Written By: Alan Light
It was a mighty big stage for such a risky experiment. On August 16, 1986, the seventh annual Monsters of Rock festival took place in Castle Donnington, England, in front of 80,000 fans. Def Leppard had become one of the biggest rock bands in the world with their breakthrough 1983 album Pyromania, which sold more than 6 million copies, though this popularity hadn’t fully swept their native U.K., where the record only peaked at No. 18 on the charts. At Monsters of Rock the band was slated in the middle of a bill of heavy-metal all-stars, coming on stage after Motörhead and just before the Scorpions and the headliner, Ozzy Osbourne.
Part of the reason for this placement may also have been concerns around Def Leppard’s lineup. On New Year’s Eve 1984, while the group was on a holiday break from recording, drummer Rick Allen had crashed his car on a country road, severing his left arm. But Allen trained himself to play a specially designed drum kit by using his legs to take on some of the parts usually handled by the arms.
Before Donington, the band did a quick six-date warm-up tour in Ireland. The plan was for Allen to play alongside another drummer, but after the additional player showed up late for one of the gigs, Allen handled the final two dates by himself. Now, less than 20 months after his accident, he was at Monsters of Rock before a full—extra full, in fact—audience.
The eyes of the music world were on Def Leppard, and fans and the press were skeptical that this unprecedented comeback was viable. To make things all the more challenging, it was pouring rain.
“It’s not like I could consult with a book called One-Armed Drummers,” Allen has said, noting that his physical transformation inevitably changed his style. “Everything I did I had to figure out for myself.”
Over an 11-song set, the Castle Donington performance proved to be a triumph. “Stagefright” was the (perhaps inevitable) opener, with its first line “I said, welcome to my show!” When the band played their ferocious cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band” as an encore, singer Joe Elliott introduced “Mr. Ricky Allen on the drums,” and the soggy crowd went crazy.
The next chapter of Def Leppard’s remarkable, unlikely, and highly uplifting career had begun—and though this wouldn’t be the last time the band stared down tragedy, they would ultimately emerge not only intact but bigger than ever. Their next album, 1987’s Hysteria, would surpass the heights reached by Pyromania and become one of the best-selling albums of all time. More than 40 years after their formation, Elliott, Allen, bassist Rick Savage, and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell are Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, still topping the charts and playing to sold-out stadiums.
“The guy lost his arm in a car accident and then decided he was going to learn how to play drums with his foot,” says singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson, who released an EP of Def Leppard covers in 2018. “That is, in and of itself, a story that should carry them for the rest of their life in terms of showing their resilience and their drive and power and love of playing music together.”
Looking back on Allen’s accident decades later, Elliott described how the rest of Def Leppard never wavered in their support for their bandmate and the greater significance of the challenging crossroads in the group’s history. “We said, ‘Okay, he’s in this band until he says he isn’t.’ We’re not going to fire him because of an accident. . . . It showed the humanity within the band, the true friendship, because we’d been through some trauma before then, but this was major league.
“That was the beginning of us realizing that it’s not just a band,” Elliott added. “It’s a band of brothers.”
Here are a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue on Def Leppard: