Ritchie Blackmore

Spears at dawn as Blackmore confronts tour manager

Actually it was the sinister hour of 3.00 am when the unthrilling non-drama unfolded. Inspector BOB EDMANDS was there armed with a special-issue notebook.

JAVELINS at three a.m. aren't quite pistols at dawn, but they're near enough. The protagonists are Mr. Ritchie Blackmore, a former schoolboy javelin champion of Middlesex, and Mr. Eric Thomsen, who is promoting the European tour by Mr. Blackmore's band Rainbow.

The occasion is the final night of five months on the road. Some four hours earlier Rainbow had played an attacking set to an audience of 1,500 Dutch persons who made up for the thinness of their numbers with the fatness of their applause. The gig was the Congress Centre in The Hague, Holland's political capital; and there had been warnings from Rainbow's publicist that all sorts of mayhem and craziness would follow this final eruption of energy. In the event, though, there is no such thing. Mr. Blackmore and his colleagues are in a mellow mood. The guitarist sits in the cocktail bar of his hotel a few hundred yards from the gig, and gives first an amiable, amusing interview to a Dutch radio station, before talking at some greater length to NME.

"Who designed the Rainbow?" asks the radio interviewer.
"I don't know," says Mr. B. "I've been trying to find out who's responsible for that."
The talk switches to a safer area. Could Mr. B. name his three favourite records?
He could, of course. They're "War Child" by Jethro Tull, "Minstrel In The Gallery" by Jethro Tull, and "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix.
Well, thank you, Ritchie. It has been really nice talking to you.

It is during these converstations that the question of the javelin arises. Throwing a javelin at three a.m. in a dark park may seem like road fever, but to Ritchie Blackmore it's more routine than that. He was a champ at the javelin, until he was 15. But then the guitar gained the ascendancy, a transition that Ritchie says he does not regret. Would you? The question of the javelin arises because Eric Thomsen is a willing rival, and after an evening of sporadic banter, he accepts a bet of a 100 guilders that he can throw the javelin further than Ritchie. Eric Thomsen is Scandinavian, small boned and hugely spectacled, and does not look like he could throw the javelin further than any one. But he is game.

And so it is that at an unearthly hour of the morning, Ritchie repairs to his hotel room, abandons his black leather leisure wear, and returns to the hotel lobby in a blue track suit and pumps. And, naturally, he's carrying a javelin. An eight-foot javelin with an aggressive look about it. The combatants shake hands on the wager, and set out into the night in search of a suitable venue, which they happily find between the hotel and the hall. Chucking a spear into a park without the benefit of light is a tricky business, and it takes both Mr. B. and Mr. T. some time to get their respective eyes in. Even when the javelin travels a decent distance, it initially refuses to stick in the turf. But as things warm up, Ritchie proves the better man. Eric has been game enough to remove the fashionable jacket of his fashionable suit, and also the huge spectacles and his shoes, but even these aids are not quite enough. The 100 guilders goes into the Blackmore vaults, almost as an afterthought. To compete being more the thing.

"At school, I did a lot of track events," says Ritchie. "Javelin, discus. I keep a javelin in England, and one in America, and dig it out at times. This is a practice one I've bought recently. It spins too much." Others in the band find different forms of release on tour. Jimmie Bain, who plays bass substantial enough to please both Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Cozy Powell on drums, describes one such method. It involves "doing" the room of a colleague in his absence, and requires both strength and tenacity. The aim is to present the returning victim with a room completely devoid of furniture. Only, when the victim opens his bathroom door, he finds all the furniture neatly stacked in there, instead. This has its pitfalls, however, for men of good conscience.

Jimmie Bain says that Cozy's room was once "done" in this way, and Cozy suspected Jimmie. So Cozy broke into Jimmie's room and "did" Jimmie's room, too. Unhappily, having replaced the furniture in his own room, Cozy discovered he'd got the wrong man. So he then returned to Jimmie's room and "undid" it again. A strenuous evening was had by all, even allowing for poetic licence in the telling.

Ritchie Blackmore says that not only do both he and Cozy come from the West Country, but they share the same temperament. There is no trace of moodiness, however, about Cozy when he arrives in The Hague for this final gig. He's just roared up from Paris at a steady 95 in his sports car, making up in part for the motor racing career turned down in exchange for the Rainbow job. Claims that Cozy's hands are cut to ribbons by the rigours of five months' drumming also prove to be unfounded. The only slight shadow over his humour is the practical joke played on him at the Paris gig. There are explosions during Cozy's drum solo to go with the extract from the 1812 Overture, and somebody put too much powder in. Too much powder, in fact, to be just funny. Cozy was blown from his kit. There's a similiar loud explosion during The Hague gig, serving this time to blacken the drum kit without blackening Cozy.

The only other touch of high jinks comes when Ritchie pours the contents of a bottle of scotch over the punters up against the stage. NME photographer Chalkie Davies is displeased that the contents of the bottle of Scotch turns out to be beer. A soaking, he feels, that lacks style. Otherwise, the band concentrate on the playing. It's an act that has a good deal more sublety than Deep Purple's. Ritchie includes all sorts of quiet little solos in among the rampaging riffs and soaring solos. Pacing has taken over from musical mugging. "Catching The Rainbow" with its gentle mood contrasts usefully, for example, with the thunderous encore "Do You Close Your Eyes". The American contingent, in particular, give good account of themselves. The voice of Mr. Ronnie James Dio competes, for sheer power an volume, with the lead guitar. And Tony Carey's keyboards solos seem to be spreading themselves ever more elaborately over a larger chunk of the set.

Back among the bar stools, Ritchie Blackmore expresses himself a little disappointed with the proceedings. It's not the size of the audience that's troubling him. Unlike in Britain and Japan, Rainbow still have to take off in Holland - if "taking off" is possible in any meaningful way in such a small country.

No, the problem is the band's performance. "I think there could have been more energy tonight," he says. "But we're a bit drained after the tour. We've been touring so long. I couldn't really get into it as much as I wanted to.

I thought it was extremely average. "The audience got off on it, nevertheless. Did it upset Ritchie when people didn't notice he was just being extremely average?

"Some nights, I've come off thinking I've played really well, but the audience doesn't really think so. And vice versa. I just say that whatever you think, that's fair enough." Did he feel that audiences had succumbed to easily, during the British tour? "They did seem to be starved of excitement," he says. "I don't know who had been touring in the last few months. They did seem to go bananas before we expected it."

Was it possible that Mr. B. was getting a little bored by rock'n'roll? With his declared interest in classical music, was he compromising each time he played?

"I think one is always compromising, but I'm compromising in a nice kind of way. I'd like to be playing classical music, but I'm not capable of playing it in the way I'd like to. Rock'n'roll still has that excitement. It's like a party. But I like the audience to think a bit, too. That's why we throw in the classical cliches. I'm very into classical music. Bach is 80 per cent of what I listen to.

"I would never buy a rock'n'roll record. The only rock'n'roll band I listen to is Led Zeppelin. Bonzo's a great drummer and the whole band try very hard. In America, you can't help but hear Led Zeppelin. Put on the radio and ...ed Zeppelin come on."

There was a time when the same was true of Deep Purple. Their big year was 1974, wasn't it?

"It might have been, but I never really listened to the radio then. The last year or so, I've been listening to the radio."

Was it sheer pressure of work that had prompted him to quit Purple?

"Managerial pressure was extremely high at one point. They expected us to make three LPs a year and tour the whole world, which I thought was unfair. I thought we were giving the public bad music half the time, as well as ourselves. When I left Deep Purple, I didn't have another band, I just wanted to leave."

The only Purple song that turns up in the Rainbow act is "Mistreated" from "Burn", and that also happened to be the only song with one lead vocalist on that album. Did Ritchie feel the duets by Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale hadn't really worked?

"There was a lot of rivalry between Glenn and Dave," he says. "Dave was more of a blues singer, and Glen was more of a soul singer. On record, I thought it worked. On stage, there was a lot to be desired. I think that's all I can say about that."

Having met this stumbling block, the talk switches to Rainbow. Had the band developed in the way Ritchie had hoped it would?

"The trouble with me is that I never hope for anything. I'm a pessimist."

Do you easily become pessimistic?

"Yes, if something good happens to me, I think that's OK for today, but tomorrow something else'll happen, maybe I'm not a pessimist. I'm a realist. After being in the business for so long, it can make you very pessimistic. You go through so much shit, you really do. I spent ten years trying to make it.

"There were managers and promoters ... you go to Germany, for instance, and you're starving, and you give them your passport, because they say they want to check something. And three weeks later, they won't pay you, and you can't leave the country, because they won't give you your passport back.

"They say you played too loud tonight, or you didn't play the right type of numbers, so we can't pay you the proper money. This does make you wake up very quickly."

But those days are long gone for Ritchie, aren't they?

"They are," he concedes, "but they're still embedded in my memory."

But you're the employer now?

"Yes, but you don't forget that easily."

It makes you guarded?

"It makes you very suspicious. I'm very suspicious by nature."

That seemed to be a useful reflex in his line of work.

He says: "Most people who've been through the whole business - anyone big - they have the same attitude."

Did he feel he'd lost money over the years? That he'd earned more than he received?

"I think I had a fair bash. Ten years of my life was starving, and ten years was more money than we deserved."

You mean the years with Purple?

"Mostly with Purple, sometimes, I thought we couldn't do anything wrong. We knew very well that we could go into a studio and produce an album and it would be a hit."

The albums were hasty and scrambled together, then?

"I think 50 per cent was good material, 50 per cent was professionalism. I left Deep Purple, because I just wanted to get out of the sausage factory. I took advantage of the last two years of the band. After all, everyone in Deep Purple was so well known. But I think it would have been dishonest to have stayed any longer.

"With the new band, I thought it would be nice if it's successful, but I've seen enough success to last a lifetime. I've played all the big halls and that didn't really impress me. I would rather be taking it easier. That was the intention. To get out and to push the band to half the height of Deep Purple.

"In some countries, it has gone beyond Deep Purple. In Japan, for example. and that's nice to know. I didn't expect that kind of reaction. I just wanted to play some music with Ronnie (Dio) basically. Then it became a big professional thing. Now, I'm back where I started. Under pressure.

"Without sounding corny, I want it to be a little more honest. With Purple it was just five egotistical maniacs, including me. We never got anywhere. And it was all at the audience's expense."

Did he feel less jaded with Rainbow than with Purple?

"Even with the best musicians in the world, I'd still be jaded. I don't quite know what I want out of life, and music is something I'm latching onto in the mean time. Music is very important to me, but I can't quite figure out where I'm at.

"Although I play rock'n'roll music, I go home and listen to Bach, and I think there must be something wrong somewhere. I'd love to play in a park with a string quartet, but if I did that, I'd want to be back on stage after six months playing with a rock'n'roll band. If I had a lot of money, I'd like to be in a travelling fair, playing medieval music. But if I did that, I wouldn't be happy. I'm never happy, whatever I do."

Which guitar players does Ritchie listen to, apart from Jimmy Page? (He's said he listens to Led Zeppelin.)

"Hang on. How do you mean, apart from Jimmy Page? I don't listen to Jimmy Page, I listen to Led Zeppelin."

Well, which guitar player do you like?

"Jan Akkerman. I like Focus. But in my opinion the organist is writing the songs. Their progressions are Bach. So I think it's the organist writing the songs.
"The trouble with Akkerman is that he can be very sloppy. I saw him in L.A. and he didn't care. He played well, but he can be very untasteful sometimes."
Does Blackmore himself ever stop caring?

"Yeah," he says, "sometimes I do. I can be really silly, but not too often".

When was the first time he noticed that he could move an audience with a guitar?

"I think it was when I was taking the piss out of them in America with Purple. When I went to America I resented the audience. I did not want to be in America. The sooner I got home the better. I thought if they didn't like what I played - too bad.

"So, I'd throw the guitar in the air, and play it with my arse. It was a piss-take of the audience. I still do that kind of thing, but I first did it because I was taking the piss. I wanted to be back in England. Going to America is very hard. You're so far away from your friends. But you can't have the best of both worlds."

OK, so Ritchie first moved an audience by playing the guitar with his arse, but when was the first time he moved an audience with his music?

"I think it was in 1970. We were playing in America, supporting Rod Stewart. 'Deep Purple In Rock' had come out. Jon Lord had had this "thing with classical music, and we agreed that if rock didn't come off, we'd play classical stuff in future. But it did take off, so we played rock'n'roll. Otherwise, we'd still be playing with orchestras."

Was he pleased that had happened?

His answer is one word: "Very". But paradoxically, Rainbow perform with an orchestra on "Stargazer", the outstanding cut from "Rainbow Rising" that's also a highlight of the live set, with the orchestra part played on synthesiser.

Ritchie says he wrote "Stargazer" on a cello. He's been taking up the cello for the past two years. The lyrics and part of the music were written by Ronnie.
The song took eight months to complete, and Ritchie says that what kept him going was "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. "I like that a lot, the way they used the orchestra. It was a great step forward that people accepted."

The unpleasant thing about "Stargazer" was in the studio when Ritchie saw the professional cellists playing the bit he'd written on the cello.
"You could see the disgust on their faces," he says.

Would he like to be accepted by musicians like that?

"Their attitude does annoy me, in a way. But then I think of what they earn and what I earn. They really can't be into music, if they're the way they are. No matter how much I might dislike some music, I'll always acknowledge it, if it's good."

© Bob Edmands, New Musical Express 6 Nov 1976
Photos: © Philip Zara (Rainbow Live) & Chalkie Davis