"Just look at me and listen"
I’ve always had this mental image of Ritchie Blackmore as this mercurially talented guitar player who took himself a bit too seriously and verged on the professionally grumpy. Much of this was based on the episode of Rock Family Trees on Deep Purple, on which many of Blackmore’s former colleagues struggled to say much nice about beyond his obvious abilities on the guitar, and he himself apparently turned down the opportunity to be a part of. Now given when that programme must have been filmed, Blackmore’s 1993 departure from the band in which he had made his name must have still been a recent and relatively raw memory for everyone involved, so on that level I can appreciate his reluctance to contribute to a show which effectively celebrated the legacy of a band he had just left. Add to that the fact that from the late 90s onwards, Blackmore formed a neo-medieaval folk duo with his wife and seemingly turned his back on his status as the source of some of hard rock’s most instantly recognisable riffs, and the whole mopey-misery guts persona seemed to fit snugly.
Something which appeared to be a constant in Blackmore’s music career has been his rather cold and mercenary approach to dealing with bandmates that he perceived were not pulling their weight, with Deep Purple’s regular line up changes through the late 60s to the mid 70s being down to Blackmore not getting on well with bandmates. Then, on the one occasion where he realised that the numbers were not in his favour, he went off in a strop to start a solo career where his creativity could flourish unfettered by those that he did not consider to be up to his exacting standards.
Even in doing this, Blackmore was seemingly utterly ruthless, as he approached Ronnie James Dio of former Deep Purple support act Elf to be the vocalist on his new musical venture. In fact, for the initial non-commital recording sessions Blackmore brought in the rest of Elf. Well almost all. Their guitar player was dropped. Obviously.
Thus was Rainbow formed. The original line up would barely make it out of the studio, as Blackmore would ditch them all except Dio as soon as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow was in the can, so a revised line up toured to promote this debut album. This would set the pattern for the rest of Rainbow’s career, as Blackmore would recruit and sack entire line ups of the band with alarming regularity, with himself and Dio being the only constants until Dio quit / was given his marching orders. An almost completely fresh line up meant that Blackmore could redirect Rainbow’s energies from the sword and sorcery epics preferred by Dio, to something that would equate more readily radio airplay. A sole album with Graham Bonnet on vocals, Down to Earth, resulted in the undisputed rock anthem “Since You Been Gone”, before the carousel of Rainbow members spun again and the more malleable (but considerably less talented) Joe Lynn Turner took up the position of vocalist until Rainbow was dissolved in the mid 80s when Deep Purple reformed.
As a result, Rainbow’s album output has always been patchy to say the least, as no two of their studios albums were recorded by the same line up. Fans of the band point to the Dio fronted 1976’s Rising and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, as their peak, and it has to be said, both are strong albums by one of the earliest bands to self-identify as Heavy Metal.
For some reason I always baulked at picking up the band’s debut. Maybe it was my unease with Blackmore’s apparent lack of skills when it cam to employee relations, maybe it was my assumption that it was basically just Elf with Ritchie Blackmore guesting on guitar (which in many ways, was exactly what it was). Maybe I was just put off by the enthusiastically airbrushed fantasy artwork. Whatever was the case, I have to admit I was wrong to avoid Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow for as long as I did, if for no other reason than this is the first album I’ve heard with any involvement from Blackmore where it sounds like he’s genuinely having fun.
Yep, the man often painted as the grumpiest man in rock, having fun. Who’d have thought it?
For a hard rock album, there’s a genuine feeling of optimism and levity about Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Maybe it was down to Blackmore no longer feeling constrained by the rather twisted democracy of Deep Purple. Maybe it was down to the fact that the rest of the band had been plucked from relative obscurity by one of the era’s most iconic rock musicians for his new project. Maybe it’s the fact that the original plan was to go in to the studio and record just one single, a cover of Quatermass’s “Black Sheep of the Family” and a B-side, “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves”, and things went so well, that they ended up recording a whole album.
Having heard the rest of their Dio-fronted output, I find Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow to be the most easy to listen to album by Rainbow. Granted, they would record albums which were more sophisticated and certainly more influential going forward (Dio in particular pretty much became the blue print for all Heavy Metal frontmen to follow, an donated a huge amount to the iconography of Heavy Metal through the 80s), but none were this vibrant or fun to listen to, and it seems that the lack of expectation on it worked in its favour.
Listening to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, I can’t help but feel that I have misjudged Ritchie Blackmore down the years. Former bandmates often go to great lengths to say how difficult he was to work with, but that he was still one of the most supernaturally talented guitar players of his generation. At the end of the day, it seems Blackmore was just one of those musicians that would continually strive for musical excellence, and he had issues with the fact that bandmates would rarely hold themselves to the same level of work ethic. Sure, he could have been better on the human resources side of being a band leader, but he’s certainly not alone in that .
Yeah, Ritchie Blackmore ain’t a bad bloke, he just needs to be doing something he’s enthusiastic about to keep him interested, and doesn’t that go for most of us?