THE WIZARD SPEAKS
Dave Ling woke up one morning and found himself speaking to the elusive Ritchie Blackmore. It wasn't a dream, though. It was a METAL HAMMER exclusive interview, the first Blackmore had done in years. He had a lot to talk about.
I must confess that it feels a little odd to be sitting opposite Ritchie Blackmore in a Connecticut restaurant. A little over nine hours and 4,000 miles before, I had been stirred from a blissful slumber with the news that the Deep Purple guitarist had requested METAL HAMMER's presence for a chat about their forthcoming album and tour, and when somebody like Ritchie expresses an interest in a chat, you don't let paltry things like oceans get in the way.
So, here we are, the two of us, deep in conversation. "You don't do many interviews, so you Ritchie?" I enquire. "No, but to be quite honest, that's the way I like it. I tend to be too honest in the interviews and the people from the record company don't like it."
The guitarist has been based in the States since around 1974 when he evidently got stuck in the country and decided to remain due to an assortment of reasons.
"Officially, it's for the taxman, but there's more to it than that," he says. "I can go to a club here and I don't feel the tension. England's built a lot more on tension and nervous energy. Here, people just wanna play, maaan, and take drugs and things.
America's good, because they don't have such a chip on their shoulder, but, at the same time, they're not as creative as the Europeans. But, in England, there's that situation of being the ice-cream of the month. There's certain bands in this month and suddenly it's on to the next one."
- Do you resent the way that the Press has treated the band then?
RB: "I just don't wanna read it any more. I always knew we were gonna be knocked but now it's got to the point where they've knocked us so much that they can't really knock us anymore. So now they pick on everyone else and it's great fun. I get a great kick out of it. I know this is gonna sound weird, but sometimes there's a part of me that says 'Yeah, I agree with that. We shouldn't even have released that.' That's partly why I don't do Press receptions or go around as an ambassador for the band. I'm liable to agree with someone who says that the latest lp stinks.
"But I do think that the English music Press has become incredibly humourous. I was reading the Melody Maker the other day and there was this stuff about Paul McCartney, and they just crucified him. The best composure we've had in the last hundred years, and they were saying that he had too much money and that he was overweight with this horrible wife. I can imagine them saying the same thing about Beethoven in his day."
- The last time I saw you in London was the night before Knebworth when you crept into the Marquee to see Chariot. Do you get much opportunity to check out up-and-coming new bands?
RB: "It's great to be able to go to a club, but it gets a bit awkward when people come up and ask for my autograph, because I just think 'Why?'. It's great for showbiz people like Rod Stewart, he gets worried if people don't ask for his, but I'm not into showbiz.
I just like to think that I'm a kind of above average musician. But I don't go to clubs to check out the opposition, that's gonna show itself on record or on radio sooner or later. I just like to see a band playing and it's almost like a childhood memory. You start to remember what it's like to play in a small club and the good feelings of the time."
- So the early days still held fond memories for him?
RB: "Some of them ..." he laughs. "It's nothing to do about whether I was starving or not. The starving days were some of the good days, but sometimes I was playing with musicians that I hated. Some of them were complete snobs who always thought that if you played rock'n'roll you were too loud, especially playing with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, half the band were rock'n'roll and half the band were jazz snobs.
They used to drive me crazy. The happiest times were the days at the Star Club in Hamburg, 1955 and 1956. (This should be 1965 and 1966, Ed.) They were some of my favourite days, I used to knock off the chambermaid when her fiance would drop her off. Things like that used to make it."
- What sort of bands do you listen to these days?
RB: "I don't listen to many bands. I listen to individual players. At the moment, I'm listening to a band called Mannheim Steamroller. They play Christmas carols, but they play them in such a way that it's really great. They're like a synthesiser band with mandolins. There are are some really incredibly gripping chord changes."
- Is this man winding me up? Do you still listen to much classical music?
RB: "Yep, but not as much. People tend to term classical music as being from the Seventeenth Century onwards, but I do tend to listen to a lot of medieval music. It stirs the soul. I believe in reincarnation, so it must all kind of tie in.
"No too many rock bands do much for me. I've heard it all before, but not as fast."
- What do you make of Metallica?
RB: "I've heard of them, but I've not heard them yet. I'll catch the odd guitarist, though. There are some quite good guitarists around, but the bands are sort of okay. The guitarists are outstanding."
- There's a whole new wave of rock guitarists filtering through at the moment.
RB: "Yeah, but the latest trend seems to be how fast you can go from A to B without actually playing anything. It's good, but I find all of it leaves me cold. Okay, the guy has practiced, but what's he feeling. I want to hear some notes. A lot of people are out to impress, but the guy that sticks out most at the moment is Steve Vai (David Lee Roth's guitarist). He's really shit-hot. Not only can he play every style there is, but he can write and transpose the whole thing as well. He can play the very fast licks, or he'll just play it any other way. Amazing."
- What about Yngwie J. Malmsteen? I've seen reviews that suggest his new LP, "Trilogy", is a "Rainbow Rising" for the 1980s. Ritchie nods in agreement.
RB: "I think he'd be the first person to say that too, if he was honest. People ask me what I think of this guy copying me, and usually I don't think much of people copying at all, but he's been doing it incredibly well. The guy is a brilliant guitar plager. Some of my fans think that I must hate him, but no, we're good friends. He's worked his arse off to play that well."
- Now that you've had two years to sit back and look at the comeback LP, "Perfect Strangers", what do you actually think of it objectively?
RB: "I don't really know what to say," he says, for once at a loss for words. "You turn LPs out like sausages in a way, and that's not putting the album down, I just hate looking back."
- At the time it came out, Roger Glover was quoted as saying that the album gave the Deep Purple fans what they wanted, and the experimentation would follow next time. Had that been the case?
RB: "He's known to be a liar," quips Ritchie. "Roger's a great guy, but he does incredibly dull interviews. I've never looked at it that way though. We don't give the fans what they want, we just give ourselves what we want, and luckily the fans are in there too. They like what we like."
- So how would you describe the new album in terms of progression from "Perfect Strangers"?
RB: "Do you know George Bodnar?" and I believe he must have misheard the question. "Well, he asked me that same question and when I said that I liked it, he said 'Cor, that's amazing. It must be really good.'
This one... I don't think I'd go as far as to say I was excited about it, but I play it quite a lot, which is very unusual. Ian's singing is amazing. He had the operation on his tonsils and his voice is sounding so rich. It's gone down about a semi-tone, so I'm well pleased with that. We did take a long time over it and actually went back and re-recorded most of the tracks."
- A far cry from the days of the first album, then, when you did the whole thing in 18 hours.
RB: "Yeah, that first one, we took two takes en everything, and that was just one and another try case we made a mistake!"
- So, to bring things back into the Eighties again, who actually initiated the reunion two years ago?
RB: "It was going around for and ages and a few nights, I used to come off stage with Rainbow and I used to ponder that there were so many Purple fans around, and that I was picking up a genuine interest. I was having a good time with Rainbow, thought it would be a good idea now that I have got my own band out of my system. I was getting crazy and all sorts of problems because I felt there were people who were getting bit lazy in certain areas. That was the first thing that got me into it. So I went round to Ian Gillan's house at Christmas one year and asked him if he wanted to join Rainbow. He said no, so we got drunk and that was it.
"About four years later, I think he initiated it. I was getting very cheesed off with my singer and I knew that I couldn't get another one. This guy was like... I don't like speaking badly about other musicians... but I'm going to. This guy was a fucking drag. He was such a nice guy, but then he got into drugs and thinking he was the cat's whiskers. I took that for about a year and then I just said 'That's it'. All the time I had the Purple thing going and I was excited and then down about it and then when Joe (Lynn Turner) started acting up, I just decided to knock Rainbow on the head, so we put it together. I just decided it was time to go back. We had all started to lose respect for each other round about 1972/1974 when Ian left. We were all a bit younger and into rebelling against whatever we were doing, even success. It took ten years for us to look back and think 'Yeah, that was good', so we all got back together."
- If you had to put the split down to any one thing, what would it be?
RB: "Ah, the split," he mused. "That was the inevitable thing. It was like the seven year itch, like in marriage. You just have to get away from it. And it's odd. A lot of the bands that I've been fond of all seem to split after about seven years. Funnily enough, I wanted to get a band together with Phil Lynott. It was Phil, Ian Paice and myself. We were going to have a trio. We made a couple of records, actually, that still must be around in the vaults. This was way back in 1972/73. I kept saying to Ian 'That's is, I'm leaving.' And he'd say he was with me but is it wise. I was sick of the safe bet."
- Were there any doubts when you decided to put it back together again?
RB: "Oh yeah, it was a big gamble, hut I thought it would be fun. I saw Ian objectively at the Marquee with his band and he was incredible. And yet. I never thought he was incredible when he was in the band. Then I got talking to him again and he told me to hurry up and make up my mind or he was going to join Black Sabbath. But it was a gradual thing over the first four or five years."
- When did you realise that it actually would work?
RB: "I think it was on the first part of the tour in Australia when I suddenly realised that there was a gap for that type of music because there was only ZZ Top doing that kind of aggressive stuff. Everyone else was playing like the Police. And can I state here that I HATE the Police. There wasn't a band playing that earthy kind of rock. Our music isn't contrived and there isn't that sheen of gloss."
- Once again, Roger has been quoted as saying that he thinks there will always be a Deep Purple, and that the world needs you. How much creedence do you give to that theory?
RB: "That's quite a profound statement... and Roger doesn't take drugs either. Yeah, I suppose so. That's the kind of promotional statement that the record company will love. As long as the world doesn't need the POLICE, that's all I care about."
- But most people were surprised that the band actually made a second comeback album. Most would have anticipated you taking the money and doing a runner?
RB: "That's true! After we'd done it, lots of people kept asking what we were doing next. They all assumed it was just a one-off. It was interesting to see that reaction. Everyone thought I would automatically just put Rainbow back together again."
- Does that mean that you won't should Purple decide to call it a day?
RB: "No. Never. I would do something else with somebody else again. I'm so sick of the name Rainbow. It was something that after about three years, I absolutely just hated."
- Talking about history, a cynic would suggest that as Deep Purple have been around for so long, there's nothing you could do that's fresh.
RB: "I don't blame them, being a cynical person myself. But, as this LP proves, we haven't run out of ideas at all. I go into the studio and just play the riff, without any ideas at all, and see how it feels. That's how we write our songs. Other bands will sit around and play acoustic guitars. We never do any of that."
- It's pleasing to see that you're doing a proper tour this time, as opposed to a one-off, like Knebworth Park.
RB: "I don't see it strictly as touring. I like to see it more as travelling around with a guitar, rather than talking about the tour and the lights and everything. That's when the competition comes in, and you have to try and outdo all the other bands."
- I remembered that during "Smoke On The Water". he swopped guitars with Roger Glover.
RB: "Yeah." Ritchie laughed. "He's a bit of a frustrated guitarist. The first time I did that, he didn't know what hit him."
- It seems that Roger isn't the only one to fall foul of Ritchie's famed on-stage sense of humour. I seem to recall Joe Lynn Turner being left on stage centre, all on his lonesome, when Rainbow played at the Michael Sobell Sports Centre in London. He was so shocked he didn't know what to do next. He was left standing on stage impersonating trains while the rest of the band laughed their heads off in the dressing room.
RB: "Yeah, that's more than likely" he recalled with a sadistic grin. "What we used to do was that I would signal to the drummer and we would stop, and I'd come in after four bars and we'd all dash off and leave him. Sure enough, we took it down to a whisper and left him there. He wasn't the kind of guy to laugh it off. He wanted to use it as his big opportunity. We haven't left Ian Gillan onstage yet, but it will happen!"
- Hardly the words of a moody bastard, eh? Even if he will admit to a little gamesmanship, is his reputation justified or have I just caught him on a good day?
RB: "We'll get into the moodiness later if you stick around. I think it's just a natural characteristic which has been exaggerated. People tend to take things the wrong way. Only because I care about the things we do, but I'm a hypocrite anyway. I never really believe what I say, not when it comes to rock 'n'roll.
- Do you like bearing your soul to complete strangers in the interview situation?
RB: "No," he says abruptly. "I'm too vulnerable. Not from a critic's angle, but from other angles as a person. I'm a sensitive person. One minute I'm too sensitive and the next I'm thick, I just don't give a damn what anybody says. There's never a dull moment. I just don 't know what I'm thinking sometimes. Sometimes, even friends will call up and they'll know to leave me alone."
- So, finally, how happy are you with the way things are going?
RB: "At the moment. I'm quite happy, but then what is happiness?"
- Okay, let's rephrase that. How satisfied are you with the progress that Deep Purple have made?
RB: "I really like what we've done. I think it's worth a listen. Give it a few listens and see what you think."
© Dave Ling, Metal Hammer, January 1987