I must confess that it feels a little odd to be sitting opposite Ritchie Blackmore in a Connecticut restaurant.A little more than nine hours and 4,000 miles earlier, I had been stirred from a blissful slumber with a completely unexpected call from Metal Hammer’s editor.
Deep Purple’s retiring guitarist had requested our presence with a view to chatting about the band’s forthcoming ‘House Of The Blue Light’ album and tour, and when somebody like Ritchie Blackmore expresses interest in a chat, you don’t let paltry things like oceans get in the way.
So, here we are, the two of us, deep in conversation. With someone whose words are rare as this particular subject, I always try to cut out the waffle and give a flavour of what went down. "You don’t do many interviews, do you Ritchie?" I enquire.
"No, but to be quite honest that’s the way I like it," he grins. "I tend to be too honest, and the people from the record company don’t like it."
The guitarist has been based in the States since around 1974 when he evidently got stuck in the country and decided to remain here due to an assortment of reasons.
"Officially, it’s for the taxman, but there’s more to it than that," he reveals. "I can go to a club here and I don’t feel the tension. England’s built a lot more on tension and nervous energy. Here, people just wanna play, maaan, and take drugs and things. America’s good because they don’t have such a chip on their shoulder, but at the same time they’re not as creative as the Europeans. But in England there’s that situation of being the ice cream of the month. Certain bands are ‘in’ for a while and then quite suddenly it’s onto the next one."
Do you resent the way that the press has treated the band, then?
"I just don’t wanna read it anymore. I always knew we were gonna be knocked, but now it’s got to the point where they’ve knocked us so much that they can’t knock us anymore. So now they pick on everyone else and it’s great fun. I get a great kick out of it. I know this is gonna sound weird but sometimes there’s a part of me that [reads the criticism] and says, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. We shouldn’t have released so-and-so’. That’s party why I don’t do press receptions or go around as an ambassador for the band – I’m liable to agree with someone who says that the latest LP stinks.
"But I do think that the English music press has become incredibly humorous," he continues. "I was reading the Melody Maker the other day and there was this stuff about Paul McCartney. They were just crucifying him; the best composer we’ve had in the past hundred years. They were saying that he had too much money and he was overweight with this horrible wife. I can imagine them saying the same thing about Beethoven in his day."
"I don’t go around as an ambassador for the band – I’m liable to agree with someone who says that the latest LP stinks"
The last time I’d seen Blackmore in the flesh was in London. It was the night before Purple’s gig at Knebworth Park and he’d crept into the Marquee Club in Wardour Street to see Chariot. Though unannounced and decidedly low-key, he was still the subject of a flurry of attention. Does he get much opportunity to check out up ‘n’ coming new talent?
"It’s great to be able to go to a club, but it gets a bit awkward when people come up and ask for my autograph," he sighs. "I just think, ‘Why?’ It’s great for showbiz people like Rod Stewart – he gets worried if people don’t ask him for his – but I’m really not into showbiz. I just like to think that I’m a kind of above average musician.
"I don’t go to clubs to check out the opposition, that’s gonna show itself on record or on the radio sooner or later," he clarifies. "I just like to see a band playing and it’s almost like a childhood memory. You start to remember what it’s like to play in a small club and the good feelings of the time."
So those early days still hold fond recollections for him?
"Some of them," laughs Ritchie. "It’s nothing to do with whether or not I was starving at the time. The starving days were some of the best times, but sometimes I was playing with musicians that I hated. Some of them were complete snobs who thought that if you played rock ‘n’ roll you were too loud. Especially playing with Screaming Lord Such & The Savages; half the band were rock ‘n’ roll and half the band were jazz snobs. They used to drive me crazy. The happiest times were the days at the Star Club in Hamburg, 1955. They were some of my favourite experiences. I used to knock off the chambermaid when her fiancée would drop her off. Things like that used to make it."
What sort of bands does Ritchie listen to these days?
"I don’t listen to too many bands. I listen to individual players. At the moment I’m listening to a band called Mannheim Steamroller. They play Christmas carols, but in such a way that it’s really great. They’re like a synthesizer band with mandolins. There are some really incredible, gripping chord changes."
Is this man winding me up? I’m not sure. Does he still listen to much classical music?
"Yep, but not as much. People tend to term classical music as being from the 17th Century onwards, but I tend to listen to a lot of medieval music. It stirs the soul. I believe in reincarnation, so it must all kind of tie in. Not too many rock bands do it for me. I’ve heard it all before, but not as fast."
So what does he make of Metallica, for instance?
"I’ve heard of them, but I’ve not heard them yet," he admits. "I’ll catch the odd guitarist, though. There are some quite good ones around, but the bands are just sort of okay. The guitarists are outstanding."
He’s got a point. There’s a whole new wave of rock guitarists filtering though at the moment.
"Yeah, but the latest trend seems to be how fast you can get from A to B without actually playing anything," Blackmore observes. "It’s good, but I find it leaves me cold. Okay, you can hear that the guy has practised, but what’s he feeling? A lot of people are out to impress, but the guy that sticks out at the moment is Steve Vai [of David Lee Roth’s band]. He’s really shit-hot. Not only can he play every style there is, he can write and transpose the whole thing as well. He can play the very fast licks, or he’ll just play it another way. Amazing."
And what about Yngwie J Malmsteen? I’ve seen reviews that suggest the Swede’s new LP ‘Trilogy’ is a Rainbow ‘Rising’ for the 1980s. Ritchie nods in agreement.
"I think he’d be the first person to say that, too," he says. "People ask me what I think of this guy copying me. Usually I don’t think much of people copying at all, but he’s been doing it incredibly well. The guy is a brilliant guitar player. Some of my fans must think that I hate Yngwie, but we’re actually good friends. He’s worked his arse off to play that well."
Now that Ritchie has had two years to sit back and consider Deep Purple’s comeback album ‘Perfect Strangers’, what does he think of it objectively?
"I don’t really know what to say," he says, genuinely lost for words. "You turn out LPs like sausages in a way. That’s not putting the album down, I just hate looking back."
At the time of its release, bassist Roger Glover commented that the album gave the Deep Purple fans what they wanted, suggesting that any experimentation would follow with the next album. Now that ‘House Of The Blue Light’ is here, did Glover’s prediction come true?
"Roger’s known to be a liar," Ritchie quips. "He’s a great guy, but he does give incredibly dull interviews. I’ve never looked at it the way he does. We don’t set out to give the fans what they want, we just give ourselves what we want. Luckily the fans are in there, too. They like what we like."
So how would Blackmore describe the progression from ‘Perfect Strangers’ to ‘House Of The Blue Light’? When he replies, I think he’s misheard my question.
"Do you know George Bodnar?" he responds.
Yes, of course. ‘Crazy George’ is a photographer of some repute.
"Well, he asked me that same question. And when I said that I liked this new album a lot, her said, ‘Cor, that’s amazing. It must be really good’. With this album [pauses]… I don’t think I’d go as far as to say I was excited about it, but I play it quite a lot, which is very unusual. Ian [Gillan]’s singing is amazing. He had an operation on his tonsils and his voice is sounding so rich. It’s gone down about a semi-tone, so I’m well pleased with that. We actually did take a long time over this album; went back and re-recorded most of the tracks."
"Joe Lynn Turner was a fucking drag. He was such a nice guy at the start, but then he got into drugs and started thinking he was the cat’s whiskers"
It’s all a far cry from the first Deep Purple album, then. Released in September 1968, ‘Shades Of Deep Purple’ was completed in just 18 hours.
"Yeah, that first one, we took two takes on everything. And that was one try and another in case we made a mistake."
Okay, let’s bring things back to the 1980s again. Who actually instigated the Deep Purple reunion two years ago?
"It was going around for ages," he replies. "There were a few nights when I came off stage with Rainbow and would ponder that there were so many fans of Deep Purple around. I was picking up a genuine interest. I was having a good time with Rainbow, but I thought that [a Deep Purple reunion] would be a good idea now that I’d got having my own band out of my system.
"I was getting crazy and there were all sorts of problems," he adds. "I felt there were some people who were getting a bit lazy in certain areas. That was the first thing that got me into the idea. So I went round to Ian Gillan’s house at Christmas one year and asked him to join Rainbow. He said no, so we got drunk and that was it.
"Then about four years later he initiated it. I was getting very cheesed off with my singer [Joe Lynn Turner] and I knew that I couldn’t get another one. This guy was like – I don’t like speaking badly about other musicians, but I’m going to – this guy was a fucking drag. He was such a nice guy at the start, but then he got into drugs and started thinking he was the cat’s whiskers. I took that for about a year and then said, ‘That’s it’. All the time I had the Purple thing going and I was excited and then down about it. Then Joe started acting up, I just decided to knock Rainbow on the head. So we put Purple back together. It was time to go back.
"We had all started to lose respect for each other when Ian left [in 1973]. We were a bit younger and into revelling against whatever we were doing – even success. It took 10 years for us to look back and think, ‘Yeah, that was good’. So we all got back together."
If Ritchie had to put the original split down to one factor, what would it be?
"Ah, the split," he muses playfully. "That was the inevitable thing. It was like the seven-year itch. You just have to get away from it. And it’s odd. A lot of the bands that I’ve been fond of have tended to split up after about seven years.
"Funnily enough, I wanted to get a band together with Phil Lynott [Thin Lizzy bassist/vocalist]. It was going to be Phil, Ian Paice [Purple drummer] and myself. A trio. We made a couple of records that still must be around in the vaults. This was way back in 1972/3. I kept saying to Ian [Paice], ‘That’s it, I’m leaving’. And he’d say he was with me, but would wonder if it was wise. I was sick of the safe bet."
Were there any doubts when Purple were finally put back together again?
"Oh yeah, it was a big gamble. But I thought it would be fun. I saw Ian [Gillan] objectively at the Marquee with his band [Gillan] and he was incredible. And yet I never thought he was incredible when he was in the band. Then I got talking to him again and he told me to hurry up and make up my mind what I was doing, or he would go and join Black Sabbath. But it was a gradual thing."
When did it dawn upon Ritchie that things were going to work out?
"I think it was on the first part of the tour, in Australia. I suddenly realised that there was a gap for this type of music because only ZZ Top were doing that aggressive stuff. Everyone was playing like The Police. And can I state here that I hate The Police?"
Indeed you can. I loathe them, too.
"There just wasn’t a band playing that earthy kind of rock," he continues. "Our music isn’t contrived, and there isn’t that sheen of gloss."
Here’s another quote from Roger Glover. He’s said that he thinks there will always be a Deep Purple; that the world needs you. How much credence does Ritchie give this theory?
"It’s quite a profound statement, and Roger doesn’t take drugs," he responds sagely. "Yeah, I suppose so. That’s the kind of promotional statement that the record company will love. As long as the world doesn’t need The Police, that’s all I care about."
"I’m really not into showbiz. I just like to think that I’m a kind of above-average musician"
Talking frankly, many people were surprised that Deep Purple have made a second reunion album. Some anticipated the band coming back, taking the money and doing a runner.
"That’s true. After we’d done the first one, lots of people kept asking what we were doing next. They all assumed it was a one-off. It was interesting to see that reaction. Everyone thought that I would automatically just put Rainbow back together again."
Does that mean you won’t do it should Purple call it a day again?
"No. Never. I would do something else with somebody else again. I’m so sick of the name Rainbow. It was something that after about three years, I absolutely just hated."
Talking of history, a cynic might suggest that Deep Purple have no been around for so long, there’s nothing fresh left for them to do.
"Being a cynical person myself, I don’t blame them," he beams mischievously. "But as this LP proves, we haven’t run out of steam at all. I go into the studio, play the riff without any preconceived ideas at all, and see how it feels. That’s how we write our songs. Other bands will sit around with acoustic guitars, we never do any of that."
Purple will commence a string of European dates to promote the album in March, with the Brian Howe-fronted version of Bad Company set to open for them. It’s pleasing to see that Purple are playing a proper tour this time around, as opposed to a one-off like Knebworth.
"I don’t see it as touring," Blackmore fires back with a shrug. "I like to see it more as travelling around with a guitar, rather than talking about the tour and the lights and everything. That’s when the competition comes in and you have to try to outdo all the other bands."
Blackmore is known for his spontaneity. I recalled that once he swapped instruments with Roger Glover during a concert version of ‘Smoke On The Water’.
"Yeah," he laughs. "Roger’s a bit of a frustrated guitarist. The first time I did that, he didn’t know what hit him."
Glover is certainly not the only one to have fallen foul of Blackmore’s celebrated onstage sense of humour. On another notable occasion, Joe Lynn Turner was left all on his lonesome when Rainbow played at the Michael Sobell Sports Centre in London. The poor guy was so shocked, he didn’t know what to do and had to resort to impersonating trains while the rest of the band laughed their heads off in the dressing room.
"That’s more than likely," recalls Ritchie with a sadistic smile. "What we’d do was that I’d signal to the drummer, and we’d stop. I’d come in after four bars and we’d all dash off and leave him.
Sure enough, we took it down to a whisper and left him there. Joe wasn’t the kind of guy to laugh it off, he wanted to use it as a big opportunity. We haven’t left Ian Gillan out there yet, but it’ll happen."
"I don’t think I’d go as far as to say I was excited about ‘House Of The Blue Light’
but I play it quite a lot, which is very unusual"
Hardly the words of a moody bastard, you’ll probably agree. Even if he will admit to the odd bout of gamesmanship, is his reputation justified or did I just catch Blackmore on a good day?
"We’ll get into the moodiness later if you stick around," he promises. "No, I think it’s just a natural characteristic which has been exaggerated. People tend to take things the wrong way. It’s only because I care about the things we do. But I’m a hypocrite anyway. I never really believe what I say, not when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll."
Does he enjoy baring his soul to complete strangers in the interview scenario?
"No," says Blackmore abruptly. "I’m too vulnerable. Not from a critic’s angle, but from other angles as a person. I’m a sensitive person. One minute I’m too sensitive and the next I’m thick. I don’t give a damn what anybody else days. There’s never a dull moment with me. I just don’t know what I’m thinking of sometimes. Sometimes even friends will call up and they’ll know to leave me alone."
So finally, is Ritchie Blackmore happy with the way things are going?
"At the moment I’m quite happy, but then what is happiness?"
Okay, let’s rephrase the question. How content is he with the progress that Deep Purple have made with ‘House Of The Blue Light’?
"I really like what we’ve done," he concludes. "I think it’s worth a listen. Give it a few listens and see what you think."
The official Ritchie Blackmore website
P.S. Dave says...
Now this was surreal. Looking back, I’m surprised that the interview makes any kind of sense at all. Like the text says, I was somewhat hung over after seeing Status Quo and Waysted in Brighton the night before when the call came. Could I drop whatever I was doing – being sick into a bowl, probably – and head to Heathrow where there was a ticket to JFK Airport with my name on it? It was in the days before desktop publishing, so would I also come in to pick up a portable typewriter? Oh, and as the magazine was on deadline I’d be required to write the story immediately after the interview and fax it to the typesetters in Germany. So no pressure, then. With questions anxiously scribbled down on the flight and no little sense of trepidation, I leapt into the void (with no credit card and a mere £30 in my pocket, as I recall). Blackmore was excellent company, as enigmatic as I’d imagined. When he suggested a little cocktail to keep me awake, I secretly feared he was playing up to his image and giving me a drink to make me doze. But no. The typewriter ribbon snapped, and jetlagged and bone-weary, I wrote the piece in a deserted reception on the hotel’s word processor… just about hitting the deadline. Phew! (25th August, 2004)