Deep Inside Purple And Beyond

Long ago, Ritchie Blackmore had his name indeliby carved in the pantheon of guitar icons, his riffs and hard rock style permanently etched into the craniums of almost every modern electric guitar player. Today, amid his new musical pursuits, Blackmore is in the final stages of mixing the second album by his renaissance group Blackmore's Night. Even without amplification, his playing is immediately recognizable, but the lyrical acousticism is somewhat surprising coming from the man who brought us such electrifying cuts as "Smoke on the Water," "Burn," and "Man on the Silver Mountain."

Despite Blackmore's prominence, few guitarists have said so little in public, yet generated so much negative press. Too often, Blackmore has read words other people put in his mouth or heard things that he was supposed to have said or done during his career that were blatantly untrue. After all these years, and on the eve of the release of the Deep Purple box set Shades 1968-1998 (Rhino), Guitar Magazine nestled in with Blackmore and discussed the past, present, and future of one of rock's greatest legends. The setting was a restaurant in Bohemia, NY that looked like the inside of a medieval castle, replete with roaring fire and walls studded with stags' heads. In addition to waxing rhapsodic about guitars, inspirations, and Deep Purple, Blackmore debuted his dead-on impersonation of David Coverdale developing the lyrics for a song ("Baby, baby, baby..."), sang the praises of one of his favorite songs, "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" by the Royal Guardsmen, and employed a Uri Geller-like slight-of-hand to magically bend and break spoons. Here he is, the original Man In Black (if you discount Johnny Cash), unplugged and uncensored.

How would you describe your upbringing?

We were a typical middle class family. My father was a draftsman who mapped out airplane runways. He was kind of conservative, so he was a little bit reticent about buying me my first guitar. He thought it would be just another fad. He said if you don't learn to play this properly, I'm going to break it across your head.

What was your first guitar?

It was a Framus -- a German guitar. A friend of mine at school had one when I was 11. I just loved the look of it, the finish on it. It was beautiful. After that, Tommy Steele was the guitarist who made me want to take it up seriously. He was on the first rock and roll program ever in England called Six High Special. I saw him and knew I wanted to do that.

Did your guitar playing become a way to cope with problems?

Yes it did. When I was going to school at the age of 11 and 12, I felt kind of awkward and felt I didn't belong to the academic way of thinking. I wasn't a particularly good pupil. And I always felt they were teaching the wrong things. The guitar was something I would use to help me emote feelings; the frustration would come out on the guitar. I could relate to the guitar because no one dictated to me how I should play it. It was all about selfexpression.

Who was your first guitar hero?

That would be Duane Eddy. When I was 13 years old, I heard things like "The Lonely One," "Rebel Rouser," "Cannonball," and thought they were just fantastic. He had a great bass vibrato. After that, I just love Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Les Paul; all those were guys I listened to early on. My vibrato didn't come from Duane Eddy, though; it came from trying to take Hendrix one step further.

In the past, you've also mentioned The Who as a key influence.

I thought "Can't Explain" was excellent, and then I heard "My Generation," and thought it was fantastic, especially the bass solo. After listening to them in 1964, I realized that maybe I should have a go at writing because Pete Townshend's way of writing appealed to me. Luckily it paid off in certain areas with Purple.

What were some of your first recorded projects?

I did a lot of my earliest work with Joe Meek. Joe was famous for writing "Telstar," and was doing a lot of producing. I met Joe in 1962 when I was playing with Screaming Lord Sutch. We went in the studio to record something, and Joe liked my guitar playing, so he started calling me up to do sessions for other musicians. From there we formed the Outlaws, and we were Joe's main session band, which was also how we got to be Gene Vincent's backing band for a year. We did so many sessions, and we wouldn't even know the titles. Sometimes I'd hear stuff on the radio and say "I recognize that," and then realize it was me! Unlike today, of course, when I'm not good enough to get on the radio [laughs].

What was your first solo recording?

I did "Little Brown Jug," the old Glenn Miller tune. I played it through a three-inch speaker, but I wanted a fuzzbox effect, so I sliced it up with a razor to get distortion. We billed it as the Ritchie Blackmore Orchestra, and had it released as a single. Those days I was playing a Gibson 335, red with dot inlays, one of only a few that had dot inlays, I think.

How did you first start playing a Stratocaster?

I was using the ES-335 when Eric Clapton gave one of my roadies a Strat. It was difficult to play; the action was about an inch off the fretboard because the neck was bent. My roadie gave it to me, but I couldn't play it either. But I thought, "What a great sound, I should get one." I liked the clarity; it was no-nonsense, and the sound hit you right in the gut. I knew I had to learn how to play it, even though it was a bit of a beast. For the first six months, it was difficult to come to terms with the roundness of the fingerboard and the frets. It was very unforgiving with its notes. The Gibson was a good guitar, but it didn't have the same sound; it was warmer, fuzzier. It would gloss up the notes a bit. With the Strat, if you played a wrong note, everybody heard it. Ultimately, it was a beast well worth taming.

What did you do after you finished working with Meek and touring with the Outlaws?

I went to spend time in Germany. While I was there, the drummer for the Searchers, Chris Curtis, called me. He had made lots of money, and wanted to start his own band. But he wanted me to be second guitar. When I asked him who would be first guitar, he said, "Me." Well, he was a drummer, so when I asked who would be drumming, he said "Me." When I asked who would be singing, he said "Me."

Finally, when I asked who was playing keyboards, he said, "a guy named Jon Lord." Well, Chris was willing to pay me a lot--he had hundred-pound notes that used to overflow his pockets--so I wasn't going to argue with him about his plans for playing everything. I left Germany and went to his house. When I got there, it was being demolished. Literally, the house was rubble. And I'm standing there on what used to be the front steps, and one pile of rubble moved. I jumped away, and realized it was Chris.

He was just buried in the rubble, and tried to explain it away as something minor, like "Oh, don't mind this." Then Jon shows up, and we look at each other. We didn't want to say that we thought Chris was nuts, because we each thought Chris was the other's friend. After it became clear that Chris was indeed nuts--he ended up in the asylum--Jon and I said "Well, we're both here, we might as well do something together." So Deep Purple was started, and we can give the credit to a lunatic [laughs].

Speaking of Purple, what do you think of the new box set Shades 1968-1998?

Personally, I think it's just ripping off the public again. I make money from it, so I shouldn't knock it, but it's unnecessary. As Frank Zappa would say, "I smell a rat." They just re-release the stuff too often. If it were up to me I wouldn't do it, but it never is. And of course, they keep saying little things like, "This has been recorded in a different way," but it's the same songs. I know the rest of the band isn't going to like this, but I don't say too many things that the rest of the band likes [laughs].

When you co-formed Deep Purple in 1968, were you interested in breaking new ground?

I didn't consciously think that way. But I loved drama in music and the classical side of rock. I had gotten into the intense playing of Bach and Vivaldi, and other classical people. I tried to incorporate those complex progressions, but not too much, because if you put too much complexity into rock, the whole foundation gets lost and it becomes pseudo or too avant garde.

Purple's earliest work could be described as psychedelic.

Lame, I'd call it [laughs]. I did think our very first record, Shades of Deep Purple, was pretty good, because we did it in forty-eight hours. But with the two that followed, we were kind of feeling our way, like the blind leading the blind.

Was the hippie drug culture a factor during the early years of Deep Purple?

Nobody in the band took drugs. We'd be drinkers a bit, but the drug thing was not for us.

It's interesting that the band became popular with a cover of Joe South's "Hush."

I used to live in Hamburg, Germany, and I'd hear an earlier version of that song on the radio. And when I got together with Jon Lord, I said I really liked it When we got around to playing it, he put in this brilliant organ solo.

Oddly, Rod Evans, Purple's original singer, formed a bogus reincarnation of the band in 1980 for West Coast bar gigs.

I heard about that. I think it quickly fizzled when they were threatened with legal actions. It was an unusual move for Rod, because I like Rod as a person. But I suppose it was worth trying [laughs].

Your playing in the second incarnation of Purple was strikingly different from your work in the first version of the band. Many would say your style became heavier and darker.

Very true. In the beginning, I was a little bit lost as to what style I really had. And then everything clicked with In Rock. Ian Gillan [vocals] and Roger Glover [bass] had come in, so that gave us new blood. I found my niche being much heavier music, and playing with more sustain on the amplifier, that sort of thing. We consciously sat down and said, "Let's have a go at being really heavy." It was after hearing Zeppelin, I think.

Machine Head [recently reissued on Rhino] has become one of the most dynamic and influential hard rock records. How would you describe the making of that album?

I'm always fond of music that I can make quickly, and we did that whole LP in three weeks. Everything was very natural and it all worked. I had vague song ideas worked out, like for "Space Truckin'," "Highway Star," and "Smoke on the Water" before we went into the studio. However, we did get kicked out of our first studio, where we laid down the backing track to "Smoke on the Water." We had too many complaints from the neighbors for making noise, so the police threw us out. Se we went to a deserted hotel, and recorded in a corridor. We had the Rolling Stones' mobile recording unit with us, and to hear a playback we'd have to make quite a trip. From the corridor we'd walk through one bedroom, into the bathroom and into another bedroom, and then across the bed to this outside balcony--and it was in Switzerland, so there was two feet of snow outside. We'd then run down the balcony and into another bedroom, through two doors and up some stairs. Then we'd walk to a reception area, out the door and across the courtyard. As you might expect, we didn't hear too many playbacks.

Can you elaborate on the story told in "Smoke on the Water"?

We were sitting there watching Frank Zappa play and suddenly someone had one of those flare guns and decided to let it off. It set the roof on fire. Frank turned around and said, "Now everybody calm down." He then threw down his guitar and jumped out the window. It was quite funny. He wanted to be the first one out. We then had about 15 minutes before the place was gutted, which was frightening.

The same lineup also recorded Made In Japan (also recently re-released). How do you rate it?

Quite honestly, I haven't listened to it since we made it. I don't even own it. I prefer the studio versions. A lot of fans like it, so there must be something good about it. But I'm not one that usually gloats over my own music. I usually think I could have done better, so when I hear my music I often cringe [laughs].

What inspired Gillan to leave in 1973?

I think Ian and I were both in tune when we first met. On Machine Head we were still on the same wavelength. But for Who Do We Think We Are Ian and I were in different worlds. I think we just ran out of ideas.

You left Deep Purple in 1975 to form Rainbow, which lasted until 1984. What were your favorite Rainbow albums?

The very first one [Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow] was a breath of fresh air because it moved away from the R&B stuff Purple was doing. I also liked Rainbow Rising; Ronnie James Dio was singing really well. I keep in touch with Dio; we might do something in the future.

What compelled you to get back together with Gillan, Lord, Paice, and Glover in 1984, and record Perfect Strangers?

I was very happy with Rainbow, and we were doing quite well, and then Ian Gillan came around and said, "Let's get together." He kind of talked me into it, and people were talking about lots of money, and I said, "Okay, I'll do it." But I do think Perfect Strangers was a good LP. I was happy with it. Everybody said this is a one-off, and then I was comfortable with the band and went, "I think we'll do another one," which was a mistake, because I think I played like shit on it. And I don't think anyone else really got into it; to me Nobody's Perfect was a bit of a disaster.

You became interested in onstage pyrotechnics early in your career. Who inspired you to burn, baby, burn?

The first guy you did all that stuff was Eddie Phillips in Creation, back in the mid '60s. He did the windmill effects Pete took, the violin bow thing that Jimmy Page took, and all that burning stuff. I started incorporating pyro in the late 60s. At the California Jam [in Ontario, CA] in 1974, I wanted to do something sensational. People had blown up guitars, so I decided to blow the amp up. I had my roadie pile petrol on a dummy amp. I said, "Throw a match to it when I point to you." He used too much petrol. We temporarily deafened one guy and Ian Paice's glasses blew off. And of course, half the stage caught on fire.

You also had an exchange with a cameraman during that concert.

I had a bug about cameras being onstage. When fans pay a lot of money to see the band, they don't want to see the backs of cameramen's heads. They had been told, but this one photographer wouldn't listen. He kept coming towards me. After a while it got on my nerves, so I shoved my guitar through the lens of his camera. After the show, the police were after us, and I jumped into a helicopter.

Are you a spiritual person?

I try to be, but I don't believe in any organized religion. One of my main passions in life is communicating with entites and spirits. Most people do this all the time, but they don't realize it. But I'm not a satanist, as some people have labeled me. Some idiots in the business have said, "He's a satanist because he lights candles in his dressing room." The reason I used to light candles was to have a little bit of meditation before I went onstage, and I hate the lights in those dressing rooms at, say, Madison Square Garden. But people were convinced that I had an altar in there and I was sacrificing chickens.

When did you first discover renaissance music?

My introduction to medieval music was when I was 10, when I heard "Greensleeves." I heard it in Sunday school in England, and it triggered some emotion in me. It gave me the shivers, like it was taking my back to another time. Usually kids who are 10 don't have that kind of reaction. Then I got into it again in 1974 when I started listening to Warchild by Jethro Tull. Around the same time, I also started listening to David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London doing the "Twelve Dances" by Tielman Susato. He was one of the first people to publish music, around 1520 or so. I would play that every night. I adored it, and I fell in love with renaissance music with trombones, trumpets, cornets, sackbutts, and other medieval instruments. The hair on the back of my neck would stand up, but I wasn't thinking about playing it. Instead, I used to envy the people playing it. Then I met some minstrels in a German castle in 1984, and that pushed me over the edge. I had to play it.

How would you describe the stuff you're doing with Blackmore's Night?

That draws more from the Teutonic and Germanic music, not so much the traditional Celtic or British music. The Celtic music has a brighter tone that I don't really like. Our music is darker, more the sound of the Moors. I write the music, [vocalist and girlfriend] Candice Night writes the lyrics. Sometimes we bring in session players, which is difficult, because everybody thinks they're going to get to play Rainbow or Purple tunes. I did bring in a hurdy gurdy player, which was a waste of time. They always look like they're from the Middle Ages, and then they proceed to play out of tune. So I decided to do it myself.

You're playing mostly acoustic material lately?

Yes. Most songs on the new Blackmore's Night record are acoustic with electric trimmings. When I play acoustic I play with my fingers, and on electric I play with a pick, so it usually takes me a couple of hours to get comfortable going from one to the other. I've been playing acoustic now for three or four years, and I feel like sometimes I have to relearn my electric technique.

What kinds of guitars are you using these days?

I have an Alvarez acoustic, a Lakewood acoustic, and two Taylors, a six- and 12-string. Lakewood is a German guitar, and they will be a big manufacturer someday. Interestingly, with the Taylor, you have to watch the weather. Put a potato in your guitar case overnight; cut it in half and it hydrates the guitar. Taylors are very light, so they need the moisture. The potato does the same thing as a humidifier, but it has the benefit of being a conversation piece. And it's guaranteed to get you stopped at airport customs for at least four hours. They take you to the side, look at the potato in the case and say, "What? You've got a potato?" Then they destroy it and take it away and analyze it. Especially if you go through Canada.

Do you prefer steel or nylong strings?

All my guitars are steel string; I haven't found a nylon string because there's so much give, but their sound doesn't cut through as much. Instead, I punish myself by playing steel strings, which is harder to do. And though I like playing Spanish stuff, I'm still fighting with my acoustic technique and my electric technique, so I don't want to throw in a third technique. For acoustic performances, I run through a Crate, because Engl doesn't make an acoustic amp. Sometimes I add some chorus, but very, very little. I'm too concerned about feedback. There are also no pedals, it's all in the amp. For our encores, after playing acoustic, I'll play some of the more electric, heavier things. It's heavy rock, but played very quietly, with a Strat going through a small Engl. I turn the crunch up so it has that 300-watt sound, but it's only about 60 watts. And I still have the Marshalls, but I don't use them. The Marshalls are "sound" amps, but very bland, very blah, almost boring. They're very damn loud, and that's it. If you try to turn them down, you get no sound from them at all. Especially mine, which are like 280 watts because they're souped up, which is great for an arena but not for clubs. I'm thinking about selling them, but people keep saying, "You can't do that!" But why not? I just keep them in a warehouse.

You don't seem too interested in the past. You appear far more concerned with the future.

That's all I'm concentrating on at the moment. Rainbow went up a dead-end street last time out. It was like my last time with Purple [in 1994][sic]. It was getting too Spinal Tap--going out every night for 30 years and playing the same songs. It started grating on my nerves. Blackmore's Night plays in churches and castles when we tour, not arenas and concert halls. For me, it's a way to cast off the responsibility of being a loud guitar player. And in the process, I've gone from playing guitar in the loudest band in the world to playing guitar in the quietest band in the world.

© HP Newquist and Jeffrey L. Perlah, Guitar Magazine - April 1999