The Deep and Lasting Fellowship of Def Leppard
Updated: Mar 4
When tragedy struck, these young men united in fellowship. Because they did, they produced a rock n roll masterpiece which eventually led to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Last Saturday, I began writing this week’s Barbarian in You post as I normally do. Frustrated -- because writing is hard! -- a friend called me with spectacular news. “I’ve got two extra tickets to the Joan Jett, Poison, Def Leppard, and Mötley Crüe concert tonight,” he said. “Wanna go?”
What would you do? Yeah, that’s what I did too. Like any self-respecting barbarian with a penchant for 80s hard rock, Chanda and I climbed into our tightest pants and joined an aging tribe of long-haired rockers – now mostly thin-haired and no-haired rockers -- at SoFi Stadium in LA. Def Leppard’s performance invigorated me so much that I scrapped my intended post to bring you one hell of a story about Barbarian Fellowship. So dear reader, ‘do ya wanna get rocked?’ Me too.
On December 31, 1984, 21-year-old rock and roll drummer Rick Allen got behind the wheel of his Corvette Stingray to go for a ride and clear his head. For almost a year, his band Def Leppard had been working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week on their upcoming album, Hysteria. Coming off the multi-platinum success of their previous album, Pyromania, the record label decided to invest millions into these shaggy twenty-somethings from Sheffield, England. After ten months, however, the band had not completed any songs. On top of that, they’d just fired their producer in frustration. Hysteria was now on track to be the most expensive album in rock history. As a result, the label’s top brass told the band they’d need to sell 5 million albums just to break even.
So on that cold and gray late December day, Rick climbed into his Vette to escape the constant pressure to produce a rock and roll masterpiece. Smiling to his girlfriend in the passenger seat, he turned the ignition, cranked the radio, and hit the gas. On a winding road along the English countryside, Rick finally began to relax with the rhythm of his turns as a light rain pelted his windshield. Looking to his rearview mirror, he noticed another sports car roaring from behind and then blazing past him.
A few minutes later, that same car slowed down. When Rick tried to pass, the other car sped up again. After three or four miles of this back and forth, Rick got frustrated and finally stomped the gas. His Corvette roared into action, rocketing by the other driver. Suddenly, Rick saw a sharp turn ahead. Catapulting towards that turn at a high speed, Rick yanked the wheel with white knuckles. Sliding on wet asphalt, he lost control and tumbled like a 4,000-pound steel tomahawk. Crashing through a short stone wall and flipping through the air, Rick’s seatbelt came undone and cinched his left arm down. Then his entire body exploded through the sunroof. Seconds later, Rick was lying prone 150 yards away from his car -- and 150 yards from his left arm cinched inside.
To Rick, his band, and the entire rock community, he was done as a drummer. He was lucky to be alive. Lying in his hospital bed after a two-week coma, Rick just listened to music. Whenever he heard drums on a song, he said he’d stare out the window and think, “I used to be able to do that.”
Rick’s accident devastated his band. He joined Def Leppard just after his 15th birthday when the other guys in the band were 19 or 20. They looked after him like a little brother. Yet, despite the band’s love for Rick, the label -- who had already spent millions on Hysteria -- wanted the album done. And you can’t finish an album with a one-arm drummer.
All the band could do was try to ignore the label and give Rick time to recover. It’s not that they expected him to be their drummer, but to immediately replace Rick felt like a cold move. So they continued to wait. Yet, at some point in 1985, the band did return to the studio to finish the album. And they returned without a drummer.
When Rick finally walked out of the hospital, he was desperate to play the drums, tour the world, and make a kickass rock and roll record. But he couldn’t. He had one arm for Christ’s sake. He was done.
But somewhere and at some point during the aftermath of his accident, Rick caught an idea from the universe. A few years earlier, a company named Simmons had pioneered electronic drum kits, which eventually became popular with New Wave bands in the 1980s. Arranged just like a traditional drum set (base, snare, toms, etc.), the Simmons kits used electronic pads instead of drumheads (or “skins”). But just lie a normal kit, a drummer would still need both arms to hit the pads with his sticks.
But what if, Rick thought, he used his feet to drum some of the parts his arms once handled, all while harnessing the technology of electric drums? “There were no books on one-armed drumming,” Rick later joked. So he used his imagination. He asked himself, what would a one-arm drumming kit look like? How would it even work?
Ultimately, he landed on this: By adding foot pedals that sounded like drums traditionally hit by sticks, he might be able to compensate for his missing arm. So he called Simmons with the idea. They liked it and built a prototype kit to his specifications.
With his new kit sequestered in a room down the hall from Def Leppard’s recording space, Rick journeyed into unknown territory. When bandmates, management, and label executives walked by Rick’s practice room, all they heard were erratic thuds. The band’s manager, Cliff Burnstein, later said, “we just wanted him to have something to do” while presumably the band (with a newfound drummer) finished the record.
But what would the band ultimately decide to do? Would they continue to indulge in Rick’s goal (or fantasy) to become a one-armed drummer? Or, with label executives and management breathing down their neck, would they give in and find a drummer to replace Rick?
As one of the most popular rock acts in the world, Def Leppard could have easily found a superb drummer dying to get this gig of a lifetime. Instead, the band continued to delay production despite the pressure to forge ahead with a new man behind the kit.
Looking back on their entire time as a band, lead singer Joe Elliot said, “We’ve always had a united front. It’s not one guy in front. It’s five guys in a row… and that’s the way it has always been.” Elliot and his bandmates knew that as a band – a fellowship of men who cared for one another -- they could not discard Rick. They had to at least give him a chance, even if it meant losing millions of dollars and delaying their album’s release. Because maybe – just maybe – Rick would figure out how to drum with one arm and two legs.
So the band decided they would not audition another drummer. They would stick with their man. Thus, every day with the pressure on, they’d hear Rick down the hall trying to drum with one arm. Then one day, Rick walked into the control room, looked at his band and said, follow me.
They followed Rick down the hall into an adjacent studio. In the room sat his newly invented and often tweaked drum kit. As they gathered anxiously around the unique kit, Rick sat on the stool as his bare feet felt out the row of pedals along the floor. Then he grabbed a single drumstick and began to play.
As Rick’s knees pistoned up and down in rhythm, as his right hand worked to keep the beat, Joe Elliot and company couldn’t believe what they were seeing and hearing. A one-armed man, their dear friend, was playing “When the Levy Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. They stood with their mouths wide open, watching Rick play John Bonham’s masterpiece with one arm. “Hairs on your arms just went up,” Elliot said years later; after that, “there was a lot of hugging and crying.”
Rick soon returned to the studio with his band. By August 1986, after 30 months of writing and recoding, high budgets and long delays – and 20 months after Rick’s accident – Hysteria still remained unfinished. Then the band took a short break -- well not really.
Def Leppard accepted an offer to play the 1986 Monsters of Rock festival in Donington, England. And though they had not performed live in over two years, and despite Rick’s accident, the band took the stage.
Towards the end of the set with Rick playing his ass off, Joe Elliot stood in front of 60,000 fans and paused. Nodding to Rick, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Rick Allen.” The place went ballistic. Def Lep was officially back!
Rick’s performance at Donington, Elliot recalled, “gave us that charge of energy we really needed.” When they returned to the studio, he continued, “we were a different group of people.”
Looking back on this time with soft eyes, Rick said, “I learned so much about friendship. Real friendship. Friendships that go on and on… forever.”
The best part of a strong friendship, marriage, team, band, or platoon is knowing that the other person(s) has your back when things get tough – so long as they earnestly believe you have their back in return. Fellowship is not unconditional love; it requires all sides to be there for one another. Fellowship requires each person to give and receive. Def Leppard gave Rick support; in return, he inspired them to greatness.
That greatness showed itself when Def Leppard finally completed Hysteria in 1987. The record spawned seven hit singles and eventually sold over 20 million copies. To this day, Hysteria remains one of the greatest selling rock albums of all time. To this day, it remains their masterpiece.
But sadly, Rick’s accident wasn’t the last of Def Leppard’s woes. A few years later in 1991, their guitarist, Steve Clark, succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction – dying at just 30 years old. More recently, the guitarist who replaced Clark, Vivian Campbell, has fought a decade-long battle against cancer, remarking that he’s “very thankful to my bandmates” for supporting him throughout his treatments. To this day, Vivian has never missed a show.
In a 1992 feature on the band for Rolling Stone, esteemed rock critic David Fricke wrote this: “Def Leppard is a band that in spite of all the trauma and tragedy, literally does not know when to quit.” As a result, he continued, “the Leppards have never been in serious danger of breaking up.”
Hall of Fame
35 years after Rick Allen’s tragic accident, the five members of Def Lep were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Standing together on stage, 6 minutes and 34 seconds into their acceptance speech, Joe Elliot said this:
“It did seem that every time we tried to make some musical headway, life seemed to knock us back down… Then Rick has a life-changing accident. He survived it, and came out the other side stronger.”
Then Elliot paused.
During his silence, the band turned to Rick and embraced. And once again, like at Donington decades before, the great Joe Elliot nodded to his dear friend and announced to the cheering crowd, “Rick Allen, everybody.”
For the last twenty years, Rick Allen has visited and supported our wounded military veterans, many of whom are amputees – and like Rick, many of whom suffer from PTSD. Having visited wounded warriors many times, Rick said this in an interview:
“Many of the [wounded] warriors felt as if they knew me, having seen me play all these years, so there was this level of mutual trust. The least I can do is support them as they have supported me.”
And that’s Fellowship. When we give love, we receive it.