Ritchie Blackmore's Renaissance: From Deep Purple to Medieval Folk Rock

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Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore performs with Rainbow in Germany last year. Fabrice Demessence

With Deep Purple, and later with Rainbow, British guitarist Ritchie Blackmore played a critical role in the history of hard rock and heavy metal. On albums like Purple’s 1972 masterpiece, Machine Head, and Rainbow’s 1976 ear-scorcher, Rising, Blackmore achieved distinct, immediately recognizable sonics with his spellbinding, melodic fretwork.

Blackmore had several stints recording and performing with Deep Purple and Rainbow before forming Blackmore’s Night, a neo-Renaissance folk-rock group, with his wife, the vocalist and musician Candice Night, in 1997. Their band’s 10th studio album, All Our Yesterdays, was released in 2015. As for Rainbow, Blackmore re-established the group for European shows in 2016, and two of the concerts were filmed for the DVD Memories in Rock: Live in Germany

During an exclusive interview with Newsweek, Blackmore discusses, at length, his years in Deep Purple, Rainbow and Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages, a band he performed with as a teen. He also speaks about the groups that inspired his influential music, including Mountain and Vanilla Fudge, and together with Night, talks about their musical relationship.

To get started, can you describe the process of coming up with music for Blackmore’s Night?
Blackmore:
I think it’s kind of a natural process with us both living in the same house. We have a ministudio downstairs, and whenever we feel like it, we can work on whatever ideas come to mind. I’ll be sitting with a guitar, maybe watching TV or something, and I’ll have an idea and Candy will start humming it, and I’ll say, “Let’s take this a stage further.”

Ritchie and Candice 2 Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night of the Medieval/Renaissance group Blackmore's Night. Michael Keel

Are you currently working on new music with Blackmore’s Night?
I’m currently working on my nasal infection [sniffles]. We’re always in that process. Just 10 minutes ago, we were coming up with another song for the Blackmore’s Night project. We don’t plan it. Because there’s so much going on usually. With the two kids, there’s a lot with just the family.

Candice, you wrote some lyrics for Rainbow’s 1995 album, Stranger in Us All. How did you get involved with writing lyrics?
Night:
I was always a fan of Rainbow. I never thought I would be fronting a band, but I always knew I had to do something as far as being connected with music because music for me was my great escape. My breath, my religion, my blood—it was everything, but it was usually vicariously living through songs other people had written. The covers of all my books when I was going to school always had other people’s lyrics.

I was interning for a radio station when I met Ritchie; his band came to town. That one was Deep Purple. Around that time they re-formed and recorded [1984’s] Perfect Strangers. When he re-formed Rainbow in 1995, the singer was having some problems coming up with lyrics and Ritchie asked me if I wanted to try to help before they flew in a professional lyric writer. I wrote 14 verses, and they just circled the four they liked the best, and put two together as a chorus and had a song. It became “Wolf to the Moon.” “Black Masquerade” was another.

Ritchie, how did the regrouping of Rainbow in the mid-’90s come about?
Blackmore:
I kind of left the Purple camp and I was really at a loose end, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t want to travel anymore. They were all over the world, all the time, and I hate traveling. It’s funny, because I chose a profession where all you do is travel. I thought maybe I’ll re-form Rainbow and see how it goes.

Popularity-wise, it went very well. But I wasn’t pleased with the lineup. After being in the studio, I thought, You know, I’m not happy with the singer [Doogie White]. My main connection with music is the singer and if I don’t have a good singer, I can’t force it. And when you bring somebody into a band, sometimes the egos go crazy, so I thought, “Why am I doing this?” And Candy and I would often get around the fire because we were up in Massachusetts in a snow storm all the time, so we‘d often spend nights coming up with ideas. And I noticed that I was having a better time playing songs that Candy could sing rather than what the singer at the time in Rainbow was coming up with.

So I decided to gravitate more toward the ballads and Medieval/Renaissance music, which of course has been my favorite music since 1972. So this was like two things in one: We’re having a good time and I’m playing basically Renaissance music, so I was very happy with that.

Blackmore 2 Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore performing with Rainbow in Germany last year. Fabrice Demessence

The music of Blackmore’s Night is certainly different from the hard rock and metal you performed with Rainbow.
We knew that the type of music we were going to play was not going to attract lots of people. I had agents and managers saying, “That’s not gonna make you famous or do anything for you,” and I said, “I don’t care.”

I’ve been through that monster machine with Purple and to an extent, Rainbow. I wanted to play music that I loved 100 percent, even it meant playing to 60 or 100 people. But luckily, as we kept playing, we attracted all sorts of new fans. After a year or so, we were attracting 1,500 to 2,000 people, which is kind of strange because we never thought we’d be playing to that many people. It just goes to show that if your heart is into something, people pick up on that.

When you reformed Rainbow for the shows last June, were you disappointed that you weren’t able to invite original singer Ronnie James Dio, who died in 2010?
I hate to say it, but no, I wasn’t. I’d finished with Ronnie a long time ago, and we kept in touch now and again but I went on to other things and he was in other things. We kept it very convivial and that, but I think neither one of us really wanted to get back together. He’s a strong alpha male, and so am I; he wanted to go one way, I wanted to go the other.

Deep Purple took several stylistic twists and turns before establishing a hard rock sound that would end up influencing countless rock and metal groups. When did that approach come together?
When the band first came on the scene in ’68, obviously psychedelia was in, and everybody had lights and things. We played the Fillmore East and West; it was great, but we weren’t really a psychedelic band. Someone like Pink Floyd was more into that.

We didn’t really find our way, in my opinion, until we did In Rock [1970]. We seemed to have an idea where the hell we were going. I said to [keyboardist] Jon Lord: Let’s make a rock and roll record, completely hard rock, and if that doesn’t sell we’ll go back to playing with orchestras [Deep Purple played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 1969’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra]. I was a little bit tired with playing with an orchestra because it was very almost contrived. You’d have to play so quietly because the violinist was always complaining the lead guitar was too loud.

My biggest influences were Vanilla Fudge and Mountain. I remember Ian Paice and I were out for a drink in a bar in Germany, in 1970 I think it was, and we were pretty pleased with our record In Rock, and they were playing it. And then this other record came on, and we didn’t know who it was, but it was such an amazing, big, hard sound. We looked at each other very nervously and thought, “Who the hell is that?” We asked the DJ and it was Mountain, with “Mississippi Queen,” and that thundered!

We couldn’t speak because because we didn’t know what to say [laughs]. We thought, Oh, my God, that is one hell of a sound.

In the past you’ve also mentioned the Who as an influence.
When they did “Can’t Explain” that was an eye-opener. When I heard “My Generation,” with that feedback, I thought it was wonderful. A guitarist would do a solo and have a feedback part. Whereas I used to do sessions, and heaven forbid, if I came up with any feedback, I was thrown out of the studio. I knew [drummer] Keith Moon a little bit. I always liked his antics. Very, very funny, great man he was. He would make me cry laughing all time.

Many Rainbow songs feature neo-classical elements. What influenced the classical leanings in your guitar work?
Someone was saying the other day that I came up with the idea of playing classical music to a rock beat. I didn’t really come up with that, although I like having the honor. But there was a band I saw when I was 15 called Nero and the Gladiators, and they dressed up in Roman togas, and  they were playing all this classical music rocked-up. It would be [Vittorio] Monti’s Csárdás, it would be “In the Hall of Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. I was mesmerized by this band. I’ve never been so moved by a band onstage.

Everybody else was playing Chuck Berry and stuff like that. Although I do appreciate Chuck Berry obviously—especially for his lyrics and singing. Most bands around that time—the Rolling Stones came a bit later and a few others—were all influenced by the blues, but I was influenced by classical music.

Two years after In Rock was released, Deep Purple unveiled Machine Head. Can you talk about the making of that album in Switzerland?
The first part we approached was the backing of “Smoke on the Water,” so Paicey [drummer Ian Paice] asked, “What rhythms should we do?” He used to start just playing a rhythm, and I would join in with a chord sequence. On that particular day, we had this gigantic ballroom. What happened was, the rest of the band joined in on the progression, and soon as we started on the backing track, the police turned up to try to close us down, because we were making so much of a racket. They were literally banging at the doors, demanding to be let in. But we knew that if we’d stopped, we would lose these good sounds that we had in this big ballroom.

Then what happened?
We were listening to the playback on Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, and we knew that the police were still there. We heard the track and went, “That’s it, we got it.” We opened up the door and the police said, that’s it, we’ve had too many complaints from the neighbors, you gotta close all this down and move on.

Now we are stuck in Montreux, with no place to play. Luckily we knew Claude Nobs [a city leader who was manager of the Montreux Jazz Festival]. He knew of an abandoned hotel we could play in. Long story short, we set up in the corridors of this old, very cold hotel, because it was snowing. And with the Mobile unit in the courtyard, we did that record Machine Head.

It was strange to hear playbacks because we’d be in the corridor, we’d have to leave the corridor, go through a bedroom, out the window, along the fire escape, in through another window, across the marble reception, and then across the courtyard. It probably took us 10 minutes to get to hear a playback. After a while, whenever the engineer would say, “do you wanna come and hear that,” we’d often stay “oh, no, it’s OK, we’ll leave it for now.” We knew it was gonna be a 10-minute thing and we’d have to put our coats on—it was quite funny. It was trying to play in very adverse conditions. But in a way, it probably motivated us.

The lyrics in “Smoke on the Water” deal with a fire that occurred during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. What happened that night?
We went to see Frank Zappa play in a casino, and someone literally had some sort of flare gun. They shot it at the ceiling and set it on fire. It was very funny: I was watching Frank Zappa and he said, OK everybody, we have to vacate the premises, as there’s a fire. Now, we don’t want anybody to panic, we’ll leave in an orderly fashion. And with that, he took off his guitar, threw it down and jumped out where a window was. He was the first out [laughs]. It was very funny.

Although it was not funny really because the place burnt completely down in 20 minutes. It was dangerous because while trying to get out the back exit, a coat stand fell across the door like a barrier and nobody could get forward or back. We had about 2,000 people pushing and shoving, panicking, so that was frightening.

Ritchie_Blackmore_1977 Ritchie Blackmore performing with Rainbow at Chateau Neuf, Oslo, Norway, on September 27, 1977. Helge Øverås

That song, along with many of your songs with Deep Purple and Rainbow, featured signature Blackmore guitar soloing. What are you thoughts about creating memorable solos?
I’ve always thought what’s important is that when you extemporize your solo, it should be an extension of the actual song. I’ve never been one to be self-indulgent and run around the guitar and go “that’s my guitar solo” and it’s going to impress some guitar players. I’ve always thought that was silly. And quite often, I’ll find that I’ve written a song, an idea, came up with a riff, and we’re finishing it up, and they’ll say, “oh, now put your solo on,” and that I’m now up in a corner. I don’t know really what to play then, so I’ll say let’s have a piano solo or something different because I don’t want it to just be playing for the sake of playing when it means nothing.

Anything to reveal about the tone and synergy onstage during a Blackmore’s Night performance?
We like to think of it as we’re just sitting back—sometimes I sit on the stool and we just play—and it’s like we’re not playing for our fans, we’re playing for our friends, and it’s a party atmosphere and it’s very relaxed.

We go on stage sometimes for four hours and more and play anything the audience wants. I know a lot of groups that are purist Renaissance-music [groups]. But they’re so purist that they tend to miss the point with the audience. They don’t think up their own interpretations. But we do. We don’t sing in Latin, and we don’t adhere exactly to the melody and the chordal structure of what went back in the 1400s and 1500s, yet the people seem to relate to that.

We try to steer clear of playing exactly how it was supposedly written. Although there’s a lot of questions about that, because no one lived back then so no one really knows. The snobbish people say, “Oh you’re not playing really Renaissance music,” though in a way, how would you know?

Sometimes, if I’m in an argumentative mood, I will take it up with certain purists and they say, “Well you weren’t there, none of us were there, so we weren’t exactly sure how they played it.” And they didn’t have concert pitch. There wasn’t that collective tuning. It wasn’t until ‘39 that there has to be a concert pitch that everybody tunes to. I didn’t realize how much snobbery there is in Medieval/Renaissance playing.

Speaking of burning something, you set an amp on fire while performing with Deep Purple at the California Jam in 1974.
That’s right. That was part of our more-musical moments.
 
What was it like performing to nearly 300,000 people?
The obvious thing was it was nice for the ego. We had to get flown in by helicopter because there was traffic jams all over California to get there. But I’m always weary of doing outside venues with other big bands because there’s a lot of sabotage, believe it or not. It was an old trick to sabotage the other band by taking out half the P.A., but invariably it was the road crew, not the band. We had it done to us so many times, I would always go up the side of the stage and actually listen to each speaker to make sure we had a sound coming out.

Deep Purple co-headlined Cal Jam with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. What do you remember about the late Keith Emerson?
I always loved watching Keith perform. I was a big fan of the Nice [the group Emerson was in before joining ELP]. We used to play the rounds together back in ’68, ’69.  To me, he was one of the best showmen and players. A very nice guy. I always liked watching him. Some of the favorite frontmen would be Freddie Mercury [of Queen], Ian Anderson [of Jethro Tull], obviously Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. People like that were so good at doing the show as well as playing the music.

Candice, what instruments do you play with Blackmore’s Night?
Night:
I play nine Renaissance and woodwind instruments during the shows, and while recording, I play even more because we have access to more of them in the house. We like to kind of give a nod to the original melody content and the some of the instrumentation. It’s easy to find a bass player or drummer or keyboard player, but to find a shawm or a rauschpheife or a cornamuse  or a gemshorn player is a little bit more difficult. So Ritchie often winds up playing the hurdy-gurdys, the nickel harps and the mandolins, and I take care of the shawms, cornamuse, the rauschpfeife. I play some hurdy-gurdy as well. sometimes we do the dual hurdy-gurdy thing [laughs].

We live at the end of our road here, and it’s very dark down here, we’re next to the woods. And every once in awhile, at about 2 o’clock in the morning, which is right before we go to sleep, Ritchie will plug in the hurdy-gurdies and an amplifier and put it outside on our deck. The sound that come out of these instruments is just like nothing you’ve ever heard before. I’m sure the whole neighborhood has no idea what these sounds are. It’s like a wailing banshee coming out of the woods. They’re amazing instruments.

Ritchie and Candice 1 Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night of Blackmore's Night. Michael Keel

How would you compare your approach to Renaissance music to the way rock has been played over the years?
Blackmore:
I think rock and roll came along because people were sick to death of other musicians criticizing the music and saying it’s not perfect. Rock and roll is never perfect, and everybody’s happy about it because it’s exciting and energetic. There’s still some deciphering of the music and criticizing it, but not to the extent that classical players do. They’re very full of themselves. To criticize and say that the person doesn’t have the correct vibrato or this or that, I think that destroys the music.

Indeed, when Pete Townshend ripped into a guitar part, it didn’t always sound “perfect,” but that’s part of the appeal.
Maybe if a classical orchestra started burning their violins then they would have more of an appeal.