Ritchie Blackmore is one of those '60s rock stars (Deep Purple) who is taking a stab at the '70s with a new band (Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow). He might have a better chance of making it than most; he has little else in common with others in that category. He's not just doing more of the same.
As we were about to meet in Frankfurt's Jahrhunderthalle, I received a warning from one of the older members of the entourage, a proper Englishman in suit and tie who asked not to be named, not the type you usually find backstage at a heavy metal show:"This is not a long-haired layabout," he solemnly intoned, "such as you've no doubt met on many occassions.
This is a highly intelligent, well-read, experienced man who understands human nature a great deal."
The softspoken, almost shy Blackmore, tuning his guitar by dim candlelight, projected a detached, calm depth of a type frequently found in the world of classical music and almost never in that of rock. He offered a thin smile, his hand and a drink with the air of a storybook gentleman who just happened to have a Fender Stratocaster across his knee.
It said in the press kit that Blackmore likes Baroque and medieval music. It seemed a good place to begin and it became quickly apparent that his feeling for the past is no mere liking - it's a passion. His life is only incidentally concerned with the 20th century.
"I am a romanticist at heart. I confess my fantasy is to be in the 16th century. I love dressing up. I often go to fairs in America - they have these old renaissance fairs - I love the atmosphere. This ties in with maybe reincarnation; psychic research is my hobby. It all ties in. What I like about German Baroque music is that the progressions they use are very dramatic. They're usually in a minor - everything I write is in a minor. I've written one song in a major, which I found very hard.
"That period is very pleasing to me, to the ear. It represented kind of a majestic gayety; at the same time it was regal. I love Germanic things too. They work hard, they play hard. I think the Baroque period had that spirit. It's agressive, yet it's still romantic, and there's no nonsense involved in that type of music."
The ghost of J.S. Bach flutters through Rainbow's muscle - a music still in the process of solidifying with a lot of unresolved tension between late medieval and renaissance harmonics and melody lines and the raw insistence of hard rock. One of the best examples in their current concert set is a tune, aptly enough, "Catch the Rainbow."
Bach is his hero. "But then again I like people like Susato. I think he was born in Holland and they can't really trace much about him. Most of the stuff I like is anonymous."
(Tylman Susato, born around 1500, was city musician at Antwerp from 1529-1549. He wrote more than 50 volumes of four-voice chansons, madrigals, masses, motets and etceteras, according to our reference library.)
"That type of music, to me, is very close to rock 'n' roll because it's dramatic, again, and it incorporates certain modes - they played in modes rather than scales. I find it very pleasing. It's very easy to incorporate medieval progressions into a rock song. I'm still experimenting with it, really."
Why, with this orientation, does he concentrate on rock 'n' roll, playing to audiences that for the most part tack the training or interest to consider the nuances of people like Susato or Bach?
"I'm an extremist; I love extremes, to me this is one extreme and I love the other too. This one - I seem to be quite well up to it. In a way, people know me for it, so I capitalize on it. But at the same time I do get a lot of enjoyment out of playing while I'm doing it, or else I wouldn't do it. When I relax I listen to Baroque music, chamber music; I listen to violinists, because violinists are more educated than any guitarist living - you have your Segovias, but it's funny - I'm not really interested in classical guitar.
"I play cello, not very well - I'm interested in cello and violin. I'm trying to recreate in my own way cello runs and violin runs, because for some reason they seem to be better runs than most guitarists can play. Having played the guitar for 20 years I can't really listen to a guitarist. Compared with certain people like Pinchas Zuckerman who plays violin - he's like 28, he's incredible. The runs that he uses are so much better than these guitarists today. I'm interested in any kind of classical instrument, especially organ. I love to hear some of those church organs, you know, Bach pieces played on those pipe organs. The sound is amazing. It's like an amplified guitar. It's really loud and dramatic and bold and rivets you to the ground."
He doesn't practice guitar much these days, although he gets his cello licks in
His daily regimen has changed over the years. "I used to practice often up until about five years ago. Now I don't practice very much. I try and think mentally of a song more than playing solos. Solos come to me if I'm inspired by the song. I don't go, 'Oh, I must put this little trill or this little run that I've worked out in this song.' I never think that way. That's a loser's battle.
"I think you can often hear that in a lot of guitar solos today. You get the guitarist who comes up with his solo and he plays something that he's learned rather than listening to the song and incorporating what he's learned about his instrument with the theme of the song. They tend to go, 'Right, I'm gonna play as fast as I can and I'm gonna play this A-minor run which I learned four years ago, and I've practiced it and practiced it every day and it's gonna sound great.' It doesn't. It's completely alien to the song that is taking place, usually. I just sit back before a solo and listen for about a quarter of an hour to the actual melody and where the song is going. What direction? What progression? What I would like to hear?
"What I would imagine an instrument to play not what I find easy to play. I try to imagine what I would like to carry the song on. In other words, if the singing was to carry on, I would like to get the guitar to sing rather than just to play a solo to carry on the singing part."
Blackmore's guitar is the basic Fender you can buy on the shelf with a few special modifications, foremost among them the fingerboard.
"These are concave," he said, holding the guitar level so I could peer across the frets. "I like to get under a string and hold it. If you try and do a vibrato you tend to go into this business." He demonstrated a finger slipping off a string. He has also had the electrical circuits rebuilt to minimize interference from his major stage prop, an electric rainbow that arches over the musicians, doing different things with four bands of colored light.
"I used to find I had a lot of buzz from the rainbow. My amplifier is very sensitive - it picks up any other outside transformers or transmitters. I used to go onstage sometimes and there was so much buzzing it was louder than the guitar. So I had the circuit rebuilt, taking the guitar from high impedance to low impedance, which takes out most of the buzz."
He showed his three-way jack and pull-out volume knob/impedance switch.
Blackmore made his name internationally as guitarist for the now-defunct British super-group, Deep Purple, but he got bored
"I get bored with most things. They were one of the things. I think everybody gets bored, if they were to tell the truth. A lot of people stick to their jobs because they have to. They think, 'Well, I've got a job here, I don't like it but I'll keep at it, the wife needs the money, blah, blah, blah.' But for me, I earned a certain account of money with Deep Purple. I thought, 'Now is the time for me to leave, because I don't believe' - I believed in the music of that time, but I didn't believe in the personnel of the band. This is why I'm still making similar type of music to what Deep Purple made. Similar, but the personnel obviously are different. There's a lot of enthusiasm, as there is in anything that's new. As soon as it begins to bore me, I shall do something else again."
The usual question about directions was met with contempt for usual questions.
"I think one always progresses, but when people say, 'What is your direction?' how can you answer that? I go in the direction that I live in every day, and what God plans for me to do is the direction I go in. I could not say what direction I was going in, in the way that if I could then I'd make a lot of money on telling people's fortunes."
Perhaps not a fortune teller, Blackmore is less than conventional in his beliefs. "Let's just say I believe in a lot of things people don't believe in." Reincarnation, for example. "Nothing's weird about reincarnation. I believe it's quite natural. I don't believe it happens to everybody, but I believe it happens to the people that know who it's going to happen to.
"But it's a very delicate subject. I would not really like to express my opinion, because my opinion could corrupt somebody else's. I think people have to find their own opinion on that subject. It's a subject I believe in very much, but I think it's a subject that - although it has to do with music - is so deep I don't think one can really talk about it."
His psychic research is a constant quest for the extranormal experience in the legions of people whom he meets on the road. It may sound a bit silly, but it is dead serious for Blackmore.
"You can say, 'What's happened in your life? Has something happened to you that you found to be odd?' I put all these stories together in my own head with my own experiences, and I read a lot about psychic phenomena and things like this. You have to have something like that. You just couldn't live that plastic life of 'I've gotta make money and support my wife and kids and that's the end of it.' You gotta look further than that. I don't think I've come to any type of conclusion yet. It'll take me another 20 years, if I live that long."
RONNIE JAMES DIO
The Arch of Tension
The opening Wizard of Oz soundtrack cut, in which Dorothy assures Toto that they are no longer in Kansas, and the closing strains of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" were on tape.
In between it was live all the way with Ritchie Blackmore's new band, Rainbow, led by Blackmore's guitar and the voice of American singer Ronnie James Dio - whose voice is reminiscent of the best days of Jim Morrison - proving that not all '60s rockers are too burned out to compete in the '70s.
Other members of Rainbow are drummer Cozy Powell, bassman Jimmy Bain and Tony Carey on keyboards.
On the road, the practical joke - be confused with hotel wrecking - is the mainstay of the band, said Dio.
"We have to live together, be together for so much of the year, for so much of the life of the band, that to try to take yourself seriously on every level is not only an impossibility; it just does not make for good relations.
We like to try to play a joke on each other once a day if we can - go into someone's room, take all the furniture out, remove it to someone else's balcony, and the guy'll go into his room and there'll be nothing but a phone in the middle of the room.
"By the time 10 days go by you need to relieve the boredom of the same show, the same people, the same business conversations - we start playing these jokes with each other. Nothing malicious really, 'cause there are too many strong-minded people in this band. If anything malicious happened it'd be a big punchout. The seriousness is in the music."
The strain of constant touring doesn't worry Dio. "You have to be a special kind of person to put up with this boredom on the road. If you can stand the strain you must have something valid to contribute, not only musically but personally. If you can't stand the strain, you're gonna be aimed out of the band straight away. You really have to be a strong kind of personality to do it. The people in Zeppelin, for example, are good friends of ours; they put themselves through and have remained under that strain as long as they've had to."
Dio came from Elf, a band which opened shows for Deep Purple for almost four years.
"Elf's three LPs were produced by Roger Glover, who was Deep Purple's bass player. Therefore the connection - support act thing, got to know Ritchie. We were signed to Purple Records which was Ritchie's company. From there it's history isn't it?"
Dio, a major force in writing and performance for Rainbow, seemed a lot more down to earth than the ethereal Blackmore. The Cortland, N.Y. native found the lack of American-style tuna salad sandwiches to be a major deficiency of the European tour. He said Rainbow is definitely a band with a clear-cut leader.
"Ritchie's the man. He's the leader, but with a bit of an exception, in that he's bright enough to know that one person in the band cannot make individual personalities - who are musicians on top of that - perform without giving them latitude.
"Ritchie and I have written all of the songs that we've done - on the first two LPs anyway. Basically we are the same kind of people. He's a very private person; I'm a private person. When we work together we work together, when we party together, we party together. That's it."
The songwriting process is informal. "We work off each other. He presents to me what he's thought about for a month or so and then I say change this, change that, and then it comes out to be a final song."
"We very rarely sit down to plan to write a tune. It's basically been Ritchie's riffs. Ritchie arrangements. Ritchie's chords, then my lyrics, my melody. He's a guitar player. I don't tell him how to play the guitar - he doesn't tell me how to sing. Ritchie's basically a riff writer. Once the riff is there we carry it on. Ritchie says, 'This chord, this chord, this chord. What do you think of that? After all you have to sing to it.' And I'll say, 'Change this chord just a bit.' 'Why?' 'Because I want to sing this note to it.' 'Good note, yeah.'"
They were brought together by a shared interested in medieval and Renaissance music.
The most identifiable theme in the concert was "Greensleeves". There were more obscure musical reference points as well. "Gregorian chant is so closely related to Baroque, semi-medieval, ancient music, music that brings forth pictures of Druids, that's the music we're into. You never hear that kind of music any more. We believe in what we do. We began this band from kind of an ancient point of view. What we try to do is relate this point of view to modern, electric rock 'n' roll."
'We felt that no one besides Ian Anderson has really done it. The difference is that Ian Anderson, at most points in his career, has been a minstrel in a gallery. Ritchie Blackmore has been the heavey bang, bang, bang, who's taken a touch of the medieval music, the Renaissance music and put it together with heavey metal. It's so difficult to put it together. Medieval music is not really compatible with the electric."
It is a little rough in places, but the roughness is grounded in a fascinating tension. "It's strange that you should say the word 'tension' because tension is the word that's been I think stamped upon this band. The music is tense. Just for a tiny fraction of the set we let you down, and then the tension's back again. We don't do enough subtle things to really let the tension pass by. We're probably never going to be anything but a very, very tense electric kind of band. It's so difficult. You can't just sit down and say, 'This is our formula.' It has to be a progression. If the band works, it works."
A lot of the band's energy has gone into the development of The Rainbow, the electric four-colored proscenium arch, still in its infancy, filled with colored lights that pulse and seem to whirl in time to the music. It is impressive, it is suggestive of a rainbow but it is not a rainbow. To criticize The Rainbow is to suggest that the band's darling child is less than beatific.
"You must understand that The Rainbow is not unlike an eight wonder of the world. Do you know of anyone else that has a rainbow? It's not really to its point of perfection. We can't refract light through drops of water to make a rainbow. It wouldn't work out, because we'd all be electrocuted. We're always working on it, trying to make it better. We spent four tours with it. The first date we did, it was two colors, didn't work at all. It took the entire first tour to get the rainbow to work. We have great expectations for The Rainbow. It will spell words out eventually. It'll give you a cup of tea."
© Dan Warfield, The Stars and Stripes - 8 November 1976
Thanks to: Tonny Steenhagen