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 or 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 the 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, 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.