Revenge of the Black Sheep, Pt I: Sheep Purple

How the Hell do you replace Ronnie James Dio?

When the members of Black Sabbath were faced with having to replace Ronnie James Dio, they asked ex Deep Puple singer Ian Gillan. Gillan accepted, if only to kill time while waiting for Ritchie Blackmore to wind up Rainbow and eventually reunite Deep Purple Mk II. The resultant Sabbath album, ‘Born Again’, is perhaps the ultimate example of a Black Sheep record, an anomally that refuses to fit comfortably within the Sabbath ouvre and remains a controversial work to this day. Even Gillan himself has disowned it. However, as the decades pass, it’s been increasingly easier to take the record at face value, without the context or the baggage that came with it at the time of its release. Still the red-headed step-child of Black Sabbath’s discography, ‘Born Again’ is now increasingly viewed a classic of Heavy Metal and can be judged solely on its merits and not against what came before.

Flashback back to 1978. How the Hell do you replace Ronnie James Dio?

Initially, Blackmore didn’t look too far outside of the Purple family for a new lead vocalist: Ian Gillan was asked to join (!), but declined the invitation. Pete Goalby of Glenn Hughes’ old band Trapeze was also approached. But ultimately Blackmore chose a singer so far outside of the world of heavy rock that most Rainbow fans had never heard of him. Those who were familiar with his extensive history reacted with stunned disbelief.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Graham Bonnett.
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From 1968 to early 1970, Graham Bonnett was one half of the singing duo The Marbles, with fellow Brit Trevor Gordon. The Marbles scored a few chart singles on the continent with the help of some famous friends— the Marbles were protoges of the Bee Gees, who wrote 6 songs for the duo and provided backing vocal tracks on several Marbles recordings. When The Marbles ended, Bonnett spent several years recording commercial jingles for TV and radio in the UK, appeared as rock singer Billy Beethoven in the comedy film ‘Three For All’, and recorded two R&B/pop flavored albums, ‘Graham Bonnett’ and ‘No Bad Habits’ for Mercury. This smooth commercial crooner was not the most obvious choice to replace The Man on the Silver Mountain.

…Unless Blackmore was planning something completely different for Rainbow’s fourth studio album. Which was exactly the case. The record’s title, ‘Down to Earth’, perfectly captured Rainbow’s change in direction. Dungeons and dragons were out, in favor of more conventional hard rock subject matter; all of the album’s lyrics were penned by Roger Glover (also Rainbow’s ‘new’ bassist), before a new singer was hired. Overall he entire record is much more commercial than any of the Dio-era albums. Blackmore even went as far as employing an outside writer (Russ ballard) for the album’s chart single ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’. Clearly the guitarist was aiming at mainstream success in America.
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But would this new Rainbow line-up, which included the least likey frontman in all of heavy rock, work? Aside from The Man in Black, only drummer Cozy Powell remains from the Dio era. The medieval menace of albums previous is nowhere to be found, but those who still crave the epic will find it in Don Airey’s dramatic keyboard flourishes in ‘Eyes of the World’, and ‘Lost in Hollywood’. Blackmore responds to his new musical surroundings with some of his tastiest playing ever, and as for the vocal performance… It’s absolutely phenomenal. For his first-ever foray into the world of hard rock, Graham Bonnet nails it. There’s no denying the enduring legacy of Ronnie James Dio, whose impact and influence has grown exponentially in the years following his death, or the strength of the Rainbow albums on which he appears, but Bonnet’s vocal performance on DTE is earth-shakingly excellent. Blackmore’s gamble paid off; ‘Down to Earth’ is an excellent hard rock record that stands on its own as a classic and features what many would argue is the band’s strongest and most cohesive line-up.

Bonnet was only a member of Rainbow for about a year and a half, making ‘Down to Earth’ Rainbow’s Black Sheep record, an outlier sitting uncomfortably between the band’s two signature eras: the magic and mystery of the Dio years and the more lightweight FM-friendly sound of the Joe-Lynne Turner era. It’s easily Rainbows most divisive record, splitting their fan base down the middle while not fitting easily into either side of the band’s discography. But when evaluated outside the context of Rainbow, and taken on it’s own merits, it’s a brilliant record and deserves re-evaluation. Oh, and uh, it’s one of my favorite albums of all time.

So Blackmore managed the impossible task of replacing the irreplacable. But back in 1976, Blackmore was on the other side of the equation, with David Coverdale and Jon Lord asking–

How the Hell do you replace Ritchie Blackmore?

Most people thought that Deep Purple was over when Ritchie Blackmore departed in 1976 to record a ‘solo album’. Blackmore’s departure had left a gaping hole in one of the world’s biggest bands. Surely this was the end? But Purple surprized the entire Heavy Rock world by announcing the addition of young American guitarist Tommy Bolin.

Bolin was a virtual unknown in the UK, and not exactly a household name in the States, either, where his main claim to fame was replacing Joe Walsh’s replacement in the James Gang. In jazz/fusion circles, however, Bolin’s session work on Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ lp had made quite an impact. Other jazz-tinged session work followed, and Bolin appeared to be making something of a name for himself among the jazz-rock elite.
Photo of DEEP PURPLE and Tommy BOLIN
In many ways, Tommy Bolin was the anti-Ritchie Blackmore. Five years younger than Blackmore, the flamboyant guitarist cut quite a different figure than the menacing presence of The Man in Black. Musically, the two had little in common; Bolin’s tasty, lyrical style and experimental nature were eons away from Blackmore’s explosive blues-meets-Bach style. But Deep Purple had seriously lost its way by the time of the legendary guitarist’s departure. The ‘Stormbringer’ album was a devisive work, and remains so today. Coverdale and Hughes’ soul/funk leanings had led the band away from the heavy rock of DP’s glory years, and Blackmore, with his neo-classical slant, had lost interest. Would a young American fusion guitarist help fill the void left behind by Ricthie Blackmore? Could the addition of Bolin lead the band out of it’s funk (see what I did there?) and back to Hard Rock glory? Yes and no.
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When it was released, ‘Come Taste the Band’ was a dud. In the UK, it was the lowest-charting Deep Purple album since the Mk 1 days. In the US, it failed to crack the Top 40, the first DP album to do so since ‘Fireball’. It seemed the record-buying public had little interest in a Blackmore-less Deep Purple. Certainly the disastrous tours that followed did nothing to help the record’s profile. CTtB was soon written off as the one DP album too many, and has become the Black Sheep record of Deep Purple’s canon.* I bought my copy from a cut-out bin in 1980.

Almost 40 years later (Like a fine wine, etc…), it’s a heckuva lot easier to listen to CTtb without the gorilla in the room… and of course, that gorilla’s name is Ritchie Blackmore. The record takes off in fine Purple fashion, with Bolin making his first appearance on a DP record via the same otherworldly hyper-echo effect that turned heads on Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ album. Unfortunately,the unspectacular guitar work that follows never lives up to that bang/zoom introduction. CTtB, however, is not a record overly concerned with the virtuosic; in fact, it trades the solo-centric nature of previous Purple albums for a total-band vibe. The songs are decidely more riff-based than those on ‘Stormbringer’, with ‘Love Child’ reaching almost ‘Into the Fire’ levels of heaviness, and overall the record moves Deep Purple one giant step back toward the hard rock realm they helped invent. Granted, it’s some of the funkiest hard rock you’ll ever hear, but with the Ian Paice behind the kit, it all works. The amazingly adaptable Jon Lord turns in some slippery 70’s synth solos, just to make sure the record sounds dated 4 decades later… And this album ends really, really well… ‘This Time Around” is something that MK II never would have tried, and its companion peice ‘Owed to “G”‘ is a suitable showcase for Bolin’s particular style of playing. Album closer ‘You Keep On Moving’ is unquestionably the strongest song on the record, and one the strongest songs from any DP line-up. Fact.

If the disintegration of Deep Purple after touring for the album wrapped wasn’t enough to ensure that DP Mk IV would only record one album, then Bolin’s death from a drug overdose a year later assured it. Fate has destined that ‘Come Taste the Band’ remain an anomally, a Black Sheep record for the ages; a speed bump in the discography of one of the word’s greatest heavy rock bands, and another bitterwseet chapter in the short life of a talented, versatile young musician with a promising future.

*I refuse to acknowledge ‘Slaves and Masters’ as a Deep Purple album.
How the hell do you replace Ian Gillan? NOT with Joe Lynne Turner.

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