Rick Allen carefully studies his hands, which are blistered already, just a few days into Def Leppard’s tour with Billy Squier. “Yeah, I’ve often thought about it,” he says, examining one especially calloused finger, “how playing the drums has totally changed my life.”
Were Allen not the drummer for the British hard rock band, he probably would have ended up like so many inhabitants of Sheffield, an industrial city known for its steel production. If you don’t escape, your future is pretty well defined: You leave school and go to work in the steel mills, bring home your pay, and holiday once a year in neighboring Blackpool. Allen, an affable type with curly blond hair and contagious enthusiasm, shudders at the thought.
“I think that’d be soul-destroying, working in a steel mill,” he says in a thick accent. “You see, I’ve never had a so called ‘normal’ job; I’ve never known what it’s like to have to get up in the morning and go to work.”
At just 19 years of age, Allen is part of heavy metal’s up-and-coming band; the great white-noise hope. Def Leppard’s third album, Pyromania, bolted into the Top 10 within weeks of its release. The group is currently on its first headlining tour of the U.S., the final market it had to crack in its quest to displace such heavymetal monoliths as AC/DC, and the everlingering shadow of Led Zeppelin. “We knew that with this album it was either sink or swim,” admits Allen. “If we didn’t do a really good one, we were going to fall by the wayside because there’s just so much competition.”
When Allen joined Leppard in 1979, he already was a drumming veteran of several years and several amateur bands. “I was about 10 when I first joined a group,” he recalls. “My first one was called Smokey Blue—the worst.” The trio consisted of just drums and two guitars, leaving Allen to fill in the spot of the bass guitar, something he credits for his strong bass drum technique. After brief stints with outfits whose music encompassed everything from pop to heavy metal, Allen one day saw an advertisement in a local paper: “Leppard Loses Skins.”
The group’s original drummer, Tony Reuben, was quitting. “He was more interested in his girlfriend than in the band; I’ll bet he’s kicking himself now.” Allen’s audition began on an unnerving note. “A left-handed drummer had just auditioned using my kit, and he changed everything around; absolutely destroyed it. I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ ” However, after running through several Leppard originals, Allen was in. “I knew I was good enough to play along and impress them. The guy who works for me now as my roadie started flashing the thumbs-up to the others, so they offered me the gig.”
Asked if the band, which at that time included singer Joe Elliott, bassist Rick Savage, and guitarists Steve Clark and Pete Willis, was a tight playing unit, Allen laughs and exclaims, “No! That’s something that’s come together only over the past three years. Back then it was, ‘Ah, gotta get this fill in!’—pretty shabby all around. It took a bit of time for us to learn how to play with each other.”
The group rehearsed in an old building located next to the Sheffield United football stadium. “You had to walk up this endless flight of steps,” Allen remembers fondly, “but it was a lot of fun in those days.” Gigs took place at local pubs, often in front of what Rick calls “rent-a-crowds—we’d invite all of our friends down, just to fill the places up.” These were definite “no-budget shows,” he says. “Maybe someone would pay for your beer; that was about it.” Even though Allen was still in school and the others worked at various menial day jobs, the band worked steadily, some weeks as often as five or six nights. “It was terrible,” he says, rolling his eyes. “First we’d pack the gear into the van, all pile in, and drive to the show. Afterward, we’d have to unload the equipment back into the rehearsal room. There were days at school where I’d just fall asleep during the lessons.”
Unlike the usual parent/musician conflict, the members of Def Leppard were encouraged by their moms and dads, who later received a heartfelt thanks on the back of the group’s first album, On Through the Night. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Allen says flatly, adding that his parents actually advised him to drop out of school when he was 15, a full year before Britain’s legal age of emancipation.
“The authorities were after me for quite a while,” says Rick, a fact seconded by Joe Elliott. “Rick just avoided them; they probably chased him all over the country, but they never caught up with him.” Allen remembers often hiding at home because the school was just down the road. “Whenever somebody came to the door, I had to peer out the window to see who it was, in case it was a truant officer.” Besides giving the fledgling group words of support, some of the parents also contributed money. “If we needed a new amplifier, they’d lend us the bread. Nobody ever said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.’ Everyone was pushing in the right direction.” It paid off.
Although the band began as just a local attraction, its star rose quickly. An EP titled Getcha Rocks Off, recorded with an interim drummer, began to receive airplay on U.K. DJ Andy Peebles’ Radio 1 program and went on to sell an impressive 25,000 copies as an independent release. Suddenly, the major record labels, who had rejected the band just months before, clammered around. Def Leppard elected to go with PolyGram Records.
Within just months of signing, Leppard found themselves on major concert tours with the likes of AC/DC, Pat Travers, and Ted Nugent, a far cry from the dingy pubs they’d been used to. Allen recalls what it was like to have a roadie set up his equipment for the first time. “It was like,’Oh, fantastic! I guess I’m a star, now.'” With their average age still under 20, Leppard suddenly were challenging seasoned heavy-metal bands like Judas Priest and UFO, some of which did not take lightly the fact that, while they’d been slogging around the English circuit for years before achieving recognition, here was a band of novices enjoying a hit LP its first time out.
“There was some resentment, yes,” Allen says carefully. “But that’s the way it goes. Just recently we were supposed to do a headlining show with Gary Moore [whose drummer, ex-Deep Purple member Ian Paice, is one of Allen’s idols]. I didn’t really like the idea; I would have felt very uncomfortable.”
On the other hand, there were drummers who offered support and commented favorably on young Allen’s style, much to his delight—and surprise. “I never really rated myself as a brilliant drummer,” he sheepishly admits. “Rudiments and that; that’s out of the window for me. However, all the drummers for the headlining bands, like Tommy Aldridge [then of the Pat Travers Band, now with Ozzy Osbourne], would come over and tell me that they liked the way I played. I’d think, ‘God, that’s great—he actually liked my drumming!'”
Allen is mostly self-taught, although at his parents’ insistence he did study for a short time with ex-Joe Cocker drummer Kenny Slade. Allen had zeroed in on the drums almost immediately after first being exposed to rock ‘n’ roll. “One of the first bands I listened to was Deep Purple,” he says with reverence; “the Made in Japan album. I learned a lot from them and lan Paice, who’s a wonderful drummer.” In the years since, influential players have ranged from studio technicians like Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro to fusionists like Billy Cobham.
Allen’s first kit was a Del Rey (“Bet you never heard of it”) consisting of snare, tom-tom, bass drum, and one cymbal “that used to turn inside out if you hit it too hard.” Drums always have been his one musical passion, although Phil Collen, current Leppard guitarist, tried teaching him a bit of guitar. “I know a few of the basics, but”—he holds up his hands again—”my fingers are too stubby. What else can I do with these?”
Most noticeable on his left hand is a precipice of tissue between his thumb and his index finger, which comes from playing using traditional grip, a rarity among hard-rock drummers. “I’ve always played this way,” Rick explains. “My drum teacher was an ex-jazzer and taught me this way. Being a sort of lazy person, I just stuck with it.
“But it’s like a whip,” he points out, demonstrating a sharp, quick downward stroke. “I feel that I actually get more power with my left hand than I do with my right.” Other drummers often are surprised when they see how he holds the sticks. “Yeah, very surprised. ‘How do ya do that?’ The only problem is that you often get a blister, which you have to cut off. Otherwise: ‘Aargh!'”
Perhaps the most distinctive element of Allen’s style is his sense of restraint. If he were to be compared to one contemporary drummer, it would be the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts—just add a few decibels. Asked if it pleases him more to be known as a drummer, or as a member of Def Leppard, he immediately chooses the latter. His sense of restraint is shared by the rest of the group, which exemplifies the modern brand of heavy rock played by Leppard, Foreigner, Loverboy, and Billy Squier; music that can be called “pop metal” or “energy pop.” There’s an emphasis on the group, unlike heavy metal’s early ’70s heyday when bands like Zeppelin and Deep Purple cast that philosophy aside, often using a song’s structure as a mere launching pad for solos.
“I never liked the older generation of heavy-metal bands,” says Allen,”where you would have those streaks of self-indulgence, like a ten-minute drum solo. It was too much, and boring.” The role of the heavy-rock drummer has changed along with the music, he contends, to where it’s now “more important to play for the song than for yourself, and I like that. I really get off playing for the songs, although it is nice to be able to do something flashy once in a while.”
The absence of ego is evident when the band works on a new song. Music is supplied by the guitars and bass, and lyrics by the vocalist. Although Allen works out most of his drum parts “just by playing together,” he says that the others do make suggestions, which he happily tries. “Joe messes about a bit on the drums, so he’ll say, ‘Try this,’ and I’ll do it. If anybody wants to make suggestions, that’s all right with me. Sav [bassist Savage] is very good at thinking up drum parts; he’s a very sure sort of musician—very rock steady. When he comes up with something, it’s usually right. It’s good to have that sort of person in a band—someone who can act as a sounding board for ideas as well.”
On stage, where Leppard’s set runs either 55 minutes or 74 minutes, as on the current headlining tour (“plenty long enough for me, I’ll tell ya”), they mostly rely on the recorded arrangements. Older tunes, however, are sometimes extended or tampered with, which the drummer enjoys. “I like that spontaneity, where you don’t exactly know what’s going on. Like, there’s one song, ‘Hit and Run,’ where we go into this middle section, a very Keith Richards-like thing. At that part of the show, anything can happen; we just sort of go along with the audience.”
Leppard’s live set is mostly up-tempo, but Allen claims no problems with stamina. “I’m still quite young,” he laughs. Most of the tunes are short bursts of energy, usually no more than four minutes long. That too goes against traditional metal concerts, where lengthy guitar jams often uncoil songs into 20-minute epics. Although Leppard go out of their way to deny any affiliation with Britain’s punk movement of the mid-’70s, Allen concedes that the more direct approach is derived from the new-wave credo that less is more.
Leppard also eschew wicked time changes—once a staple of heavy metal— for more steady beats, most of which are straight 4/4. On “Photograph,” the band’s recent hit single, Allen sets up a rhythmic groove with his bass drum and snare, using a pattern that has its roots in straight-ahead rockers like the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded. “The most tricky song was a Rush-influenced track off the first album, called “Answer to the Master,” which included a relatively complicated section. It remains a favorite of Allen’s, although, he says with mock sadness, “The guys went and scrapped the song from the show, so that was the end of my fun.”
Allen mostly plays to bassist Rick Savage on stage, relying on his monitors, which he sets up for high frequencies. “I’ve got this really simple system: I wear just one earplug, so the level is very low. Even if the monitor breaks, I can still hear myself. It’s like shoving your finger into your ear if you’re a singer.”
He and Savage, he says, “work quite well together,” but adds that “it took a long time for us to get to know one another musically. What makes it difficult is the way we’ve been working these past few years, doing an album for months and months, and then going out on tour. We never really got into a routine, because we didn’t get to play together in the studio. It was a real drag, but it’s sounding real good now.”
His Ludwig kit consists of a 22″ bass drum, 12″ and 13″ rack toms, 16″ and 18″ floor toms, and a 6 1/2 x 14 Super Sensitive snare drum, all with Ludwig Rockers heads. “I used to use double-headed toms, but now I’m using just a single head because our sound engineer prefers it that way. He finds that he can get the sound much easier, and it doesn’t change the feel of the drums very much for me.”
Allen plays with custom-made sticks that are relatively heavy, with a fat tip and little taper. “They’re made of hickory,” he explains. “I had found this one stick that I liked, but it was far too light, made of a different wood.
“So I got a bit of sandpaper, sanded it all down, and then found this company in Leichester—Cymbals and Percussion— and had them copy it. They’re the best sticks—I’ve turned so many people onto them. I gave Dave Holland of Judas Priest some, and he quite liked them. They don’t break, for starters, and they’re a nice, comfortable weight.”
For cymbals he chooses Paiste, with whom he’s recently struck up an endorsement agreement; he is a particularly ardent booster of their Rude cymbals. “They sound awful in the studio, but on stage they cut through really well.” His cymbal setup includes a 22″ 2002 ride, two 20″ Rudes, two 18″ Rudes and—his favorite— a 22″ pang cymbal imported from China that he goes for in a pinch. To drive a song, says Allen, he often relies on the bell of the ride cymbal.
Allen tunes his snare to a fixed pitch and then works on the toms, which he supplements with Simmons electronic drums for a vibrant, ringing sound that doesn’t sacrifice the acoustics’ attack. “You just preset the sensitivity controls, although you have to be careful that you don’t lag. You’ve got to stay on top of the beat, but it’s an incredible drum sound.”
Allen’s interest in sound possibilities comes from having worked with producer Mutt Lange for both the Pyromania and High ‘n’ Dry LPs. Lange, whose credits include AC/DC and Foreigner, is a tough taskmaster, but one of the few modern producers with a truly identifiable sound. “He’s amazing,” says Rick. “You can listen to his backing tracks—just the drums and the bass—and it sounds so powerful.