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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Across The Pond and Beyond - Rick Allen from Def Leppard

Some of the most inspirational stories that I have ever read or heard seem to have one common theme to them.

That common theme is rising up from a hardship or a tragedy or some other event filled with raw emotion to become a better person.

Kind of like the phoenix rising up from the ashes, if you will.

I find stories in which people can find inner strength during the most trying of times to be remarkable. The own personal struggles that one has to go through to become better people really inspires me to become a better person.

And those challenges can vary, depending on the person and the circumstance.

Sometimes, it takes a natural disaster for people to come together and support one another as they struggle to rebuild their debris-scattered lives. We certainly saw that after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. There were charity drives, rebuilding missions, and more importantly a lot of support and hope for the people who lost almost everything in the disaster.

Years ago, I survived a natural disaster that struck my area. In January of 1998, a severe ice storm struck the area, which destroyed train tracks, blocked off many roads, shut down public transportation, and plunged most of the area in darkness for several days (in some places, several weeks). And yet the one thing that I can remember the most about that event was how everyone came together and did everything possible to try and make the experience as painless as possible from staying on the radio airwaves to update people on the situation, as well as using generators to keep some stores open during the disaster. On one hand, it was a rather terrible experience to go through, but on the other hand, it made us stronger. Well, that, plus the fact that we had our exams cancelled that semester.

Sometimes the struggles can be more personal. I've already talked about my own experiences with being bullied in school shaping my current personality. I wish it didn't happen, but I'm glad it did because it made me a stronger person who doesn't allow other people to treat him horribly anymore. Sometimes, the event could be someone walking away from an abusive relationship finding their own inner strength and realizing that they don't need anyone to make them happy. Sometimes they're diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease such as cancer, and they find a way to beat it, or overcome it, and it really changes their perspective.

I find stories like this to be inspirational. If they can get through events that have every potential to destroy them, and they find inner peace and strength out of it to come out of the other side better than ever...that's awesome.

So for today's blog entry, I want to discuss a percussionist of a British band that sustained an accident that really could have ended his career before it began. However, through the support of his bandmates, as well as a lot of hard work and trial and error, he not only managed to survive the aftermath of the accident, but ended up gaining even more confidence than ever before. This confidence would lead to the band releasing one of its biggest albums of all-time, scoring the band their first number one hit, and having continued success years after the fact.

This is the story of Rick Allen. Long-time drummer of the band Def Leppard.

The subject of today's edition of Across The Pond And Beyond.

Rick Allen was only fifteen years old when he joined the line-up for Def Leppard in November of 1978. His mother spotted a personal ad in the newspaper put out by the band. The ad had the title “Leppard Loses Skins”. The band was looking for a new drummer after their original drummer quit. Allen auditioned, the band liked him, and he left school to join the band as its full-time drummer.  Allen became the fifth member of the band to join at the time, joining lead singer Joe Elliott, bassist Rick Savage, and guitarists Steve Clark and Pete Willis.

In September of 1979, the band opened for Sammy Hagar at London's Hammersmith Odeon, and would also perform as a supporting act for AC/DC just a couple of months later, developing a following among British hard rock and heavy metal fans.

However, by 1980, when the band released their debut album, some fans were turned off by the perception that Def Leppard was trying too hard to attract an American audience. By recording songs like 'Hello America', and touring in the United States more often, fans were initially appalled, and took their displeasure out against the band. At a performance at the Reading Festival (a rock festival in England), the band was pelted with beer cans during their entire set!

During 1981, their fortune would turn around. A second album was released on July 11, 1981 entitled 'High 'n' Dry'. Produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange, the album helped the band define their sound, and by 1982, their videos began to be featured on MTV as some of the first heavy metal videos played on the network.  Despite a shake-up within the band when Pete Willis was fired one year to the day Def Leppard released 'High 'n' Dry' to be replaced by Phil Collen, the band continued to be highly successful in their native England, and the band went on a European tour during 1981 and 1982.

By the beginning of 1983, the band's third album, 'Pyromania' had been pressed and released, and catapulted the band into stardom with the lead-off single Photograph, released in early 1983.

The band's third album ended up selling six million copies, to hold down the number two spot on the American album charts (Michael Jackson's Thriller album kept the album from the top spot). By 1984, Def Leppard was considered to be one of the best rock bands at the time, and all the members of the band were riding high off of the massive success.

It seemed as though nothing could derail the success of the band, and for then 21-year-old Rick Allen, the future seemed bright, and nothing could stop him.

Then came the night of December 31, 1984.

That night, Allen and his girlfriend were on their way to a New Years Eve party at his family's home in Sheffield, England. On the way there, they were passed by a driver in an Alfa Romeo. According to Allen, the driver had been egging him on the whole time, and refused to let him pass. A street race soon progressed, and Allen, sped up in a rage, hoping to finally overtake the driver. But during this street race, Allen got careless. He ended up losing control of the Chevrolet Corvette he was driving, sailed over a stone wall and crashed into a field. He and his girlfriend survived the crash, but Allen was thrown from the wreckage into the field. Because of a faulty seatbelt, during the crash, Allen's left arm was competely severed from his body.

Miraculously, a passerby who happened to work as a nurse arrived on the scene, and Rick Allen was taken immediately to a hospital so he could be treated for his injuries. However, doctors were unable to successfully reattach his left arm.

Rick spent three weeks in the hospital, and spent about another six months recuperating from the accident. However, with the loss of his left arm, he became incredibly depressed. He didn't think that he could continue as the drummer for Def Leppard with only one arm, and he had resigned himself to be replaced as the drummer at any moment.

It wasn't until a visit from Joe Elliott that Rick's frame of mind began to change.  Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he would try to use what happened to him as a way to re-examine his drumming style. Allen and Elliott sat down with a group of engineers to design a custom made drum set to help Allen feel at ease behind a set of drums again. After some experimentation, Allen discovered that he could play some drum rhythms with only one hand using his left foot to play the snare drum. Another supporting figure in Allen's life at the time was Jeff Rich, who was the former drummer for the band Status Quo, and together with Allen, they designed an electronic drum kit Allen could play using one arm. After electronic drum manufacturer Simmons designed the kit for Allen, he made his return to the stage in 1986 during a performance at the 'Monsters Of Rock' festival. The set was well-received, and it helped Rick see that he could stay with the band despite what happened.

In 1987, the band released their fourth album 'Hysteria', which would eventually become one of Def Leppard's biggest selling albums, with twenty million copies sold worldwide. It was also the first album released since Allen's accident.

And it ended up being one of Rick Allen's finest moments. To be part of the band, and not only rising above his life-changing accident to thrive. I mean, isn't that inspirational? I know it is for me.

I mean, just take a look at one of the videos made for one of the biggest songs off the 'Hysteria' album to see what I mean.

ARTIST: Def Leppard
SONG: Pour Some Sugar On Me
ALBUM: Hysteria
DATE RELEASED: September 8, 1987

Check out any of the clips of the video that focus solely on Rick Allen and his drumming. He seems really at ease, he kept with the beat. I mean, just comparing this video with the one for Photograph in which Rick still had both of his arms, there wasn't a whole lot different. Rick seemed like he was really into the performance during the Photograph video, and was comfortable with the beat. In the Sugar video, Rick was still very much the same way, but yet it was somewhat different.

Whereas pre-accident Allen was drumming along, having a good time because of the beat of the music and energy of the crowd, post-accident Allen was at ease for a slightly different reason. I think it was because of the fact that not even losing his arm could stop Rick from doing what he loved best.

And what he did best was being the drummer of a successful band. A band that actually managed to score their one and only number one hit on the Billboard charts in 1988 with 'Love Bites'.

The band Def Leppard still performs and records today, and despite the death of Steve Clark in 1991, the band managed to regroup and release another album in 1992, which spawned their successful single 'Let's Get Rocked'.

Over the years, Def Leppard's success in North America has dried up, but they still perform at concerts and rock festivals today. And although artificial drum beats have dwindled in popularity since the early 1990s, Rick Allen has changed the way he plays the drums as well, favouring a more acoustic sound, achieved by using electronic pads to trigger samples made from recordings of his acoustic drums.

Perhaps one of Rick Allen's greatest moments came on June 14, 2009, when Allen headed the Download Festival with the other members of Def Leppard. Towards the end of their set, lead singer Joe Elliott dedicated the set to Rick, mimicking Rick's comeback performance back in 1986. Following that dedication, the crowd erupted in an ovation that lasted well over five whole minutes. Rick Allen was so moved by this that he had tears in his eyes. This was probably a moment that he would never forget.

For it not only celebrated the work of a drummer that was ranked number seven on a list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time in a list published by the UK website Gigwise.

It celebrated the achievements of a man who made the most out of an accident that changed his life twenty-seven years ago.

Someone who didn't let losing a limb define who he was...instead using the incident to become a better drummer, and a better bandmate to Def Leppard.

The phoenix rising out of the ashes.

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