Interview - The Quietus - June 2017
Ritchie Blackmore speaks to Michael Hann about the inspirational nature of Tommy Steele, playing badly on purpose and why he prefers the sackbut, the crumhorn, the shawm, the hurdy gurdy & mandola to the lute.
Ritchie Blackmore is of that generation of British guitarists who learned their craft the hard way, slogging round the studios playing sessions. He was part ofs part of Joe Meek's session crew, played in the Outlaws, backed Screaming Sutch and, like, Jimmy Page, played guitar for Neil Christian. Then, in 1968, he helped form Deep Purple. Once that group found their feet with the 1970 album In Rock, he was ensconced as one of the leading guitarists of hard rock's first golden age.
He could solo, he could riff, and he sported an aggresively angry stage demeanour that wasn't an act: Ritchie Blackmore could have a row not just in an empty room, but in a soundproofed, vacuum sealed empty room. He quit Purple in 1975, unhappy at the funky, soulful direction Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale (with whom he appeared to spend much of the next 30 years feuding in a desultory fashion) wanted to take the band, and formed Rainbow.
Having his own band did not mellow him. Rainbow never managed to make two albums with the same line-up (though the total of 24 Rainbow members in total compares favourably with the 39 who have passed through Coverdale's Whitesnake). He's taken very dim views of many of his former collaborators, often for reasons that seem utterly incomprehensible to well-adjusted adults (the problem with Graham Bonnet, the singer on the big Rainbow hits 'Since You Been Gone' and 'All NIght Long' was that his hair was too short and he looked like a Vegas croupier).
He's spent the past 30 years reuniting with Deep Purple, rowing with Deep Purple and departing Deep Purple again. He had a bash at another Rainbow album in 1995, but his longest running musical project - naturally - has been playing his own version of renaissance and medieval music, while dressed as a travelling minstrel, alongside his wife Candice Night, in Blackmore's Night. It's a career that defies rhyme or reason. And, of course, it continues in that fashion.
Blackmore reconvened Rainbow last summer - featuring no one who had ever been in Rainbow before - for two festival shows and one arena gig in Birmingham. Now he's back, with four more arena shows this month.
Welcome to the world of one of British rock's strangest and most compelling figures.
Why decide you wanted to get a version of Rainbow back together?
Ritchie: It [hard rock] was something I hadn't done in 20 years and I felt it was time to do that. A lot of people would ask if I was going to do it again, and I would say, "Not really. I'm too preoccupied with what I am doing." And I can blame my wife for this. She was looking at something on YouTube and she said, "What do you think of this singer?" It was Ronnie Romero, and when I heard it I went, "Wow, he's really good, and if I ever did put together the Dio period, maybe I should use him." That's how I got back involved. It was being excited by his voice and thinking, "I wouldn't mind doing this again, just a few shows." I'm pretty finicky when it comes to singers. I'm very particular. I can't just back someone who's yelling and screaming. I like to hear melody. And he seemed to have a melodic voice, but with an edge to it. So that's what got me thinking about doing a few shows with the Rainbow set up.
Why did you decide to do it under the Rainbow name, because half the set, or certainly half the set you were doing last summer, was Purple songs. Couldn't you have done it as Ritchie Blackmore? A few friends saw the show in Birmingham and said, "I wish there'd been more Rainbow."
Ritchie: Yeah, I kind of work backwards on that question. No matter what you do, you'll have somebody going, "Why wasn't there more Deep Purple? Why weren't there more older songs?" Or "Why weren't there more newer songs?" So I was just going by all the songs that are my favourite, really, whether that's 'Highway Star' or 'Stargazer'. It's really memories of what I've been involved with. I tend not to kind of listen to too much of what other people have said. In the old days, in Purple, back in '71 and '72, I used to go to the stage door and talk to all the fans, and I would get completely different opinions on everything. If I said, "How were the lights tonight?" then someone would say "Oh, fine," but the person next to them would go, "Oh, they were terrible." "How was the sound?" "Wonderful," "Terrible" - this was all coming from the flipping people at the stage door, and I kind of got dizzy listening to it. I thought, "You know, I really can't listen to the fans, because they've all got such different opinions, and I won't be able to do everything." So in the end, you have to kind of do what you feel yourself in your own heart, and that's what I do. So, maybe this time around, we'll do a couple more Rainbow songs, but it will still be a lot of the songs that I've done that are Deep Purple, too.
You should do 'Gates of Babylon', that's an underrated song. No one ever talks about Gates of Babylon, but it's fantastic - I love all those moments where hard rock bands do something influenced by disco.
Ritchie: Yeah, I thought it was a great song, it's one of my favourites, but I tried it in the old Rainbow days and we couldn't pull it off. I don't know why. Something happened with the rhythm. I wrote it on the cello, the riff, but when it came to doing that on stage, it just did not work. I couldn't put my finger on why it wouldn't work. We might look at that again, because that is one of my favourites; that and probably 'Stargazer'. I'll look at that one again, see if we can pull it off with, with this rhythm section.
Do you think the changing line-ups held Rainbow back? You'd build up momentum, then suddenly it would be a completely different line-up.
Ritchie: Yes, and I think I like to be dangerous in that area; I like to take on the challenge: we can change anything and still keep going. But I agree, it doesn't help the momentum. Some of my favourite bands, I get used to the members, and when they change I'm kind of disappointed. But I don't play by those rules; I'm my own worst enemy sometimes. I know that it will not be good for the popularity of the band, but I still do it, because there's something in me that has to go against the grain. You know, I don't like to be a dead fish, swimming with all the other dead fish, I like to go upstream sometimes, against the flow.
Do you have a favourite era of Rainbow?
Ritchie: I liked right in the beginning, with Ronnie Dio and myself for the first year. I also liked the American era [in the 1980s] of songs like 'Stone Cold' and 'Street of Dreams'. Around the Long Live Rock 'n' Roll era [in 1978], it was getting very tense. We were in a French chateau, all living together, and everybody was beginning to hate each other. You go through these periods of being with the same people for so long that their idiosyncrasies get magnified, including my own. It's a bit like being married - it's hard to keep it all together. And I've noticed that a lot of bands, even the people I look up to, can only take so long before they change and go somewhere else.
You've spent most of the last 20 years with your wife Candice Night in Blackmore's Night, ignoring hard rock and playing renaissance music. How did that come about?
Ritchie: When I was in Deep Purple and we were touring, Candy and I would always stay in the nearest castle to the show. The rest of them would stay in the Holiday Inn, but I got tired of Holiday Inns. I used to say to her, wouldn't it be nice to play in these kinds of castles? Of course, a castle can only seat 400 or 500 people unless you're in the courtyard. But when we started Blackmore's Night medieval renaissance nouveau crossover project, then it worked because we could play in the castles and stay in the castles.
Where did your interest in renaissance and medieval music stem from?
Ritchie: It's more renaissance, but we play medieval melodies anyway, from King Alfonse X of Spain. But the 1450s on to the 1600s, I love that period of music. Not necessarily the lute. People always think, well obviously you're interested in the lute, but I'm not. The wind instruments - the sackbut, the crumhorn, the shawm especially. I play the hurdy gurdy to a point and I play instruments called mandolas. That started, I would say, when I first heard a choirboy singing 'Greensleeves' I was about 10 years old. That seemed to mean a lot to me; it hit me right in the gut. I thought: I love this melody, I love where it's going. Jumping to 1972 I heard the David Munrow Early Music Consort; it was music for Henry's wives, I think it was on a BBC documentary. I just loved this music. Then we go back to castles in Germany back in 1986 - I was in a castle and this medieval group was playing and that took me to the final stage of losing it completely and saying: 'That's what I want to do! I want to be a wandering minstrel and play to ten people a night'.
You'd played it much earlier, though - '16th Century Greensleeves' on the first Rainbow album in 1975 …
Ritchie: That's right. That was the second song we did. I would incorporate those modes in the music, even with Purple, but we took it to the next stage when Ronnie Dio joined, because he was into the renaissance period, too, so we clicked on that. All those melodies are connected to renaissance airs. The other songs on that record have a continuity of theme of that period.
Do you quite relish the reputation you have as unpredictable and mercurial and hot-tempered? Does it serve your purposes sometimes? Ritchie: It's a way of keeping the people I don't like at a distance. I'm definitely not a guy that comes in the dressing room saying, "Hey, everybody, what a wonderful life." I'm usually brooding about something I think is wrong. I care so much about getting the music right, and if I think someone's slacking I get very upset about that. I just can't go on stage and say, "Another day, another dollar," which I've heard a few people say: I can't go along with that at all. It's got to be as good as you can do - to my own detriment. Sometimes if I'm not playing well on stage, I'll purposely play even worse; I'll tear it apart, because I'm so disgusted with what I'm playing that I'll go the wrong route: instead of trying to make it better, I'll go the other way and really make myself sound bad. Which is a kind of a strange outlook I suppose, really.
It can go both ways, can't it? You weren't mad about Concerto for Group and Orchestra in 1969, but there are people who think your solo on that is one of the best things you ever did, because you're channelling your anger about into your playing.
Ritchie: Yes and no. I wasn't in agreement with Jon [Lord] too much about playing with orchestras. I said: "I want to play rock music, but if that doesn't take off and people don't like it, then we'll forever play with orchestras." But that particular solo we're talking about, I was given 16 bars to and then the violins could come back in. I'm not a great reader of music, I was just feeling the solo, and I think I did something like 35 bars, and the conductor was … kind of shitting himself, if you'd like to put it that way.
That was Sir Malcolm Arnold, wasn't it?
Ritchie: It was, and he told me later, he said, "I didn't know what to do with the violins." They were trying to come back in and he was trying to hold them off. I hadn't stopped my solo, and I knew nothing about this; I just thought everything went according to plan, but I realised I'd played 35 bars instead of 16. I thought that was quite funny, that you have someone of his ability trying to hold off the orchestra from coming back in, and they're just wailing away.
Do you still feel as good a rock guitarist after the years not doing rock music?
Ritchie: That's a good point, because I'd adopted a different style with the renaissance thing. I play finger style, for probably four hours sometimes, and with rock & roll, I play with a plectrum, and my right-hand technique seems to have suffered a bit. I notice that I'll go to play something and I'm not as fluid as I should be, until I've had a few drinks, of course. But it does interfere with the rigid plectrum style: if you're playing with all your fingers on the right hand, that particular plectrum style is totally different, it's just a thumb and finger. And so I've noticed that it takes me sometimes 15, 20 minutes to get into the flow of playing with a plectrum again.
As a real perfectionist, that must cause you some grief, if you feel that you can't be playing at your best for some portion of a show.
Ritchie: That's right. Also, you've got to think of the arthritis factor, too. I get an arthritic thumb now and again, so there are certain repetitive notes I can't play sometimes; if I was playing that Rocky song 'Eye Of The Tiger', something as simple as that, just repeating that line I might get a spasm in my thumb, and go elsewhere and play a different pattern. That can be frustrating sometimes, if you can't play something.
You're the first major guitarist I've heard admit to arthritis causing problems with playing. I often think there must be tons of guitarists who've been playing for 50 years or so who must be having problems with arthritis, but no one ever says so.
Ritchie: Oh, I know: they don't want to admit it. I know quite a few big players who complain about it all the time. I've heard from certain guitar players that I admire that they've got arthritis and they have the same problems, and it's strange that they won't admit that, but they don't, you're right. They won't put it in print. But at 71, you start to get ailments, you know? I also have gout. I've just got over a session of gout, and I've done a lot of research on that. Most obviously it comes from drinking and uric acid build-up, but I disagree. Because some people have a very high count of uric acid and they don't get gout, which clearly disproves the theory that it's just a build-up of uric acid. I think it's much more involved, they just haven't gone into it, and looked at it, I don't think, closely enough. The first reaction is "Oh, it's a rich man's problem." Not really! Poor people like yourself get it. [There follows a long discussion of our respective preferred treatments for gout, which no one really needs to know about.]
Often when I speak to musicians of your generation, they recall one particular thing that was a lightbulb moment for them, and it's often seeing Little Richard on TV. Did you have a kind of light bulb moment like that with rock & roll and with any particular musician?
Ritchie: My favourite musician way back in those days was Tommy Steele. Do you remember Six Five Special? It was a show on TV, a rock & roll show, with Tommy Steele on, and I suddenly discovered: that's what I want to do: I want to jump around with a guitar like Tommy Steele does. I don't want to play it, necessarily, I just want to jump around with it, like he did. He was my first hero, I suppose, and, of course, then Elvis Presley, with Scotty Moore playing the guitar and Gene Vincent with Cliff Gallup playing the guitar. That was my first introduction to the guitar world, I suppose. When I was 8, I wanted to be like Eddie Calvert, do you remember him? That's going back. Eddie Calvert was a trumpeter: 'Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White'. I wanted to be a trumpeter, but the trumpet cost too much money. Then I thought: "I want to be a drummer," but the drums were too much money. So I just went, "Oh, what's left?" And then my friend brought a guitar to school, and I just couldn't believe it. To me, it looked fantastic. I was overwhelmed with the shine, and this was a real musical instrument: I was in love with it. So, I pestered my dad to buy me a guitar. I think it was eight guineas. He said: "Look, if you don't learn this properly, I'm going to put it across your head." It gave me the feeling that I should really play it properly, and I went to lessons: he insisted I went to guitar lessons, not just fiddle with it. I would fall off my bike on the way to these guitar lessons, very often in the snow. Riding a bike and holding a guitar was pretty tricky in the snow.
As you got better at the guitar, did you decide you wanted to be a musician, or did you want to be a rock & roll star? You can be both, but it was possible to be one or the other.
Ritchie: I was thinking about this the other day. Going to guitar lessons was a bit like going to school: I was not a good pupil. I resented learning, I would look out of the window for long periods of time and daydream. I didn't want to be involved, and I didn't want to be like the teachers that were teaching me. I thought: "If I'm good at this subject, I'm going to end up like them." I had a peculiar outlook on life. So, I was going to my guitar teacher and it reminded me of school, because it was just so boring. He was trying to teach me waltzes and things like this and I wanted to play rock & roll, 'That'll Be The Day' by Buddy Holly and things like this. But he was more interested in teaching me the traditional way. One day I was playing away, and he said: "Have you been practising this week?" I said: "Of course I practised." He said: "No, you haven't. I don't want to teach you: if you're not going to practise, don't even come here," and that was a slap in the face for me. I thought, "I've got to practise: I can't just turn up and waste this man's time, when he's trying to teach me to play this instrument." That was the turning point.
There was another turning point when I was going to the guitar lessons with the same guy, and I had a cold, I had a runny nose and I was so frightened of him I didn't want to stop playing. My nose is starting to drip, now it's coming down to the guitar. I've got this mucus coming out of my nose, and I was determined I was not going to stop playing, but he said to me, "Hey, just stop and wipe your nose." I've never looked back from that moment. If I'm on stage and my nose starts running, I should stop and wipe my nose. It wasn't a normal runny nose: this was something alien coming out of my nose, reaching down, and it was very embarrassing.
When did you realise quite how good you were?
Ritchie: I've always thought that I'm not really a guitar player, but I just practised so much that I developed into a kind of a bit of a musician, but I've often doubted my musical ear. If someone sings me a melody, I have to improvise on that melody, because I can't retain the information they've given me. That's why I still practise today, I suppose, because I still feel inadequate. I see someone like John Williams, the classical player, and the amount of discipline and the natural ability that man has is so frightening. That requires so much natural talent. And I think my talent came from just practising, and I feel a bit intimidated when I see players that good. Most guitar players get a name because the band that they're in has become popular. That doesn't mean that they're particularly good, whereas conversely, you've got people like Albert Lee, an incredible player, one of my favourites who's not in a famous band, so he doesn't get into the popularity polls. I have to laugh at some of the people that do get into the popularity polls - some of them are so bad, but they're in a band that's at the top of the hit parade. I think people mix that up.
I like songs best, I like solos that are in service of the song, and I sometimes think there's been a tendency in the hard rock world to deify people who can play incredibly fast whether or not playing incredibly fast actually does anything for the song.
Ritchie: That's right. I agree. It's a bit like having sex for one second, if you want to think of it that way. There's a lot of emphasis today on speed, the shredders. I find that, you know, impressive for about a minute, then I find myself turning it off, and then wanting to hear someone express themselves.
And conversely, there are players with great solos who are not massively technically gifted guitarists, but they know what works for the song.
Ritchie: That's right. And that's really the trick. I'm always in the control room when I'm playing, I don't play in the studio, and my initial reaction to playing a solo is to play a load of exercises, and sometimes that will take me to a really impressive solo, but it doesn't really match the song. And I would say, I've got to slow down and think about an extension of the song: this is not a time for just showing what I've learnt, it's to try and add something to the song, and have that extension of the voice, which is how I always think now, to the point of where I'll exclude myself from the solo. If I'm writing a song, and there'll be eight bars of solo coming up, I'll go: "No, it doesn't fit." I'm thinking: "I can't make this work, so let's bring in a flute or something else." I think people are shocked by that, that I don't want to just show off and play a guitar solo. If I think it doesn't fit, then I'll leave it out; I won't play it.
Do you think of yourself as a bandleader or a writer or a player, principally?
Ritchie: Obviously I've become a so-called bandleader now, but I did like the days when I could just hide behind the leader of the band and say it was all his fault. Now, of course, it's all my fault. I think all three, really. It depends what kind of frame of mind I'm in at the time, because I've never quite figured out what the hell I am doing. One of the reasons I took up the guitar was I didn't want to speak to anybody. I really felt uncomfortable speaking to people, so I took the guitar up so I could hide behind it. I'm not comfortable explaining things, because my brain doesn't work that way;.
Are there records you wish you'd never made?
Ritchie: Yeah, many. I'm not particularly proud of the first three records I did with Deep Purple. They seem to be meandering all over the place. We didn't really have a niche and we didn't quite know where we were going. There were good musicians involved and they played well, but we didn't really come up with much. In Rock was very good, I loved that. The next one, Fireball, I hated that one. Who Do We Think We Are? was probably one of the worst records for me, because I really had no ideas and we were being worked so hard, we were touring all the time and when we weren't touring, we were sick, and then we were expected to go in the studio three times a year to fulfil the contract with the record company.
You've expressed ambivalence about some of the very late records that you did with Purple after the reunion.
Ritchie: I thought Perfect Strangers was very good. But The House Of Blue Light, I thought that was terrible. I've noticed it seems to be like a good record then a bad record then a good record, it seems to be in that order. I'm not one for sitting around listening to my own music, because I tend to cringe and think that I could have done better. I also suffer from red light syndrome quite a lot. I'm not sure whether that's my nature or whether that was because of session work, where you couldn't make a mistake. I tend to narrow my thinking when the red light goes on to record. Instead of just relaxing and playing and emoting, I think of time being wasted so I won't take a chance on something. Consequently, when I hear it back, I think, "Why the hell did I play it so safe on that piece of music when I could have really opened up?" Well, it's because of not wanting to make a mistake.
Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow play four UK arena shows in June, including headlining the Stone Free festival at the O2 arena in London on June 17
© Michael Hann, The Quietus - June 8th, 2017