RETURN OF THE HEAVY METAL GUITAR HERO
IF YOU DON'T LIKE ROCK AND ROLL, IT'S TOO LATE NOW
Beneath the glaring arch, sandwiched between Judy Garland and PETE MAKOWSKI, Ritchie Blackmore demolishes Stratocasters and audiences with equal abandon, spelling out 'success' with £ 30.000 worth of light bulbs.
"We're not in Kansas
We must be over the Rainbow ",
(Judy Garland - `Wizard Of Oz')
THERE'S ONE part of Rainbow's set where I almost physically passed out. It was during 'Stargazer' when Blackmore sent his slide slithering up the old Strat to notes which gave out frequencies that almost gave me black spots. My head felt as if it was imploding, caving in. It was wonderful.
THE STORY is that Rainbow are here. Yeah, you heard: it's Rainbow, not Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. We'll get to that later. After two amazing albums we're getting a taste of the live action.
Hell, was I excited. I mean my love for Purple's, especially Blackmore's music is no trade secret, so the SOUNDS crew must of known that they were in for a totally biased and almost downright sycophantic report when they sent me on this little trek to cover the opening nights of Rainbow's debut appearance. Still off I went, to Bristol, just itchin' to see the gig.
To save me choking on my superaltives, and you from reading three pages of arse-licking complimentary remarks, this piece basically catalogues events, as they happened, hopefully to give you an accurate and objective idea of the situation. The band, opening nights, all aspects, "an atmospheric piece... with lots of gossip," is what they asked for. 'Course I'll digress from time to time, air me views, but I'll try to restrain myself, honest.
HOLIDAY INN. What a place! We'll get to that later.
The band haven't played for a month. They've been rehearsing up until tonight's (last Tuesday, to you) gig at the Hippodrome. I initially wanted to join the lads a night before at rehearsals, to get the feel of the show, but Blackmore, whom I spoke to the Friday before, warned me that this might be inadvisable as the band... er kind of get hot headed in rehearsal situations. So I arrived on Tuesday and went straight into the coffee shop where the group were assembled catching a quick bite before the soundcheck.
The word the night before was that the Rainbow (a stunning piece of machinery, we'll get to that later) was not functioning. A delicate object of modern day rock `n' roll technology, it doesn't really take too kindly to air travel. My fears of not seeing a complete show were soon dismissed when it was announced everything was A-O.K.
Three of the band. You want introductions? O.K. Loony scotsman Jimmy Bain on bass. Keyboards man Tony Carey, who I'd never met before but already seemed a nice guy on first impressions. And fellow American, front man on vocal chords, Ronnie James Dio. Three of the band were sat round with road manager and South Shields superstar Colin Hart.
After welcomes I sat in the corner with Jennie Halsall, the band's P.R. and our photographer contemplating. Blackmore's whereabouts whilst picking my way through a piece of dead meat covered in almost luminous sauce when suddenly I was showered with a generous handful of french fries (chips to you) which spread themselves evenly over my frail torso.
I felt them boring into my head. Those eyes. Beady, shifting from side to side, suddenly pin pointing you with laser like accuracy. Unnerving it is. Blackmore has a chameleon like personality, not as in schizophrenia, but in moods. Inside there is no doubt that he's strong in character, but the surface lives up to the Man In Black image, which has made him famous (or infamous, depending which side you're on).
"Hey mystery man, what's your plan?
"You better tell the world to beware, you don't care."
"Snakecharmer" off the first R.B. solo venture was Dio's initial assessment of the man. He is indeed thoroughly underrated in all aspects.
Our swift conversation was broken by the band's skin demolisher, Cozy Powell. Fresh from the Dutch Grand Prix and sporting an Olympics jumper. Looking disgustingly healthy, Powell is a great bloke and also possesses an uncanny memory for faces and names.
"Hey Ritchie whattabout the stop," asked Cozy, referring to a section in a a number where the music comes to a halt.
Blackmore looked up intently. "When I cease to play you'll know I've stopped." After a short silence, laughter ensued and Powell walked away none the wiser, muttering something to the effect of "We'll suss it out when we come to it."
Powell, of granite features, always a grin and a king size Silk Cut in his mouth. And what a drummer! We'll get to that later. The group vanished for a soundcheck, and I spent the rest of the afternoon on my jacksy, drinking tea, watching cartoons, sitting ... waiting.
I knew I was going to like the show, whatever, but first nights are always a bit dodgy. No matter how well organised it is, no matter how professional the participants are, there's always an element of doubt as to how smoothly things will run first time.
And then there's THE HUMAN FACTOR. The band and the audience. After so many chops and changes will the fans accept a new band? These were some of questions to be answered tonight.
BACKSTAGE the scene was surprisingly calm. Jimmy and Tony were engaged in a moderate loon (nothing too hectic) before the show while Cozy dressed in track bottom, T-shirt and pumps, paced around, sticks in hand, obviously eager to get on with business.
'IF YOU DON'T LIKE ROCK AND ROLL; IT'S TOO LATE NOW' (THE NIGHT)
Ritchie was nowhere to be seen, a regular occurence before shows, while Ronnie was leaning against a wall, nursing a bevy.
"God, we haven't done a show in over a month, people won't know whether I'm singing or shitting," were the final words I heard as I walked outfront.
A quaint place. The grey haired attendants looked a little bewildered to see the mellow, theatrical atmosphere of the joint broken. It's party time. The Hippodrome was literally beseiged by hordes of rampant heavy metal kids. It already felt much more electric then any of the Purple gigs on the last two British tours.
The mellow, cocktail, crumpetpulling muzak tones of Al Green didn't do anything towards soothing the fans who were already displaying an uncontrollable heavy rock libido, screaming for their hero.
"COME ON BLACKMORE!!!"
As the evening went on, although it was really only a matter of minutes, the collected mass became a little more impatient.
"TED NUGENT!" screamed one enthusiast.
"FUCK OFF", was the courteous eply, followed by some collective footstamping.
The Rainbow, colourless but nevertheless conspicuous, was comfortably positioned over the stage. The choice of gigs were narrowed down to places hat could accommodate this computerised cosmic traffic light show.
The lights went down, the audience response was deafening, almost overpowering the tapes which emitted the voice of the then innocent, naive Miss Garland. The 'rainbow' part of her monologue echoed. A bizarre combination, I would have laughed if I had time, but on cue the band belted out the opening section of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow".
Like a sledgehammer delicate crystal, my trance was shattered as the group went into full shuffle with "Kill The King", a new number obviously designed to warm up the boys.
Blackmore's instantly recognisable axework cut through, almost fighting the meaty backing, like gigantic waves beating against a towering rock edifice, the power and strength was pretty well equal on both sides. Dio walked on to a welcoming reception, his fists in the air he screamed out the words ... I couldn't hear. My whole interest was suddenly diverted to that Rainbow which had suddenly come to life, bursting into a carnival of colour.
Then there was the backdrop, the cover of the first album. A mutation of a castle and a guitar, the portals were luminous ...
"This is a number written by Ritchie, done by another band who shall go nameless at the moment," was the intro to "Mistreated". By now everyone downstairs was vertical (upright to you) pushing towards the front of the stage.
My head was still in a daze. "Mistreated" sounded good, stronger arrangement, the ultimate in heavy blues. Bain was leaping around a lot, while Carey was stooped, hand outstretched, manipulating the battery of keyboards around him with ease and precision.
Blackmore was moving a lot and playing like a proverbial mutha, there was no doubt about that. Dressed in the inevitable black his wiry frame dominated the stage with its menacing presence. Constantly shaking that electrified mop, his spindly tentacle-like fingers raced up and down the frets in a blur of speed. My brain was confused as to which direction to focus on. I don't think I've ever witnessed such an effective audio/visual performance.
In fact my concentration kept wavering until the middle of "Man Of The Silver Mountain". This is no criticism, it was just that the whole thing was quite new and overpowering, difficult to fully grasp first time round. I felt like a kid at a fair, trying to have a go on all the side shows at once. The whole thing was pretty bloody spectacular.
But, by the time the group were fully into "M.O.T.S.M." I was back, with them. I noticed at the beginning of the number that Ritchie hesitated for a while and walked over to Bain.
"That was because I forgot the bloody thing," he said later, "it's vaguely simulair to 'Smoke On The Water", and I just couldn't remember it, so I went over to Jimmy and asked him to hum it to me."
In the middle of the number Blackmore got on his knees and flayed the neck of his Strat with the side of his hands, legs astride-guitar neck up. It looked like a guy trying to beat down a vicious erection which had accidently burst out of his strides.
SUDDENLY the hall was filled with the sound of a pyrotechnic Blitzkrieg. A storm of feedback enveloped the stage and the man was back up on his feet playing the blues, authentic electric blues which could only be played by a man with his experience. With Carey's complementary Hammond keyboard sound accompanying and Powell gently brushing the skins, it kinda reminded me of the sound on an old Shuggie Otis album that Blackmore plays a lot when at home.
Next, "Stargazer" with a swishy, swirly sound ('scuse the technical jargon) from Carey's synth, underlining the drama. A new backdrop - the cover of "Rainbow Rising" - was lowered on to stage level. Thunderissimo.
Dio's hands fluttering in front of his face, acting out every lyric of the song. He really lets rip on this one. The solo, as I mentioned before, is a real brain mangler.
The last number, a duck-arsetight version of the Yardbirds' "Still I'm Sad" which was an instrumental on the album but is now embellished with vocals. It features a real rocky and technically superb solo from Carey which is followed by a series of shell blasts - I mean a drum solo - from Powell who, due to technical problems, couldn't get his party piece in.
The audience were ecstatic, no kid. I couldn't believe my eyes. Heavy rock is becoming fashionable again. Or is it that Blackmore and his cohorts have something to offer that is sorely lacking in music presently? We'll get to that later.
Whatever, an encore was imperative and it came in the form of "Do You Close Your Eyes" (When You're Making Love). Starting fairly citizens (regularly featured in the dallies and all that guff) Blackmore still moves about swiftly, stretching across, assaulting his guitar in every form possible, occasionally rubbing it across his butt to get the lumps (chick to you) going.
And then finally the big split. You can tell when he's about to smash the crap out of his box. He starts holding it flat, level with his eyes, looking like a craftsman who's just finished a masterpiece and is checking it for warps.
And then POW!
Ah that's better.
Out goes the neck to the onlookers who accept this sacrifice with almost savage glee. It gets wilder when Blackmore swings the remains on a lead around his head. Suddenly lie slips over, caught in a spaghetti of leads.
"The last time I did that was in Texas," Blackmore recalled after the show. "The kids grabbed the lead I got dragged across the stage on my hand. Had to go to hospital after that, it was terrible."
This time he gets up swiftly and by now the crowd are in a frenzy, boiling. The rest of the guitar goes out, and Dio, who almost gets dragged in a couple of times, throws in a mike stand for good measure.
The strains of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" (a la Garland) do nothing to calm a dazed, numbed crowd ... and there was damage. Ooh boy, the front which once comprised of beautifully constructed barrier embedded in marble, was pretty much disintegrated now.
"Whoah! A bit of damage," shouted one of the roadies, who were feverishly dismantling the scenery, already in preparation for the next show.
"They sure don't build them like they used to."
"The trouble is," said the band manager Bruce Payne, "is that they built them before they used to."
Payne is a good guy as far as managers are concerned. He doesn't specialise in bull, a pretty straightforward man, whose interest is deeply rooted in the band musically as well as financially.
"This may sound like managerial crap but tonight was shit compared to tomorrow."
Everyone backstage was unsure of the gig.
Blackmore: "We didn't really know what we were doing."
They were positive about the audience. Even Biacktnore commented that he hadn't seen a crowd that wild at a Purple gig for a long while. Where did they come from?
Outside there were crowds of fans waiting for autographs. Bain almost gets trampled in the rush. Blackmore attempts to make a quick getaway but soon his car is encircled. Two kids run back after receiving a signature from THE MAN, almost hugging each other with ecstasy. "S'cuse us," says one, "but we came all the way from Jersey to see that fucking magician."
BACK AT the hotel things are pretty subdued, everyone's knackered. Carey falls asleep in the hotel disco. The effects of first day pressures and traumas are already beginning to show on worn faces. Everyone's talking about the next gig and the next one. Like a guy who wants finish his last drink before he's had his first, road thirst is developing.
Meanwhile back at the hall the roadies are working hard. They'll get to Leicester nine in the morning and everything should be basically ready. Yup, by fair. Seven hours to put this rock and roll extravaganza into action, probably 'bout ten counting hitches, soundchecks and other incidentals.
NEXT DAY: Leicester. I spent the early hours of the afternoon chatting with Bain, catching up on his background. The pretty boy of the band. The rest of them are a pretty evil looking bunch onstage. He has that rare Scottish sense of humour commonly known as lunacy. A wild one. Blackmore heard about him through his roadie Fergy.
"This guy, a mate, is in a band called Harlot, he's a good front man."
That's exactly what Blackmore was looking for, someone with songwriting potential and visual appeal. So he went to the Marquee (where else?) and had a butchers.
"Ah wasn't that nervous," recalled Bain, "the rest of the band were, they played terrible that night. Actually," he admitted, "there was one point where I got nervous. It was when I looked across over the crowd and I saw these two expressionless eyes staring right at me. I thought 'oh fuck!"
Jimmy in fact joined just when the first Blackmore album came out, which had Ronnie's old band, Elf, on it. By the time that came out Rainbow was down to a three piece, in need of a drummer and keyboard player. The story goes that Cozy was the thirteenth drummer at the audition. This is where Bain got his first real taste of rock et roll a la Blackmore.
"When we were looking for a new drummer, it was just Ritchie and me. To try them out he'd go into this superfast song for about twenty five minutes, it was like an endurance test."
Tony was found via Jimmy at a rehearsal studio in L.A. At 22 Carey's been round some. A New Yorker, he studied at the prestigious Juillard school of music.
"At that time I had aspirations to join an orchestra."
Since then he's played with members of Steely Dan and Bobby Womack. Definitely a confident character. Like Jimmy, self-assured.
Bain: "Ritchie said the thing that he liked about me was that he knew if he fired me I'd be cool about it. Just go and do something else. That's why we work well together, we're out for our personal musical gain. Rainbow's a good channel."
THE INEVITABLE waiting between gigs can easily castrate a musician's enthusiasm. Boredumb. It's like you got this really great lady lined up, but you have to queue out in the rain before you can have your way with her.
It's no wonder that the Stones were pretty tepid by the time they reached the stage at Knebworth, their musical hard-ons must have been well and truly diminished by the time they did the show.
It's not so much the gap that does you in, it's the totally uncreative surroundings which don't offer you any vaguely interesting alternatives. Read a book, go to the bar, blow a joint, watch T.V. Plus the fact that most hotels are pretty identical all over the world. So much so that musicians must wake up in the morning and wonder where the hell they are.
So a lot of the time I sat round scrawling out notes while grey suited salesmen walked past wondering what the hell this flea bitten juvenile was doing lousing up that fine imitation leather sofa. Grown-ups still haven't accepted rock and roll as a serious proposition.
BLACKMORE surfaced only to find that the coffee shop was getting a face lift. He vanished in search of food.
"Er, do you know where the night life is?" asked one salesman, obviously in ladies underwear. We're just passing through."
"That's probably the best thing to do here," commented Bain.
"WHAT'S the crumpet situation like at the gig."
"It's all fucking blokes, just like a Deep Purple show."
In fact this was not so. I spotted quite a few beauts later that night prancing round the venue in their tight cheesecloth tops, and equally skin tight jeans. Interesting this. For the last few years heavy rock gigs have had majority male attendance. Now they're beginning to pull the females in. Where are they coming from?
In fact I'd like to know how many new fans Blackmore's acquired over the last year. Y'see the strange thing is that nobody has been shouting for old Purple numbers at all. Is this just a total acceptance of the new direction, or is there a new audience?
The Leicester De Monfort has less to damage than Bristol. It's Family's hometown. That could explain a lot of things.
It's standing up downstairs, enabling the crowd to make more noise. Tonight the gig is wilder than Bristol. The audience know what they want, the band deliver the goods, although they make a point of making the whole thing musically interesting, instead of your regular musical sledgehammer to the cranium approach.
"We could have just gone out there and played an hour and a half of solid rock," said Blackmore, "but that's already covered, bands like Status Quo do that. We want to present a show where we can demonstrate all the aspects of our music, our styles, done at a good pace."
That's what Rainbow is, a show in every sense of the word. Putting on a show... that's something which has gone out of fashion.
This band are good at communicating with their audiences. Leicester confirmed this. They're all aware of their roles and stick to them. Blackmore is aware of his image.
"Me and Cozy have this wild image. He looks pretty hard, and he sounds hard."
Although they put on a show there is nothing contrived about this band. Hard rock is not contrived. Some people regard Hard rock as he dinosaur of rock and roll. Metal machine men churning out riffs with the subtlety and forethought of an Aussie having a pee after a heavy night of Fosters. Heavy metal is not a barbaric beast impervious to emotions. Rainbow and Blackmore have never played gigs with clockwork regularity.
Leicester was loose, with a lot of nice touches. A guitar/vocal duel between Ronnie and Ritchie where they try to outdo each other. At one point Blackmore plays a flurry of lightning licks. There was silence.
"It's your turn Ronnie," screamed out one of the audience.
There was a nice impromptu version of "Greensleeves", leading into "16th Century Greensleeves". Also a touch of "Lazy".
At one point of the evening a chick leapt on stage and went up towards Ritchie and just stared at him. On her way back she leapt on Ronnie and had to be dragged off. Powell's little party piece worked (I'm not giving anything away). Prior to smashing yet another guitar Blackmore leapt and began to play Bain's bass for him. Altogether an outrageous gig.
Evil was the only word I could thing of to describe the band. Menacing. There's something there that creates an atmosphere of high energy, aggression. The guitar smashing symbolises the artist really giving something to his followers. Blackmore represents something totally anti-social to the grownups, even more so than some of our generation's so called spokesmen.
"While all the folks are living high of the hog, I'm the black sheep of the family. "
The whole concept of Rainbow is bringing back something that's been sorely lacking in music for a long time: Excitement. Their music is bludgeoning, not in a monotonous sense, in a physical sense.
I'll be the first to admit that some heavy rock is nothing short of boring and unimaginative. But when you get five intelligent musicians of a high calibre, it's approached with understanding. It would only take you one gig to appreciate what a brilliant guitarist Blackmore is. In his solo spots he demonstrates his versatility, his total understanding of the electric guitar and showmanship, that only people in the ranks of Beck and Hendrix could compete with.
Blackmore and the band appreciate that the audiences aren't technically minded and he knows how to entertain. Sure they could play pieces that could make your techno rock bands go running for a new change of underwear. If Blackmore wanted he could gain the total respect of the press who have put him down for so long.
But Blackmore's allegiance lies only with the audience that supported him for so long. Why should he give a monkey's about a group of people who have little understanding of what he's trying to do when there's a whole crowd out there right behind him?
Rainbow's music transcends any level of criticism because it covers an area that very few journalists delve into. And unless they can honestly admit to being keen lovers of hard rock, they got no right to knock it.
"Why don't they put Ritchie's name along with the big three - Clapton, Beck and Page," Carey asked me, and rightfully so. Maybe because Blackmore hasn't sat on his ass long enough to become a legend.
Hard rock, heavy metal whatever heading you wish to classify it under, is the original underground music. It's never been accepted by the sophisticated clique who are so ready to proclaim that anything that vaguely smells of punk rock, is a valid art form.
Any musician will tell you that writing a song within the limitations imposed by heavy rock is incredibly harder than writing something in, say a jazz/rock scope, where you have an infinite amount of notes and scales to play around with.
Everyone was far more relaxed backstage. Powell wants gun powder for the explosions at the end of his solo.
"Magnesium's no good, let's blow the place apart!"
On this note he departed, back to his house in Oxfordshire. In a car, not his 900cc bike. The roads are too wet.
Everyone was in the bar, everyone was in a great mood. Dio's pleased with the response.
"I know everyone's basically coming to see Ritchie, but we're gradually winning them over"
He's still a bit worried about his stage presence. I thought he was great: not your typical "Is-everybody-high-we're-gonna-get-down-and-boogaloo' numbers, more personal, more approachable.
"How do you think I should convey myself to the audience. I mean, what shouldn't I do?"
All I could offer in humble opinion was just avoid cliches.
"But sometimes you can really mean what you say although it sounds corny. Like I think the British audiences so far have been the best audiences we've ever had, but that sounds like something someone would say at every gig."
Blackmore was in good spirits and compared the crowds so far to New York and Chicago.
"Everything's worked out great so far," he enthused, "we thought of an idea for a rainbow and we've got one. I really enjoyed the show tonight, the audiences are much more enthusiastic than at any Purle gig. We're all pulling together, while in Purple everyone was on different wavelengths."
Any guitars left?
"No, that's a point."
He turned round to one of the entourage.
"Can we get some more tomorrow?"
His stony visage broke into an evil smile.
"I think we'll need them."
© Pete Makowski, Sounds 11 September 1976