Yes, you read that right: a new series of pieces will unfold in front of your very eyes and yes, you’ve already guessed it, it’s about songs that for multitudinous reasons fail as decent examples of the form and yet hide within them some glimpse - no matter how tiny - of six-stringed greatness. The idea came to me while listening to Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive! late one night (I KNOW) - now there’s a man whose entire career consisted of lame AOR lifted (barely) by a genuine talent for axe wrangling. But we’ll get to the blonde bombshell at some later date. Maybe never… Who cares?
For now, after much prevarication, I’ve decided to kick off this occasional series with a piece on one of the world’s most enigmatic (in the true sense of the word) guitarists - yes, the Black Knight himself (hoho): Ritchie Blackmore.
If I’m completely honest, this opening piece for what I hope will be a long and fruitful series of rants, complaints and miserably ill-informed put-downs, reveals one fact: that I’ve been fascinated by Blackmore for years. A few days of immersion in the man’s work reveals a character for whom the word ‘contradictory’ seems to have been invented. Every single quote about him, every single utterance from his own mouth seems to serve merely to either make you despise him or wonder if his entire career has been one of the practical jokes for which he’s renowned. For starters, check out this video interview with Ronnie James Dio - the original singer with Rainbow whose diminutive sword and sorcery schtick made that band such a template for a generation of reality-escaping rockers. It’s quite something: from the allegations of spitting at fans to the fact that he’s a ‘cruel, cruel’ man (and what exactly DID he do to keyboardist Tony Carey? One dreads to think).
For those not versed in these things, and I’m assuming most of you have stopped reading by now: another FABULOUS example of how perverse Blackmore can be is the fact that he fired Dio because he was sick of his penchant for the fantasy medievalism that peppered Rainbow’s early classics such as ‘Sixteenth Century Greensleeves’ with lyrical guff about ‘crossbows in the firelight’. This from a man who nowadays tours German castles dressed in faux-minstrel garb with the Unicorn-scaring Blackmore’s Night! One might even think that Ronnie invented his famous ‘devil horns’ hand sign as a mark of respect for Blackmore.
To be clear, I have no love for most of the music with which Blackmore’s been associated (more of which, later) but cannot in all honesty deny both his influence and sheer skill.
As a teenager in the mid-‘70s I was beset on all sides by friends who espoused the genius of the man in black and his prowess on a Stratocaster. And just as with The Eagles and Black Sabbath (both of whom I now ‘get’ at least, if not love, exactly) Purple were, for years, a total mystery. Compared to the pseudo-Tolkienesque bullshit blues rock of Led Zeppelin; the technical wizardry and seeming erudition of progressive acts such as Yes, Genesis or even ELP; the sexual sophistication of David Bowie etc. etc. DP seemed workaday, emptily posturing and with no seeming regard for the awfulness of their album covers (a big point against any band when I was 14 or 15). Certainly, the artwork for In Rock and Fireball still make me snigger uncontrollably.
Listening today I don’t really find much to change that viewpoint. Ian Gillan’s vocals/screeches still grate (as much as they seemingly did with Ritchie himself) and his lyrics beggar belief in their half-assery: stuffed with cliche and crass innuendo. Just try deconstructing the ‘poetry’ of their sensitive epic, ‘Child In Time’. Go on, try. Meanwhile, even when viewed with a post-Spinal Tap eye for irony, something as hateful as ‘Strange Kind of Woman’ (about a hooker that was known to the band and imaginatively originally entitled ‘Prostitute’) seems unacceptable. Actually, this is odd as Gillan in subsequent interviews seems charming, self-effacing and quite an intelligent guy. His words in this interview about how the rest of Purple breathed a collective sigh of relief when they finally were rid of the tyrant guitarist seem to be genuinely heartfelt:
Elsewhere Jon Lord’s heavy-handed Hammond, obviously based on the gruesome template of proto-heavy acts such as (urgh) Vanilla Fudge lend the band a solidity which, when welded to the exciting drive of rhythm section, Ian Paice and Roger Glover, is invigorating; but when exposed in his solos seems clodhopping in the extreme.
And yet, watching a recent documentary on BBC Four about the ‘legendary’ Made in Japan double live album (a tedious fixture on every turntable at every grim teenage party for a huge part of my adolescence) I was struck at how effective their brand of what is now termed ‘jam rock’ was in the live arena. Footage of them tearing through ‘Highway Star’ - another contender for most inept lyrics of the century, right there - was exhilarating. Paice’s drums are astoundingly deft and Ritchie’s solo during the last third displays all of his plus points and several minus ones as well. Returning to the band’s early ‘70s work I was amazed at how much of that nonsense had remained in my head. And how, well, enjoyable, his playing seemed.
One thing IS clear: that Ritchie always knew that he was - to every band he was ever in - their meal ticket and that he didn’t really care who he hurt while exploiting his position of power. Ian Gillan’s remarks about how psychologically damaging it was for Jon Lord et al to endure Blackmore’s petty tirades and petulant walk-outs during their ill-fated reunion of 1993 is well backed up by this video of their performance of ‘Highway Star’ during their last gig as the mark II line-up. Watch as Ritchie doesn’t even bother to come on stage until his solo, leaving the remaining four to brazen it out for the first five minutes. And then when he does appear he showboats like an egomaniac before throwing a glass of water over a cameraman. Classy…
This performance echoes his famous tantrum at the 1974 California Jam festival where he does a camp jig on his guitar and smashes a TV camera with the self- same Fender. Me and my good friend Peter Marsh always enjoyed watching this ‘performance’ late at night after refreshments. Allegedly he was annoyed at the TV producer, not the cameraman as he explains in (possibly) the frankest interview he ever did with Cameron Crowe. The whole thing’s worth reading because you get a tiny glimpse into Ritchie’s rather odd and (again) contradictory world view (‘fuck it, I’m having a great time as a moody bastard’ he says, after flinging a steak across a restaurant). He doesn’t like Jimmy Page’s showmanship, and yet he knows he can blow others off stage due to the showmanship he learned from Screaming Lord Sutch for whom he worked in the mid-‘60s (‘I could be very sexy onstage’).
It was this early career as Page’s rival in London session circles (also working for Joe Meek) that taught young Blackmore his chops and by 1968 he was ready to conquer the world. Research into sundry interviews and articles reveals that his ego was already fully-formed by this point as well. He rated Hendrix’s stagecraft but didn’t really rate him as a guitarist. His distaste is also dished out to Pete Townshend (‘overrated’) as well as the aforementioned Page. However he respects and loves Jeff Beck, if only for his four-fingered fretting technique. Indeed, the man’s own technique by the late ‘60s was in that bracket marked ‘scary’. With the pre-Gillan and Glover (and Stratocaster!) line up of Purple mark 1 you realise that, if he’d have given two hoots for it, he could have very possibly been a great jazz guitarist.
But no, for Ritchie it was the RIFF that beckoned, and here we come to the crux of the matter. His riffs are STUNNING. His solos are tasty too, but between 1970 and 1978 he effortlessly helped lay the ground rules for hard/heavy rock while inadvertently (and unfortunately) also paving the way for what we now know as ‘shredding.’ That solo on ‘Highway Star’ basically contains the seed for every tedious guitar solo that Yngwie Malmsteen and his hideous ilk have churned out ever since. Yeah, thanks for THAT, Ritchie…
Never mind, all that, the fact remains that Blackmore’s use of a Strat and a Marshall amp, eschewing the central pick-up for a more honest throaty roar, mixed with fluid arpeggios, still can set fire to your ears, after all these years. Claiming to love classical music more than most of his contemporary acts led to some hilariously misguided attempts to ‘class up’ his flash, but one listen to the unbelievably catchy riffage of ‘Never Before’ on Machine Head or ‘No, No, No’ or ‘’Demon’s Eye’ on Fireball are enough for me to cement his reputation as a guitarist, if not his standing as a decent chap. Here he is providing the only thrills in the overlong ‘No, No, No’ live on German TV. Also note the fact that he appears to be having fun. This was not to last…
What’s more surprising, for a man who has a reputation for being a ruthless taskmaster and all-round venal bastard, is that he’s always been honest about his appropriation of other people’s work as his own. For instance ‘Black Night’’s riff is lifted wholesale from Ricky Nelson’s ‘Summertime’ while the dazzling work on ‘Lazy' from Machine Head is basically a supercharged version of Eric Clapton’s interpretation of Buddy Guy’s ‘Steppin’ Out’. The difference between him and the ‘credible’ work of Jimmy page, is that he was entirely open about his pilfering, to the point where he even ripped off JP’s own ‘Kashmir’ on Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer’. How’s that for cheek? It kinda makes me respect him a little bit more…
Back when the album that ‘Stargazer’ came from - Rainbow Rising (now THERE’S a proper album cover, at last!) - I was in thrall to punk and was in danger of missing out on my West Midland heritage of rock in its loudest incarnation.
Yet my childhood pals in Coventry, siblings Brian and Cathy Gould were patient enough to put up with my youthful snobbery and still let me come along to their beloved hard rock gigs, two of which were, indeed the aforementioned Sabs (supported by Van Halen, believe it or not) and Blackmore with Rainbow. (This raises another divergent point: can you remember when music was important enough to help you actually choose your friends? I spit on modern tolerance and pan-acceptance. I long for the days when an opinion was both acceptable and expected.)
To be honest, that show at Stafford Bingley Hall will live on in my memory forever. Never had I seen something so preposterous (Cozy Powell’s drum solo on a hydraulic ramp that lifted him over the crowd, coupled with Ritchie’s entirely obvious change of a beautiful vintage sunburst guitar for another cheaper WHITE model before he smashed it into oblivion) and yet so, well… life-enhancing. As far as I could tell as a callow 17-year-old; no one in that hall took any of it seriously, and it felt liberating. This is possibly why metal remains the most enduring of all genres: it allows for pomp, stupidity, visceral thrills and musical mastery of the chosen instrument while never forgetting to laugh at itself. Long live rock ’n’ roll, indeed.
But you’ll notice that I’ve yet to choose the one song from hundreds of albums-worth of grim song craft that lives up to this article’s title. Which to choose? Accepting that his work with early Rainbow verged on the tasteful, if only because Ronnie James Dio really could sing well, and his lyrics, while hilarious at least make sense, it has to be one from Blackmore’s previous band: Deep Purple. And the one I choose is, surprisingly, a number that, live, usually showcased Ian Paice’s drum solo: ‘The Mule’.
The studio version of this track is subsequently half the length of its live compadre from Made In Japan, and it stinks. Allegedly about ‘The Devil’ according to Gillan, the murky lyrics live up to his best/worst. It even begins with a riff (doubled up with Lord on the organ) that’s below par for Blackmore. These riffs were often the only thing that the band had to start a song when they entered the studio, and it makes way for some desultory singing from Gillan that, at least, doesn’t resort to ‘the screech’. Underlining the paucity of ideas here, Lord then reappears to make some strangely retro-sounding (for 1971) psychedelic organ. There’s really nothing to see here. And then… at the 2’41’’ mark in storms Ritchie with a stuttering marvel of a solo, backed by Paice's clattering funky drums. It’s hair-raising stuff which morphs into some space wailing that decides to get all modal at its finale, a mere minute later, and it’s back into that riff again. Blackmore’s tone, attack and aggression are everything that a rock solo should be, and it bears the mark of the spontaneity that he was renowned for: hating to spend time in the studio at that or at any time, and never writing or preparing his solos.
It still stands as one of the most astounding minutes in rock history, and it’s there buried in one truly lousy song!
And what about Ritchie today? He does seem to have mellowed. Anyone who saw the Made In Japan doc will have seen him crack a genuine joke about how he came up with the original riff for ‘Smoke On The Water’ as a baroque lute piece, but the band preferred the more basic version. It was… odd, but then for any outsider Ritchie will always be an enigma. Perhaps this interview (by some German teenager) conducted with his partner, Candice Night, goes some way to shedding light on where he’s at these days. Certainly, the profundity of his Bob Dylan anecdote will live with me for a while. The wig’s still ridiculous, though.
Anyway, I think we’re off to a fine start. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for additions to the series, drop a line below. And remember: you’re all the man!*
*an obscure Ronnie James Dio joke, sorry