Great news! I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time. For this week anyway.
Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life. In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13. (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.) A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”) See? Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.
I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland. While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.
Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s. Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days. Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake. I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow. It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.
There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale. However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.
Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner. These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy. This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades. However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.
Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal. But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza. He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy. No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore. And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising. When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow! That’s my favourite song of all time!”
Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell. (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen. For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.) Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’ When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”
So what’s going on? As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. But his purpose is not to reach heaven. When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly. I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves. Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”
Right on, Ronnie. Up the workers!
Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.” Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it makes a big contribution.
© Polydor Records
Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow. For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too. Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.
Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying. And guess what happens next? “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”. With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free. The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”
The song isn’t perfect. Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness. But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun. Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them. Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.
Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist. And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.
Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982. He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to. An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.
By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today. He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye. If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.