This February Universal will release a CD box set of the complete singles collection by Rainbow dating between 1975-86. They are by no means the first artists to receive this treatment and I’m sure there are some who feel it is not before time. All the singles, some of which were non-UK, import only releases come in reproductions of their original sleeves and are accompanied by a 32-page book detailing the releases and sleeve notes by Andy Francis.
Whether or not you feel you need these singles in this format, especially as some are duplicated across the CD’s, is a matter for you. I’m just going to review the music and hopefully help to re-evaluate and appreciate the art of Ritchie Blackmore and his many famous and talented band mates.
But first some context – Rainbow were the first hard rock band I truly loved. In 1985, at the age of 16, I had rather fortunately amassed a small collection of classic rock albums. Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were there, Led Zeppelin I had yet to warm too, but the band I really took to were Rainbow, just as they were splitting up, as it turns out! Sabbath I found a bit too dour, Purple were great but a little muso for my teenage tastes, especially on their many live albums. No, for me Rainbow had it all: the heavy metal-style lyrics and imagery, the incredible guitar playing, the hooks and, possibly most importantly, Ronnie James Dio. Of course, Rainbow have had three great singers and I can’t help but make comparisons with Ozzy Osbourne’s solo output. Ozzy has always attracted incredible guitarists and similarly you’d have to say that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore has always worked with incredible singers. Is any better than the much-missed metal legend Dio? I don’t know, but he was crucial to Rainbow’s early sound. Now it’s easy, but wrong, to imagine the early Rainbow albums as the Ritchie and Ronnie festival of medieval metal. It’s not all ‘Crossbows in the Firelight’ (’16th Century Greensleeves’).
Rainbow’s first single was released in 1975 – CD 1 here – and was ‘Man On the Silver Mountain’, a chest-beating piece of metal theatre which set the template for songs like ‘Kill The King’ and ‘Run With The Wolf’, both featured here. However, the flipside, ‘Snake Charmer’, was actually a funky little number, featuring wah-wah guitar from Blackmore and a lovely supple bass by Craig Gruber (later replaced by Blackmore’s old Deep Purple mucker Roger Glover). 1975 was also the year Deep Purple released ‘Come Taste The Band’, displaying a new, more soulful direction, much aided by the fabulous Glenn Hughes on bass and vocals. It would then be lazy to say that Rainbow picked up the hard rock torch seemingly dropped by Deep Purple, when the evidence against it is pretty compelling across Rainbow’s run of singles in the late 70’s.
CD 3 includes ‘If You Don’t Like Rock’N’Roll’, an R’n’B shit-kicker, the likes of which Ike Turner used to write for Tina to belt out. Then there’s the A-side to CD 7, ‘LA Connection’, which, in retrospect, is one of Rainbow’s very best songs. Loose-limbed, good humored and strutting, there is not a dragon or drawbridge in sight and proves there are plenty of early Rainbow songs you can dance to!
That was Rainbow’s last single with Dio out front but before that there was the double whammy of ‘Long Live Rock’N’Roll’ and the feisty ‘Sensitive To Light’. ‘Long Live Rock’N’Roll’ is, of course, an unimprovable piece of hard rock heaven. The performances are majestic and the sentiment utterly convincing in the hands of these masters. I think it’s actually undervalued and deserves to get as much airplay as classics like ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘My Generation’. But this is not even Rainbow’s finest single. Oh no, my friends, read on…
As an example of Ritchie Blackmore’s willful and errant genius, none is more potent than the hiring of Dio’s replacement. Eyebrows were raised when Graham Bonnet, formerly a rhythm and blues singer with short hair and a predilection for Hawaiian shirts (Gasp!), was convinced to join the band. Without the songwriting foil of Dio, Blackmore turned to ace industry tunesmith Russ Ballard to help out and although this signalled the end of the hard rock epics of yore it did give Rainbow a new commercial lease of life and spawned some of the greatest rock singles of all time.
‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ (CD 9) is a peerless, every-jukebox-should-have-it, stone-cold classic that remains as potent as the day it was unleashed in 1979. I could quite easily have penned an 800-word article on this song alone. Suffice to say that the part in the bridge where the Clapton-esque guitar melody is topped by Bonnet’s crooning of: “If you will come back, Baby you know, You’ll never do wrong” followed by Bonnet’s then very macho “Uh!” is maybe the greatest 20 seconds in recorded musical history.
Of course, Bonnet only lasted for one album, “Down To Earth”, but that album did also spawn the single ‘All Night Long’, which is grittier, dirtier and almost as good as it’s predecessor. Interestingly the B-side to ‘All Night Long’ is the much loved, beautiful instrumental composition ‘Weiss Heim’ and it’s tempting to think that Blackmore, slightly unnerved by the commercial success of his previous single, wanted to point out what a fabulously talented, classically inclined musician he was; “I’m not a pop star!” he seems to be saying!
With the arrival of Joe Lyn Turner it’s possible to see a rather inevitable slide towards a more commercial sound; Journey spring to mind on several of these cuts, not least on ‘I Surrender’ (CD 11), Rainbow’s last really well known single. It is a fantastic performance by Turner, on another Russ Ballard composition, but it is rare from now on that the material befits the talent involved. ‘Tite Squeeze’ is bordering on cock rock and makes me a tad queasy, and ‘Rock Fever’ sounds like a UFO knock-off, but there are still gems to be found.
The Blackmore/Glover-penned ‘Can’t Happen Here’ (CD 14) I believe to be the band’s last great single, a tougher sell on the radio than ‘I Surrender’ being a song about environmental disaster, but it has a pretty good, ahead-of-it’s-time lyric and has a real attack and swinging confidence. ‘Death Alley Driver’ (CD 16) is the band’s stab at a Judas Priest impersonation and, although it lacks the asperity of a Rob Halford vocal, still rocks pretty frickin’ hard.
The majority of the latter singles included here are imports, including live recordings from the Bonnet and Lyn Turner eras. From what I’ve heard (I haven’t been sent the entire set of discs) the best of the bunch is ‘Power’ on CD 17, which is a rip-roaring R’n’B number with a gospel feel and a powerful vocal from Joe Lyn Turner, live from the Convention Centre, San Antonio, on which the band really seem to be enjoying themselves. ‘Stranded’ on CD 18, another incredible performance, from St David’s Hall Cardiff, is also worth hearing, but as talented as Lyn Turner is I suspect there has been some heavy overdubbing of his vocals on this one as it is absolutely pristine and faultless. I’ve seen JLT live and know what a great set of pipes he has, so I think it’s a bit unnecessary to have mucked about with it. After all, if it’s not good enough just don’t release it.
And there we have it. A musical feast of sound across a spectrum as wide as the band’s name. It acts not only as history of the musical career to one of Britain’s most loved hard rock bands, but also of the prevailing styles and movements within the genre. By the time Rainbow split up it was the era of MTV, hair metal bands would soon rule the Earth and thrash metal was in it’s infancy. The time of double live albums with gatefold sleeves, ten-minute classical guitar solos and epic songs about kings and were at an end. So, too, was bland AOR stadium rock taking a kicking and snotty-nosed kids were taking over. It was time for the old guard to step back for a while and take stock. We know now that ‘Classic Rock’ never really died – these songs are too good to die. I don’t know what format you desire them in, but you do need them.
Long live rock’n’roll!