As one of the most harrowing and inspiring stories of the 1980s rock era, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen’s tremendous tragedy and amazing recovery not only encourages anyone to work hard for their dreams but to never give up whatever the odds.
Def Leppard’s Rise To Fame
With the release of their debut, the album On Through The Night, in March of 1980, Def Leppard’s teenage members took their first steps towards future international fame. At first, they were anything but hometown heroes. The album made it to the Top 15 in the U.K., but a lot of early English fans wondered if the band pandered too much to audiences overseas, instead. Success on American radio meant touring in America and working with other American bands. However, when it came time for the second album to be recorded, working with an AC/DC producer known as Robert John “Mutt” Lange gave their next album more visibility at home and abroad. By this time, MTV was just getting its start and their single from the album, “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak”, was the network’s first video from the metal music genre to be played.
By their third album, Pyromania, band members Joe Elliot, Rick Savage and drummer Rick had a new guitarist to replace Pete Willis, who had been asked to leave due to troubles with alcohol addiction at the time. With Phil Collen now in the band, they charted three hit singles on that third album’s release. This cemented their place as household names in the U.S. and abroad. Young and energetic performers, their music and the videos played on MTV pulled together a complete package for a 1980s rock band.
However, just as they began to break through the gauntlet of music industry success — in the midst of writing Hysteria, which would become one of their best-loved albums — tragedy intervened.
Tragic Car Accident And Rick Allen Loses His Arm
On New Year’s Even of 1984, 21-year old Allen was on his way through Sheffield for a family gathering with his girlfriend. While driving the hilly back roads of the band’s hometown, a driver in an Alfa Romeo passed him on the road and began to challenge Allen as he tried to pass the car next. Allen reported that in his anger with the driver’s antics and trying to overtake the car to pass again, he didn’t see the sharp turn coming up and he lost control of the wheel.
The car flipped many times, flew over a stone wall, and Allen was ejected from the vehicle. While both he and his girlfriend survived, they suffered major injuries. It was determined that a seatbelt with poor fastening was how Allen lost his arm, having it tangled in the strap as he was ejected through the Corvette’s sunroof. Their crash drew the attention of a medical professional who lived nearby and was able to begin treatment to try and save the drummer’s arm.
Though doctors succeeded in the initial surgery to reattach the Rick Allen’s arm, a broken shoulder and several infections prevented doctors from being able to save his arm and they decided amputation was the only answer left. This would be devastating news for a band on the brink of historical success. Doctors advised that Allen should expect never being able to play the drums again and that he faced a months-long recovery process from that terrible accident.
Def Leppard Drummer Recovery And Comeback
Despite the doctor’s warnings, Allen’s producer and band-mates came together in support of their injured drummer. He credits their faith in him, as well as his own determination, with putting the drive back in his spirit to learn to drum differently. Even while in the hospital, Allen devised ways to play songs with alternative methods. This included changing the setup of his drum kit and using his feet to strike beats normally done by hand.
Rick Allen had been told to prepare to stay in the hospital for at least six months, but with hard work and so much support, Allen was able to leave after only a month spent in recovery from the accident. Soon after, he and another friend put together an electric drum kit that would allow him to play. The setup for traditional acoustic kits was impossible for Allen to play as-is, but the new design allowed him to use four different pedals for his left foot.
Coming back to the stage was slow work, but the Def Leppard drummer was never replaced. For a time, a second drummer helped on stage as a safety net for any missed beats while Allen worked out the kinks in his new kit, but in time Allen made a full return. The band would go on to complete their album, Hysteria, outranking their previous record’s sales and putting them on a path of rapid success and international renown.
In the years since the accident, they’ve toured worldwide several times over and have set a Guinness World Record for playing three shows on three continents in one day. Shows from their 2015 tour were recorded for release on a double live album and a concert video, and in August of 2017, they celebrated Hysteria’s 30th anniversary with a collector’s edition box set and vinyl re-release.