Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott has to shout to be heard over the cheers that greet his introduction of drummer Rick Allen at a Denver concert. “Four years is a long time, and we’ve had our ups and downs,” he says. “But the biggest up, the greatest high was definitely the return of—THUNDER GOD!” With that, the crowd erupts in a roar, which proves once again that Rick Allen has triumphed to become rock’s most formidable, if not only, one-armed drummer.
Indeed, when Allen lost his left arm in a New Year’s Eve, 1984, auto accident, playing the drums again seemed inconceivable. For a while, the accident appeared to forecast the end, too, of Def Leppard, whose 1983 LP, Pyromania, sold a spectacular 6 million copies. Delayed by Allen’s convalescence and studio problems, the Leppards spent four years on the brink of Hysteria, their current album—which has sold nearly 4 million copies, spawned a pair of hit singles(“Animal” and “Hysteria”) and is still floating near the top of the charts after nine months. Even critics used to slagging the band have applauded their musical and medical comeback. “There are at least half a dozen heartwarming rock and roll stories,” ventured England’s usually cynical New Musical Express. “This is one of them.”
The story begins horrifically. Allen and his girlfriend, Miriam Barendsen, were driving near his parents’ home in Sheffield, England, when he took a turn too fast. His black Corvette slammed into a stone wall and flipped over. Miriam escaped serious injury, but the impact severed Allen’s left arm at the shoulder and tore much of the flesh and muscle from his right. Doctors were able to save the right arm, but efforts to reattach the left failed.
Yet after only four weeks in hospital and several more recuperating at his parents’ home, Allen returned to the recording studio, determined to pioneer the art of one-armed drumming. While band mates played along with drum tracks recorded before the accident, Allen spent eight hours a day mastering a custom-built, electronic drum kit that allows him to keep left-handed beats with his feet. In fact, claims Allen, “It’s made me better just thinking about what I do a bit more.” What does he have trouble with? “Slicing bread and tying me shoes. And, occasionally, I do silly things like falling and not being able to stop myself.”
Allen says he has had plenty of emotional support from his parents—”It’s wonderful to see their faces when I play,” he says—and girlfriend Miriam also has been steadfast. Says Allen: “She’s my best friend.” Although the band, for the collective good of the group, might have been justified in looking for a replacement, they didn’t. “He was our drummer,” says Elliott. “We never questioned that.”
That loyalty comes from a shared background. Four of the Leppards—Elliott, 28, bassist Rick Savage, 27, guitarist Steve Clark, 28, and Allen, 25—hail from greater Sheffield and came together as a band in their teens. The group scuffled through the local club scene, landed a contract with Polygram records in 1979 and released two LPs before guitarist Phil Collen, a Londoner, joined up in 1982. Polished by AC/DC producer Mutt Lange, the Def Leppard sound—a commercial mix of melody and metal—influenced such pop metal stars-to-be as Bon Jovi and Cinderella. “We’re really not a heavy metal band,” Clark insists. “I mean, we read. We can think.”
And endure. Def Leppard’s staying power was put to the test when producer Lange dropped out in 1984. He
returned in 1985, scrapped the work that had been done in his absence and started over. Hysteria was further delayed when Elliott got the mumps and again when Lange was hospitalized after a 1986 auto wreck. By then the band was so deeply in hock from production costs that accountants said they would have to sell 2 million copies of Hysteria just to break even.
Ironically, Hysteria’s success means continued tax exile for all Leppards except Savage, who has a house in Sheffield. “We don’t really relate to England anymore,” says Collen who, like Clark, is now a Parisian. Elliott lives near Dublin, while Allen and Miriam share a home in Amsterdam. Now so much time is spent on the road that Clark, who also owns a Manhattan apartment, says he has “had the place 15 months and spent five nights total in it. I own homes, but it’s not like I live in them.”
But they’re not complaining. “We’ve grown up a lot in the last four years,” Elliott says. “Nothing seems like a big problem anymore. Jeez,” he adds, “if we can play with a one-armed drummer, we can do anything.”
—By Steve Dougherty, with Lisa Russell in Denver