King of the Castle
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow are putting down (in between seances) a new album at Le Chateau in France. Jim Farber talks to the band and the mysterious man in black.
Vincent Price would've loved it here. It's called Le Chateau, a 16th century castle turned recording studio located just 20 miles south of Paris, that's supposedly haunted by the spirit of Frederic Chopin - or so the ever mystical Ritchie Blackmore would like you to believe.
Ritchie delights in giving me a tour of his room at the castle, highlighted by an eerie, distorted mirror that old Chopin himself is supposed to come strolling out of whenever the moon is full.
Blackmore takes great pride in mentioning that when Elton John recorded 'Honky Chateau' here, he refused to sleep in this room out of sheer fright - but Ritchie, brave soul that he is, is sticking it out with all the bravado of one of his most virile lead guitar lines.
For Blackmore, this spooky place provides the perfect atmosphere to re-establish his role as everyone's favourite magical misanthrope. But he and his Rainbow aren't here just to dabble in the occult and generally act mysterious.
Occasionally, when Ritchie and the boys are having seances, driving racing cars, or playing football they actually condescend to go over to the studio across the courtyard to work on their next album - not to be released till late in the year.
Filling the vinyl void in the meantime is a brand new live album - a double album that should establish Rainbow as one of the top heavy metal bands today.
"We had originally just planned to release it as a bonus in Japan," explains Blackmore, as the clock nears midnight. "But when we heard it we figured it was good enough to go over else where."
As in his Deep Purple days, Japan is still the home of Ritchie's strongest fans. Yet to avoid the 'Made in Japan' - Purple stigma, Rainbow used some older live tapes from Germany, along with their last Far East dates to make up the album.
Still, the album does hark back to his Purple days with its inclusion of a side-long version of 'Mistreated', which originally appeared on the 'Burn' album. "The reason we used it is simply because this is the best version of it that's ever been done," Ritchie explains.
The rest of the album though, is all Rainbow material, dominated by songs from the first album. A highlight is the extended version of 'Catch The Rainbow', featuring a "sounds of a dentist drill" blow by Blackmore that rivals anything he ever cut in Purple vinyl for sheer aural barrage.
The only song from 'Rising' included is a snippet of 'Starstruck', turning up in the middle of 'Man On The Silver Mountain'. "That came totally spontaneously," vocalist Ronnie Dio explains in the castle's gameroom downstairs.
"At that point in the song I usually do a long vocal but one night I whispered to Cozy (Powell, the drummer) - 'how about 'Starstruck' - and I didn't need to tell Ritchie because he follows everything great anyway. So when it came to my part I just started singing and the whole band came jumping in."
Another surprise on the album is the opening cut, 'Kill The King'. A previously unreleased speed-of-light rocker in the tradition of 'Highway Star' and 'Fireball'.
"That song was written especially for the stage show," Dio explains. "We felt we didn't have a song that was bang-hard enough to open the show, so we put this song together. It'll be on the new studio album as well. It's about a chess game - just the basic idea to checkmate the king or kill him. But you can read into it whatever you want. Maybe some people will see it as a medieval king being assaulted by the pawns or rooks."
As for the songs re-done from the first album, the live versions give them a chance to be vindicated from the shoddy renditions given by the band who backed up Ritchie on the debut LP, Elf. Yet in the negative column, the album features Rainbow's older bassist Jimmy Bain, since replaced by the more talented Mark Clarke - ex-member of Uriah Heep, Colliseum, and Natural Gas.
An important function of the live album, though, is that it stands a good chance of breaking in America - the only area of the globe over which Rainbow does not yet reign supreme.
"America is strange," Ritchie affirms. "Our personal appearances go down but we get no radio play. They don't like to play songs as fast as ours. But I'm not going to go blue in the face trying to win America.
"I don't care about being in a big band anymore. It's nice, but I've done that already with Deep Purple. If you're successful you become predictable. I like to be the underdog sometimes. I like to shock people by coming up from underneath."
Though Blackmore is happier in this (so far) less successful, less pressured Rainbow unit, in which he calls the shots, he still has his doubts about the togetherness of his band. "It would be very easy for me to sit back and say, 'Oh yeah man, the band is going great' - But it's not. Life is always a struggle, a constant worry."
Ritchie feels equally unsure about the material planned for the next album. "I can't really tell how it's going. I'll know better in two years when I'm drunk. I can only hear things in perspective when I'm really drunk in some bar. When I hear old Purple things in a bar, some are valid and some are just disgusting."
Yet if the songs already recorded for the next album are any indication, Ritchie should have nothing to worry about. One is called 'Long Live Rock'N'Roll' - a very commercial sort of song - while 'Lady Of The Lake' is standard Rainbow molten metal, with a layered synthesizer intro from keyboard man Tony Carey and a synth solo that sounds like a wacked - out slide guitar. The lyrics, as usual done by Ronnie Dio, deal with typical Rainbow subject matter, the Arthurian legends.
Ritchie admits that these medieval tales area major inspiration to his work. "I often like to pretend I'm holding court in some castle," says Ritchie in hushed tones that seems to recall some ancient druidic chant. "I'm more into medieval music, though I have hundreds of recordings of it around."
Supporting his love of the Dark Ages is Ritchie's rather solemn speech patterns, adding a mysterious tone to everything he says. "Everyone thinks I'm mystical but it's not true." Blackmore counters. "It's just if you don't say much and wear black, everyone thinks you're mysterious. I am interested in the occult and magic. My guitar playing is like magic.
I'm very religious as well. I'm a firm believer in God and I feel when I'm playing at my best it's his gift, and I'm very proud of that fact. There's other times when I feel I shouldn't be playing at all - like I should be a baker or something. My playing sometimes is very uninspired and I sound just like any other guitarist.
"Guitar playing to me often sounds very tedious. I like to listen to organ playing a lot. I think E. Power Biggs is great. His music seems to come from the soul. Guitarists seem to play in stereotyped thirds - except for Jeff Beck and Jan Akkerman I can't listen to them. Most guitarists are just Hollywood stars - I have no time for that."
As for his own guitar playing, though, Ritchie feels he has matured greatly since his Deep Purple days - coming to full fruition on this live effort. "I definitely think my playing has improved," he boasts.
"In this band I play with other people rather than in Purple where I'd just have a blow and then hold back while the other four members had their showcase. Although there was a nice sense of competition in that. Here I play in a better atmosphere, with everyone working together."
As much as Ritchie's guitar playing has developed over the last world tour, the six-stringer also developed something less positive on his last round of the world trek. "I've got an incredible variety of venereal diseases," says Blackmore, almost boasting. "It's an occupational hazard I guess. This last trip to the Far East I picked up one I can't seem to get rid off. I'm becoming immune to the cure." He smiles strangely, almost like Vincent Price in The Pit And The Pendulum. "Perhaps I'll go mad."
Jim Farber, Record Mirror - June 11, 1977