A Light in the Black: Seven Songs That Explain the History and Legacy of Rainbow

A Light in the Black: Seven Songs That Explain the History and Legacy of Rainbow

If you grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s like I did, you think you know all you need to know about classic rock from listening to your local radio stations.  In my experience, I knew that one of them (WBAB) played Black Sabbath and the other one (Q104) didn’t, but you pretty much assumed that if there was a notable band or song to be reckoned with from before you were born, it would be played on one of those two stations at some point.  But, like me, you’d be dead wrong.

Imagine my surprise in learning that there was a band in the mid-to-late 1970s that combined the power of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar and Ronnie James Dio’s vocals.  I’ll never forget listening to Saturday Night Rocks with Eddie Trunk, a radio program dedicated to hard rock and heavy metal on WNEW back in the day, and learning that the two combined forces in a band.  I remember thinking to myself, “How is it possible that this is the first time I’m hearing of this?”  I was familiar with Dio from his work in Black Sabbath and subsequent solo material, and you’d have to be living under a rock not to be familiar with Ritchie Blackmore and his work in Deep Purple (ever heard of “Smoke on the Water”?)  The combination was so bizarre to me, but at the same time, given both of their backgrounds, it sounded like the perfect pairing.  They sounded like the greatest band in the world – how had I never heard any of their music before?

The short answer is because no one played it on the radio – except Eddie Trunk. Once he played that first song, I had to know everything about the band and how they came to be – and why they weren’t played ad nauseum the way Led Zeppelin and Van Halen are on classic rock stations everywhere.  The band, originally called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow for their first release and subsequently shortened to just Rainbow, created three incredible and important records in a span of four years, that inspired future bands and led to the creation of new subgenres of hard rock and heavy metal.  But the band’s lineup didn’t last, and you can barely hear their music anywhere on classic rock stations or otherwise these days.  I’d like to examine the interesting history and legacy of Rainbow by looking at a few select songs from their short but stellar discography to see if we can determine how the band became so influential yet so relatively unknown to the masses.

“Black Sheep of the Family,” Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1975

The story of Rainbow really begins with Ritchie Blackmore and his desire to cover the Quatermass song “Black Sheep of the Family.”  He had brought it to his Deep Purple bandmates ahead of their planned recording sessions for their next album, but his bandmates soon rejected him, saying they preferred to write their own music.  At this point, Deep Purple was amongst the most well-known and biggest bands of the time, on the back on legendary releases like In Rock and Machinehead, with a myriad of radio hits engulfing their back catalog.  Purple also wanted to move towards a more funk-oriented sound on their next album, so feeling doubly spurned, Blackmore decided to look in other directions more earnestly.

On their previous tour, Deep Purple had been joined by a little known band called Elf who served as the band’s opening act.  Blackmore recalled being very impressed by the band’s lead singer: none other than Ronnie James Dio, the man who would go on to become a heavy metal icon by the end of his incredible career. Knowing that his bandmates in Deep Purple were against it, Blackmore approached Dio one night during the tour about recording the Quatermass track – as the story goes, the two got very drunk until Dio agreed.  They recorded the song shortly after, using the lineup from Elf to round out their makeshift band.

“Man on the Silver Mountain,” Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1975

Upon hearing the results of the first recording session, both Blackmore and Dio were pleased enough to consider writing a full LP.  Blackmore had become disillusioned with the direction of Deep Purple, and had a 6-month gap in his schedule prior to their next scheduled tour.  He approached Dio and the rest of Elf about recording a full album under the name Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Dio agreed, with both he and Blackmore sharing a vision for the collaboration to be a “rock and roll band with a classical attitude.”

The newly formed group took about a month to write their self-titled LP – which included Blackmore’s name for brand recognition.  The first single from the album, “Man on the Silver Mountain,” is one of the band’s most recognizable and best songs. It’s also perhaps the best example of what both Blackmore and Dio are both about in terms of their music writing abilities.  Blackmore delivers a simple, catchy riff with an intricate solo – both trademarks of his time in Deep Purple. For Dio, we see the emergence of the lyrical themes he is famous for – wheels, fire, mysticism. In essence, it’s the first time that Dio is writing and singing the fantasy-type songs we have come to know and adore him for in his years after Rainbow. Keep in mind that this was the first song they worked on after recording “Black Sheep” – an auspicious beginning for the new band that displayed the best of what both main players had to offer.

“Sixteenth Century Greensleeves,” Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1975

Though the whole record plays through, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow real crescendo is “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves.”  Here we can see the “classical attitude” the two spoke about when forming the band.   Blackmore was a known fan of old classical English music, with “Greensleeves” being his all-time favorite.  Leaning right in, Dio’s lyrics conjure the story of Rapunzel with a Renaissance flair under Blackmore’s slick playing and soloing.  Blackmore said they wanted to write a song about crossbows and castles and came up with this as the result.  Mission accomplished.

More than just being a great song, “Greensleeves” also shows both Blackmore and Dio delving into what they’re really about and what they want their music to be, both individually and collectively.   They are both legitimately nerding out on what they love most – Blackmore with classical English music and Dio with lyrical themes about flames, towers, and the Middle Ages.  These are trends and motifs that would follow both in their careers.  Blackmore founded Blackmore’s Night, creating what I’d imagine the soundtrack to a Renaissance Faire would sound like, later in his career after Rainbow.  Dio’s work in Black Sabbath and beyond always focused on similar fantastical themes.  At this time, both of these niche interests for both main players in the band were meshing with impressive results.

The pair weren’t the first to incorporate such themes into their work.  In the realm of hard rock and metal, however, songs like “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” had a tremendous influence on bands that would follow after, especially when considering obscure metal genres like folk and power metal. Most bands in those subgenres, either directly or indirectly, owe a great deal of gratitude to Rainbow due to their ability to combine rock and metal music with fantasy and Medieval sounding themes, both lyrically and musically.

“Stargazer,” Rising, 1976

After recording their debut album with the other members of Elf as essentially a session band, Blackmore started to fine tune the band’s lineup as they prepared to write a second offering.  In other words, he fired everyone from Elf except Dio and brought in people he wanted to play with instead.  Ritchie was a noted difficult personality to work with, who often fired and re-hired members of the band throughout its existence, while often himself being absent from recording sessions. I guess if you wrote “Highway Star” you can get away with that kind of stuff.

Blackmore recruited drummer Cozy Powell, keyboardist Tony Carey, bassist Jimmy Bain, and keyboardist Tony Carey to round out the lineup for the band’s 2nd LP, titled Rising.  Powell had played previously with Jeff Beck, while the other two were relative unknowns at the time who would go on to further their careers by playing with the band.  Bain would eventually play with Dio’s solo band, and was one of his closest friends in the music world.  Carey is well-known for the iconic keyboard introduction to “Tarot Woman,” the album’s opening track, which he said he recorded in about 2 hours’ time while Blackmore was at a local pub.

According to Carey, the band recorded all of Rising in Germany “in about 10 minutes,” which speaks to the chemistry and talent assembled in the band at this time.  Rising is considered in most metal circles to be one of the best and most influential albums of all time, despite only having a 33-minute run time.  A large reason for that label is the penultimate track on the album, an eight minute and 26 second epic called “Stargazer.”

Widely considered to be one of the greatest hard rock/metal songs of all time, “Stargazer” tells the story of a wizard who commissions a tower to the sky to be built so he can reach the stars.  The lyrics and story are told from the perspective of one of the slaves who has been tasked with building the “tower of stone with his flesh and bone” for the wizard.  Full of mystical imagery, excellent keyboard work, and masterful Blackmore soloing, it is a must listen.  If you don’t believe me, maybe these endorsements will convince you further:

I think the last album – well, for me anyway - the last album that really was a big influence on me before ‘(The) Number of the Beast’ was when I was a kid ‘Rainbow Rising’ (Rainbow’s 1976 album ‘Rising’). When you got to hear Ronnie (James Dio) in full throat and (Ritchie) Blackmore playing his pants off and ‘Stargazer’ and you're going, ‘oh my god, nobody's done this in metal before! Wow, this is just incredible! Here’s somewhere to go.’

– Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden (as told to Metal Injection)
I’m a sucker for Ronnie Dio, so, the three Dio records and the live album that they did. But Rising, obviously, it’s got 'Tarot Woman,' it’s got 'Stargazer,' which is, like, the biggest masterpiece of hard rock, one of those. It’s up there with 'Stairway to Heaven' and those types of songs…. 'Stargazer,' 'Tarot Woman,' especially those two songs, kind of pulls the weight of the rest. It’s just a fantastic sound, musicianship, Ritchie Blackmore in his most kind of experimental mode, breaking away from Deep Purple and coming up with these masterpiece, epic songs. Cozy Powell on drums. Ronnie Dio on vocals – you can’t go wrong. It’s the ultimate lineup of master musicians right there. 'Stargazer,' when I go for walks, which I call my “old-man walks” … I had a bunch of those, listening to Rainbow in my headphones, and it makes me cry because it’s so good. Tears start rolling because it’s so f*cking good. I think every serious fan of hard rock music would love 'Stargazer.' It’s just one of those all-time, epic masterpieces.

– Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth (as told to Loudwire)
[Dio's] music is so much a part of what's in Metallica's DNA, the harder, edgier, blues-based hard rock from the Seventies… it’s something that we were all reared on. I don't recall sitting there in a band meeting or anything deciding what to play. Somebody starts playing 'Stargazer' — which is sort of just like something that's in our arsenal to jam.

- Lars Ulrich, Metallica (as told to Rolling Stone)

These quotes speak to the legacy this period of Rainbow’s history left behind in the world of hard rock and metal, but also to the road map they provided for some of the most successful bands to come in the near future. Iron Maiden, which started around the time this incarnation of Rainbow existed, became the leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal alongside Judas Priest in the early ‘80s.  The fact that their lyrical themes tended to be based in history and fantasy world, alongside their tendency to write progressive long pieces to end their albums like “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” may be traceable to the effect Rainbow songs like “Stargazer” had on their frontman.

Similarly, Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt is a noted progressive rock savant. Opeth began as a progressive death metal band, I but has transitioned to nearly full progressive rock with their last few releases.  Åkerfeldt has written quite a few genius records, so for him to speak glowingly about Rising is high praise and goes to show the breadth of musicians and genres Rainbow helped to inspire.

Finally, when the biggest metal band on the planet quotes you as an influence, there’s a good chance you were doing something right.  Metallica memorialized Dio following his death by recording the “Ronnie Rising Medley,” providing their own take on several Rainbow classics, including the aforementioned “Stargazer.”

By all accounts, this is Rainbow’s finest hour: their most influential song and perhaps the pinnacle of Dio/Blackmore era.

“Starstruck,” Rising, 1976

Although widely regarded as their top album, Rising does show slight signs of a fracture in the band.   It’s not outwardly noticeable, but there is a stark difference from track to track with the lyrical themes.  For most of the album, they stick with Dio’s favorites – wizards, wolves, mystic tarot women, stars, and rainbows.  But for two of the tracks, including “Starstruck,” the themes deviate a bit towards relationships, which is uncommon ground for this iteration of the band. “Starstruck” focuses on a stalker lady fan who hounded Blackmore to the point where he needed to alleviate the situation legally.

First and foremost, it’s pretty self-serving for Blackmore, who has been noted as being a bit egotistical, to ask Dio to pen a song regarding the situation as a tire pump for himself.  More importantly, it clearly shows that Blackmore wanted to write more songs in the old vein of rock and roll that he was used to, which more times than not did better on the charts than whips and chains (unless you’re Rihanna).  Blackmore’s former bandmates in Deep Purple also allegedly derided the lyrical content of Rainbow’s songs, which could have caused his change of heart and the direction he wanted to take the band.

The song itself is fine and catchy enough – but it’s the first sign of Blackmore and Dio not being on the same page with the band’s vision.

“Kill the King,” Long Live Rock & Roll, 1978

Long Live Rock & Roll would be the third offering in a four year period from Rainbow with Dio as their lead singer.  One of the charms of classic rock is that anytime a band needed a song or a title for something, they just wrote about rock and roll.  There’s a million examples – Boston, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, KISS - you can’t get away with that these days, but it seems like every band was doing it back then.  Anyway, I digress.

The band initially started the sessions with a similar lineup, with Bain being replaced.  They would also lose Tony Carey, the keyboardist who had turned in a dominating performance on Rising, during the process of making their third record -  more on that later. Recorded in a castle in France (no doubt Blackmore’s doing), the album continued where Rising left off.  The songs were written more concisely, while still keeping a predominantly fantasy-based lyrical theme, save a couple of songs.

The highlight of the album is “Kill the King,” which is a straight ahead ripper that undoubtedly had a hand in the birth of speed metal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.  A lot of Blackmore’s playing in Deep Purple (“Burn,” “Highway Star”) can be rightly characterized as inspiring to that genre, but “Kill the King” adds to that legacy.  It is one of the best songs written from this era and it’s a crying shame that it’s not more popular because it is incredible.  Fast-paced playing and soloing with Dio’s soaring vocals – an absolute banger.  Along with “Stargazer,” this song can be firmly placed on the list of most authoritative and important songs the band ever recorded in terms of altering the future rock and metal landscape.

I’m particularly fond of the live version from their classic live album recorded in Germany called On Stage with the Wizard of Oz intro:

“L.A. Connection,” Long Live Rock & Roll, 1978

Although a good song in its own right, “L.A. Connection” really tells the story of Tony Carey’s dismissal from the band and the beginning of the end for the Dio era of Rainbow.  As described in interviews afterwards, most band members acknowledge that there was always a bit of a rift between the English members (Blackmore, Powell) and the American members (Dio, Bain, Carey). Blackmore was quite fond of practical jokes, which more often than not led to bickering and turmoil within the group.

Upon deciding that Carey’s playing was too flashy, Blackmore decided to fire him from the band.  He had done this plenty of times prior, but this time Carey decided that he had enough and was set to fly home from France to Los Angeles.  While Carey was on his way to the airport, Blackmore and Powell decided to call in a report to the French police that Carey had illegal drugs on him (which he probably did because it was the 1970s and he was in a band).  While being interrogated by the police, Carey suffered several injuries, included broken bones, which Dio recalls with his opening line to the song: “Oh carry home, my broken bones…”.  He has since stated the song is a recantation of the events leading to Carey leaving France and getting back to L.A., which make sense when reading through the song's lyrics.

During the recording sessions, the band was also contacting the spirit of Baal, which led to several occult occurrences within the castle in which they were recording.  Dio’s wife was mysteriously pushed down the stairs by no one in particular and the band’s tapes were magically erased.  

On top of these difficulties, the rift between Blackmore and Dio was becoming more and more apparent.  Though “Long Live Rock & Roll,” the lead single from the album, did decently on the charts, Blackmore wanted Dio to write more relationship-based songs for their next record.  Dio refused, and eventually quit the band, ending the Dio era of Rainbow after just three albums.

Blackmore would continue on in Rainbow, which was now rebranded again to bare his namesake, with a myriad of singers like Graham Bonnet and Joe Lynn Turner.   The band’s music shifted from the progressive rock and metal style of the Dio days to a more pop-focused rock aimed at mass appeal (TL;DR: they sold out a little bit).  He did succeed at it though: “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “I Surrender,” and “Stone Cold” did very well on the U.S. and U.K. charts, with the latter ending up at #1 in 1982.

Dio, on the other hand, ascended to rock god status following his departure from Rainbow.  He replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for their releases Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules.  Following that stint, he launched a famed solo career during which he released many classic albums, the most notable being Holy Diver, before a brief return to Sabbath for 1992's Dehumanizer. Dio is widely regarded as a heavy metal icon, not only for his immense talents, but for also creating the devil horn salute you’ve seen at every metal show you’ve ever been to in your life.  Dio passed away in 2010 from cancer.

Though both say the split was amicable, Blackmore and Dio have traded barbs throughout the years.  Dio credits Ritchie for being an incredible player and giving him his shot to show the world what he had as a singer, but says he would have got there anyway - maybe just a little bit later.  Blackmore has been quoted as saying Dio was a genuinely funny man but had an angry side that would come out from time to time and had insulted his height in interviews prior to his death.  Two large egos at play, for sure.

Regardless of their personal relationship, the unlikely pair combined to create this classic music that inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of other musicians. But why is this era of Rainbow so well known to underground and metal circles and so unknown to the masses in general?

First and foremost, the Dio era of Rainbow really never had any type of sustained chart success with singles from their albums.  “Long Live Rock & Roll” is just about their only song that ever charted in the United States, and even those that charted in Europe did not do very well comparatively to other big acts at the time. Their albums were on the fringe of the top ten, and likely received airplay at the time due to Blackmore’s name being associated with it.  That ultimately didn’t translate into longevity, however, as the band hasn’t sniffed airplay on any classic rock stations that have been on my, or the collective population’s, radar in what seems like years.  The charting issue might also explain why Blackmore nagged Dio to write about more pop-friendly topics, and why he ended up moving the band in that direction once Dio refused.  You could also make the argument that Dio’s lyrical topics were to blame, but if Robert Plant can sing about hobbits, Dio can sing about wizards, dragons, and rainbows on the radio – which he did successfully in his solo career (see “Rainbow in the Dark”).

The band is also hard to categorize.  There are elements of hard rock and there are elements of metal.  Take for example the two biggest songs we discussed here. “Stargazer” is a progressive rock masterpiece that spans eight minutes.  Even if Mikael Åkerfeldt thinks it rivals “Stairway to Heaven,” the AOR rock executives clearly didn’t.  There are a handful of 8-9 minute songs that get play on the radio still – “Free Bird,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” even “Green Grass and High Tides” – but there’s no love for “Stargazer.”  Then you have “Kill the King,” which could be an outright metal song.  The band never was clearly defined into one genre, which was one of their best attributes, but ultimately may have been a deterrent when considering their long-term popularity.

Whatever the reason, what the Dio era of Rainbow lacked in mass appeal they made up for in their legacy.  The list of artists that credit the band, specifically the Dio era, with influencing their sound and musical style are countless.  The entire genre of power metal owes a great deal to Ronnie James Dio and Ritchie Blackmore – not to mention Metallica, Iron Maiden, Opeth, and an endless amount of other incredible metal bands that are still active today.   Though only together for a short four-year period, Blackmore and Dio laid out the blueprint for so many of the metal artists you and I have come to know and love since their time together.  For that alone we should be grateful for the three tremendous records they gave us - regardless of whether or not Q104.3 in New York plays their music.

I walked into a record store the other day to browse through their new arrivals.  A familiar sound greeted me on the shop’s record player – the opening chords to “Man on the Silver Mountain.”  I couldn’t help but sing along a little bit as the whole first LP played.  The guy browsing across from me was doing the same and I nodded to him in approval.

“Underrated,” he said.

Real ones know.

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