"You'd better have this", Ritchie Blackmore grunts by way of a greeting, thrusting an unconvincing plastic skeleton mask into my mitts I obviously look more thrown than Eric Bristow's best darts, so the grim guitarist expands mysteriously: "You've got to be my decoy..." Erh, right Ritch He clambers into the back of an anonymous looking van, its paintwork as white as shaving cream.

"Couldn't we have got one a bit older?" he moans "This one's a bit obvious".
In his hand is a walkie-talkie matched by the one clutched by his personal assistant, the affable and unflappable Barry Ambrosio, who bundles me and Tony "Wot? My round?" Mottram into a less discreet hire car Trading mumbled progress reports, van and car proceed with military precision towards tonight's gig at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre (Ritchie's banned from the Empire for trashing the Royal Box in '77) The elaborate precautions are easily explained by the sight of hundreds of denim and leather disciples milling around the stage door The logic behind my dodgy decoy disguise is equally as apparent As we approach people stare and point, and.. hey who wuz that masked man? The sense of a skeleton mask in depression blitzed Liverpool sinks in thirty seconds too late Think of the pasty colouring, the billiard cue baldness, the bone structure, it could only be one man - NORMAN TEBBITT!

Lynch mobs are formed and unprintable insults rend the air In the confusion Ritchie had planned to nip out the back of the van and into the gig unnoticed Only someone opened the side door instead so he had to brave the fervent throng anyway.

"I'll told you, we should have driven right onto the stage," the transmitter in Barry's motor crackles reluctantly before Mr B is swallowed up - well, nibbled at least - by an adoring mob.

Their excitement was understandable After all, this was Rainbow's first British date for two years The Man In Black was back - but he almost didn't make it In the less hectic confines of his dressing room Ritchie confides news of a disconcerting back problem.

"It started two years ago", the man reveals over his customary large scotch and coke "I started getting this weird feeling in my left hand as I was playing The doctor said it was slight arthritis between the fifth and sixth vertebrae It's been getting progressively worse.

"You see the guitar strap pinches a nerve and the nerve numbs the hand I had to go to a physiotherapist to learn correct posture and exercises to stop the relevant muscles from atrophying "It got kinda worrying - it's my life! And it's downright depressing cos I'm an active person I don't like to curb my interests, football, etc Maybe it's a sign of, hey, time for you to get out I'm sure you'll get lots of people in your mailbag saying 'yeah - get out now'."

Maybe, but I'm sure the two packed houses here in the 'Pool would have a few things to say about that Baron Blackmore, typically, manages to find a knife to twist "The worse thing in the world is the sympathy though," he grimaces "I went to rehearsals with a sign saying 'No I'm not alright, so don't ask me, what the hell can you do about it anyway?" The same macabre humour colours Ritchie's contributions to the new Rainbow tour programme - eg what's your happiest experience? "Happiness.. what's that?" Though of course he should be happy having just master-minded Rainbow's most satisfying album for some time.

Released last week 'Bent Out Of Shape' is a sparkling showcase for the band's expansive talents, though naturally the more alert amongst you will have already noted the full mouth-watering review in last week's exciting edition Defying a grim warning sign of 'Keep out - this means YOU' on the dressing room door I barged in like a simple-minded donkey to catch Ritchie bathing his back in steaming hot towels before strapping himself up in a complex array of braces As usual, the dressing room scene supplied a colourful cornucopia of revelations.

Mottram noticed the free beer, sorry, the unusual concave frets on the Baron's Fender Strat - he'd done it himself "To slow me down, I'm getting too fast" He almost grins "No, it gives me better note control." And there were plenty of interesting stories surrounding the recording of 'Down To Earth' in a haunted French mansion (more soon), not least Mr Cozy Powell's keenness to play table temus outweighing his keenness to play drums Seems he refused to do more than one take on 'Since You've Been Gone' and Rainbow manager, amiable American Bruce Payne, claims to have supplied the fills himself on his briefcase.

The relative failure of 'Street Of Dreams' in the UK provokes Ritchie to muse, "I didn't realise how completely disco orientated the UK charts have become It was obviously the wrong single for England, but I'm not sure what to bring out next I had thought of doing a rougher live mix of 'Stranded' - but who would it appeal to? The fans would already have a version on the album and the housewives wouldn't buy it Actually I've been thinking of doing different, harder mixes on all our European releases, leaving the very polished sound for American releases." The biggest thing on my mind was the departure of bawdy Brooklynite beat-basher Bobby Rondinelli (né Ron Dinelli).

"He was one of the nicest people we ever had in the band," the Baron admits "let's just say there was a timing discrepancy there." No such problems for Bob's superb replacement Chuck Burgi - he's really given the band a lift live Having previously worked with Al Dimeola, McLauglin et al, Chuck's just what Ritchie wanted: "A jazz drummer with rock overtones because Rainbow are a sophisticated band and we didn't need another BASHER."

Tonight was Burgi's live debut It was also the band's first gig since December - and I had to swear an oath in blood not to review it on pain of imprisonment in Halfin's bedroom I don't know whether it was the band's 'virgin' state or the pain, but Ritchie swigged about three times as much scotch as normal pre-gig.

Natch this didn't impair his live performance - he's too professional for that - but it did seem to sharpen up his awesome piss-taking prowess post-gig One lovely lump (see previous feature for coarse definition) called Angela was given the full Python 'Sir Edward' treatment (ie "You don't mind if I call you Angie-baby, do you' etc).

"We share everything," he told her, pointing suggestively in my direction and following that through with: "Did you mention nipples? I did once but I think I got away with it?" - an inebriated tribute to comedy's cool ruler Sir Basil of Fawlty Regular perusers of Rainbow ruses will be privy to Blackmore's penchant for setting people up with transvestites (I got my scallie spy Al Turner to supply a list of clubs to avoid in just in case - Hoxton's? Are you sure?) Usually it's Halfin who suffers (?) but I think Mottram must have got wind of similar plots against his person (and pig-tail) cos he spent the second night in a different hotel!

Back in the bar Blackmore was on top form "What do you think about.. ah.. what do you think in general?" he asked one unsuspecting lump before relating the perils of the purple curse - "People keep coming up to me and saying 'Hello - Smoke On The Water?', 'How are you - Smoke On The Water?' It's very disconcerting."

Best moment of the night came when promoter Paul Loasby decided to illustrate the high and low points of the set with his hands Ritchie got him so agititated he ended up gesticulating like a lobotomised traffic warden on sulphate cut with rat poison Loasby ("A jerk in a jerkin" according to the uncharacteristically sharp Motters) then compounded the error by taking him on for a serious debate about classical music ("Ere Ritchie, you're a classical buff" etc) Natch he ended up more confused than Spaghetti Junction.

"What's your opinion as if anybody cares?" Ritchie asked me in a flash of acid tongue artistry.. aw, the fun we have, ja? Joe Lynn Turner was his usual bouncy self pursuing foxy tour support, Ms Ford, the lovely Lita (meet her, mate) and generally demolishing Dee Snider for his recent digs at him in Farmers Weekly (as Melody Maker's known in the trade) Amongst much other nonsense Dee reckoned Joey sounds like Lou Gramm - he does, but so what? "I knew Dee when he really was a woman," Joe confides, adding "he'd have to stand on a chair to listen to us and it'd still go over his head It's not true that their 'success' has made Twisted Sister bigheaded - they've always been big-headed!" (Seconds away, round three!) Only Roger Glover seems Slightly miffed, unsure of both his polished production job on the album and tonight's performance.

"Sometimes I think they'd clap if we farted," he sighs and nothing I can say will cheer him up so I leave this talented but tortured soul to his vodka and head for bed Next day finds Ritchie and Barry darting furtively around the hotel with their walkie-talkies, avoiding fans, lumps etc so the Baron can have brekkers undisturbed Over burnt bacon he talks of his admiration for the literary works of the late, great Pete Makowski and reveals the pleasure he takes in tricking the band on stage.

"I like starting songs they're not expecting" he reveals with a sly smile, "or playing the blues passage in a different key to the one they're expecting I can never fool Dave though - he's got perfect pitch..." I should really steam into tonight's gig now, but for the hell of it I'll leave you sweating and adjourn to The Interview.

After Midnight, in a discreet corner of a hotel bar, with just two charming 'lumps' and Ritchie's ghetto blaster for company, the conflab commences Natch the important things come first "Who wants a drink?" asks Mr Ambrosio "My father would never forgive me if I didn't drink cider," says Ritchie "He swears by the stuff He's from Somerset.. Wales actually I'll have a beer..." But what about the new album, a million Sounds readers shout as one.

"I'll be honest," Ritchie says, "I've heard it And I'm not impressed No, actually I think it's very good, it's got a lot of substance I'm very pleased with the way my writing's going." I feel personally that Rainbow's more melodic numbers are closer to Abba than they are Foreigner, despite Mr Snider's snipes "Yes, I think you're right I will never write a song like Foreigner, although as I've said I do really like Lou Gramm's voice..." Bruce Payne interrupts at this point with a telex announcing that 'Bent' has charted at 27 in the US Top 30 - a great achievement.

And with 'Street of Dreams' simultaneously charting straight in at 36 in the singles chart one that augers well for Rainbow's chances of really cracking the States later this year "Bruce is happy," Ritchie confides, "he gets all the money." In your last interview with Sounds you said you felt you were facing a bit of a directional crisis Does the fact that you've recorded 'Bent' this year mean the crisis has passed?

"No - I'm still at that crisis point and I think I'll be there for the rest of my life As John Cleese said, I think I'm stuck with it Musicians should always be at crisis point One is never progressing unless one is at odds with one's self as to how to progress I was very satisfied with the new album though I know it's not exactly the hard rock people want, and we'll probably lose a few fans by deviating, but that's the price you've gotta pay."

His own favourite tracks are 'Street Of Dreams', 'Can't Let Go', 'Snowman' and the exquisite instrumental 'Anybody There' "That's a misprint on the sleeve," Ritchie reveals, "it should be 'Anybody There' with a question mark, as in the way you open a seance "The songs based on Bach's 'Prelude in C' It's got no middle eight and no chorus The chord structure goes for 28 bars and then repeats so it's very unlike the usual rock song There's no catch line, just nonstop continuity 300 years ago they would have accepted that, now bands only go 12 or 14 bars before they get into the hook I initially called it 'Doomed'."

'Snowman' has an interesting history.

"It originally came from an animated cartoon I was watching about a snowman who picks a kid up and flies away with him It's a great fantasy film It took me back to my childhood dreams I have an affinity towards snowmen, you see Anyway, the excerpt on the video had about 16 bars of this tune which I took and elongated and added my own arrangement The guy who wrote it, Howard Blake, is probably this 60 year old pianist living in Brighton, he hadn't even heard of us Originally he called it 'Walking In The Air'.

To me it's one of the best tracks on the LP, it's the direction I'd like to go in I love that sort of intense, majestic kind of rock I'd love to have a whole backdrop of snowmen We've changed it from a happy snowman into an abominable snowman incidentally - I have this effect on people."

One of my favourite guitar parts is the 'yelping' lead on 'Desperate Heart'.

"That was the only solo I did in the States I'd done a solo in Copenhagen and wasn't happy with it, so I redid it in New York - the studio sound was so good it really inspired me."

'Firedance' and 'Drinking With The Devil' will probably be the biggest crowd pleasers.

"Yes, 'Firedance' is kind of a step back I suppose It's a really complicated riff I have to tune the bass string down to bottom D every time I play it, so I have to do the solo on five strings instead of six.. I want everyone to know how difficult it is for me! 'Dancing With The Devil' is just a down-home rock'n'roll thing The best thing about it is the guitar line at the end It's worth waiting three minutes for."

A brief chat about drumming leads back to the Cozy Powell story related earlier.

"Actually I'm thinking of writing a comedy about the whole thing," Ritchie reveals "I like the way Michael Palin writes when he does things like Ripping Yarns and I'm thinking of writing about the 'Down To Earth' recordings in a similar way with my roadie Colin who's got a great way with words I kept a diary and everything turned out so weird, the musicians, the cooks, the problems, the seances that went down, that it'd make a great one-off comedy If you can imagine Palin as a rock'n'roll musician.. John Cleese would have to be the bass player! Always!"

Did your idea of making a live blues album ever happen?

"No, but I'm still thinking about it I'd have to do it with different personnel, a band more in the Bad Company mould It wouldn't sell because it wouldn't be at all commercial, just total blues, but it'd be interesting to me if nobody else."

The Purple reunion might still be on, he reckons, though only "for fun, for a week or two." Only Mr Gillan wanted it to be a serious long-term proposition apparently And besides Rainbow's current tour commitments (UK, Europe, USA) take them well into next year so it's not exactly imminent.

I wondered if the Baron was familiar with U2 and Big Country's pioneering work in the field of guitar resurrection.

"No," he says honestly "but it sounds good I'm all for anything that leads us away from this disco domination My friend Barry put it in a nutshell when he said most of these new wave people now are just disco in disguise Now there's nothing wrong with people dancing but there has to be room for other music to breathe too Bach had the same problem - I was talking to him the other day He was always being asked to compose minuets in 3/4 time so the lords and ladies could dance to them He got very upset that people were dancing and not listening."

How do you react to claims that Rainbow have sold out your rock'n'roll roots? (A claim ridiculed by the live show incidentally.)

" Yeah, we have it Face it, how easy is it to go on stage and have all the guitarists playing in unison? No disrespect to Status Quo - they're great, they invented it - but that's all you get now The guitarists standing in a line and trying to convince everyone what fun they're having I'd rather watch aerobics on TV! No, we haven't sold out We're still Heavy Metal, but we're sophisticated Heavy Metal I'd like to think some of the audience are sophisticated enough to keep up If not it's our loss - and theirs But I will not go on stage and do Status Quo impersonations like Judas Priest and the Scorpions.

It'd be so easy for us to do a really cliched heavy album but that's not the point A lot of people are very discontent in England at the moment but it would be dishonest of me to try and reflect that in my music I can't raise my fist in the air and play moronic 12 bar blues and 12 bar progressions either We all grow up, I'm just not interested in doing that kind of thing any more Maybe we'll lose some people but I refuse to fall back on moronic albums to make a few more bob I don't need it."

Do you consider Rainbow are a cynical concern at all though?

"Of course I suffer from terminal cynicism - that's my outlook on life I also think we're all doomed We all act like imbeciles and pretend we're having a good time but we're not I'm not at least, and that's the most important thing.

I think terminal cynicism is coming through on the American side at the moment They know we're fucked, 'Reagan's gonna blow us all up so let's buy the new Rainbow album' - that's obviously the attitude there now.

I think I see life similar to yourself but maybe I'm not so articulate I've got something to say but sometimes I don't know the words to use And when the words come there's no-one there to tell, so I'm tucked, I suppose And that's another thing I dislike being cool I like being awkward and stubborn That's the way I am, that's the way I'll always be."

And on that definitive note, let's at last back track to the show, Joe Elgar and Garland still open the set, the killer combination of stirring patriotism and Hollywood glitter convulsing the audience before the speedy and tough 'Spotlight Kid' builds on the adrenalin Tonight's set is harder and longer than the Copenhagen show I caught last year - like the new album it's altogether more satisfying, and an ideal showcase for the band's talents Burgi's drumming seems effortlessly effective, noticeably energizing the set Joe Lynn's hammier than a bacon factory, but a man with such a polished set of pipes I can forgive anything Roger is quietly confident, casually in control of his situation - but where did he get that hat? Young Mr Rosenthal is a veritable keyboard king in the making while Ritchie of course manages to combine beauty and bludgeon, dynamism and dignity, at once aloof and in charge.

The pleasant plod of 'Miss Mistreated' is chased by the nifty new foot-tapper 'Fool For The Night' ending with the Baron's axe erupting like it's spitting molten lava Then keyboard conjurer Dave introduces 'I Surrender', followed by the currently anti-Soviet 'Can't Happen Here' (Joe should write Sun editorials in his spare time) and the 'Little Wing' reminiscent 'Catch The Rainbow' Ritchie demanding the crowd cut the claps for the gentle opening guitar passage punctuated only by a connoisseur's shout of 'It's dead good that is, Ritchie'.

The hell-raisingly heavy 'Drinking With The Devil' ups tempo and toughness (possibly the Baron sold his soul long ago) before the mesmerizing musical madras of an Indian-flavoured instrumental and the still droog-approved splendour of their 'Song Of Joy' its power diminished to these ears by being overburdoned with solos Short and snappy keeps 'em happy is my philosophy - or is it that I just hate drum and organ solos? (though it must be said that Dave did turn in a passable impersonation of the Star Ship Enterprise).

'Power' comes next with retinas rising, the enormous eye-balls on full beam, followed by a smidgeon of blues- the monster riffer 'Stargazer', the penultimate punchy pop of 'Stranded', and the final power putsch of 'Death Alley Driver' complete with Dumpy Dunnell style revving intro, a literally explosive end to a deliciously diverse set Encores erupted like they could go on all night but the dreaded cutting scissors of the Barton forbid any further exploration here Tune back next week for even more leg-shakin' live details ~ or better still go and catch the Rainbow yourself You're unlikely to ever find them on better form.

Garry Bushell, Sounds, 17 September 1983