Desert island albums #2: Rainbow — Rising (1976)

[This is the second in my series of Desert Island Albums — eight albums that I would choose to take with me if I were to be stranded on a desert island.]


Aside from experiments in individual tracks — the Beatles’ Helter Skelter, the Kinks’ You Really Got Me — The genesis of the musical genre known as heavy metal is generally agreed to rest with three British bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

With the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, bracketing these bands together seems rather strange. Led Zeppelin started out as essentially a blues band with the volume and theatricality turned to eleven, and were later influenced by folk music — tracks such as Going To California and their rendition of the traditional Gallows Pole can hardly be classified as any kind of metal. Deep Purple were much flightier, playing with classical and jazz influences as well as rock, blues, country and later in their career soul music. Only Black Sabbath’s early albums now sound like what we’d call heavy metal: the insistent thud of the drums, the rock-solid bass, the wailing vocals and most of all the remorselessly grinding, repetitious guitar all laid down a pattern that would be followed for decades, albeit mostly by bands playing faster, and higher up the register. (Iron Maiden sound very much like a Black Sabbath LP played at 45 rpm.)

Forty years on, Led Zeppelin’s critical star has risen the highest of the three. Black Sabbath are perhaps not so much admired or even liked as respected — if only for the sheer consistency of their output, which unerringly trod and retrod the same sonic territory throughout the first run of albums, before Ozzy Osbourne left them for the first time. (That split, like Peter Gabriel’s from Genesis, was a happy one musically: the two albums that Sabbath went on to record with Ronnie James Dio in Ozzy’s place were both rather better than what they’d produced before; and Ozzy’s first solo album, Blizzard of Ozz, is a stone-cold metal classic. In the incestuous world of metal, ex-Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan was to replace Dio to become Sabbath’s third singer, with results that none of the participants recollect with fondness.)

All of this leaves Deep Purple in a bit of a critical trough, which seems completely wrong to me. My own take is that they were the most innovative and experimental of the three bands. It’s greatly to their credit that in the space of five years (1969-1974), four of the albums they produced (using three different singers) were superb and all completely different from each other. The last of three albums by the original “Mark 1” line-up with Rod Evans on vocals was the self-titled Deep Purple (1969), a quirky, adventurous album that merged balladry, psychedelia and hard rock, and interpolated orchestral passages more successfully than their subsequent Concerto for Group and Orchestra would do. Then “Mark 2”, with Ian Gillan singing, gave us In Rock (1970), a massive, shambling rock and roll edifice that successfully juxtaposed the rootsy proto-metal of Speed King with the smooth, silver screaming of Child in Time. The same line-up would go on to produce Machine Head (1972), an album best known for the killer riff of Smoke on the Water, but which also offered the sophisticated blues of Lazy, the wild romp of Pictures of Home and the blues-boogie of Never Before. Finally, “Mark 3” with David Coverdale providing the lead vocals debuted with Burn (1974), a frankly sensational album that opens with the bat-out-of-hell title track based on a George Gershwin piano riff, pounds through funk and soul-tinged numbers, and finally lands up on the overdriven blues classic Mistreated. (I am pretending for the sake of this synopsis that Burn‘s negligible instrumental closing track doesn’t exist.)

While Deep Purple singers (and bassists) came and went, the core of the band remained immutable through the first (and best) eleven albums: the guitar/keyboard/drums triumvirate of Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Paice defined the sound and spirit of Deep Purple. When Blackmore left after the Stormbringer album (1974), the band stumbled on for one more album with a replacement guitarist, Tommy Bolin; but it wasn’t the same, and they fell apart shortly thereafter. (We will pass over the variously more and less successful Deep Purple reunions from the 80s onwards.)

Blackmore had always been an untrammelled ego in the band. If the Blackmore/Lord/Paice trio had seemed like a unit, then, well, maybe they were musically, but that didn’t make them a democracy. It had been Blackmore who had pushed Gillan out of the band after the disappointing Who Do We Think We Are? album (1973), and it was Blackmore who called time on the band when he’d had enough. He must have been a nightmare to work with — even now, forty years on, Ian Gillan doesn’t have a good word to say about him. But as a guitarist, we was in the very first rank. His playing was always distinctive, easy to identify by its unique fluidity and an underpinning of classical technique not displayed flamboyantly but kept in reserve, informing and structuring his work in the blues and rock idioms. When I recently assembled a list of my all-time top ten favourite guitar solos, Blackmore was the only guitarist represented twice: once for the crazy, drunken, almost-in-control but harmonically literate solo in Deep Purple Mark 1’s cover of Neil Diamond’s Kentucky Woman; and once for the roller-coaster pyrotechnics of Rainbow’s Spotlight Kid.

Rainbow was Blackmore’s new project after he’d walked out on Deep Purple. Initially billed as “Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow”, which tells you all you need to know about the man’s ego, the band was initially composed of the members of Elf, a hard-rock outfit that had supported Deep Purple on tour. (We can only assume that their guitarist was unceremoniously ejected.) That band cut an initial album entitled (get ready for a big surprise) Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. With the album in the can, Blackmore immediately fired every band member but one, and recruited a new bassist, drummer and keyboard player for the second Rainbow album. This pattern would repeat throughout the seven-album trajectory of classic-era Rainbow, with no two albums recorded by the same band. We have to assume that Blackmore always heard in his head how he wanted the music to sound, and could never get it the way he wanted it. Sadly, his fire-and-hire approach never got him what we wanted either, and the general trend of quality through those seven albums is definitely downwards. In the mid 1980s, Blackmore essentially retired from hard rock (with a single Rainbow reunion album in 1995 as the sole exception), and now plays appallingly trite faux-medieval music with his wife Candice Night, under the name Blackmore’s Night. It’s not pretty.

Still, though, Rainbow at their peak were something wonderful. And that peak came with their second album, Rising (1976). The one band member to have survived from the first album was vocalist Ronnie James Dio (he of the Black Sabbath stint mentioned above), and it’s easy to see why he avoided the cull: he sings with such frank, straightforward power that no-one else could really have carried the album. (Dio would go on to record one more album with Rainbow, Long Live Rock and Roll (1978), before he too was sacked and replaced.)

Rising is a strange album. It only has six tracks, and while two of them are fairly long (8:30 and 8:16), the whole thing weighs in at only 33:53 — less than 44% the length of one of my other Desert Island albums (which I won’t reveal now). Blackmore himself sometimes seems confused about this, having described the album in two separate interviews with Martin Popoff as “I think there are only nine tracks on it” and “there are only seven tracks on it”. Yet this is a definite case of short and sweet. Like a classic three-minute pop song, Rising gets in, says what it has to say, and gets out.

What makes it work so well can be summed up in a single word: atmosphere. From the very first moments — Tony Carey’s gloomy, magical, rhythmic keyboard introduction to Tarot Woman — the album’s overpowering sense of the sinister is to the fore. Underneath the keyboards, Blackmore’s guitar sneaks in with the simplest of one-note riffs. By the time Dio’s opening vocal comes crashing in, the painting is complete — we’re in a distant time and place where life is hard and primitive and arbitrary. That opening line — “I don’t wanna go / Something tells me me / No no no” — is certainly not poetry; yet Dio’s commitment is so total that he absolutely sells it. The song creates its own momentum, and launches us into the album.

I may as well come right out and admit that the theme is swords and sorcery — the most clichéd of hard-rock clichés. At least, that’s how we see it now. At the time it was fresh and new (no doubt riding in partly on the wild success of Gary Gygax’s table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons). But the reason this theme is now a metal cliché is precisely because Rainbow did it so well that it became compelling. Like Jimi Hendrix, Like Joss Whedon — heck, like William Shakespeare — Rainbow fashioned their own genre from whole cloth. Lots of other bands have been running to keep up ever since.

The theme continues with the second song, Run with the Wolf. Again, the words are simple, even hackneyed:

In the light of the day you can hear the old one say:
“Was the sound last night the wind? Can you feel the change begin?”
By the fall of the snow a single soul will go;
With footsteps on the white, there’s an unholy light.

But Dio howls them with such conviction that they convince — they genuinely intimidate. When he sings that “There’s a hole in the sky / something evil passing by”, we believe him.

The next two songs — Starstruck and Do You Close Your Eyes? — are filler, which ought to be unacceptable on an album where they constitute 33% of the programme. Yet somehow, even though the themes are far from the Dark World we’ve been presented with so far, they feed the same brooding atmosphere. They bring Side 1 to a suitable finish before the assault of Side 2.

The heart of the album is track 5, Stargazer — a guitar-driven, Eastern-tinged epic that tells the story of a sorcerer who has slaves build him a gigantic tower. He promises to demonstrate his power by flying from the top when it is complete. The song is from the perspective of one of the slaves, who seems not just resigned to his fate but actively accepting or even welcoming — longing above all to see his master fly. Blackmore himself shines on Stargazer, bending and twisting his guitar into exotic, organic melodies that seem to drift and drive at the same time, perhaps expressing both the faith and desperation of the slaves. Yet at the climactic moment

All eyes see the figure of the wizard
As he climbs to the top of the wall
No sound as he falls instead of rising
Time standing still; then there’s blood on the sand

And in the subsequent chorus, the lines “Where is your star? When do we leave?” become “Where was your star? When did we leave?” With the wizard dead, the music continues to shamble on with the same intensity and sheer mass as when he was alive: because what else are the slaves going to do?

By the way, the strings in the background of the coda are by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. When Blackmore wanted orchestral strings, he didn’t mess about, he hired a whole orchestra. You can argue (and I won’t disagree) that the very simple string parts, buried under drums and keyboards in a complex mix, hardly merit such quality. But that’s not the point. Blackmore has conviction. That’s what makes it all work.

Finally, we come to A Light in the Black, a direct sequel to Stargazer. This one is driven by Cozy Powells’ monstrous, uncompromising drumming and Blackmore’s relentless guitar — and it would be remiss to overlook Jimmy Bain’s work on the bass, which while never flashy provides exactly the right foundation for the solo instruments. Tony Carey shines again here with a powerful keyboard solo over an extended single-chord jam. And through it all, Dio howls “I’m coming home”. With the wizard dead and his slavery over, he’s free to go — but where? Back to the menaced village of Run with the Wolf, we assume. It’s hardly a cheering thought, and it lends a circularity to the album, emphasising again that doom-laden atmosphere.

I’m going to be saying this about a lot of my Desert Island Albums (as for example I said it about Joni Mitchell’s Hejira) but Rising is much more than the sum of its parts. It convinces not by musical dexterity (much of it is technically underwhelming and eminently reproducible by a competent covers band) but by sheer persuasion. If you let it, it shows you and draws you into a different world.

Blackmore would not touch these heights again. The follow-up, Long Live Rock and Roll, despite some fine moments, feels like an inferior re-tread. Down to Earth (1979), with Graham Bonnet on vocals, had the two excellent pop-rock singles All Night Long and Since You’ve Been Gone, but lacked coherence and consistency. And the three remaining albums, with Joe Lynn Turner at the mike, felt increasingly like they were straining for commercial success at the expense of abandoning the core audience that had brought the band to that point. They all have good songs on them, but by the time of Bent Out of Shape (1983) it was hard to believe we were listening to the same band that recorded Rising. And of course we weren’t — by that point, not only had Blackmore replaced everyone who played on Rising, but he’d also replaced all their replacements.

My reading is that Rising represented a perfect synergy between Blackmore and Dio — one that they didn’t fully recapture on the immediate followup, and that Blackmore was too impatient to make a third attempt at. Once Dio left Rainbow, it was never the same.

[See also: Rainbow, Stargazer (May 1976) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 14]

24 responses to “Desert island albums #2: Rainbow — Rising (1976)

  1. I’m going to have to disagree on Blackmore’s Night. Their albuns can get a bit samey but at their best they’re great. And I can’t seem to get tired of listening to Blackmore on acoustic guitar. I mean how can you *not* like this

    As for Rainbow, Ronnie James Dio has a kind of vocal style that was sort of the typical in a lot of metal from the late 70s through the 80s, that I just never liked very much. My tastes in heavy music tend to fall either earlier (aforementioned Purple and Sabbath) or much later – from the late 80s onward.

  2. Richard G .Whitbread

    An excellent review of an excellent album. Funnily enough – or perhaps not, because I strongly suspected that ‘Rising’ would appear on your Desert Island Discs shortlist (Michael and I go back a looong way, folks…) – I’ve been revisiting this one quite a lot of late, trying to pinpoint what exactly it is which makes it such an inspired creation.

    And it’s not as easy as it looks on paper. Sure, it has ‘Tarot Woman’, ‘Stargazer’ and ‘A Light In The Black’. But it also has ‘Starstruck’ and ‘Do You Close Your Eyes’ (even, possibly, ‘Run With The Wolf’). And therein, I think, lies the conundrum. The first three tracks listed could ONLY have ever appeared on ‘Rising’. They are tailor-made for it. Yet the other two / three could quite easily have appeared on, say, ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Had they been written a year or two earlier – and maybe they were? – both ‘Kill The King’ (which was certainly on the double live set ‘On Stage’, released the following year in 1977) and ‘Gates Of Babylon’ are slam-dunkers for inclusion in their place.

    There’s also the personnel issue, of course. As you’ve already noted, the notoriously mercurial Blackmore had, with the exception of Ronnie James Dio, fired the remainder of the line-up that recorded ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ by the time ‘Rising’ came along. Certainly, two of the three new faces (Bain and Carey) are seemingly random choices: in Bain’s case, you almost get the feeling that Blackmore was marking time until Roger Glover became available again. Yet somehow it’s the relative anonymity of the band members that is also one of the album’s greatest strengths. Again, to paraphrase your remarks, while the ever-restless Blackmore clearly had his own vision for the band, it’s almost as if that with every progressively newer, more ‘famous’ face who appeared a bit of the Rainbow magic disappeared with the departing member. Either way, there’s a wonderfully balanced counterpoint between all five musicians on ‘Rising’ that sets it apart from other albums within the genre.

    Those musings aside, if I had to limit the ultimate greatness of ‘Rising’ to one word, I would again concur with your observation that it’s the total and utter conviction demonstrated by everyone concerned. And yes, you’re right: a large part of the reason it convinces is the never-to-be repeated synergy between Blackmore and Dio. But it’s always on Blackmore’s terms. From the first note to the last, this album is his baby. He’s in total control throughout, and he revels in every moment. One might almost say that this is his ‘Ode to Joy’, his ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (if I can casually toss both Beethoven and Mahler into the mix): it’s as if he has nothing to lose, and he’s making the most of the opportunity to throw in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. It doesn’t always work all of the time. As I intimated before, quite honestly there are two, possibly three, ‘fillers’. (Sorry, but I’ve never been completely, utterly, totally sold on ‘Run With The Wolf’). But when everything does come together – when Blackmore’s guitar ‘sneaks in’, as you say, with that rhythmic pulse-cum-riff before Powell’s drums almost fall over themselves and we are launched into ‘Tarot Woman’ (still my favourite track!), when those yearning strings drive ‘Stargazer’ towards its thrilling climax and Dio’s soaring vocals transport us to another dimension altogether, when Carey’s keyboards surge over the orgy of sound around a third of the way through ‘A Light In The Black’ – it’s truly sublime. At moments like those, the world of hard rock has never heard – and never will again, I suspect – anything better.

  3. Not much time to pipe up but .. as a conneseur of the genre, I have to check this out :) Thanks for the tip, and a bit of history I am not super on top of.

    (on that note, go watch the Sam Dunn documentaries, like Metal Evolution, or Metal: A headbangers journey, to the Iron Maiden one. Classy stuff.

  4. Well, Pedro, I find Blackmore’s Night just irritatingly anodyne and pedestrian. I am sure Candice Night is a very lovely person, but as a musician she reminds me of nothing more than Jeanine on stage with a tambourine in This is Spın̈al Tap. Yes, Blackmore is a fine acoustic guitarist, but he sounds just like a thousand other acoustic guitarists. In his electric heyday he was unique, and I mourn the loss of that unique sound.

    Richard, your long comment deserves a separate response — stay tuned!

    Jeff, I hope you’ll enjoy Rising as much as I do!

  5. Thanks for all those thoughts, Richard. Sorry that Lights Out missed the cut, I hope this one makes up for it! I’ll have one more album from the same approximate genre coming up, but it’s from a band that, as far as I remember, you weren’t particularly keen on.

    It’s true that Tarot Woman, Stargazer and A Light in the Black are pure Rising. I’d add Run with the Wolf to that: for me, it’s crucial atmospheric scene-setting. Agreed that Kill the King and Gates of Babylon would also fit; and again I’d add a track, this time Lady of the Lake. It’s tempting, then, to assemble a sort of “Ultimate Rising” from these tracks, dropping the two that we both consider filler. And yet, and yet … I don’t think so. Something subtle is at work here that makes the album more than the songs that it comprises. It’s like the inexplicable alchemy that makes the egg-and-bacon combo so much more delicious than either egg or bacon. There’s a perfect quality about the album as it stands, and I’d fear to damage it.

    The extraordinary thing about this is how little the band themselves seem to have planned, or even understood, this. As noted above, Blackmore doesn’t even know how many tracks are on it. Ronnie Dio didn’t consider it the best of this three Rainbow albums, bizarrely preferring the debut. Tony Carey is all but contemptuous of it. Statements made about individual tracks in interviews don’t suggest there was ever any plan, certainly no deliberate attempt to make concept album. Yet somehow it all fell into place. It reminds me of how much luck played a part in the brilliance of Star Wars.

    Perhaps there’s something in what you say about Jimmy Bain, but it seems a bit harsh for me. Given Cozy Powell’s existing (and subsequent) reputation and Carey’s stellar synth-lead work on Rising, you seem almost to be singling out Bain as the most anonymous band member. Well … at the risk of provoking wrath, perhaps it’s natural that that wooden spoon should fall to the bassist. Still, however you slice it, there’s a synergy about that line-up that seems like a distant dream by the time of Bent Out of Shape.

  6. This got me craving for some Perfect Strangers. Great album!

  7. Good point, Andrei. I just put Perfect Strangers on now. One of my best musical memories is seeing the reformed Deep Purple playing at Knebworth on the back of this album, as the headliners in a stellar line-up that included the Scorpions, UFO, Meat Loaf and Blackfoot.

  8. I would add one more (also British!) band to the list of bands that formed the sound of heavy metal: Judas Priest.

    Interesting how the genre was almost complete defined by these bands!

  9. My impression was that, although Judas Priest’ first album came out in 1974, they didn’t really start to be influential till 1980’s British Steel. But I admit it’s a band that I don’t know much about.

    Strange but true fact: the bassist in the band that I’m playing the Mitcheldean Folk Festival with is also in a metal band (Voodoo Sioux) whose drummer (Nigel Halford) is Rob Halford’s brother.

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  11. Do you think that the sit between Peter Gabriel and Genesis was (musically) a happy one for Peter Gabriel, or for Genesis?

    I’m not sure about Gabriel, because I like his work with Genesis better.
    It’s difficult to compare and probably just a personal preference, but I loved the dreamy, fairy-tale-like or even weird songs such as The Return of the Giant Hogweed and The Fountain of Salmacis. Whatever cane afterwards was different. Less evocative, maybe? Or more involved with the here-and-now?

    As for Genesis itself, well: it certainly has become more successful after Gabriel left. But of that’s all you expect from a band, you could just as well stick with the Justin Biebers and Ladygagaas.
    Of course, Genesis-under-Collins was still a musically very talented band. And Collins has proven himself since a couple of times over. But, I don’t know. It was as if, with Gabriel, the magic evaporated. What once was a very unique symphonic rock band, turned into an (admittedly accomplished) pop song factory.

    So, while everyone involved may feel it was the best decision in their career, I think it ended something quite unique.

  12. Well, I think that the split was initially beneficial. In 1974-75 we only got The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, whereas in 1976-77 we got both A Trick of the Tail and the first Gabriel solo album. So I see that as two great albums where we might otherwise have expected only one. Of course by the time you get to 1986, the two albums emerging from that split are Invisible Touch, which I consider nearly worthless, and So, which I like a lot but in a very different way from how I like early Genesis. So arguably had they stayed together, they would have made something in 1986 that was better than the sum of the two albums they did make. But we’re talking now about projecting ten years into a speculative future, and it’s impossible to say, really, what that might have looked like.

    Overall, when I look at what Genesis made without Gabriel from 1975 to, say, 1981 — and when I add in all the Gabriel solo work — I think that we probably got more good stuff in total than we would have got from a continuing classic-line-up Genesis. But, really, who knows?

  13. It may have missed the point, but this did convince me to run out and download Blizzard of Ozz. Interersting series of posts on heavy metal.

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  15. Great post and review of a really great album Rising is Rainbows finest hour and represents a peak in Heavy Metal. Rainbow the band went off the boil after the release of Long Live Rock and Roll, and to be honest, Blackmore’s Night is too much spinal tap for my taste.

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  20. i like stranger in us all and the ist album more than rising, rising is a bit simple musically i think a bit like motorhead80;sand i think iron maiden sound like rainbow .Ritchie didn’t have any thing to do with nameing the 1st album and gillan left on his own throu drinking and overwork do your homework gillan got sacked in the 80’s by the band

  21. I’m a bit flummoxed by the idea that Stargazer sounds even remotely like anything Motorhead would do. Iron Maiden is closer, I guess, but by design they eliminated the blues element that’s so important to Blackmore’s playing.

    Who named the first album if not Richie?

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