In posting this week about music and its gifts to me, I mentioned my experiences as a drummer. I explained a condition in my left hand that required an adjustment to my playing, as well as the consequent enrichment of my engagement with music.
Today, I wish to share my impressions of another musician’s experience. He actually lost his entire left arm in an accident. His name is Rick Allen, and people such as myself who came of age during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s know him as the drummer for the British band Def Leppard. His story does not so much appeal to me as a drummer but as a human being.
In December of 1984, Allen was 21 years old and had already achieved veteran status in the world of rock and roll. Between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, he was home in Yorkshire, and he went for a ride with his girlfriend in a Corvette he had had shipped over from the States. At one point, he was driving somewhat aggressively, having been frustrated by a driver who resisted letting him pass. Allen then took the unfortunate risk of forcing the issue. His car was a left-hand drive vehicle, which in the UK introduces yet more peril to such a situation. The result was an accident that injured only himself as his vehicle lost control and went off the road. As Allen was thrown from the car, an improperly-fastened seatbelt caught his left arm and severed it.
Allen’s arm was reattached in the hospital but soon became gangrenous. It had to be removed permanently, and there was no certain news of what would become of his career or his band. From this shattering experience, Allen rebounded and rebuilt his career, transforming himself into one of the most durable and influential drummers in rock history.
Some interesting factors lined up in order to make this possible. One was the prior influence of the band’s studio producer. Four years prior to Allen’s accident, Mercury Records assigned Mutt Lange the job of producing Def Leppard’s second album, High ‘n’ Dry. Having worked with bands such as AC-DC, Lange had a reputation for getting groups to simplify their drum and bass tracks, leaving the more ornate flourishes to guitarists and vocalists. This required a significant adjustment for Allen, who at the young age of 17 had played remarkably technical tracks for Def Leppard’s debut album, On Through the Night. The change worked well for the band, however, and High ‘n’ Dry went on to sell far better than their first album. Lange continued to push Allen in the direction of solid, very basic beats and fill-ins on the next album, Pyromania. This may have seemed a serious waste of Allen’s talents, but given the unfortunate events to come, Lange’s influence proved providential.
Allen came by his decision to persevere while still in his hospital bed. In his boredom, he began tapping his feet against the footboard, imagining the possibilities they had for compensating for his missing left arm. With significant injuries to his remaining arm and lots of rehabilitation ahead, playing drums would require fortitude, patience and ingenuity. With help from engineers at Simmons, a company that makes electronic drums, Allen designed a drum kit fitted with multiple pedals for his left foot. This enabled him to play with his foot the sounds that his missing hand would have played on various drums. This solution, though clever and extremely helpful, left Allen with the task of learning to play drums anew.
Despite the challenges, within two years of his accident, Def Leppard was back in the studio, with Allen playing all of his own drum tracks. Some months later, the band played some live concerts. For the initial shows, Allen had support drummer Jeff Rich of the band Status Quo on stage to play along with him, but Rich soon declared himself unnecessary. Allen was fully back in form.
Characterizing Allen’s comeback as complete at that stage was no exaggeration, and possibly an understatement. Allen’s bandmates, particularly lead singer Joe Elliot, have commented to reporters that in many ways, Allen’s drumming became better after the accident. Artistically, Mutt Lange’s advice and influence on Allen may have continued to sink in after Allen’s injury and recovery, and the death of bandmate and guitarist Steve Clark would have pulled be bandmates closer together creatively. On the technical side, online concert videos show Allen playing drum solos at the ends of the songs “Let It Go” and “Switch 625” that are superior to the ones on the band’s studio recordings three years before the accident. This imparts a dramatic effect, particularly since Leppard fans are familiar with Allen’s story.
And Allen has used his transformative experience to help enrich and support others. He works with other disabled musicians as well as disabled war veterans and fellow victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, sharing experiences with them and imparting hope and inspiration.
I am not a particular follower of Def Leppard, though I have enjoyed their music through the years. I simply recount this story because Rick Allen always reminds me of why I have enormous faith in human potential. Interestingly, Allen, at the age of 55, has done more recording and touring and has experienced far more success than he had before that horrible day at the end of 1984. This would defy conventional thinking, but such is often the case when we truly understand our humanity.
Photo credit: Rico Figliolini