Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rick Allen needs little introduction. As the famously one-armed drummer for Def Leppard providing the beat behind the multi-platinum ‘Pyromania’ and ‘Hysteria’ albums, his status in rock history is assured. An accomplished artist, he’s recently put down the sticks once more and taken up the paint brush, creating a series of critically acclaimed works that’s he’s preparing to exhibit with a special brace of shows in July; at Wentworth Galleries in Atlantic City, and King of Prussia. We sat down with Rick for an in-depth chat about his fine art, his playing style, and some rarely mentioned Def Leppard gems. Pearl of euphoria; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Rick, how are you?
I’m good, thanks. I recognise your accent from being around Vivian [Campbell], of course!
[Rick spots eonmusic is wearing an ‘On Through the Night’ shirt]
That’s cool. I love that we did a live recording of early stuff recently [‘When the Walls Came Tumbling Down - Live in Oxford 1980’, Record Store Day 2021 release]. It’s cool. I really enjoyed listening to it. I mean, we were full of beans. The versions that we did were somewhat more sprightly than the studio versions. We were a full on prog rock band! It was brilliant!
Certainly with songs like ‘When the Walls Come Tumbling Down’, you were!
Oh, I know! It’s fantastic, and all of the songs had an element; they always sounded experimental in their form, you know what I mean? I started off, I fancied myself as a more of a jazz rock drummer. I started out listening to big band, and that was my father’s doing. I loved listening to Glenn Miller, and then I remember getting into Billy Cobham, and I remember seeing him at the Roundhouse in London very early on, before I even joined Def Leppard. So I liked that idea of different ways of playing drums.
I think people tend to forget just what a groove you had in those early days; that’s evident in a song like ‘Heat Street’.
Well, obviously this was way before I even knew anything about Mutt Lange [producer of ‘Pyromania’, Hysteria’, etc]. You know, we were just exploring what made us feel good. I think Pete Willis was partly responsible for those really sort of unusual type riffs. I just kind of followed suit. I wanted to just explore all the stuff that I’d learned in drum lessons. I went for lessons with this guy called Kenny Slade, a local Sheffield drummer, and he spent quite a bit of time around Joe Cocker, and he was kind of responsible for setting me on the right track; setting me up with the book, and I started reading a little bit.
So you worked hard at your craft.
I was never really into practice. I was more into getting together with my friends and just playing and seeing where we ended up.
You were unusual in the rock world in that you played with the traditional grip; did that come out of those lessons?
It did. Kenny fancied himself as a jazz drummer and he played like that, so I just kind of followed suit. I just went along. I’d never been to lessons in my life, so I just tried to copy everything that he was doing, and I ended up with this unique style. It wasn’t until my brother came home from school with [Deep Purple’s] ‘Maiden in Japan’ that he borrowed from one of his friends, and I really got into Ian Paice. Ian Paice, I felt as though he brought a technical aspect to drumming - particularly to rock drumming - that was pretty unique. I’d air drum along to that, and that was also a huge influence on my playing. But really, the traditional grip was left over from drum lessons. It kind of suited those early Def Leppard songs pretty well.
Did you retain that style after those early days?
Yes, all the way through until I lost my arm. I could never get into match grip for some reason. It just didn’t suit. It just didn’t feel right, and I could play all these really cool little press rolls and drags with my left hand that I could never achieve with match grip, so I just kind of stayed with it.
We’re here to talk about ‘Wings of Hope 2021’; the art shows you’ve got coming up in Atlantic City and in Pennsylvania; talk to me about those.
I hadn’t done any in-person art shows since March of last year, and then the first one I did was actually a virtual art show here at home. It was to second, third, forth and fifth time buyers, so it was all people that I knew. Then, when I got vaccinated, I started to feel a little more confident about the idea of getting out there, and the gallery owner, he said; “would you be up for going to Florida?”, and I’m like; “Yeah! Yes, I can do that”. I’m still very cautious; some of these variants that are coming out sound pretty gnarly. So, a couple of months ago I ended up doing a show in Fort Lauderdale, at that Hard Rock Hotel with the giant guitar, and then, one up in Boca Raton, and those shows were really, really successful. I could tell that people were really excited to get out and do something, and fortunately, I was it!
You obviously enjoyed the experience yourself, as you’re doing it again.
I really enjoyed getting to talk to people and being in amongst people again, so this is the second outing. They said; “why don’t you wait four or five weeks, and then we could get you to Atlantic City, and then you can go do King of Prussia while you’re at it”. And obviously, while I’ve been at home trying to keep myself busy, trying to have a focus, the artwork has been really good for that.
Is it nice to have a focus on something other than music?
Yes. It is, and in reality, when I paint, I kind of go to the same place that I go when I play music. Before I play, it’s very heady, and sometimes I feel that nervous feeling, but then a few bars in, I’m right in my heart and totally in the moment, and that’s exactly where I go when I paint, so I actually find it quite therapeutic in many ways. Not too many people know this, but I suffer from PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] - not from combat trauma, but from extreme trauma all the same - and what I’ve found is music and the artwork really help my nervous system just to settle down, especially when I find myself in the moment where I’m not thinking about what’s for dinner, or what I could have done better, or this, that or the other. The more I stay in the moment, the more I find that whatever it is, whatever intelligence, really heals me, and it feels very therapeutic.
One of the themes you’ve worked on is the ‘Legends’ series, and your Steve Clarke painting really captures his soul.
Well, Steve, of any person I could think about, he inspired me tremendously. He really got me into Led Zeppelin, and his playing was so unique, with his classical sort of background. He could play things that were just so… they would just grab you. So, I found Steve to be a very deep person; a very deep thinker, a big heart, and I miss him every day. So, when I started thinking about this whole ‘Legends’ thing, I’m thinking; “well, who is it that really influenced me?”, and so the low-hanging fruit was really Steve. He was one of those people, and I knew him; I knew him very well, and we were dear friends. The cool thing is, when I completed the thing, I took a picture of it and sent it to my mother who’s in touch with Beryl, Steve’s mum, and Beryl said exactly the same as you’ve just said, and that is; “Rick really captured his essence, really captured the whole vibe of Steve”, and that to me was probably the biggest complement anybody could pay me.
That was the painting that started the ‘Legends’ series, wasn’t it?
That was the thing that really kept me digging into my past and going; “well, who else inspired me?” I just went down the list, and I’m still going down that list. Unfortunately, we seem to lose more and more every year that goes by, which is a fact of life, unfortunately. So, the latest legends that I did, I’m particularly proud of. Johnny Cash, of course, who was the original bad boy; he could fit in anywhere; anything he touches, he blows the doors off. I love it!
You Kurt Cobain portrait is quite remarkable.
The other person that I feel really changed music forever, really turned it on its head, was Kurt Cobain; another really amazing, amazing person. At first it was completely black and white, and then I was looking at some pictures of Kurt, and I remembered how stunning his eyes were, so I ended up just colouring in one of his eyes, and it jut really created a beautiful focal point. The piece is kind of revealed to you after you see his eye. A lot of people, particularly rock bands, didn’t quite know what to do with the whole Seattle scene. Our response to it was to go make ‘Slang’ , and go back to basics.
‘Slang’ is an album that is perhaps the most under-appreciated in Def Leppard history.
I think, when it first came out, I feel the same as you, but it was a creeper, and it became some people’s favourite record. I think without our experience of working with Mutt Lang, I think Def Leppard would have probably sounded more like that; a little more stripped down, and little more raw. That whole time period reminded me of when I first heard the Sex Pistols. It was like; “wow! This is so to the point; no frills, no self-indulgence”. It was just really to the point, rock songs, and that’s kind of what I got out of it. So I had, and still do have a massive appreciation for Kurt Cobain.
You’ve also painted Eddie Van Halen.
I was really saddened by the loss of Eddie Van Halen, and what better way to pay homage to somebody that you really appreciate than to sit there and paint them. I did two pieces, and I think both of them had sold before I even finished them.
Do you listen to the artist’s music while painting them; does that help, or is that not part of the process?
Yes, you’re right, and it was the same with Hendrix; another person that turned guitar playing on its head. The interesting thing about painting somebody is that by the time you’re a couple, or three or four weeks into the painting, you don’t want to let it go. That’s always the problem that I have. I’m probably the only that artist that has only about two of my own pieces up in my home. It’s not by choice, but once I’ve finished the piece, basically, it’s the gallery’s and they can do whatever they want to do with it.
You were a Van Halen fan from their earliest days, weren’t you?
Yeah, you’ve probably heard the story of 1978, and my friend Mark called me, and he said; “you’ve got to listen to this record!”, and he lived a couple of doors up, and I go up there and plays me Van Halen I for the first time, and I was just completely blown away. I’d never heard guitar playing like that before, and the whole band were just incredible; they really set the bar really high. A couple of months later, they were opening for Black Sabbath, and Van Halen owned that show. They were just so hungry and so good, and you could see Black Sabbath, the wheel were kind of coming off!
Did you ever meet Eddie?
Fast forward, I moved to the States in ’91, and got friendly with Steve Lukather from Toto, and he called me one night and says; “we’re having a get together. I want to introduce you to my friend Eddie Van Halen”. I was like; “uh oh!”; I met him, I was really starstruck, but he was very unassuming, very humble. You would never think he did what he did for a living.
Click here to read eonmusic’s 2021 interview with Steve Lukather.
In a similar vein, you spent your 16th birthday sharing a stage with AC/DC; what was Bon Scott like, and have you thought of painting him?
I was just thinking about that this morning! I’ve been asked to pull a list of songs together, and one of them was ‘Highway to Hell’. We were extremely fortunate to open for AC/DC. I could never have dreamt this stuff up. That was my 16th birthday, bearing in mind I joined Def Leppard around about my 15th birthday, and by my 16th birthday we’d already opened for Sammy Hagar, and we were opening for AC/DC. And I remember Bon coming in, in the dressing room with a bowl of Smarties – you say Smarties and people over here don’t always know what you’re talking about. I say; “they’re kind of like M&Ms” – so he comes in, wishes me happy birthday, and I was completely blown away. Now I look back on it, I realise just how special it was to be doing what I was doing at such a young age.
You mentioned earlier about what Pete Willis brought to the band, and Steve Clarke also brought some incredible riffs; a personal favourite being ‘Desert Song’, which has never been performed live.
You know, that’s the one beautiful thing about doing Vegas residencies; that’s what we found, we can pull things out that you would never normally play. Steve, he brought this, it was this mysterious, almost dissonance sort of vibe to the riffs that he brought. Very untypical; things that would just ring in a way, almost like a middle-eastern sort of drone. It had something to it that you couldn’t quite put your finger on, and I think it was that way with ‘Desert Song’. Just like when you listen to certain Zeppelin songs; you listen to ‘Kashmir’ and you go; “wow!”, and ‘Desert Song’, it hit me in the same way.
You yourself, played ‘Desert Song’ with a real bombastic conviction!
I think that was my attempt at emulating John Bonham. Hopefully I did an okay job! It kind of had that sort of circular transition, where I’m playing one thing real straight, and then the band they’re at a different part of the riff until you get five or six or maybe even seven times around the riff before it comes back to square one. That was the whole idea behind ‘Kashmir’; it was almost like playing one time signature against another, which is really cool.
Back to your artwork, and Def Leppard have worked with some iconic artists and designers like Andie Airfix, Hugh Syme, and Hipgnosos; have they inspired you at all?
You know, I’m sure somewhere along the way it does influence, just as everything that you see – life experience – attributes. But yeah, specifically, I thought that our artwork designs were really innovative. We were just trying to follow some of the greats and do something that was a bit leftfield, something that wasn’t quite typical. I dig the whole idea of ‘High ‘n’ Dry’. When I first saw it, I was like; “huh?!”, but then it grew on me. Maybe as I discovered something to smoke, perhaps! [laughing].
Yeah, the guy on the cover is diving into an empty swimming pool, so he’s high and dry, effectively!
Yeah, I know! And I’m going like; “well that doesn’t quite make sense!”, and then it was like [mimes taking a smoke]; “well, it does now!” [laughing].
What are your favourite Def Leppard album covers?
Well, obviously ‘Hysteria’. It’s so complex. So many layers; I just love that. I think that one, that and actually, I really like the vibe of ‘Slang’. Again, it took the band in a different direction that kind of suited us at the time.
Would you be interested in doing a Def Leppard album cover?
I mean, I’d be into it, whether the guys… I’m not sure I’d want to take on that responsibility. Even though I sound really confident, I’m still afraid of rejection to a certain degree. I think we all are, deep down, and I think that was one of the things that slowed me down a little bit in the beginning of my art career; not wanting to show it to people. It wasn’t until my wife said; “you’ve got to show this – people are really going to love it”. Then when I got the first reactions, particularly at that Steve Clarke, that really inspired me to push on and keep delving more into it. It’s like anything else; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
It must be great to be talking about things that are so positive, given that the typical line on Def Leppard is about the tragedy that has befallen the band over the years.
Yes, and it’s true what they say; if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. You know, somebody asked me recently; “would you change anything?”, and you think back to that day when you were driving down the road, and it took me a while to really ponder that and go; “well, to be honest, I’m really not sure that I would”, because it gave me something; it gave me a gift that I’m not sure I would have advanced as far as I am now, had I not had that experience where it nearly took me out. I get the most incredible respect form people all over the planet, and I just hope that I live up to that; that people can see me for really who I am, and that I’m the real deal. It’s not some sort of mask that I wear. We all wear masks; we all wear architypes; we play different roles within life, but I really hope that the resounding message of who I am comes to the surface, and I think that really shows a lot of strength of character.
There was a documentary that the BBC shot in 1989 that took you back to the scene of the accident, and there was a telling moment in it where you broke down and your dad appeared from out of shot to console you.
I know the one. I went back to the field of where it happened. I remember it well. The interesting thing is my folks actually live not too far from where it happened, so interestingly enough, every time I drive over to Manchester I drive past the very same spot. I think going through that experience of driving past there is not a bad thing; it’s a nice reminder of where I am, and I guess it desensitises me in a good way.
I couldn’t let you go without asking you about Adrian Smith’s connection to Def Leppard. I spoke to the Iron Maiden guitarist last year, and he confirmed that he had been in contention for the role that Vivian Campbell eventually filled.
Yeah, I actually really loved the idea. I mean, there was a kid called Huwey Lucas that was a contender; there was John Sykes; there were all these people kind of lined up. I loved the idea. It’s interesting, you put somebody in a slightly different situation and new things are revealed about them, and it was cool. It was a complement that he was so into it. But I think ultimately, I think Vivian was the absolutely perfect choice.
Finally, what’s happening going forward for you?
I’m actually doing a fair amount of work with my wife [Lauren Moore]. She just put a record out called ‘Under the Wolf Moon’, so I do a fair amount of playing with her. She has her own band here where we live, which is really cool. So it’s nice to go back and forth and at least have something that I can do, musically, while I’m at home. It’s great being a musical family; my daughter, she plays piano, and my wife’s a singer / song writer and plays great guitar. We find ourselves in this strange situation where we can’t really get together, and we truly are social beings. So I find myself very fortunate, being able to so something here at home, even if I can’t do something with the band. Yeah, it’s disappointing the tour [the Stadium tour with Motley Crue, Poison, and Joan Jett] getting pushed back again, but at least now we know that it’s probably going to happen in 2022. So let’s hope everything goes according to plan and things don’t get weird again!
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Rick Allen's will be making the following in gallery appearances. For more information on Rick and his artwork, visit his official site.
SATURDAY, JULY 10 6-9 PM
Wentworth Gallery at The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City
Address: 1000 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, NJ 08401
SUNDAY, JULY 11 1-4 PM
Wentworth Gallery at King of Prussia Mall
Address: 690 West Dekalb Pike #2084, King of Prussia, PA 19406