THE RAINBOW STORY
part 1: Interview Ritchie Blackmore
OVER THE next three issues Kerrang! takes an in depth look at Rainbow, tracing the band's development in words and pictures. Exclusive interviews, an album to album history and a picture biography help fill in the gaps in the complex Rainbow story. This week an EXCLUSIVE Ritchie Blackmore interview by DANTE BONUTTO and Part 1 of The Rainbow History.
With personnel toing and froing at a steady rate of knots, the achievements of Rainbow on a purely musical level are often overlooked. Peering through the mud dispatched with regularity by the ever-swelling ranks of ex-band members, however, it soon becomes clear that change, however drastic, has usually been for the better.
The fact no two studio LPs have been recorded by the same line-up has inevitably made a natural album-to-album progression that much harder. But, despite chops and changes, developed the band has with the new blood transfusions keeping live performances fresh and spontaneous (meaning shows veer wildly between the good and the bad) and the quota of new ideas consistently high.
With the arrival of Roger Glover as producer and bassist in 1979, a watershed in Rainbow's history, the direction became at once more commercial and more clearly charted. The recording of 'Down To Earth' and, more specifically, the Ballard-penned 'Since You Been Gone' put an end to cultish appeal and, in financial terms, made the future of the band considerably more secure. For some, equating speed with power and chart status with sellout, this was sacrilege.
The Rainbow's end with not a crock of gold in sight. Would Ritchie really play 'Since You Been Gone' live? The answer, of course, was yes and not only that but the shift away from the sombre, sultry heaviness of 'Rainbow Rising', rather than being a temporary hiccup, was continued firstly on 'Difficult To Cure' and now on the new 'Straight Between The Eyes', a title recalling the wray an exultant Jeff Beck first described Hendrix to Blackmore.
While 'DTC' could have stood a little more of the man in black and a little less of Airey, his rather dated keyboards being the album's weak link. 'SBTE', recorded digitally (no less) at a studio just outside Montreal with his replacement David Rosenthal, is more balanced - a fine blend of the commercial, the aggressive and the epic, reflecting a rare new harmony within the band.
Rising to the demands of a tight song structure, Blackmore now favours a more concise approach; one that tailors itself to the requirements of each individual song , while Joe Lynn Turner too has improved his performance. Though far from dry-throated on 'DTC', his voice now has an added strength and depth, be he beating his chest on the uptempo strutters ('Power', 'Rock Fever') or sweeping up the pieces of a broken heart ('Stone Cold', 'Tearin' Out My Heart').
What British fans will make of the album remains to be seen, though the fact that Rainbow have no plans to play here before April '83 may sour the judgment of a few. In America, however, a strengthening of their position looks certain.
Already the band can draw crowds of 20,000 in major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago but it's in the smaller towns on the circuit that they daren't venture out of the 3,000 seaters. In this respect, 'SBTE' may help them move up a notch though to label it a dollar-hungry compromise would be wide of the mark.
An acknowledgement of the importance of the American market coupled with, at 36, a natural mello-wing of approach from Blackmore is a more accurate description.
"I used to play a million notes a second when I was 18, 20, and I found that I wasn't going anywhere. There was no fulfilment. Now I find I deliberately slow myself down; so much so that it's difficult to play fast. The other night I was playing at my fastest and found it a strain, but I know that's what kids want to see. The latest craze is who's the fastest."
The muzak-filled bar of New York's Mayflower Hotel is a long way removed from a Santa Fe saloon but, clad naturally in black and sitting by choice with his back to the wall. Ritchie Blackmore has all the quiet presence of the hired gun. While Joe Lynn Turner will happily remove the back legs from a donkey on the subject of your choice, expansive arm movements now and then betraying his Latin roots, Blackmore makes few sudden gestures and in a tone almost conspiratorial establishes himself as a master of the understated phrase.
"I played quite well," is the succinct pronouncement on his own contribution to 'SBTE', the result of 25 years experience, but to stand back and marvel at his modesty would be shortsighted. To provoke and entertain an audience onstage necessarily requires a sizeable ego and high self esteem - clearly traces of the 'Spotlight Kid' are present. But with Blackmore the aforementioned qualities are to some extent balanced both by a fierce self criticism and a longstanding pessimistic streak reflected tongue-in-cheekily in his fleeting appearance as Death, the Grim Reaper, in a promotional video for 'Death Alley Driver', the most energetic number on the new LP.
"Oh, yeah, I'm a real doom merchant," he confirms, "Mr happy, you know, Roger (Glover) always looks for the good in people but I always look for the bad." Even pessimists can enjoy themselves, however, and it's clear that at present Blackmore is content and feeling considerably more fulfilled than in the days of 'Rainbow Rising'.
"I was very angry at that time and I just wanted to get something out of my system. But by the time I got to 'Long Live Rock'n'Roll, it had all gone and I suddenly thought where do I go from here? I guess the older you become the more you get into melodies. I can't stand just knocking out three chords, the AC/DC effect, that doesn't move me at all, which is no reflection on them. I'm classically orientated, a good strong melody with a strong metal feel is my ultimate aim and it's difficult because rock'n'roll is limited usually to three or four chords so they're all you've got to produce different melodies. It can be done but when I was in Britain a couple of weeks ago a lot of the HM I heard was just a racket. There was no thought behind it, it was just a case of turning up the amps. It seems popular though, which is good because if I thought reggae was in I'd probably give up. I can't stand reggae."
Not surprisingly, there are no chopped rhythms on the current LP, which both Blackmore and Glover agree was remarkably easy to record. Having examined a few songs by Russ Ballard and Brian Moran (of 'Magic' fame) and found none of them suitable, the band simply went ahead with their own ideas and had most of the work done in five weeks. A far cry from the recording of 'Down To Earth', an album put together by what many still regard as the definitive Rainbow line-up. Ritchie disagrees.
"I think anyone who says that was the best line-up must have been in the band then and isn't in the band now. Personally, I don't particularly like 'Down To Earth', 'Difficult To Cure' and this one are my favourites. I like 'All Night Long', that particular track, and 'Since You Been Gone' as well, but there are tracks on there that were done under strained conditions to say the least. I liked the environment we were doing it in, a French castle, but the actual personnel were really grating on each other's nerves.
"What I liked about this new album was that I could come up with a couple of chords that I thought were valid and Joe would come out with a whole tune and brilliant words.
He's a great lyricist as well as a great singer. It was so easy compared to what I was used to which was like pulling teeth.
Ronnie (Dio) was good at producing lyrics and coming up with tunes, I could give him a vague melody and he'd know what I wanted, but after he left things went a bit sour.
Roger had to write all the lyrics and I'd have to come up with an exact tune, there was no giving on the part of the singer. Whereas with Joe it's like a breath of fresh air."
The recording of 'Difficult To Cure' track 'No Release' highlighted the different approaches of Bonnet and Turner precisely.
"I'd written the music to it and I said well, it's just a blues. It's up to the singer 'What he does. I could go into what Graham said but I won't. Then Joe came along and went 'oh yeah, I'll sing that' and came up with his own tune. It was great, it just worked straight away. I still don't like the tune particularly, it's all right, but he did a great job with a bit of a throwaway song."
On the next British tour the band will invoke the spirit of their stage-spanning rainbow by returning to an elaborate stage production (giant mechanical eyes that presumably swivel and illuminate would seem to be one idea), a marked contrast to the sparse use of effects on the last UK dates. While Ritchie feels that keeping things simple was the right decision, a reflection of the poor economic climate and the resultant no-frills mentality of the audience, he wasn't overly pleased with the tour as a whole.
"I know he'll forgive me for saying this, but Joe was still into a bit of a cabaret type act. I had to pull him one night and say you don't do that in Britain, you don't jump around the stage and go crazy, because if you do the kids won't believe what you're singing. I tried to quieten him down which I did after the third date."
But if it wasn't one thing it was another. With Joe in check, the technical gremlins began to work their mischief causing all manner of mishap in Leeds...
"If someone who's paid money to see us is stuck behind a pillar or the PA system I get really annoyed, crazy, and when we opened up at that gig all I could see was pillars and the sound system.
I went 'this is f--king awful' 'cos I can't hide how I feel, I can't say 'Ah, well, it's just another show lads', and then the guitar amplifier blew up so I walked offstage in a huff. Suddenly, Bobby's drumskin went and he walked off as well, leaving Don and Roger playing and Joe singing away."
This mass exit and a poor acoustic in Edinburgh aside, however, it wasn't until London, never a happy hunting fround for Rainbow, that disaster finally struck.
The first gig at Hammersmith was OK, excellent in fact, but the second proved a comedy of errors with all jokes squarely on the band.
"I don't know what it is with London, especially Hammersmith, but I try so hard to please that I go up my own arse. I blow it. So I'm beginning to think maybe I shouldn't play there and Wembley was exactly the same. I'm one of those people that instead of dying a death politely thinks, OK, we're not going down well, let's really make ourselves awful, and I'll play very badly. I don't know why to this day but it always seems to come out in London."
Part of the reason is probably that the music press, who've given Rainbow a bit of a hard time of late, are essentially London based. Even onstage Ritchie's aware of their presence.
"I can mentally see them writing their little reviews going 'oh this is f--king awful, it's so boring', and I can't concentrate on what I'm playing. Yet the kid in the front row is saying 'come on, yeah' and I feel obligated to him, but the next second I'm back into the mental picture of the review which I shouldn't be. But then most musicians have taken up an instrument because they're sensitive, I know I did when I was 11. I took up the guitar because I was moody, highly strung and wanted attention, so I suppose that when you come in for bad reviews it hits you. I certainly live with it, it stays there. The problem with Rainbow, though, is having so many ex-members. These ex-members have journalist friends so, without mentioning names, it can't be helped that we have a lot of enemies in the press."
Living in the States since 1975, Ritchie is impressed neither by its HM acts or its instant high-tech culture, but in Long Island, just beyond New York City where he now lives with wife Amy, he's found something of a retreat.
"Almost like Britain 10 years ago," he describes it warmly, clearly nursing a soft spot for his native shores, which begs the question why he moved away in the first place.
"Well, my accountant advised me to come here for tax purposes," he replies frankly, "and then I fell in love with an American gypsy girl who was an opera singer and we lived together for a year on the beach near Malibu. It was rather chaotic because she was just embarking on a career in rock and she thought that I could help her but I couldn't. So that didn't work and we fell apart, a split that took me years and years to get over - it was the romance of my life.
"I was so heartbroken that I thought, well, rather then go back to Britain I'll stay in Hollywood and lose myself because it's easy to be on your own there. If you're suffering from a broken heart and all this business you can just go out and have a party with the friends, it's all very plastic. Anywhere else, I think I'd have done myself in. So I stayed in Hollywood for three years after that and at Christmas time, rather than thinking of this girl I'd broken up with, I'd just lose myself in endless parties, orgies or whatever."
In 1977, however, tired of this superficiality, he decided to move. Long Island naturally was his final stop but first he spent a year in Connecticut, a place that proved entirely unsuitable... on aesthetic grounds.
"You know, I've never seen so many ugly girls in all my life. Most of the people there are accountants and lawyers, so maybe they just don't have good looking kids, I'm not sure. But Bobby noticed it too because he used to play up there."
In Long Island the scenery's presumably more pleasant but, from a creative point of view, not as stimulating as the English environment. Missing the high quality of music, theme, background and otherwise, on the BBC and ITV, Ritchie admits that as a guitarist the US has probably affected him for the worse.
"If you watch 'Hawaii Five-O' and 'Charlie's Angels' it's the same band playing all the time. They don't know who or what they're writing for, it just gets slotted in. But in Britain you've got 'The Avengers' and even something like 'Benny Hill'. I used to get a lot of ideas from those programmes but I'-m not exposed to them any more which I miss a lot. Channel 13 does have a lot of British programmes so I try to tune into that but it's a little bit too highbrow sometimes. It goes from one extreme to the other. You either see Archie Bunker or 'Othello'."
Probably the first thing you notice about American TV is the volume. From the lurex lapels of the quiz show presenters to the obligatory Sunday soap-boxing - it's LOUD!
"I think that's one of the reasons why there's so much violence here. Half an hour of being shouted at by Archie Bunker is enough to make anyone walk away from the TV crazy.
Though, having said that, America does have a lot of good things going for it. At least it's not in such a depressing state as Britain. When I was over there recently the hostility I felt at the (London) Marquee was incredible. I felt I wasn't dressed the same as the others and that I was going to be involved in some sort of fight."
"I watched this guy playing pinball and he was kicking the machine and shaking it. I thought he was about to do same karate chops on it and break it up altogether. It's very uncomfortable being around that kind of situation because everybody's destitute. I have my family there and I feel very sorry for them. I do as much as I can but it's in a bad way."
Too right, and it's clear that no political party has a ready solution. Desperation is now ingrained, a way of life.
"Well, I think they should have left Ted Heath in charge. When he brought in that three-day week the country should have gone along with it. I was always a Conservative and I think Margaret Thatcher is doing OK but it'11 take a long time to get things going, maybe another couple of years."
In a perverse way the current recession can be seen as a shot in the arm for rock'n'roll in that more and more kids are taking to bands as the only viable outlet for their time and energy. What this trend is unlikely to provide, however, are musicians of the calibre of David Rosenthal. One of a rare breed, and still only 21, he's a musician with a thorough grounding in the classics who still retains the ability to emote rock'n'roll."
"I had a lot of people come to the auditions," recalls Ritchie, "and while most of them had the rock'n'roll thing off they couldn't play any classical orientated piece on their own. However, I was given this tape by a friend, it was a piece by Liszt performed at a recital at the Boston University of Music. I said this guy is far too good for us, he'll probably be a musical snob, but after I'd auditioned everybody I could find I invited him down and he played in such a brilliant way that I asked him to join. He didn't care that he wasn't taking a solo or doing an intro, he was so sick of playing Liszt and Bach that he was just happy to be part of a rock'n'roll song."
Although he doesn't play, keyboards are in fact Ritchie's favourite instrument. At home his record collection is dominated by the likes of Tomita and Wendy Carlos as well as the classical works of Bach and Handel.
"I never listen to guitarists though the guy that just died, Randy Rhoads, he was good and there's quite a few others. Randy Hansen, Pat Thrall and the Van Halen guy is good on his harmonics though, funnily enough, if you want to hear harmonics listen to Harvey Mandell. I'm impressed by all of them but I can't wait to take the needle off and put on something that will please and fulfill me. I find guitarists don't do that."
0n the question of why Airey split with the band, however, Ritchie isn't quite so forthcoming, hinting for an instant with a half smile and a 'you know why' before delivering the standard musical differences' response. Indeed, while former colleagues continue to have their say, he remains very much the calm at the centre of the storm, refusing to rise to some very tempting bait.
"It would be very easy for me to slag off everybody that's been in the band but it's a form of discipline not to. I do slag them off to on1y best friends but I try not to to the press. Besides, there's never anything personal involved when I change personnel. If I had someone in the band who was a brilliant player I'd go 'anything you want, name it', of course I'd be Mr nice guy. But as soon as someone doesn't deliver the goods I go 'look you're not doing it right, what are you going to do?' and if they become snotty I go 'hey, on your bike, that's it', and it's always better for that person's career to say that he's left."
How durable the present line-up will prove remains to be seen, but if further change does occur it shouldn't stop the band completing an extensive touring schedule that kicks off with Canadian/American dates in May. From there they travel to Germany for a one-off TV show, then it's back to the States before visits to Japan, Europe and possibly South America in December or January.
British fans, however, will just have to console themselves with the album, making sure they're not fooled by the track 'Miss Mistreated' that, despite the title, has no connection with the o1d Purple classic.
"Well it's to avoid confusion that the 'Miss' is written three times bigger than the 'mistreated' but I expect we'll have someone who shall remain nameless coming up to us saying 'I wrote that song'!"
Dante Bonutto, Kerrang! no 14, 22 April 1982