the placement of individual elements of his kit and how to incorporate electronic elements to compensate for his missing left arm.
To Forbes, the drummer told about the process:
“What started my passion for drums in the first place was listening to a real kit. No keys to turn on, no technology. It’s immediate, instant gratification. An electronic drum kit, on the other hand, has much more reasoning behind it. I was able to place different elements in different places. I could put the bass drum in a position where I could play it with my right hand. I could put pieces together on arranged pedals to play multiple sounds at once. So there were all these ways to have this hybrid drum kit. It made me think outside the box, not get stuck in traditional drum positioning, but rather be able to go beyond the limit.”
Still, it was an arduous process, as he said in the same interview:
“I don’t think people really understood what I was going through, the level of suffering. I had a tendency to present a positive image, to act as if everything was fine. If I did that, everything would be fine. I was 21 years old, it wasn’t in my plans to be in that situation. I had a lot of dreams. Crashing my car and losing my arm wasn’t something I signed up to do. The most important thing the guys did was give me time to make a decision as to whether or not I wanted to continue playing. The time they gave me to take care of myself, to play, play, play and play, was very valuable. Finally, it was my decision. I remember saying years ago that it wasn’t like I could consult a book called ‘One-Armed Drummers’ [risos]. Everything I did I had to turn around.”
Rick initially learned to play the drums again at his parents’ home in Dronfield, but soon found himself occupying a room in the same studio where Def Leppard were working on the follow-up to Pyromania. The band had never even considered replacing him.
One day, the drummer called his companions to see his progress. He started playing the intro to “When the Levee Breaks”, a Led Zeppelin classic. Surely the memory of testing that teenager seven years earlier and realizing how much better the band sounded with him must have come back to the rest of Def Leppard’s mind.
The group had their drummer back. They returned to the stage in 1986, with a short warm-up tour of Ireland and a legendary set at the Monsters of Rock festival. The following year, they finally released “Hysteria”, the follow-up to “Pyromania”.
The record was a smashing success not only in the US but also in the UK. The British heavy metal audience had made peace with the group. All seven singles taken from the work were top 40 hits in America, while the album has sold in total more than 25 million copies since its release.
No other Def Leppard effort has had this level of success, considering the changes in the rock landscape brought about by the 1990s, but the band remains firm and strong to this day. And Rick Allen continues to make them sound six times better, even with one less neck.
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