TRIBUTE TO RONNIE JAMES DIO – PART II THE RAINBOW YEARS
“You are the driver / you own the road / you are the fire – go on, explode” (DIO, “Stand Up and Shout”).
First I want to thank Dimas Bramantyo (guitar shred hero for VALERIAN, Surabaya power-metal) for writing his tribute to the legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio. We included pictures of Dimas and Ukay Mortis there because VALERIAN and UMBRA MORTIS are two excellent power-metal bands playing now in Indonesia which are walking in the footsteps of RAINBOW, Ritchie Blackmore, and Ronnie Dio. I’m sure bassist Jimmy Bain in 1976 would not have been able to imagine that the brilliant new music he was playing with RAINBOW would be being played on the other side of the world by Indonesian bands 30 years later. It really is an amazing story.
Dimas Bramantyo wrote the story of the life of Ronnie James Dio including his professional life as a power-metal singer and his personal life. In my tribute here, it will be more subjective. I will talk about how certain songs and albums of RJD changed my life in high-school and why I personally love not only RJD’s voice but also his charm, warmth, humour, compassion, and courage. RJD was always on the side of the good – a kind of combination of Catholicism and white paganism of the type you might find on the country roadsides and front gardens of his native Italy. He was not one of those ever-serious, stone-faced, church-burning black-metallists of the early-1990s. He was altogether more charming and humorous – and he was on the side of the good, not the evil. We were “hungry for heaven”, not for hell. He was walking in the same footsteps as BLACK SABBATH (Tony Iommi’s cross was never upside-down) and he had a similar worldview to HELLOWEEN, FATES WARNING, and the legendary TROUBLE. He would warn you to stay away from evil: “There is a place just south of Witches’ Valley / where they say the rain won’t fall” (BLACK SABBATH, “Lady Evil”). RJD would warn you to stay away from wicked women: (“Oh, walk away / she’s looking to love you / there’s nothing to say / so just turn your head and walk away.” (BLACK SABBATH, “Walk Away”)) We didn’t always follow this advice!
Over time, as Dimas Bramantyo wrote, RJD’s magical mystical lyrics of knights, angels, demons, castles, and dragons became the language and culture of power-metal. It nearly died in the 1990s until revived by HAMMERFALL which opened its debut album Glory for the Brave (1997) with the masterful RJD-style track “The Dragon Lies Bleeding”. While black-metal put you on the side of the evil, power-metal put you on the side of the good.
My dad had a vinyl record LP version of DEEP PURPLE’s Machine Head album and I would say this was my introduction to the metal world, along with AC/DC which had risen to extreme fame around the world after Bon Scott’s death. I remember at high school Kevin Francis wrote on his school bag: “VAN HALEN, BON SCOTT REST IN PEACE”. My favourite bands at age 15 were the mighty JUDAS PRIEST, IRON MAIDEN, and SAXON. I was surfing on the wave of the NWOBHM and I didn’t even own a surfboard (joke!) This was 1984-85 when IRON MAIDEN, at its absolute peak, had played five sell-out nights at the massive Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles on the year-long “World Slavery Tour”. I remember talking with school-mate Mitchell Duke about the great JUDAS PRIEST on the Number 105 bus into Perth City one afternoon. I listened to “Gods of Thunder” heavy-metal radio show on Monday nights. “I read the music paper from the back and to the front” (SAXON, “Denim and Leather”). I used to go into Perth City on the bus and hang out at “Twilight Records” shop, this tiny shop full of vinyl LPs down this arcade no-one ever walked down. This sleepy dude with long white hair was the only one who ever worked there. We could never communicate because the music was played so loud and he would never turn it down! “Denim and leather / runs all together / it was you who set the spirit free”.
I also loved RJD and four albums especially: Rainbow Rising, Long Live Rock and Roll (RAINBOW), Heaven and Hell (BLACK SABBATH), and Sacred Heart (DIO). I admit I have not heard all of DIO’s ten studio albums. I don’t think many people have. Here I will discuss my favourite songs and albums featuring RJD on vocals. Part II is about RAINBOW and Part III is about BLACK SABBATH. RJD refers to the person and DIO refers to the band.
As Dimas Bramantyo wrote, Ritchie Blackmore left DEEP PURPLE to form RAINBOW and he recruited all members of the American band ELF to join him except for the guitarist. Soon he felt that this band was holding back his progress and so he replaced all of the ELF members with the exception of the vocalist, a certain Mr Ronnie James Dio. Jimmy Bain joined on bass, Cozy Powell on drums, and Tony Carey on keyboards. This was perhaps the greatest line-up of metal musicians ever assembled then or since. They were ready to release the brilliant album Rainbow Rising in 1976, every song of which is a classic and several appeared in DIO’s live set right up until his death.
All of the medieval lyrics were firmly in place and RJD and Blackmore put in a masterful effort, each being the perfect balance and counterfoil for the other. If perhaps SAXON never reached the heights it should have due to vocal weaknesses perhaps it was the bland generic name that stopped RAINBOW being as famous today as it absolutely should be. I think you need an interesting and catchy name like LED ZEPPELIN, DEEP PURPLE, IRON MAIDEN or CANNIBAL CORPSE to be truly successful! Many regard Rainbow Rising to be the greatest metal album of the 1970s. A YouTube comment says "Stargazer" from Rainbow Rising may be the greatest song of all time - it is better than the overplayed "Stairway". In Rainbow Rising we have modern power-metal of the type IRON MAIDEN made famous ten years later.
The album opened with the powerful, surging, hypnotic “Tarot Woman”, a classic power-metal opening track which has always remained part of RJD’s live set. The brilliant riff just never leaves your head. Then we have classic songs such as “Stargazer”, “Starstruck”, and “A Light in the Black”. “Stargazer” covers lyrics of a medieval quest or journey to see the wizard climb to the top of the world (only to fall). This “journey” idea was a constant RJD theme which he came back to on later songs such as “Sacred Heart” (1985). RJD’s voice on Rainbow Rising was powerful, deep, rich, warm, full of emotion and yet fully self-controlled. The variations in timing make the slower sections (“in the heat and the rain / with whips and chains”) equally as strong as the faster parts. The production mirrored RJD’s voice: rich, lush, powerful, multi-dimensional, and grand.
We also see another side to RJD’s lyrics here: the skilful combination of grand, medieval themes with modern, everyday themes. “Starstruck” simply refers to a misguided young female fan who might bring bad luck to the band by her lack of self-control (“The lady’s star struck / she’s nothing but bad luck / for running after me”). Gene Simmons was never so superstitious! However, even here, the spiritual world of good and evil, angels and demons, good and bad luck is never far away. It always threatens to break into the everyday world just like Jack the Ripper’s bloody knife on the streets of Whitechapel during that “autumn of terror” so long ago. Songs such as “Helloween” by HELLOWEEN and “Kiss of Death” and “Night on Brocken” by FATES WARNING take up similar themes.
We then have the so-called joke song that many people have criticized – “Do You Close Your Eyes (When You Are Making Love)” (“oh, it won’t take long to see”). Here there is the hidden dimension that perhaps such an everyday or even trivial thing such as closing one’s eyes could take on such a deeper spiritual meaning (which is never fully made clear). Is it better to close or open the eyes when you’re making love, Mr RJD? More crucially we see RJD’s cheerful humour here (that always placed him far above the level of stone-faced black-metallers). The warmth and cheerfulness in the voice in this song provides a point of contrast to the rest of the album vocally. You can almost see him grinning and we start grinning too.
The following album, 1977s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, saw Bob Daisley replacing Jimmy Bain on bass. (Actually Daisley is credited with bass on the album but the bass was played by Blackmore.) These two albums are markedly different in spirit, production, and lyrical focus while still being recognizably the same band. Both albums are the work of genius and compare favourably to IRON MAIDEN’s three great albums of the early-1980s Beast, Piece, and Powerslave.
The opening up-tempo, cheerful song “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” has also been a constant in RJD’s live set and many younger fans are probably unaware that it is a RAINBOW song from 1977. Even here the song’s lyrics are apparently a simple AC/DC-style message about the joys of rock and roll. However, there appears to be a deeper hidden meaning that we can never quite catch: “It’s the best that you can do”, “I can feel the sound of writing on the wall”, and “if you suddenly see what has happened to me”. Perhaps RJD is suggesting rock and roll or power-metal is a spiritual world itself with its own meaningful challenges, rewards, thrills, dangers – and yet it requires a full commitment. It cries out to you. Rock and roll is like a spiritual quest. Watch out for star-struck women! RJD’s sense of the grand and the majestic has always helped teenage fans, with their boring, regimented, dull and grey high-school lives, to dare to dream and to take risks and to look with hope towards the future. “There was a lot of future in Dio’s dreaming”. (I don’t know how RJD survived the 1990s – well yes I do, listen to “Strange Highways”).
The album’s production is thin and dry, which creates a somewhat sparse, sombre, and lonely feeling. The only warmth is in RJD’s voice. The production gels perfectly with the more street-based and less magical lyrics on this album. The production is totally different from the lush, grand, and rich sound of Rainbow Rising. Here we have more of a clear, crisp, dry, and thin sound which is similar to that used so effectively on METALLICA’s Master of Puppets.
The lyrics are more street-based and down-to-earth on LLRR but of course even these lyrics have spiritual overtones and religious double-meanings (like AC/DC and KISS songs often have sexual double-meanings). The brilliant “LA Connection” talks about Tony Carey leaving the band and yet RJD weaves into the lyrics a kind of medieval Christian message – “I’m banished from the fold / I’m a fallen angel that’s lost its wings and been left out in the cold”. Is this just a metaphor or is RJD putting his own spiritual interpretation on to the events? The slow-paced, stop-start riff matches the urgency and appeal in RJD’s voice. By leaving the band RJD perhaps suggests Carey is on his own in the harsh and tempting world and his soul is in spiritual danger. “Carry on my broken bones, don’t lay me down to rest” RJD proclaims which is his life’s message about persevering among life’s troubles (natural and spiritual) summed up in a single line (and twenty years before HATEBREED). “Forty days of cries and moans / I guess I fail to pass the test” echoes the struggle of Christ’s temptations for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness of Judea.
“The Lady of the Lake” brings back the mystical, spiritual themes of Rainbow Rising. It refers to a female ghost that wants our soul. The ghost is a source of fascination but also of danger (“when she comes to me she’s got my life in her hands / lady of the lake”). RJD always encouraged us to live a careful and responsible life so we would not fall victim to spiritual snares for the soul. It could be best described as superstitious countryside Catholicism mixed with white paganism, humour, and just a little common-sense. Danger from females (real and ghostly) continues to haunt much of RJD’s later work such as “Walk Away” on BLACK SABBATH’s Heaven and Hell. Those 1980s metalheads who had bad first marriages probably regret now they did not heed RJD’s powerful advice more closely!
“Gates of Babylon”, the most majestic track on this album and the one that is closest to the style of Rainbow Rising, continues the spiritual message of watching out for evil: “Sleep with the devil and then you must pay / sleep with the devil the devil will take you away”. The title “Gates of Babylon” also has biblical foundations, referring to the Jews’ years of punishment and temptation in secular Babylon.
The first track on the second side of the 12-inch vinyl album was the fast-paced “Kill the King”. This may also be a story that has an Old Testament reference point. It refers to a power-hungry queen about to kill the king. The fast-paced song sees RJD shouting: “Danger danger, the queen’s about to kill” and “power power, it happens every day / power power corrupts all along the way”. RJD could never be accused of hiding the dark truths of the world from his young fans. Like the IRON MAIDEN lyrics on The Number of the Beast album, we get two perspectives. RJD seems to get caught up in the excitement of the traitorous behaviour of the queen so the moral condemnation of the act gets lost or blurred: “Kill the king / he’ll rule no more / strike him dead / the people roar”. We feel the power of mob rule and the desire for anarchy. Behind it all is the message that most kings are tyrants anyway. This song is life-affirming and makes us want to smash down things in life which hold us back. The medieval setting gives it a little added mystery and romance that “kill the school principal” would not have achieved. RJD always offered us an escape from our dreary world but in the escaping he gave us the power and the wisdom to go back to our world and change it (or just endure it – it is not easy trying to change your high-school!) “You are the driver / you own the road / you are the fire – go on, explode” (DIO, “Stand Up and Shout”).
|Kieran James, Max Richter, Sean Martin-Iverson|
The album closes with the majestic and very moving ballad “Rainbow Eyes”. RJD’s vocal performance is masterful here as well. Unfortunately here RAINBOW began the formula which was later adopted as a standard model by thousands of second-rate 1980s hair-metal bands: a ten-song album with a fast opener and a ballad at the end. However, no-one could fault RAINBOW for this album – one of the very best heavy-metal albums ever recorded in any genre of metal.