have to be sporting a mane of hair (or what’s left of it) or wear a studded
wristband to include Smoke on the Water in your life’s soundtrack,
as many human beings would concur. Just as you’ll find this song on the
playlist at most New Year's Eve parties, its melody marks the "heavy"
side that we all secretly carry inside us underneath our politically correct
masks, an inherently rebellious spirit condensed into the most famous and copied
guitar riff of all times. Strangely,
its creator is the epitome of the antisocial type, a disagreeable, paranoid and
temperamental genius without whom rock music would never be the same.
Ritchie Blackmore is, unquestionably, a guitar legend.
The legend, albeit, leaving a lot to be desired as you enter the website of the 70-year-old guitarist, blackmoresnight.com in present day 2015. Silhouetted against a starry sky, we spy the figures of Blackmore and his beloved Candice, who converted him to folk rock and to saying such gems as “Our music is as if Mike Oldfield met Enya". Premonitory is the best spin you can put on that 1997 remark on the occasion of the couple’s first album release, where we witnessed the legendary hero of heavy metal transformed into a Renaissance troubadour. And just to remove any lingering doubts about his intentions back then, even Ian Anderson and his flute were invited to the happy sojourn.
Richard Hugh Blackmore came into this world at the end of World War II, born into a United Kingdom as victorious as it was battered to pulp. A time of peace translated 11 years later into the gift of an acoustic guitar from his father, along with a number of music lessons. He was already in a band by the age of 13 and owned his first electric guitar by 14, just in time to take on the '60s. Speaking of that period, he loves to boast that the first thing they taught him to play was a baroque piece, an anecdote reflecting his obsessions with demonstrating the 'classical' foundation of his musical background. Decades later, he would take up learning how to play the cello.
Blackmore always acted as if he had something to prove, ruled above all by an ego the size of a dinosaur that only Ian Paice and Jon Lord could tolerate. Tell that, though, to Ian Gillan or Roger Glover, or all the bands Blackmore fired overnight during his solo career. The constant shuffling of band members in the (double) era of Rainbow alone is enough to make you do a double take.
After his early days with The Outlaws, his relationship with the guitar should really be divided between Deep Purple, Rainbow and Blackmore’s Night, with the first two phases intertwined with the comings and goings of our rather volatile star. The electric side took control of those groups with hard rock as the bands’ trade mark. Heavy metal with pretensions, yes, that, too, both on Blackmore's part and fostered by key people in his artistic life such as Jon Lord. It was easy for the two of them to share their 'classical' vein, surround themselves with philharmonic orchestras and leave everyone with their jaws on the floor. He also knew how to compose, something he did badly by his own frank admission.
Blackmore's fame on his instrument owes more to his status as a pioneer (one of the first to invoke the shredder) than to his six-string technique. He ranks in the middle of the Top 100 guitarists of all time according to the readers of one well-known magazine. That ranking may be unfair, because even though his style –plugged-in of course- is rooted in energy and speed, very few guitarists can play so 'cleanly' in the midst of the storm. He never misses a single note in his solos, a trait ever more in evidence now that he has traded in the Stratocaster for a lute.
The Purple phase was, as with almost all groups at the time, a roller coaster in which drugs played a fundamental role. The era of great anthems and displays of virtuosity –when they left audiences standing in ovation- went down the tubes, along with the personal relationships impossible to maintain among so many geniuses forced to live together on arduously long tours on the backs of a fleeting success that many proved incapable of handling. Over there is the pantheon of rock heroes to bear witness to it.
Deep Purple survived in fits and starts. It started up in the late '60s as a progressive rock group that admired King Crimson and, under the auspices of Lord, they were swallowed up by extended improvisations in which Blackmore claims the thing he liked to do most was "make a lot of noise". But that period lasted barely two or three years before inspiration hit them with In Rock. Great songs began to emerge that would ensure their place in history, songs like Child in Time… and 1971 would bring Machine Head, undoubtedly one of the quintessential albums of the 20th century.
At the peak of their success, after recording the legendary Made in Japan and validating the globalization of rock as a phenomenon beyond cultures and races, what Jon Lord described as one of the greatest "shames" that rock had experienced since its early days took place: the exit, or more accurately escape, of Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, sick to death of Blackmore's egomania. Other musicians would come in who were no less brilliant –David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes- but it wasn't the same and the guitarist left them hanging shortly afterwards, supposedly because he didn't like the band’s drift towards funk. Deep Purple couldn't get over his absence and were forced to take a break for almost a full decade before they convinced him in 1984 –better not to know how or for how much (let's just say 250,000 dollars counts)- to return to the fold.
In 1975, the prodigal son decided to be his own boss and form his own band, a kingdom that he shared at first with the late lamented Ronnie James Dio until he lopped his head off too, tired of his Gothic lyrics and stealing the spotlight away from him. Superbands dominated the earth from the biggest stadiums back then, and the Blackmore-Dio duo managed to establish Rainbow as the top top-of-the-bill headliners, especially in Europe. Through the ranks of Rainbow passed giants like drummer Cozy Powell and keyboard player Don Airey. Even Roger Glover! An entire school of rock musicians with whom Blackmore achieved glorious moments like Difficult to Cure, considered the group's best album as well a turning point and start of the descent into Adult Oriented Rock, the dreaded AOR that buried hard rock.
It is not easy to maintain a style when the leader does another runner, this time back to the motherlode of Deep Purple. The heavily hyped reunion was captured on a new platinum album, Perfect Strangers, whose title perfectly described the internal dynamic within the group. Just four years later, Blackmore managed to get rid of Ian Gillan again and the agony began. But the singer was forced back into the band soon and the dispute ended up as could be expected: with Deep Purple looking for a new guitar player. But every cloud has a silver lining. First, no less a figure than Joe Satriani took over and made sure that Blackmore's absence would go unnoticed from the very first chord he played. Now the band's current guitarist is another monster, Steve Morse. And at least they didn't disown Smoke on the Water.
Rainbow re-emerged in 1997 with a mix of new and old members in the line-up that lasted barely three years. It was enough time to relive some successes and to convince Blackmore once and for all that what he really wanted was to play Renaissance and medieval music. So, hand in hand with his partner and girlfriend Candice Night, a kind of female elf, he unplugged his electric guitar and put it away.
After thinking back on this part of his recording career, the conclusion is that what Blackmore would have really liked would have been to be the guitarist in Jethro Tull, and not only because of Ian Anderson's appearance on his first album with Night. From here on, we have to change the tone, forget about Highway Star and relax with music that is only looking for beauty and recreates it with simple, sweet melodies that are only lacking a chorus of chirping birds in the background. Folk with a touch of innocence featuring a wonderful acoustic guitar and a female voice that is acceptable but not always capable of performing at the same level.
His rocker fans understand but don't forgive him. Money probably doesn't matter enough to Blackmore now to keep him from getting involved in a project that he knew all along would make his faithful audience abandon him sooner or later. However, it appears that he has another new project out. Not surprising, coming from him. He has always done whatever he wanted throughout his career without giving a damn about the consequences at all. In return, he provided us with a fistful of unforgettable songs that, whether he likes it or not, will continue to be played for a lot longer than his current offerings.