While reading One Way Out a really strong, engaging oral history of The Allman Brothers Band, I began thinking about all the great music I grew up with, and how so much of it is now being relegated to fading memory. I believe it deserves more, so I am going to revisit these albums, and write my impressions, share the memories they conjure, and I hope they spark renewed interest in the music and stir up your memories of when and where you were when you heard this great art. Please feel free to share those memories and your impressions of the music here. Let’s keep our love for the work of these great artists.
Remember when album covers were works of art we’d stare at foray entire side of the record? Ahhh, the digital generation will never know the joys of the album cover, will they? And few covers are as memorable as Rainbow Rising. Full disclosure, I have painted the cover of Rainbow Rising more than any other picture in my life. At least three “dungaree” jackets were adorned with my half-assed recreation of this outstanding pulp painting.
And the cover is just the beginning of this classic album that may very well embody the moment when “hard rock” turned into “heavy metal” (I look forward to your debates on this).
Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow grew out of Deep Purple, which we will discuss in a moment. All personal drama aside, this band signified a very different sound to support Blackmore’s rapid fire riffing. While Deep Purple had more swing, Rainbow arguably had more power.
Or should I pronounce that Powell?
Cozy Powell is a force to be reckoned with on this album, a drummer of more athleticism than groove, more dramatic power than rhythmic movement, and the rest of the band responded to that power, fitting their work between Cozy’s driving beat and Blackmore’s fierce guitar work (this madman shredded before the term was invented).
And can we get some love for Ronnie James Dio, perhaps rock’s most perfect sword-and-sorcery writer? On this album, his themes of wizards and supernatural chicks and howling and mystic enslavement bonds
Blackmore’s sound to the pages of Weird Tales and the result is glorious.
The album starts off with “Tarot Woman”. Tony Carey’s eerie keyboards shift from slow and atmospheric to quick and riffy (he was working for Blackmore, after all), and then Blackmore himself rides in from far off, insistent guitar hook rising through the keyboards to the fore just as Powell kicks it into high gear. Dio’s lyrics and vocals are all dread and foreshadowing. Casting magic spells and flying and warnings to beware the fortune teller in question gives Blackmore license to ride herd on all the rhythmic chaos, building, ever building.
Next, we “Run with the Wolf” through an “unholy light” from a “hole in the sky” where “something evil’s passing by” and you “run with the wolf”. Yep, we’re in a werewolf movie. A catchy, rocking werewolf movie, but, still…
We land on earth, sort of, with “Starstruck” but only because the evil here is more earth bound — a crazed groupie stalker. I love the bouncing beat Cozy Powell and bassist Jimmy Bain create, and that Dio somehow makes this as much a monster movie as “Run with the Wolf”.
A pause for romance, please, Dio style. “Do You Close Your Eyes” is still supernatural –“I see a glow around you”– but here Dio is supremely confident, “I know a poor man, a rich man, I know I can talk to a king, so nobody here is gonna make me believe one thing…..” And what does he want to know? Is she a witch? A demon? Is that what he wants to know? Nah, “Do you close your eyes …. When you’re making sweet love to me?” So yeah, a pick up song….
And then onto the opus!
“Stargazer and “A Light in the Black” form an epic tale throughout side two of this album, telling of thousands enslaved by an evil wizard to “build a tower of stone with our flesh and bone, just to see him fly, I don’t know why.” This Dio at his most cinematic, complete with descriptions of setting– “hot winds moving fast across the desert” –and melodramatic build to the climax “in the heat and rain, with whips and chains, just to see him fly” as Blackmore’s extended lead shows us this wizard ascending to his glory, building, building to the very peak of the tower…. until Dio narrates the surprise twist, “All eyes see the figure of the wizard as he climbs to the top of the world! No sound as he falls instead of rising! Time standing still, then there’s blood on the sand. Oh, I see his Face!” The coda allows Dio to characterize the slaves’ confusion, “I see a rainbow rising, out on the horizon, and I’m coming home! Time is standing still, he gave me back my will! … And I’m coming home! ….My eyes are bleeding and my home is… Leaving here!”
Cozy kicks off “A Light in the Black” with power syncopation. This is the tale of the slaves fleeing, confused to be free after so long and so many deaths. “Has he really let us go? All the time that’s lost, what’s the final cost? … What to do now, I don’t know…. Something’s calling me back, a light in the black, and I’m going home!” I was never sure whether the narrator was seeing a light to lead him home to safety or was being pulled back by the so ehow resurrected wizard. And I still don’t….
These two songs formed side two of this classic piece of vinyl and for young teenage boys, well, we were with Blackmore for every riff, the band for all their power jams, and Dio for every B movie horror adventure. A seminal metal album if there ever was one.
Rainbow, however, led me further back, to see the roots of this album by revisiting Deep Purple, Blackmore’s previous group. And while some will argue that Made in Japan is a better representation of the band, the classic work has to be Machine Head. And listening to that album after almost thirty years shocked me. It is full of grooves!
Okay, it doesn’t start out grooving. “Highway Star” is stereotypical, an almost one-note driving power song with ridiculous lyrics about loving a car and a girl. In the 70’s, what else did teenage guys really want? Come to think of it, things haven’t really changed, as long as we throw in a Smartphone.
The grooves start with “Maybe I’m a Leo” which pays 70’s white boy Brit tribute to R&B with the rhythm section of drummer Ian Paice and bassist Roger Glover –and keyboardist Jon Lord in the pocket with them– really laying on the slow swampy groove throughout.
“Pictures of Home” splits the difference between the feel of the first two cuts by coming up with a driving groove and climbing bass break that is refreshing in its retro-ness. The jam is cool, but this album should win a “Most in Need of ReMastering” award.
“Never Before” embodies most of the era’s clichés, sounding like Humble Pie for awhile, then like a precursor to the power ballad, then like a blue print for Lynyrd Skynyrd riffing (yes, you read that correctly, go listen).
Next comes the iconic “Smoke on the Water” which, oddly, does not stand out here, mainly because we’ve heard it consistently for three decades. This known commodity does not disappoint, however, as the plodding first-bass line-we-all-learned still throbs through us, and we’re watching the hotel burn down once more.
The best groove of the album is on “Lazy” which has a great feel and is a fun jam, including a harmonica, perhaps from vocalist Ian Gillan. Simplistic lyrics– “if you’re lazy, just stay in bed” –are time keepers until the jam starts, which is worth the price of download all by itself.
But just in case some aren’t going to be convinced yet, “Space Truckin'” brings us to real metal groove jamming. “Come on, let’s go space truckin'” is as silly seventies as it gets, but the jam still brings me back behind the ballfield with Bud nips and lots of guys standing around a portable radio turned up full blast.
I came away from this visit believing Blackmore was more musical with Deep Purple, more powerful with Rainbow. But both albums offer rich rewards for those who loved them oh so long ago. Is it too late for us to go Space Truckin’? Nah, just turn it up, reallllll loud….