Back to the rainbow
The train jerks through the hilly landscape of Thüringen. "Next station —Eisenach", sounds the sonorous voice from the Federal Railroad announcement tape. The view from the compartment window shows the Wartburg, picturesquely laid out, high above the city. Ritchie Blackmore is staying there. After the recording of his comeback album "Stranger In Us All" he takes a week off in a medieval atmosphere and invites the press as his audience. From 9:00 PM the old guitar master receives by the fire in the knight's hall, it is said in the evening. I am warned that Blackmore has indicated that he is ready to talk. Instead of the usual 30-minute query session, it should be a nightly chat, very relaxed, with open end.
The next morning it were almost seven hours with Ritchie Blackmore, the supposedly moody choleric, the unapproachable band dictator, the eccentric rock star. After this evening many of the rumors surrounding his person are cleared up. It is understandable why this complicated character has been a favorite target for projections of all kinds of nonsense over the years.
Minstrell singing and knight's hall
Massive wooden gates, cross vault, wall paintings and candlesticks - like in the best costume and sword episode, the ambience of the Wartburg presents itself. This is where Walther von der Vogelweide once fought the noble singer contest, here Martin Luther sat his theses. Today, 474 years later, a cheerful Blackmore is sitting by the fire. He is known to be a big fan of medieval dwellings and knows German Burgenland as well as German concert halls. He is also an outspoken connoisseur and lover of medieval music. Especially at live concerts, Blackmore repeatedly scattered samples of his classic education into the public. It is Johann Sebastian Bach's works that particularly impressed him. The period between 1510 and 1590 is his favorite period, in the structures of which he sees a lot of parallels to rock 'n' roll: clear compositions, a certain impose and majestic dignity. The circle closes, because at the foot of the Wartburg, below in Eisenach, stands Bach's birthplace...
Gitarre & Bass: I was a little surprised at first when I heard about the atmosphere of tonight. On closer inspection it makes sense...
RB: Of course. The first reason why I came to Eisenach is the wonderful Wartburg. Second, Bach's birthplace is here, and I've always wanted to see that. For me, they were two birds with one stone. Today I visited his house - it was fantastic! Sitting in Bach's garden and listening to his music took me back in time. It was so peaceful, so calm. I took a small stone from his garden as a talisman, hoping that I would get some of his musical talent.
Gitarre & Bass: You have always been very concerned with medieval music...
RB: Yes, this music has always fascinated me. Last night there were a few musicians here at the Wartburg who played Renaissance music and I took part. Especially here in these rooms, with this natural reverb, it sounds great. In the USA, I often play with friends at Renaissance festivals in authentic costumes. My fiancee and I now have a handsome repertoire. I am also currently working on an acoustic project that will be completed in a few months; I've been working on it for the past three years. The combination of Renaissance music, folk, classical music and today's New Age sounds is incredibly fascinating.
Gitarre & Bass: What does that mean specifically?
RB: Some of the pieces are written by the Dutchman Thomas Susato, some of the pieces that have been handed down are anonymous and some I wrote myself based on the scales of the time. So it is not a purely authentic work, it will be the best of both worlds. I'm currently looking for a second guitarist; it is difficult to find someone who controls with their fingers but also can play with a guitar pick. I don't want a "chord scrubber". This music is not particularly difficult, but the art is to implement it cleanly and sensitively. It all sounds very simple, but it's not. Hopefully the project will be not too successful, because that's the music I relax with. I don't want to have to release a Renaissance album every six months.
Blackmore's comeback band should actually be called 'Rainbow Moon'. (Ritchie's grandmother was born Moon.) However, the record label insisted on 'Rainbow' - the name is mandatory. Even with the unmastered pre-tape for 'Stranger In Us All' it is clear: it is an impressive return. Blackmore knows: rock dinosaurs have a hard time these days. There is usually only one attempt - top or flop. The first impression: unmistakably Rainbow, just "somehow more modern". Ritchie doesn't do a thing half. In order to get the Rainbow shining again, a powerful comeback is needed to build on the over-night sensation that he was before exactly 20 years ago with his first solo album. But times have changed. Today grunge and techno rule the charts. And Blackmore has always did not like everything that is musically subject to the concept of fashion...
Gitarre & Bass: With your new musicians you've put together an excellent line-up...
RB: Yes, no question, these guys are great musicians and have a lot of creative potential. Our keyboardist has hundreds of ideas and Dougie, our singer, is incredible. And imagine - I can have fun with a singer! (laughs) The guy can sing anything from Scottish folk songs to spontaneous blues. You can also laugh heartily at him. I've never had such a relationship with a singer. Ronnie (James Dio - Ed.) was also a great singer, but outside of the band he always wanted to be left alone. With him you couldn't go to a bar and have fun. Dougie, on the other hand, is very extrovert and is always out for nonsense.
Gitarre & Bass: Does that mean he can make the seemingly ever serious Ritchie Blackmore laugh?
RB: (looks sternly) Sometimes. He knows exactly when is enough. But he's so enthusiastic, you can't help but get carried away. I have always worked very seriously in the past few years until I almost lost the fun of music. Now I have rediscovered the world of joy. This is the other side of rock 'n' roll.
Gitarre & Bass: Based on your Renaissance project, you also picked up acoustic guitar on 'Stranger In Us All' and wrote a Spanish Flamenco part on 'Black Masquerade'...
RB: This song idea was developed by inspired by a German group. They call themselves "Die Schwarze Harve" and make fantastic music. I saw them at a castle near Stuttgart a while ago. They live like in the Middle Ages, are dressed like minstrels and play from the heart. It is just fun to listen to them. They played traditional Spanish music that night and I liked the idea of combining that with rock 'n' roll, it's a step in the direction I might go in the next few years.
Gitarre & Bass: Something what has always fascinated you are the oriental structures and scales in your songs.
RB: I think that leads us to reincarnation. Maybe I was a minstrel who played in Osmania or Arabia? I have never consciously dealt with this music, but I have always been fascinated by oriental scales. Combining that with rock 'n' roll is great. Jimmy Page also did that with 'Kashmir' - fantastic! I have written a lot of these songs, but most of them are in the drawer because I don't think it appeals to the people in our culture. These scales have an oddly mysterious beauty. For me, this music is very natural; I never made a conscious decision to bring that into my music.
Gitarre & Bass: What strikes me about the new album are the pleasing hooklines. You placed great value on catchy melodies...
RB: Melodies are the most important! It's not about playing fast to impress other guitarists. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote some incredibly simple works with simple melodies. Sure, nobody will whistle the Brandenburg concerts, they are too complex. But the most important thing is to reach people who are not musicians. If you can sing along, it means more to me than if someone tells me that I played a wonderful diminished scale. The art lies in the simple melodies.
Gitarre & Bass: On the new album you picked up a classic piece by Grieg with 'Hall Of The Mountain King', which you played together with the "Lancasters" at the beginning of the 60s, at the time when you were still was working as a session guitarist. Back then, the piece was called 'Satan's Holiday'...
RB: How did you find that out? It's almost not true anymore! I think that was in 1964, long before Deep Purple. Yes, I played a few sessions at that time - with the Outlaws, produced by Joe Meek, then with "Heinz" (Heinz Burt, another signing of the then indie pope Joe Meek - Ed.), with Burr Bailey (& The Six-Shooters, a title called 'Like A Bird Without Feathers' - Ed.) and also pure sessions, just for fun, with Nicky Hopkins, Chas Hodges and Mikki Dallon. I think I really got nice around.
Gitarre & Bass: Why haven't we heard you jam with other guitarists since then?
RB: I'm basically too unsure to play with other guitarists unless I know them very well and had a lot to drink. (laughs) I'm afraid that someone will play me completely away and then I wouldn't have any more fun. Nor am I the type who jumps on the stage and gets on with other musicians. When I played with other guitarists, a duel often developed. I suddenly had a sword in my hand, the other too, and then it went off! And that's not the point. Music should be fun.
Gitarre & Bass: You jammed a few more times with Jeff Beck...
RB: Yes, that's right. Jeff is awesome. He once told me a nice story: He was recording in the studio in Nashville, and there was this guy who wiped the floor there. He asked if he could play Jeff's guitar. A minute later, he blew Jeff away. The guy was incredibly good. Jeff wanted to stop playing, but he always puts his light under the bushel anyway. In 1964 we played together for the first time, in a session that Jimmy Page mixed. Then I went to Jeff and said, "You're great, your solo was amazing." And he replied, "I didn't even know what key we were in." I could hardly believe it and asked him what his name was because I had never heard of him before. That was meant as a compliment, over the years I was of course interpreted as "Who is that?". Years later we met again and Jeff said to me: "You play really well. What was your name again?" (laughs)
Gitarre & Bass: What goals does someone like you, who has experienced, achieved and gone through so much, have on their comeback?
RB: The older I get, the more I want to have as much fun as the people who stand in front of the stage and listen. I no longer play to impress musicians. Do you know the joke "How many guitarists do you need to play a solo?"
17! One who plays it and 16 who think they could do better. It's really true. A lot of guitarists are down there in front of the stage and want you to be good. But they don't want you to be better than them. If you are better, they are angry. If you are worse, they will put you down. You can hardly win.
The rumor mill
After the first hour of interview the impression intensified - I was seated opposite a polite, amazingly open and self-confident man who knew what he wanted. And - someone who can laugh very well and has a sense of humor. "I'm just very serious and self-confident, which unfortunately is often interpreted negatively," said Blackmore during the conversation. "You are forced to be upright and strong in this world. On stage I can be a dictator, but inside me it looks very different".
And that's exactly what interests me. What is it about the much-cited rumors from the band dictator, the anecdotes from the occult and the image of the black man? The strict instructions in the run-up to this interview "do not ask questions about Deep Purple" are comparatively harmless. But in the course of the evening, supposedly difficult topics proved to be "no problem". The black man provided the answers...
Gitarre & Bass: When I met Joe Satriani on the last Deep Purple tour, I asked him how he felt in the role of Ritchie Blackmore. He said he had hellish respect, because nobody could copy you, let alone replace you...
RB: (thoughtfully) That is a great honor, because the man knows what he is doing on the guitar. By the way, I never could. But I couldn't replace anyone overnight and play their stuff. I play what I can and nothing else! I would not be trained enough to copy someone else, except for the patience to deal with other people's music so intensely. When I started I tried to copy Scottie Moore, Les Paul, James Burton or Buddy Holly. I got close, but I never really learned her stuff. That probably makes my guitar style so unusual, because I never copied anyone again.
Gitarre & Bass: The inevitable question: What ultimately led to you leaving Deep Purple?
RB: I wrote a letter to the rest of the band saying I couldn't work with Ian Gillan as a singer nor as a person. Musically we lived on two different planets. During the last tour, already in Holland, I decided to go. I was still playing in Finland, but I didn't travel to Japan. I was just mad at how Ian behaved on stage. He forgot his lyrics on two songs and that is inexcusable. You can't do that! That drove me crazy. I asked John Lord if he had heard about it and he promised a "diplomatic conversation". But nothing changed. 'Talk About Love' and 'A Twist In The Tale' had no text. So I went on stage reduced the volume and played very quietly. Then Ian always came over to me and I said, "Sing now please? I'm not going to save your ass here!" Then he looked at me with his "Ritchie-makes-again-trouble-look". And he was right. It became childish. That's why I left.
Gitarre & Bass: With this decision you became a repeating offender...
RB: (laughs) Well, back then, when I first got out, there were musical differences with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes. Glenn liked Stevie Wonder, for example - I didn't. I liked "Burn", that was pure rock 'n' roll! The album "Stormbringer", on the other hand, was an indefinable (disgusted) "funky something". There was a track on it called 'Hold On', oh, I hated this song! I played this number, but only under protest. I only played with my thumb over the fingerboard except for the solo. The band gave me venomous looks, but I just said: "OK, I don't like the song, but look, I'm playing it with you. But you can't tell me how to play". Over time it became more and more clear. They wanted to go more in the funk direction, I wanted more rock 'n' roll. So I got out.
Gitarre & Bass: Back in 1995: I have heard that Steve Morse should have taken over your part at Deep Purple. What do you think of this personal change?
RB: Yes, he does, he plays with them. Steve is a brilliant guitarist. I was one big fan of him when he was still playing in Dixie Dreggs. Well, how should I put it? I think he doesn't suit them. I think they don't know what they're doing. That was my problem also with Deep Purple in the end, they didn't know what they were doing, that's why I left. It may sound strange from my mouth, but at the moment they seem to have completely lost control, so they must have someone with a big name. They should have taken a young guitarist who could help them to go on further, especially compositionally. It was probably a management decision to get someone with a big name. That will not work. We will see.
Gitarre & Bass: One point of your life is that you often got cited for your interest in occultism. What's actually there?
RB: (hesitates a moment and answers in flawless German) Do you believe in magic? Yes?
Gitarre & Bass: Difficult question...
RB: Well, the occult is ultimately just "the hidden", something that is closed to most people. Many people have turned away from the public church because they want additional answers from them, they don't get there. The church is just trying to make money these days. Well - I went through a lot of seances and talked to the "other side" that is commonly called "ghosts". It's incredibly exciting if you are dealing with the relevant literature. A lot of it is very intellectual, mostly difficult to understand. You have to analyze every word, every sentence - but in the end everything makes perfect sense. People who are starting a seance for the first time are very skeptical, of course, but when there is contact and they hear things that no one else can know but yourself, it is incredible to see their face! Many people believe not what they see, touch, or can rationally explain, that does not exist. Many people also think it's dangerous or "evil". What is "evil" about a phone? If Henry VIII had a phone 500 years ago and talked to other people - they would have burned him as a sorcerer. I think we're still behind the times today. This world is ripe for a little more foresight. It is also much less dangerous to communicate with a ghost than with someone in a bar in New York. Ghosts don't shoot.
Gitarre & Bass: The song 'Ariel' on your new album goes in this direction. 'Ariel', the lexicon reveals, is on the one hand an elementary spirit, on the other hand a moon of Uranus...
RB: This is interesting. In a seance we once asked if there was any life anywhere. The answer was: "There was life once on a moon of Uranus". That is strange. John Lord was there too. Ask him, he will confirm it. That was 1973. I wrote Ariel a year ago, it was originally a song for my Renaissance music project. The song was purely acoustically orchestrated, but I am very satisfied with how it developed.
Gitarre & Bass: And what is it about the role of the lukewarm, eccentric band dictator?
RB: I think I made a wrong impression on many people. Many people believe that I am very selfish. I just follow a clear path as far as my music is concerned. I am often interpreted as dictatorial. I don't mean it that way, but there is nothing I can do about it. When you form a band, you have to be very strong to achieve your goals. Otherwise chaos will arise. Every musician has different ideas and visions. And if you leave room for many ideas, it will lead to nothing. So now and then I have to come with the whip and say: That's the way!
Gitarre & Bass: How do you explain your ambivalent relationship between creativity and destruction?
RB: It comes from my anger not being able to implement what I hear in my head in terms of music. The next day, when the anger is over, I usually sit down and practice for a few hours. But when I'm on stage and something doesn't work, I go crazy. I'm just not happy with my playing then. That is why these outbreaks occur again and again.
Equipment and sound philosophies
Whole generations of guitarists have tried to copy Blackmore's sound and playing technique, especially a crazy swede with a penchant for speed frenzy. However, nobody made it. The solution of the sound-puzzle solution lies in the minimal concept: a Stratocaster, a Marshall-Amp and a tape machine that is not used for its intended purpose. In plain language: No effects. The old analog tape machine serves as a preamp and delay and is a relic from old Deep Purple times. The result is a fat, like no make-up sound, which Blackmore says: “I want to achieve the ultimate blues tone. My sound is already quite good, but I'm working on improving it." A reminder: The man has been making music for around 30 years now. You can think of him as you want, but he's an uncompromising perfectionist...
Gitarre & Bass: Keyword "perfection": Is that the main reason why you kept stopping shows spontaneously?
RB: Yes, because I have very sensitive hearing. Why is the monitor so loud? Why is my guitar sound so thin? What is that for a feedback? It goes so far that I can no longer concentrate on what I'm playing. Suddenly my head is full. It drives me crazy. Then I go off the stage. To stand up there and play the professional who does the show, although everything sounds shit - I can't! Two voices fight in me: "Keep playing, don't worry about it" - and - "Damn, I can't!" There was a time where I seriously wanted to give up playing electric guitar! The hum of my single coils was so loud that it almost made me crazy. The noise was unbelievably loud! Sometimes I received radio stations, once even a taxi radio. I also stopped shows. I could have played with humbuckers, but then it would no longer be a stratocaster. Today, my pickups a little bit are a bit customized. That is my compromise.
Gitarre & Bass: There is the anecdote that a fan shouted to you at a concert, you should switch off the tape machine and finally play live. Do you remember that?
RB: Yes, I remember that was years ago at a Deep Purple concert. Sure, the people see the tape machine and think: what's going on? But I'm just using it as an analog band echo. Then I showed him how I play. (laughs)
Gitarre & Bass: Did you use Marshall amps to record the new album?
RB: I hardly use Marshalls now, because they are just too loud. Their sound is no longer as characteristic as it used to be. I am currently playing over 60 watt Engl combos, which I also used on the last record. I use Engl stacks on stage because they have more pressure. My stage setup will be much smaller this time - just a 4x 12-speaker box and an amp, and that's it. With Deep Purple I only played with a Marshall Top and a Box, the rest was just for the look.
Gitarre & Bass: Your Marshall amps were also modified back then.
RB: Yes, they had a lot more distortion, but that made them incredibly loud. And unfortunately, they didn't sound quietly that well. So I tore everything up in the studio and then covered the boxes with blankets because it was almost unbearable. Everyone in the band complained, but what could I do about it? Now, with the Engl amps, it also sounds really good quietly.
Gitarre & Bass: Is 'Highway Star' really the only solo you've ever composed through?
RB: Yes, otherwise I improvise most of the time; although my weak points are clearly in the harmonies. However, I don't work out any of my solos. Thinking about harmonies and arranging them gives me a headache. I feel like I am at school, and that takes away the fun of playing. On the new album I only worked out the Spanish guitar part for 'Black Masquerade'. Many guitarists today can work out wonderful harmony sequences, but they don't use their freedom, they don't know what to do with it.
Gitarre & Bass: The left hand usually gets applause, the right hand is usually ignored. Are you concentrating on your touch technique?
RB: Interesting.... I don't know, I never tried to analyze what or how I play. I'm just too busy looking ahead to think about what I'm doing. A lot of sound comes from the left hand, but I think the right one is just as important. But it has to do with discipline.
Gitarre & Bass: How would you characterize your playing?
RB: I am just a guitarist among many. I think I've had the time to play fast. Today I try to take everything more slowly. When I try a solo on a new song, it often sounds like a warm-up. If you play slowly, on the other hand, you are much more relaxed, but also more vulnerable because everyone can analyze exactly what you are doing. It is very easy to impress people by playing fast, and many guitarists think it's cool. But you don't say anything from the heart. The more I have dealt with the guitar over the years, the clearer it has become to me that it is better to express something with just one note than with ten.
Gitarre & Bass: Sounds like the philosophy of B.B. King...
RB: Exactly! He has a very limited range and only plays the same three notes, but it is unbelievable how he does! It's like talking to someone. He takes a lot of breaks in between, and everything gets a tremendous dramaturgy. It is like a poem: if you take breaks and there is silence in between, the sentences are given a completely different weighting and people listen to you very differently.
Gitarre & Bass: Thank you for the interview!
© Stefan Wach, Gitarre & Bass, Germany - 12/1995