Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pink Floyd - The Division Bell

Roger Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985.  In his mind the band was a “spent force” creatively.  Perhaps with him still in the band, it was.  He wrote all the songs on The Final Cut.  Rick Wright was out of the band after The Wall shows were complete in 1981.  David Gilmour’s guitar provides little more than a cameo to most of the songs, and he sings lead on only Not Now John.  Nick Mason was replaced by Andy Newmark for the album finale, Two Suns in the Sunset. Gilmour wanted to wait so he could contribute songs to The Final Cut, but Waters didn’t want to wait.  In essence, The Final Cut was Roger Waters’ first solo album.  It didn’t sound like a Pink Floyd album at all.

Both David Gilmour and Roger Waters put out solo records in 1984 [About Face and The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, respectively].  Kurt Loder reviewed both albums for Rolling Stone magazine.  He concluded About Face showed that Gilmour had the patent on the Pink Floyd sound.  Gilmour and Mason decided to make more music under the Pink Floyd banner.  They even brought back Rick Wright to drive that point home.  Although both Mason’s and Wright’s names appeared in the album credits for A Momentary Lapse of Reason, neither played very much on the record.  The album was essentially a David Gilmour solo album as there were lots of outside studio musicians on the album.  Like The Final Cut, A Momentary Lapse of Reason didn’t sound like a Pink Floyd album.  But since Gilmour was still in Pink Floyd and Waters was not, Gilmour had another opportunity to make a Pink Floyd album that sounded like Pink Floyd.  With The Division Bell, released eighteen years ago this week, Gilmour succeeded in making that album.  The Division Bell turned out to be the last Pink Floyd studio album [the live album PULSE came out the in 1995]. 

Cluster OneThe Division Bell begins with this Gilmour/Wright piano/guitar duet.  Unlike Signs of Life from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, this isn’t an overture.  Cluster One just goes on its own merry way until…

What Do You Want From Me – This song from Gilmour/Wright shows something one rarely finds in David Gilmour’s recorded work – anger, mixed in with a heavy dose of frustration.  Gilmour asks his listening public what they want from him – should he sing until he can’t sing anymore, should he play until his hands bleed?  Should he play in the rain for them?  The guitar work is some of the nastiest on the album, reminiscent of another song from a different time [Have a Cigar from Wish You Were Here].  Where Have a Cigar was a jaundiced look at the music business and all that is wrong with it from Roger Waters, David Gilmour has an equally jaundiced view of his audience, at least in this instance anyway.  Rick Wright’s keyboards makes one think this is a Wish You Were Here outtake.  It definitely has that WYWH sound.

Poles Apart – I don’t know why, but I don’t like this one – I never did.  It annoys me.

Marooned – Another instrumental which won a Grammy.®  Gilmour communicates with bats on his lap steel.

A Great Day For Freedom – Whenever one hears a David Gilmour or Pink Floyd song with a reference to a “wall” one is tempted to think “A-ha!  This one is directed at Roger Waters.”  Sorry folks, but the wall in question here was the Berlin Wall.  On the day the wall came down they threw the locks onto the ground, and with glasses high we raised a cry for freedom had arrived…  But as the celebration of freedom goes on in Berlin, conflict is brewing anew in another land – Yugoslavia.  Now life devalues day by day as friends and neighbors turned away, and there’s a change that even with regret cannot be undone… Now frontiers shift like desert sands as nations while wash their bloodied hands, of loyalty, of history in shades of grey… Gilmour sang this at the Solidarity celebration in Gdansk, Poland in 2006.

Wearing the Inside Out – For the first time since Dark Side of the Moon, Rick Wright sings on a Pink Floyd album.  He describes himself as a burned out shell of his former self that crawled into a state of self-imposed isolation.  But he’s better now; he’s able to speak for the first time in many years.  This is perhaps the emotional core of The Division Bell.  There’s some very bluesy playing from Gilmour.  Dick Perry returns to play sax on a Pink Floyd album for the first time since Wish You Were Here.

Take It Back – A new guitar sound for a Pink Floyd album – the E-bow.  After four songs at a very laid back tempo, the Floyd pick up the pace with this one.  I saw the video for the song which suggests it’s about the environment.  But how does one account for the following line - So I spy on her, I lie to her, I make promises I cannot keep.  To me it’s more about the pushing the boundaries within a relationship.  Consider the following - Her love rains on me easy as the breeze, I listen to her breathing it sounds like the waves on the sea, I was thinkin' all about her, burning with rage and desire.  So I chalk this up as another ode to the future Mrs. Gilmour.

Coming Back to Life – Where were you when I was burned and broken?  Where were you when I was hurt and I was helpless?  Because the things you say and the things you do surround me…Was this directed at the woman who eventually became Gilmour’s second wife?  Had he met her while she was with someone else?  Was he biding his time while she was waiting for someone else?  While you were hanging yourself on someone else's words dying to believe in what you heard… This song is like a companion piece to Wearing the Inside Out. Both songs have that theme of coming from being an emotional cripple to becoming a functional human being once more.  The guitar tone here is clean without any distortion at all.  There’s a long guitar introduction, then the singing bit, concluded by a lot of guitar playing, all of it superb.  If there is one complaint I have about this song, it’s that there is “too much cowbell.” J  The story has a happy ending – Gilmour got the girl.

Keep Talking – At the time of The Division Bell’s release, it had been seven years since the previous Floyd album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason.  So when I heard this Gilmour/Wright gem on the radio [I still listened to radio then before it turned to complete shit…], to my ears it sounded more Floydian than anything since The Wall.  “About damn time” I thought…This sounded like Pink Floyd the band, not Pink Floyd the brand name.  What was missing from previous efforts?  The answer is simple – Rick Wright.  He provides the atmospherics throughout the song that gives it the Floydian feel.  In addition to Gilmour’s stellar guitar playing, we’re also treated to a solo from Rick Wright [the first since Run Like Hell].  Rick is also playing the Hammond B-3 throughout.  When The Division Bell came out, David Gilmour was asked if there was a concept for the album.  His response was there was no real concept, but there was an underlying them about the inability to communicate with others.  This exchange between Gilmour and the female singers underlines this point:

Gilmour: I think I should speak now…
Female voices:  Why won’t you talk to me?
Gilmour:  I can’t seem to speak now…
Female voices:   You never talk to me!
Gilmour:  My words won’t come out right…
Female voices:  What are you thinking?
Gilmour:  I feel like I’m drowning…
Female voices:  What are you feeling?
Gilmour:  I’m feeling weak now…
Female voices:  Why won’t you talk to me?
Gilmour:  But I can’t show my weakness…
Female Voices:  You never talk to me!
Gilmour:  I sometimes wonder…
Female Voices:  What are you thinking?
Gilmour:  Where do we go from here?
Female Voices:  What are you feeling?

Then there’s the disembodied “voice” of Stephen Hawking – It doesn’t have to be like this…All we need to do is make sure we keep talking… Note the last two words – the title of the song.

In the last verse, Gilmour breaks out the talk box for the first time since Animals and mimics the female voices [he mocks them, actually…].  Every time they sing a line, he comes back with a guitar line that sounds, with the help of the talk box, like they’re nagging him.

Lost for Words – This song is mostly acoustic with touches of electric for coloring.  When I heard these words I was certain they were addressed to Roger Waters.  I’ve read that they are not, but consider what they say - So I opened my door to my enemies, and I asked “could we wipe the slate clean?”/But they tell me to “please go fuck myself,” you know you just can’t win…  What follows the final lyric is a superb solo on the acoustic from Gilmour, which is reminiscent of another WYWH song [the title song]. The song fades into ringing church bells and bird sounds that lead into…

High Hopes – A single church bell rings; a piano plays a simple opening theme. This, the last song on the last Pink Floyd album, shows Gilmour looking back on his childhood in Cambridge.  There and then it was a “world of magnets and miracles,” where the imagination had no boundaries.  The grass was greener, the light was brighter, with friends surrounded, the nights of wonder…  Unless you had a very unhappy childhood, who doesn’t think that one’s childhood was idyllic, that they were the best of times when everything smelled better, tasted sweeter, sounded better, felt better, when the nights were wondrous?  He brings himself back to his present circumstance in adulthood, where things maybe aren’t quite as rosy as one would hope - Encumbered forever by desire and ambition, there’s a hunger that’s still unsatisfied/Our  weary eyes still stray to the horizon, though down this road we’ve been so many times… After the singing is over Gilmour turns to the lap steel and plays what I think is his emotional guitar solo…ever.  Michael Kamen [RIP] provided a superb orchestral arrangement that, combined with the lap steel, draws you in and compels you to feel.  This song’s greatness cannot be overstated.  I never tire of listening to it.

So there you have it - Pink Floyd’s final opus.  I don’t think anybody knew it at the time [maybe Gilmour did, but he didn’t tell anybody], but events between now and then have made it so.  Rick Wright passed away in 2006.  David Gilmour has stated in public on numerous occasions that he’s done with Pink Floyd.  There was the one-off reunion at Live 8 in 2005, but that’s all it was – a one-off.  Gilmour and Waters have since buried the hatchet and are at least friendly to one another.  That story has a happy ending, but Rock Wright’s passing makes that happy ending bittersweet.  As for The Division Bell, it isn’t a great album, but it is a damn good one.  That’s enough for me.  With 20/20 hindsight, one can see a logical progression from this to David Gilmour’s solo career and what came next with On an Island.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why I Like Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden has been around a very long time.  They are not trendy, they do what they want at their own pace.  They know what their fans want and expect, and they deliver.  They get no support from radio yet they still sell out live shows.  Aside from those clichés, what are the things that make me like Iron Maiden?

Literate songwriting.  If you are looking for songs about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, Iron Maiden is not the band for you.  Both Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris draw lyrical inspiration from history, television, movies, folklore, religion, science fiction, mythology, the occult, current events, etc.  Their sources for inspiration are endless. 

The Epics.  Before Maiden the only band that I could think of that regularly had songs that lasted more than ten minutes was The Doors. Maiden regularly create songs that last more than eight minutes, and sometimes they break the ten-minute barrier.  Their most epic is Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is almost fourteen minutes.  One might think this is just a band that doesn’t get to the point, but with all those guitarists, why not let them play?  Steve Harris has often talked of his love of progressive bands like old Genesis, old Yes and Jethro Tull [Maiden once covered Cross-Eyed Mary].  These bands liked to play long songs to give their musicians the chance to stretch out and play.  Maiden usually has one or more “epic” on each of their albums, and the guitarists get to play…a lot!  There is no downside to this.

The live shows.  I have never seen them in person, but I have the live DVDs Rock in Rio, Death on the Road, Flight 666, and Live After Death.  These guys put on a great show.  They are fun to watch.

Bruce Dickinson.  This man is nicknamed the Air Raid Siren for a reason.  The dude is in his fifties and he can still out-sing most people half his age.  But in the early Eighties I was drawn to this guy for a different reason.  Back in 1983, one of the biggest albums out at the time was The Police’s Synchronicity.  In many an interview at the time Sting used to drone on and on about what book he’s currently reading.  I think he was just trying to show he isn’t a prototypical idiot rocker.  Or maybe he was just a pretentious shithead, who knows…  But one day I saw Bruce give an interview where he said “I read just as many books as Sting does…I just don’t make a big deal about it.”  You sold me, Bruce.  Is there a more energetic frontman in rock?  If there is, I haven’t seen him.  And wherever he goes, he has the audience in the palms of his hands, especially when he demands “Scream for me!”  And like me he is a history nut. J  In the early Nineties he had the balls to walk away from the Iron Maiden gig so that he could prove himself as a solo performer.  Having done so with Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding, he made better albums than Maiden did with Blaze Bayley [although The X Factor is better than Fear of the Dark and No Prayer for the Dying].  He’s back in Iron Maiden because he wants to be there, not because of any failed solo career [Note: it was a pretty successful one…]. 

The Three Amigos.  Iron Maiden is the only heavy metal band that I know of that has three guitarists –Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers.  Each has his own style.  Dave Murray is the guy who can play whatever comes to his mind.  His inspiration is Hendrix.  He doesn’t look it, but he’s the “assassin” of the three guitarists.   Adrian Smith takes a more deliberate approach to his playing.  He likes to work out his solos ahead of time, and of the three guitarists he is the one most likely to assume the rhythm guitarist role [which he likes].  Both Dave and Adrian are precise in their playing.  Janick Gers is the wild card of the bunch.  He’s more loose in his playing like Jimmy Page.  They like playing together and don’t step on each other.

Steve Harris.  Make no mistake – Iron Maiden is Steve Harris’ band.  He is the “first among equals,” and he is the visionary one in the band.  His songs established Iron Maiden as a band to be taken seriously.  He has written the lion’s share of Maiden’s songs, though lately he has relaxed his creative stranglehold because he has five other capable songwriters to work with.   He has a unique bass playing style – he sounds like a galloping horse.  It’s a very distinctive, almost percussive sound and if you hear it, you know exactly who it is.  In all the videos and DVDs in which I’ve seen him play, his fingers are a blur.  I don’t know how he does it.

Nicko McBrain.  Yes, that really is his name.  He doesn’t use double-bass drums like some drummers do [Alex Van Halen, Neil Peart], but he sounds like he does.  The man is tireless.  Tommy Lee once described him as an octopus [a description I’ve also heard applied to Ginger Baker].  He has a huge drum kit, and he uses every drum on his kit.  He and Steve Harris make a fantastic rhythm section.  He has been in the band since Piece of Mind.  Only Steve Harris and Dave Murray have been in the band longer.

Eddie.  Not many bands have their own mascot, but Maiden has Eddie.  He started out as just a skull called Eddie the Head.  Is he a mummy or a zombie?  I’m not really sure, but he’s been on almost every Iron Maiden album cover [I think the original Live at Donnington is the lone exception].  Iron Maiden probably have the coolest album covers and Eddie is a big reason why.  Eddie is iconic – he’s synonymous with Iron Maiden.  A creation of artist Derek Riggs, Eddie has appeared in many guises, to include [but not limited to]:

a Pharaoh/God on Powerslave
a tank-riding soldier on A Matter of Life and Death
a straight-jacketed mental patient [complete with lobotomy] on Piece of Mind
a puppeteer of Satan on The Number of the Beast
the Grim Reaper on Dance of Death
a tree monster on Fear of the Dark
a futuristic Terminator on Somewhere in Time
half of his body removed on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
an axe murderer on Killers

Iron Maiden has put out many compilation albums.  I don’t know why they felt the need to put out so many compilations, but they did.  They include:
Best of the Beast [1996]
Ed Hunter [1999]
Edward the Great [2002]
The Essential Iron Maiden [2005]
Somewhere Back in Time: The Best of 1980-1989 [2008]
From Fear to Eternity: The Best of 1990-2010 [2011]

If I was going to put together a 2-CD compilation of what I think is Maiden’s best work, it would look like this:

Paschendale [Dance of Death, 2003] – The setting of this is the World War I battle of the same name fought in Belgium.  Maiden incorporated strings into their music in a big way on the Dance of Death album, especially this epic about the horrors of war in the trenches on the Western Front.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son [Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. 1988] – The title track from the “concept album” is the lynchpin of the entire album that is core to the story.  One of many Maiden epics that is both loud and quiet, fast and faster, brilliant in its execution.

Stranger in a Strange Land [Somewhere in Time, 1986] – This has absolutely nothing to do with the Robert Heinlein book of the same name.  It has a rock-steady beat that one doesn’t often hear in a Maiden song.  It’s actually about a doomed Arctic expedition, one of the survivors of which Adrian Smith actually met.

The Clairvoyant [Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. 1988] – This one starts with a memorable Steve Harris bass riff.  The Seventh Son can’t tell the difference between his normal vision and what he dreams. He wonders why he seems to be growing stronger, and he’s scared he can’t control his growing power anymore. Then in mid-song, the narration goes from first person to third person. The narrator is somewhat befuddled that the Seventh Son, despite all his powers of clairvoyance, couldn’t foresee his own death.  But what really killed him? Did his supernatural powers consume him, or did the people from the village do the deed?

Tailgunner [No Prayer for the Dying, 1990] – This is the leadoff track from the first album with Janick Gers.  Iron Maiden did a lot of songs with a “war” theme.  This is one of them.  This is written from the point of view of a bomber tailgunner.

Aces High [Powerslave, 1984] – This is the leadoff track from Powerslave, written from the point of view of RAF fighter pilots who fought the Battle of Britain.

2 Minutes to Midnight [Powerslave, 1984] – This reference to the Doomsday Clock is a Smith/Dickinson masterpiece.  It is proof that Steve Harris couldn’t write all the great Maiden tracks himself.

The Wicker Man [Brave New World, 2000] – After a long absence Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to Iron Maiden in 1999.  This is the first song from their first album back in the fold.   Welcome back gents!

Wildest Dreams [Dance of Death, 2003] – This one is a very catchy, short burst of high energy to kick off Dance of Death.  Steve Harris’ lyrics paint a picture of a guy snapping out of a funk and taking charge of his own life.  Great solo from Adrian Smith.

Moonchild [Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. 1988] – This is the opening track from Maiden’s lone “concept album,” Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.  Lucifer [“the bornless one,” “the fallen angel watching you”] comments on the birth of “the chosen one” and also warns his mother that no matter what she does “this child was born to die.” 

Ghost of the Navigator [Brave New World, 2000] – If you’ve been navigating on the seas of life you might run into this character… Janick Gers came into his own as a songwriter when he wrote this – it’s a damn good one.

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg [A Matter of Life and Death, 2006] – Who is Benjamin Breeg?  Only Steve Harris knows, but he did something terrible for which he feels a lot of guilt.  It is one of Maiden’s slower songs.  Adrian Smith is the more rhythm-oriented player of the three Maiden guitarists, and he locks in tightly with Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain and beats the listener into submission.  Great solo from Dave Murray.

Journeyman [Dance of Death, 2003] – Maiden unplugs for this one that closes Dance of Death.  Like Paschendale before it, Journeyman features a string arrangement that works very well.  By far this is the most unique song of the entire Maiden canon.  Like Wildest Dreams that opened Dance of Death, this is another song of empowerment – I know what I want/I’ll say what I want/ and no one can take it away… Bruce’s singing is simply magnificent.  There’s an electric version of this song – I haven’t heard it, I don’t need to hear it.  This one is perfect.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner [Flight 666, 2009 – original version on Powerslave, 1984] – This is what NOT to do if your bird shits on you… This is inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name, and the most epic of all Maiden epics [13:41!!!].

Wrathchild [Rock in Rio, 2001 – original version from Killers, 1981] – Something old, something new, something from our Jurassic period…

Powerslave [Powerslave, 1984] – I don’t wanna die, I’m a god, why can’t I live on?  Even pharaohs can’t escape the power of death.

The Trooper [Piece of Mind, 1983] – A song inspired by the Charge of the Light Brigade, this song probably has the most memorable riff of any song in the Maiden canon.

The Number of the Beast [The Number of the Beast. 1982] – Christians everywhere were convinced this song was proof that the guys in Iron Maiden were devil worshipers.  Steve Harris claims the song was a result of a dream he had after watching Damien: Omen II.  He also claims to have been influenced by Robert Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter when writing the song. Bruce’s scream at the end of the first verse was a result of pent-up frustration because Martin Birch made him sing the first verse over and over again.  That scream must have been very cathartic.  For the record, Vincent Price did NOT read the verse from Revelations.  He wanted too much money – Maiden couldn’t afford him.

Run to the Hills [The Number of the Beast. 1982] – This one documents the clash between American Indians and European settlers who pushed westward to settle in America’s heartland.

Flight of Icarus [Piece of Mind, 1983] – He flew too close to the Sun you know…  I think this is the first song Bruce Dickinson wrote for Iron Maiden [or was it Revelations?  I’m not sure…].  Like Stranger in a Strange Land that came three years later, this one is at a slower pace with a rock steady beat.

Hallowed Be Thy Name [The Number of the Beast. 1982] – The singer is waiting in a cold jail cell, reflecting on his life while waiting for his date with the Hangman.  A song that starts out quietly and slowly gets loud and fast in a hurry.  By my count there are three tempo changes throughout, but the guys in Maiden handle it with no problem.  Is it Maiden’s best song?  Probably.

El Dorado [The Final Frontier, 2010] – Bruce the “snake oil salesman” recruits others to help him on a fool’s errand to look for the lost City of Gold.

The Longest Day [A Matter of Life and Death, 2006] – A turning point in the history of Western Civilization is June 6, 1944 – the invasion of Normandy.  It was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany.  A movie with the same name about that momentous day came out fifty years ago.

Mother of Mercy [The Final Frontier, 2010] – Here’s another “war” song, told from the point of view of a soldier fighting in one.

Sign of the Cross [Rock in Rio, 2001 – original version on The X Factor, 1995] – This was the first song from the first album with Blaze Bayley.  It’s inspired by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  I picked this version because Bruce sings it better.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Ritchie Blackmore

When I started to broaden my musical tastes in the early 1980s beyond the Beatles, I started with The Doors and Pink Floyd.  Once I absorbed them I moved on to lots more stuff, including [but not restricted to] Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.  I’ve already written at length about Tony Iommi, and a blog on Jimmy Page will come at another time.  Today I devote this space to Ritchie Blackmore.

The original Deep Purple [Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord, Ian Paice, Rod Evans, and Nick Simper] formed in 1968.  They recorded a trio of albums that were more on the progressive side of things with the emphasis on Jon Lord’s keyboards.  Jon Lord had a keen interest in fusing pop and classical music.  Ritchie wasn’t too interested in that direction.  Ritchie wanted to make music with a harder edge.  After seeing Led Zeppelin, he saw the direction he wanted to take Deep Purple.  In Ritchie’s mind, the singer [Rod Evans] and the bassist [Nick Simper] weren’t the people to get Deep Purple where he wanted them to go.  After seeing an Episode Six show and liking what they saw and heard, Ritchie and Jon enticed their singer [Ian Gillan] and bassist [Roger Glover] to abandon Episode Six and go with them.  As a bonus, Gillan and Glover were already a songwriting team.  But strangely enough, the first project for the new lineup of Deep Purple [the “Mk II” lineup] was a Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The project got Deep Purple noticed, but the resulting album didn’t sell well.  Ritchie didn’t like the Concerto.  He said:

“I wasn't happy with that.  I wanted to play more rock.  And I said to Jon "um, look, let's give this heavy heavy riffy rock a chance and see how it goes, and if it doesn't work then I'll play with orchestras the rest of my life…”  It wasn't until Led Zeppelin came along that we really had a direction.  We thought 'well, that's the type of music that we want to play, the really heavy rock, the riffy kind of rock.’"

It was Ritchie’s way of saying “we did it your way, it didn’t work, let’s try it my way.”  The result of the “new direction” was Deep Purple In Rock.  The entire album, from the beginning of Speed King, through the epic Child In Time, the searing power chords of Flight of the Rat, to the raucous finale Hard Lovin’ Man, you knew Deep Purple meant business.  They could contend with the heavy guys like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.  After the initial trio of albums with the Mk I lineup and the Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Ritchie made seven more albums with Deep Purple.  Some of those albums were great [Deep Purple In Rock, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Burn], some that were good but not great [Fireball, Who Do We Think We Are], and one that was just plain awful [Stormbringer]. 

After Stormbringer, Ritchie bolted Deep Purple to form his own group, Rainbow. In Rainbow, Ritchie teamed up with vocalist Ronnie James Dio [from Elf] and a revolving cast of musicians to record some of his finest work – Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, and Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll.  These albums saw more of Ritchie’s classical influence brought to hard rock paired with Dio’s knack for lyrical fantasy themes.  It was great music, but it didn’t sell well.  Ritchie wanted a more commercial direction [$$$], but Dio would have none of that.  Dio split, Ritchie first brought in Graham Bonnet, then Joe Lynn turner as vocalists.  IMHO, the music wasn’t as good, but it had its moments.  After four albums with these guys, Ritchie reformed Deep Purple with the rest of the MK II lineup and made a very good album, Perfect Strangers.  Then boredom set in for Ritchie again. After three more albums with Deep Purple and one more with Rainbow, Ritchie tired of making hard rock music and dedicated himself to quieter Renaissance music.  He’s been doing that with his wife Candice Night ever since.

What was it about Ritchie Blackmore that appealed to my ears?  Consider the following:

The riff – Though he is not as prolific a riff writer as Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore has produced his share of memorable riffs.  The most famous of these riffs is Smoke on the Water.  It is one of the most famous, most indestructible riffs in all of rock music.  It’s a very simple riff – but then so is the intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Pluck it with your fingers, don’t strum with a pick.  More memorable riffs include Lazy, Woman From Tokyo, Burn, Man on the Silver Mountain, Black Night [which he admits he pinched from Ricky Nelson’s Sunshine].  Those are just the famous riffs.  Another cool riff of Ritchie’s is Flight of the Rat [Deep Purple In Rock].  On that album I wasn’t sure how Deep Purple would follow the monumental Child In Time, but Flight of the Rat did the trick.  It’s a very intense piece of work.

Speed kills – while my favorite player David Gilmour is much slower and deliberate in his playing and his soloing, Ritchie Blackmore really is a “speed king.”  It’s one thing to be fast, but Ritchie is also very precise.  A sloppy player Ritchie is not.  Of Ritchie Blackmore writer Chris Welch once said "He had this combination of finesse, imagination and taste.  That's the important thing about Ritchie Blackmore." He's the original shredder who didn't lose any ability with age.

Solos – Ritchie admits to having a horrible technical memory and has committed one solo to memory – Highway Star.  But having an inability to remember solos does not equate to being a bad soloist.  In Ritchie’s case, I have never heard him play a bad solo.  If his solos sound like he’s “winging it,” it’s because he is.  Although he is winging it, it always sounds like he knows exactly how to end a solo.  His profound sense of melody gives him that ability to think ahead and know what will work and what will not work.  He seems to get it right every time.  Many guitarists don’t know how to finish a solo.  They’ll play faster until they get to the end.  Not so Ritchie – he knows how to end a solo.  A good example is Street of Dreams.  Forget that it’s a pop song – listen to the solo.  Conversely, there is one example where he doesn’t take a solo at all – Perfect Strangers.  He doesn't solo here because he doesn't need to.  He had the melodic sense to know the song was good enough without one.

The Improvisations – Certain compositions in the Deep Purple repertoire were good vehicles for improvisation and extended soling.  Look no further than Deep Purple In Concert 1970/72, and the listener is treated to three such showcases for both Ritchie Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord to stretch out:  Wring That Neck, Mandrake Root and Space Truckin’.  During the Mark II phase of the band (1969-73), the band was very loud, very aggressive, and quite unpredictable.

The Blues – As loud and brash and in your face that Ritchie Blackmore could get, sometimes he could just lay back and play the blues.  He only hinted at it during Purple’s MK II period with Lazy [Machine Head, 1972].  Ritchie once said he tried to emulate Eric Clapton’s Steppin’ Out from the Bluesbreakers period [see also Live Cream Volume II].  There is quite a similarity between the two.  After Ian Gillan and Roger Glover left the band in June 1973, Ritchie wanted to go more in a blues direction.  He slowed things way down with a long slow blues from Burn [1974] called Mistreated.  Ritchie liked the song so much he took it with him to form Rainbow in 1975.      

Classical – Ritchie brought a classical influence to hard rock guitar [see Highway Star].  He injected rock guitar with the classical scales and chord progressions that inspired future legions of rock guitarists. He also brought medieval, baroque influences to his music. These influences particularly color Ritchie's terrific melodic sense.   Since Ritchie tired of playing rock in the mid-1990s, he’s gone all the way over to playing Renaissance music.  I hope someday he will come back, but I don't see it happening.  The guy is going to be 67 next month, so he probably prefers things to be a lot quieter now.

The Slide – Ritchie uses a metallic slide.  Most other players prefer to use glass because it produces a warmer sound.  Ritchie liked his slide sound a bit more harsh.  He doesn’t use it very much, and you have to dig deep into his catalog to find it, but it’s there to be found on No No No [Fireball – a good headphone song BTW], Mary Long [Who Do We Think We Are], Sail Away [Burn], Difficult to Cure [Finyl Vinyl], the aforementioned Catch the Rainbow [Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow], and his epic solo on Stargazer [Rising].

These are things I like about Ritchie Blackmore.  However, he has been described as moody, sullen, incredibly stubborn, and difficult to work with.  He does nothing to dissuade people otherwise.  Ozzy Osbourne claims to be the “Prince of F**king Darkness,” but he has nothing on Ritchie Blackmore.  Lemmy Kilmister once told a story about Ritchie that, if true, depicts a purely evil guy.  The story goes like this – one time while on tour Ritchie got extremely annoyed with a tour manager.  To show his displeasure with this guy he slipped him a mickey in his drink.  While the guy was unconscious Ritchie and company took this poor bastard, stripped him naked, loaded him in a car, put the car on a ferry to Iceland, and left the car without any keys.  That’s just pure, vindictive malice.  I believe the story to be true.  Ritchie is one of those guys that if he is bored or just not inspired, you know it right away.  About half of Who Do We Think We Are, most of The House of Blue Light, and all of Stormbringer contain evidence of Ritchie “mailing it in.”  He’s demolished as many guitars as Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix.  I saw him destroy a TV camera during the California Jam in 1974.  During that same show he also set his amps on fire. 
There have been eight different incarnations of Deep Purple.  In my view, the incarnation of the band that is the best included Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, and Ian Paice [the so-called "Mark II" line-up].  Yes, that means when it comes to Deep Purple, I am a purist.  Ritchie left the band twice.  He was followed [notice I did not say "replaced"] by Tommy Bolin [1975] and Steve Morse [1994].  I saw the band with Ritchie in 1985, and I saw the band with Steve Morse in 1998.  The 1985 show was a great show.  The 1998 was a good show.  This is not a knock on Steve Morse as he is a fine guitar player.  Steve is a very versatile player who can play in many styles, and can probably play rings around most guitarists past and present.  But the intangible magic that was present in 1985 wasn't there in 1998.  Ritchie and Jon established the classic Deep Purple sound in the early 1970s, and it was a unique sound.  That sound remained intact with the change in vocalists from Ian Gillan to David Coverdale in 1973.  It remained intact with the changing of bass players [also in 1973] from Roger Glover to Glenn Hughes.  But when Ritchie left, the dynamic changed.  The albums that came after Ritchie say "Deep Purple" but they don't sound like Deep Purple.  In concert they sound like a cover band that plays Deep Purple songs.  On their own merits any Deep Purple albums without Ritchie have good music, they just aren't "Deep Purple."

There are many places to find the greatness that is Ritchie Blackmore.  Being the Deep Purple fanatic that I am, I have most of the albums.  I first discovered Rainbow on a British import collection, The Best of Rainbow.  It features all the guys who sang for Rainbow until the time of its release [Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, and Joe Lynn Turner].  I’m partial to the Dio years.  Below are his essential recordings [IMHO].  These are the albums that you can pick any song and you can't go wrong.  I chose my favorites, those that stand out above the rest.  Even on those Deep Purple or Rainbow albums where the entire album isn't up to scratch, there are nuggets to be found if you want to look for them.  Those nuggets are listed here as well.

Essential Stuff
Deep Purple In Rock [1970]
- Speed King, Child in Time, Flight of the Rat
Fireball [1971]
- No No No, Strange Kind of Woman, Demon's Eye, No One Came
Machine Head [1972]
- Highway Star, Pictures of Home, Smoke On The Water, Lazy
Made in Japan [1972]
- Highway Star [best version ever!], Smoke on the Water, Space Truckin'
Burn [1974]
- Burn, You Fool No One, Sail Away, Mistreated
Rising [1976]
- Stargazer, A Light in the Black, Tarot Woman
Long Live Rock 'n' Roll [1978]
- Gates of Babylon, Kill the King, The Shed [Subtle], Lady of the Lake

Good Stuff
Who Do We Think We Are [1973]
- Woman From Tokyo, Mary Long, Rat Bat Blue
Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow [1975]
- Man on the Silver Mountain, Catch the Rainbow, Still I'm Sad
Deep Purple In Concert 1970/1972 [1980]
-Wring That Neck, Mandrake Root
Down to Earth [1979]
-Weiss Heim [instrumental, originally a B-side to All Night Long]
Bent Out of Shape [1983]
- Street of Dreams, Desperate Heart, Fire Dance, Snowman
Perfect Strangers [1984]
- Perfect Strangers, Knocking at Your Back Door, Not Responsible, A Gypsy's Kiss, Nobody's Home, Under the Gun
Finyl Vinyl [1986]
-Difficult to Cure [Beethoven’s Ninth] (Live)
The House of Blue Light [1987]
- Bad Attitude, The Unwritten Law, The Spanish Archer
The Battle Rages On [1993]
- The Battle Rages On, Anya, Time to Kill, Twist of the Tale