When I pick up the guitar, I always have something in it
Ritchie Blackmore is one of the last great eccentrics of rock'n'roll. The British guitarist founded Deep Purple, wrote with his riff of "Smoke On The Water" music history, overpowered with his fellow musicians, also exchanged with his successor band Rainbow countless musicians, before rock in favor of Renaissance music temporarily was hung on the nail. Blackmore got 73 years old this Saturday - and is a very sociable and entertaining guy, at least over the phone. During the conversation he leads from his home in New York, one hears his cat Rumpelstilzchen meowing on his lap.
What is the great thing about German women?
Do you want to embarrass me?
I ask because you married two German ladies in the sixties.
Not at the same time! I can not go into detail that way, otherwise my current wife will get mad. But the obvious difference with the English or American girls was that they worked very hard. The English girls, however, were pretty lazy. That was the first impression I had when I came to Germany.
Is that good or bad?
Good. The Germans are now disciplined. But it's just changing a bit. I notice how many American influences are being carried into the country - at least this picture is communicated to me through the media. And I think the Germans should keep their identity. I like the traditional stuff like dirndl for example. Only the Oktoberfest, I did not like.
It was just too loud.
Funny, if you say that. Where you are famous for your loud guitar playing.
I like to play loud, but I do not like going anywhere where it's loud. I like to drink German beer, but the Oktoberfest is just insane, full and overrated. But back to my wives ...
I married for the first time at the age of 19, a German, but I was too young for marriage. I regret that today. It's a waste of time if you're married to the wrong one. But you learn from his mistakes.
After all, you have been able to intensify your connection to Germany.
That's true. I remember well how, in 1963, I came to Hamburg for the first time with rock 'n' roll pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. I played with him and Gene Vincent at the Star Club. I immediately had many friends and just stayed there. I lived for three months on the Großen Freiheit in an apartment next to the Gruenspan. I immediately felt welcome. I even felt at home more in Germany for a long time than in my English homeland and consider it as my second home today. I was also a member of a German band in Hamburg.
What kind of band was that?
One like any other, a typical blues pop band. We had a terrible drummer, but he had a lot to do. I toured with the band through the clubs of the city and later as support for the Rattles. That's how I learned the language, because everyone around me spoke German.
Can you still speak German?
I try my best. I have a satellite dish with which I can receive four German television channels in the USA. I usually do not understand in detail what it is about. But I listen to it or just let it run, so I stay on the ball with my German. My family thinks that's pretty crazy.
Do you have a favorite German word?
Only in conjunction with my favorite German food.
Which is it?
I love "Bratheringe" (fried herring). I can not pronounce the word correctly. The "r" is just too hard. But fried herring and chips as fast food is perfect. And I like cabbage rolls - but I also have problems with the "rrrr". The cabbage rolls must be done right and preferably two days. Only then is the cabbage really soaked through.
Did you play in Berlin at the time?
Yes, though, the experience was not the best. I was supposed to travel to Berlin in 1964 with a band for a commitment. We left England, but on the border, the inspectors noticed that we did not have a work permit. So they pulled us off the train. That must have been in the metropolitan area of Aachen. We had to stay in a hotel overnight. The police officer was sorry, he even invited us to dinner. Finally, we were issued the work permit to perform in Berlin. But luck was short lived.
We were supposed to perform in a small Berlin club called Tiki for two weeks. But we played so loud that the club manager sent us home after the first night. We would not be the right band for the club, they said. So we were unemployed and hungry through the streets of Berlin. Since then, I know what it means to watch people eat in the restaurants. But because the club manager liked me, he finally paid me the train ticket to Hamburg.
In Hamburg you met Ian Paice, the later drummer of your band Deep Purple.
I saw him playing in the Star Club and promised that I would hire him as a drummer if I ever had enough money to start a band. Because to hold this construction together, you need money at the beginning. Otherwise, the musicians will always work with other people as well. It took another year untill businessman Tony Edwards helped us. I told him that if he raised money, I could put together a supergroup of the best musicians. And that's exactly how it happened. Ian Paice got in. Everything went pretty fast. That's exactly fifty years ago.
Do you remember the day you first played the legendary guitar riff of "Smoke On The Water"?
Naturally! We were in a ballroom in Switzerland, where we had set up a mobile studio. Ian Paice had just started to get a rhythm. And I immediately played the riff. It was that simple. It was just him and me. When we realized that we had found something that was worth immortalizing, we got the others to practice their parts. Swiss police almost prevented "Smoke On The Water".
How about that?
We played very loud. There were complaints from neighbors. At some point, the police stood in front of the hall to prevent us from continuing to play. So while we recorded "Smoke On The Water", they hammered wildly at the back door. We knew they were there to stop us. But we just kept going - four or five minutes to finish the last take. If we had stopped, we would not have had the song.
What a loss that would have been for the history of rock 'n' roll!
Yes, the riff is absurdly simple. I really jumped over my shadow. Because I noticed that many songs in the sixties were quite simple. "Satisfaction" from the Stones or "You Really Got Me" from the Kinks have very simple riffs. If you want to appeal to people, you just have to keep it, otherwise you'll just be raving about other musicians - and they're not buying any music anyway. My motto was therefore always: "If the postman can whistle while delivering the mail, then it's big." People have already sung to me the riff, so it worked - even if it is very strange, for the few notes to be known.
Can you hear a bit of bitterness there?
No. However, it is amazing that the public prefers this simple song to everything else we have recorded. It's like Beethoven's - even if I do not want to put me on a par with him. But he is also primarily known for the four notes from his fifth: da-da-da-daaa. He would probably be a little annoyed that you perceive him mostly for it.
The riff of "Smoke On The Water" should be extremely popular with young guitar students.
That was also told to me. Some instrument shops have signs hung with the words: "Playing the riff of 'Smoke On The Water' is strictly prohibited." The people who work there are tired of listening to it over and over again - and then playing poorly. I understand. But I do not complain. I can pay my bills with it.
There are supposed to have been a lot of battles between you and the singer of Deep Purple, Ian Gillan. How would you describe that?
Oh, there was always something going on. But one incident has stuck in my mind. That was backstage in Cleveland. My roadie got me as usual before the show my food. That evening it was spaghetti - but on top of that was a lot of ketchup. And I asked him, "What's that?" And he answered that Ian had allowed himself the joke. So I went to Ian's dressing room with the plate of spaghetti and put it in his face. The room was empty in no time, everyone expected that it would now come to a tangible confrontation. But Ian just looked at me and said, "You are my hero. I will not knock you down. "And he was done with it. That was an admirable reaction. He would have easily won the fight against me because he's taller than me.
How did you survive so long in rock 'n' roll?
Although I have a weakness for German beer and whiskey - but I have never taken drugs. I was too scared of it. I was pretty eccentric, it would only make it worse. So I became a drinker. My whiskey is sacred to me. I do not like to go on stage without being a little bit puzzled. I am naturally introverted, I get too nervous if I did not have a drink. When I take the guitar in public, I always have something in it. However, there was a week in my life where I only drank milk.
When was it?
Mid-sixties in Hamburg. I needed money and worked in a cleaning. And the people there advised me to drink a lot of milk. And I said, "Why?" And they said, "Because otherwise you would die within six months if you were constantly in contact with the carbon dioxide chlorides." So I drank gallons of milk. Luckily, after just under two weeks, I received the rescue call from Polydor looking for a session guitarist.
Have you ever forgotten notes on stage?
Yes, when I tried marijuana in San Francisco. Everyone was gushing how wonderful the stuff was. So I allowed myself a few moves, went on stage and played the same note all the time. Ian Paice eventually called to me, "Is there anything else besides this one note?" It was embarrassing. I never touched that stuff again. But sometimes that happens to me when I'm not concentrating. With Blackmore's Night and Rainbow, I currently have two bands, and we have so much material. But if I make a mistake, I go to the amp, kick it and pretend it's his fault.
When did you know that you wanted to become a professional guitarist and rock star?
I can not do anything with the term Rockstar - it's trite and ridiculous to me. I'm not Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones. I'm just a musician who likes to play. I must have been eleven years old when a friend showed me his guitar at school. I was totally hooked. I begged my father to get me one, too. That took a while, because guitars were expensive.
But then it worked.
Yes. When my father handed them over to me, he said, "If you do not learn to play properly, I'll take them over your skull." So I took lessons. This excited me more than school, which I often skipped and left at fifteen. The only thing I liked about the school was javelin throwing. I was the best javelin thrower in London when I was fifteen. I was physically rather small, but you do not need any muscles, just the right technique. It's a bit like playing guitar.
On a scale of one to ten - what grade would you give yourself today as a guitarist?
That is pretty modest.
I know so many guitarists who are better than me. But most do not have a big name. Albert Lee, for example. Or Steve Lukather. The big players in the guitarist league are never as good as those who tend to work in the background. So I give myself a seven - if I have a good day.
As a member of Deep Purple, you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago. However, you did not attend the ceremony. Why?
Because I find the whole thing grotesque. There should not be a committee that decides who has done something special in rock 'n' roll. Such is the case in classical music, where the best pianist or cellist is chosen. But rock 'n' roll means freedom, energy and tension. It's not about being accepted by a so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or does that mean conversely that those who are not in it are bad? At least I know for sure that not all who have been recorded are very good. I do not complain that I was chosen, but I never took part in the ceremony. It is too unimportant.
Is this your often mentioned eccentric side?
Maybe. But it also depends on my mood. I like to be alone. I need seclusion and some silence. That's hard to find nowadays. When I get into a hotel room, I ask first, "How quiet is it here?" I stand in the middle of the room and see how much noise from the outside penetrates. Many people find it strange.
Does your reputation also have to do with the two dozen line changes at your band Rainbow?
For sure. It's so easy to work with me. At least for people who do their job properly.
I read that you believe in UFOs.
Naturally. I find it rather strange if you do not believe in it. I've seen an unidentified flying object twice already. The first time I was fourteen, that was in England. The second time it happened in America - that's about 25 years ago.
And that was no deception?
I worked as a radio mechanic at London airport. That was my first job. I know what an airplane can do. And I can also tell it from an asteroid. What I saw in heaven would be impossible even by today's technical standards. But for many people, having seen UFOs is like believing in ghosts. I beleive 110 percent in ghosts, I talked to them. But when you talk about it, people think you drank too much. This is their kind of self-protection because they are afraid of ghosts. But I'm not afraid of ghosts because they do not carry weapons.
Where does your taste for medieval clothes come from?
Hard to say. I was already in Hamburg in a band called The Three Musketeers and looked like that. I used to wear clothes like in the Renaissance. I just feel good in it. People always ask me if I would like to live in the Middle Ages. Hell no! I love medieval music, but I do not want the plague. And an apartment without central heating and air conditioning would be nothing for me.
For more than 25 years you are romantically involved with your wife Candice Night, she is also on stage with you. When you met her, she was a model. Did not she even give you a decent jacket?
No. Candice is herself a musician and has a good ear. So we talked about music rather than about fashion. I always dress the same, especially when I'm in my own home. Then my environment complains about the smell.
It's still amazing that your hairstyle has survived the years.
I'm a hippie in my heart, even though I never was in hippie times. I am oldschool. I still live somehow in my sixties.
Have you ever listened to one of your records on Spotify?
No. For one, I listen to my records while I'm recording them. For another, I'm not a big fan of guitar music - I'd rather listen to a renaissance choir or a cellist. And what should Spotify be? I like to go to YouTube to see medieval stuff. Or I google for Henry VIII or Richard III. Still, I have a firm belief that computers and the Internet will someday be the downfall of society. Too many people are dependent on this drug. And it helps the surveillance state.
Do you have a mobile phone?
No. I had none before the things were invented. So I do not know it any other way. I am at an age where I am happy with what I have. And most of it is twenty or thirty years old.
Are you talking about your home furnishings?
Also. I do not modernize anything. I live a little bit yesterday.
And what do your children say about that?
They love their dad. "You are the best!", They say. And when I reply that I am not, they contradict energetically.
So you're more like a ten - and not a seven ...
For my children already. They are only six and seven years old. Let's see if they do not look up to someone better in five years.
© Katja Schwemmers - Berliner Zeitung, April 17, 2018