A chat with Rick Allen
As longtime drummer for Def Leppard, having joined the band when he was 15 years old and remaining in their ranks even after losing his left arm in a car accident on New Year’s Eve 1984, Rick Allen has proven to be both a musical and physical inspiration to many over the years. Def Leppard continue to maintain their status as hard rock legends – one of precious few to emerge from the ‘80s with their credibility intact – and, in 2006, have released their ninth studio album, Yeah! Allen chatted with Bullz-Eye about this collection of the band’s covers of some of their favorite songs, as well as their co-headlining tour with Journey this summer, the band’s marketing strategy in recent years, and a bit on what it’s like, almost twenty years later, to still find themselves living in the tall shadows of Pyromania and Hysteria.
Bullz-Eye: Hello, Rick?
Rick Allen: Hello?
BE: How are you?
RA: Good! How are you?
BE: Not bad at all.
BE: You’re actually going to be in my neck of the woods tomorrow.
RA: Oh, great!
BE: I live in Chesapeake, which is right next door to Virginia Beach…
RA: Oh, cool!
BE: …so I’ll see if I can’t make it to the show.
RA: I’m sure you would enjoy it.
BE: I’m sure that I would. I’d seen you a few years back when you played the (Virginia Beach) Amphitheater, and you sounded great then.
RA: Yeah, this show’s tight. It’s good. We’ve got a lot of good people working with us, and, visually, everything else…it’s amazing.
BE: So, in regards to Yeah!, can I presume you didn’t get the memo from Duran Duran that cover albums are not actually supposed to be any good?
RA: (Chuckles) Well, this is something that we’d been wanting to do ever since we started. Joe, actually, was, like, “Let’s do a covers album! Let’s do a covers album!” And all of these songs, in various forms, we played or just inspired us as kids. I think it’s a treat. I guess people get to see where we actually got the ideas from and how we were inspired. It’s kind of a bit self-indulgent, but it’s okay. It’ll be a new studio album next time, but this, we like it. And it’s being really well received wherever we go, so we feel as though it’s a really good thing.
BE: How did you come to pick the various songs? Did everybody kind of chip into a list? Obviously, you had more than a plenty chosen, given how many different versions of the album there are, and how many different tracks appear on them.
RA: Yeah, but when we cross-referenced, we realized that a lot of the song choices were pretty much the same, which is good. And then, the other thing was that we didn’t want to choose songs that were just so, so obvious.
BE: I know that a lot of the arrangements haven’t really been changed all that dramatically, but they’ve been kind of…Def Leppard-ized.
RA: Well, there needed to be some sort of common thread that ran through them, and there were places where, drum-wise or…well, it’s pretty difficult for me to kind of emulate everybody. But having said that, it’s easier for me to cheat here and there with the electronic drums. I can make loops, I can do certain things that allow me to do that. So it was a challenge – and still is – but it’s good. It’s definitely pushing the envelope for me.
BE: My editor observed in his review that, the way “Waterloo Sunset” is done, it could almost fit on Hysteria.
RA: Well, that’s the idea: that people actually get to listen to these songs and go, “Oh, okay, now we see where that came from.” And that’s exactly…it’s good, you’ve got it.
BE: And as much as I loved the cover of (Mott the Hoople’s) “The Golden Age of Rock and Roll,” I would’ve killed to hear you guys do “Roll Away the Stone”!
RA: (Lowers voice respectfully) Oh, yeah, isn’t that good? That’s great. We would, but…that could’ve come under the “too obvious” sort of heading. And the same with the T. Rex song. It would’ve been easier for us to have gone with something more obvious, but “20th Century Boy” is a little less that way.
BE: Is “Stay with Me” the first time Phil (Collen, guitarist) has scored a lead vocal on a Def Leppard album?
RA: Um, apart from when he’s doing guides…but I think that’s the first time that it’s ever really come out with him as a lead vocalist. But they all have the potential to be that, which is one of the reasons the vocals sound so good, especially when we do these songs live.
BE: I know that Yeah! had been finished for ages before it was finally released. Was there any particular reason for the delay before it hit stores?
RA: Well…the record company went back on whether they even wanted to release the thing or not, but once we got everyone on board, it was obviously easier to convince everybody that this is a good thing and that we should be doing it and, basically, you guys need to cough up the money.
BE: Was that why “No Matter What” ended up on the 2-disc anthology that came out last year? To build enthusiasm?
RA: We thought that was a nice idea, because it was something we’d been working on; I think it’s nice for people to see the progress.
BE: And I mentioned it offhandedly a moment ago, but what’s the story on all the alternate versions of the album, with the different bonus tracks? (Writer’s note: Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy each have their own version of the album with exclusive tracks.)
RA: Basically, what that was was that all the various outlets wanted something different from everybody else.
BE: Is there any chance of all the bonus tracks being collected at some future juncture?
RA: You know, at some point, with Def Leppard, more often than not, that is what happens: they all get put together. So I think that’s a strong possibility, yes.
BE: It’s just that with all those tracks, being spread out over to many different releases, it’s one of those things where you can totally imagine fans starting up trading trees so that everybody has copies of the songs. (Chuckles)
BE: (Sensing that Allen finds no humor in this whatsoever) Um…although they didn’t sell in Hysteria-sized numbers, I’m a huge fan of Def Leppard’s trifecta of underrated albums: Slang (1996), Euphoria (1999), and X (2002).
RA: Oh, cool! Me, too! Yeah, Slang was one of my favorite records to make, but you can’t please everybody.
BE: I think “Paper Sun” (from Euphoria) is one of my top five Def Leppard songs of all time.
RA: That’s a great song.
BE: And though it wasn’t a single, I noticed it made the cut for the anthology. I take the band is also a fan of the song as well?
RA: Yeah. Just to play live…I just love that song. It’s great.
BE: And, yet, I see from the set lists that, from those three albums, it looks like only “Promises” (from X) has made the cut for recent shows. How do ya’ll make the decision as to what songs you slip in beyond the ones that you know the crowds expect to hear?
RA: I think just experimentation, just seeing how we can build enthusiasm and excitement during an hour twenty and really trying to make every song count. It would be different if we were playing a lot longer set, but it is what it is. So we have what we call floaters, which, uh, is nothing to do with, uh… (hesitates) Yes, um…
BE: I know where you were going with that. It’s all right.
RA: (Cackles) Yeah, okay! So, anyway, we kind of keep those up to scratch, and it just makes it easy to put stuff in at the drop of a hat.
BE: Well, if you felt like playing “Paper Sun” tomorrow night, it wouldn’t kill me.
RA: You know what? I’ll mention it to Phil, anyway, because he would love to, I’m sure.
BE: Well, I’d love to hear it.
RA: Cool. But it is a relatively short set for us.
BE: Yeah, I was checking out on your website and saw the set lists for the past few nights. And even though I’ve just praised all of these more recent albums, I should ask, do you ever still feel like you’re living in the shadow of Pyromania and Hysteria with the mainstream public?
RA: Um, yeah, but, I mean, whether you dwell on it is another story, d’ya know what I mean? It’s, like, the thing is, when success is generational, it’s like a freight train, and nobody can make it go any quicker or slow it down or stop it. It’s just what it is. When a band gets to the stage where we’re at, it’s a different story. I think you make music for slightly different reasons. Having said that, we didn’t know that Pyromania or Hysteria were going to be as successful as they were; we just wanted to make songs that were as good as they could be.
BE: Def Leppard’s been pretty savvy about marketing to their core audience for the past several years. I know you played the state fair circuit, you did the album release party for X at a Wal-Mart in Fayetteville, North Carolina…and, actually, the godparents of my daughter were reporters for the Fayetteville newspaper at the time.
RA: Oh, cool!
BE: But I just think it’s a great management decision, because you still had a major fanbase when you decided to do these things, as opposed to, say, trying desperately to work your way back up from the very bottom.
BE: But whose decision was it to try that avenue?
RA: Um, I think it’s always healthy for us to try and take advice from people that we trust, and, at the end of the day, we can only go with what we think is a good idea. I don’t think there’s really a formula to it. It’s just one of those things; sometimes, you come up with ideas and go ahead with them and they work out, and other times, it’s…an education. (Laughs)
BE: For good or bad! So, seriously, why hasn’t “Me and My Wine” made it onto either of your best-of collections? Because that thing was played on MTV all the time when they first went on the air.
RA: Oh, that thing was a hoot! And maybe we should. I think that shows a different side of the band; it definitely brings out the humor.
BE: Yeah, because I reviewed the anthology, and I gave it 4.5 stars, saying it’s docked half a star for not having “Me and My Wine” on it!
RA: (Laughs) That’s funny!
BE: So tell me a little bit about the Raven Drum Foundation.
RA: Myself and my wife started it in 2001, and we empower people that are in crisis or communities in crisis through drumming and the arts. Drumming being such an ancient form, it really is…”drum circle” is a metaphor for “community.” The idea is, no matter what you’re going through, you never feel alone while you’re doing it. So, consequently, we’ve been working in school districts, special needs groups, penitentiaries, teenage penitentiaries…which has been tremendously successful, actually, getting rival gangs in the same room together, and then going back to the dorms and actually spending time and realizing that they’re not so different after all. We’ve worked in women’s shelters. More recently, for the past couple of tours, we’ve been working with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who…I think there’s actually a decent sized group coming tonight, but they always have a hoot, they always have a great time, whether that means just being invited to the show, or if we get time to sit down and do a drum circle, still, it’s a nice time to get together and share some life experience.
BE: And I’m sure it will not surprise you that, when I excitedly told people I was interviewing the drummer for Def Leppard, a lot of them said, “Oh, right, the guy with one arm.” Do you hear from a lot of similarly-afflicted people who see you as an inspiration because you’ve continued on with what you were doing (before the car accident)?
RA: Uh, yeah, but having said that, it’s a two-way street. I’m just as inspired by the people who supposedly look up to me. But I think that’s natural. Some people are in a lot worse off situation than me, and when I get together with certain individuals, I realize that this experience isn’t necessarily for them; it’s for me, too, and it’s all part of my healing as well.
BE: Just to jump back to Yeah! for a moment, I think the most recent of the songs you covered was “Hanging on the Telephone.” Is that right?
BE: Which version were you the most familiar with? The Blondie version? Or had you even heard the Nerves’ version?
RA: The Blondie version. But the Nerves version kind of made it even more intriguing to do. But (Debbie Harry), really, she was bigger in England before she made any headway in the States. It was like the Jimi Hendrix syndrome.
BE: And with “He’s Gonna Step on You Again,” were you at all concerned about walking in the footsteps of the Happy Mondays? I mean, obviously, theirs was more of an interpretation than an outright cover, but…
RA: Um, I know what you mean, but, no, you do songs for your own reasons. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta stick to what you know and what your passion’s for. We expected people to hear that and relate a little bit to, say, “Rocket,” and see where that came from a little bit.
BE: How has it been touring with Journey? I know they’ve had a bit of turmoil with their vocalist. (Per Journey’s website, “Due to a chronic throat infection, Journey’s lead singer, Steve Augeri, has been forced to leave the band’s current nationwide tour with Def Leppard” and has been replaced by “Jeff Scott Soto, who has previously performed with Journey guitarist Neal Schon.”)
RA: Yeah, they’re really nice guys. I feel terrible for Stevie, but he got pneumonia quite some time back, and I think it’s really affected him in a long-term way, and I think it’s good that he spend some time with a specialist and really gets himself well. It’s really…it’s a difficult situation, but I think it’s gonna be good for him.
BE: How did the double bill come about? Were you fans of the band, or was it just a pairing that was pitched to ya’ll?
RA: Yeah, it was suggested by management, and, at first, we were a little resistant, and then we went, well, why not? Where else can you go and listen to hit songs all night?
BE: And, now, is that tour just within the US, or is it elsewhere as well?
RA: Up to now, I think it’s just the US.
BE: And does it alternate between who opens and who closes the night?
RA: No, I mean…we’re closing the show each night.
BE: I didn’t know if the order switched up at all.
RA: No, but we’re both playing the same amount of time.
BE: So a double headliner, in other words.
RA: Yeah, that’s just kind of the way it went.
BE: Has there ever been any thought of doing a Def Leppard box set, to expand beyond just the 2-disc anthology?
RA: I think that is kind of on the cards for the 25-year anniversary.
BE: And I know that the debut album is not available on iTunes. Is there any reason for that in particular?
RA: You know what? That was confusing to me as well. I’m not quite sure why that is the case.
BE: Funnily enough, I found out it wasn’t available when I went to iTunes to confirm that “Me and My Wine” was from the debut. See, it all comes back to “Me and My Wine.”
RA: Yep. It does. Yeah, that unites us all. (Laughs)
BE: Alright, well, I think that’s all from me.
RA: That’s great, man! Well, listen, if you get a chance to come say “hello,” please do!
Tragic post-script: Through no fault of Rick’s, I was unable to attend the show the following night, so our in-person meeting did not take place. My only mild consolation came when I later saw the set list for the show and discovered that, in fact, “Paper Sun” was not played after all.