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As lead guitarist and a founder member of Deep Purple, front man of his own band Rainbow, and now leading the largely acoustic, medieval-themed Blackmore's Knight, Ritchie has long been one of the most revered guitarists Britain has ever produced.
A couple of glances at the jacket of this book puzzled me at once. 'UNAUTHORISED' it says prominently on the front. However, Bloom is no muckraker hellbent on destroying the reputation of a musical legend. On the contrary, he is clearly a huge fan, has met Blackmore and is 'fortunate enough to have experienced his company on numerous occasions' as well as following his career for many years, and is editor of the international RB fanzine 'More Black Than Purple'. It seems a little strange that with those credentials he has not been granted more full access to the man.
However, as he explains in the introduction, he did not want the book to be an exercise in hero worship, but to portray the musician as a man of intelligence, intolerance, generosity and obstinacy. So let's give him full credit for making this an objective, warts and all portrait in words.
Born in 1945, Blackmore was one of the post-war generation who was inspired by the likes of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Duane Eddy to take up the guitar himself. An apprenticeship which included playing on sessions for various acts produced by the brilliant but erratic and ultimately tragic Joe Meek, as well as membership of teenage bands The Outlaws (with Chas Hodges, later of Chas'n'Dave, on bass), and Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, led him into the band which became Deep Purple in 1968. Within two years their success put him on a par as a guitarist with the likes of Jimmy Page and the temporarily gone to ground Eric Clapton.
Initially inspired by the American band Vanilla Fudge - you might just recall their sole Top 20 British hit, a heavy rock reworking of the Supremes' 'You Keep Me Hangin' On' - Deep Purple were real trailblazers in the early days. Other hard rock groups like Led Zeppelin were based on the blues, but with Blackmore's rock'n'roll grounding and keyboard player Jon Lord's classically-trained approach to his instruments, DP were in part a fusion of rock and classics, with a free-form approach which in some ways was akin to modern jazz. Bloom underlines the fact that both musicians often clashed and it was often a battle of wits between both. But aided by Ian Gillan's soaring vocals and the tight rhythm section of bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice, the combination and sometimes edgy compromise of all five talents added up to a formula hardly rivalled in its field.
Yet Blackmore could not stay long in a band which he did not lead. Having seen off Gillan and Glover for various reasons, in 1975 he left to form Rainbow, in which he was free to hire and fire at will. (Purple disbanded in 1976). Several singers and musicians came and went - remarkably, perhaps, establishing themselves briefly as just a successful hit singles and albums band at their peak as Purple had ever done - before the lure of record companies, accountants and huge advances led to a Purple reunion in 1984. But old grievances, rivalries and incompatibilities led to Gillan leaving again, rejoining, and Blackmore walking out once more. What goes around comes around.
HOW GOOD A BIOGRAPHY?
Blackmore is plainly an enigma. A man who is notorious for dressing in black, playing practical and sometimes downright cruel jokes on fellow band members, never smiling if a cameraman is within range, and refusing to give encores on stage with his band if he doesn't feel like it, is bound to be more or less impenetrable. He has had several wives and steady partners, of which only one seems to have talked to Bloom for the purposes of this book, and even then not in great depth.
Bloom analyses Blackmore's role in the various bands quite shrewdly. It was established fairly early on in Purple's career that Lord, as the composer of a Concerto which they performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was briefly regarded as the main writer if not the leader of the band, something which all the others resented, and that from then on they were more or less Blackmore's band - well, in his eyes at least. Hence the formation of his next band Rainbow, in which he would call the shots.
He has also had the benefit of exclusive recollections from various fellow band members, notably Graham Bonnet (Rainbow's vocalist on the classics 'Since You Been Gone' and 'All Night Long'), roadies and several others over the years. Between them, they have helped him build up an interesting portrait of the man, and demonstrated what an often contradictory person he appears to be. He emerges as a difficult taskmaster to say the least, not very pleasant to other people, but capable of great generosity. With the minimum of publicity, in 2002 he donated a portion of the proceeds from the sales of a single to the Red Cross in Eastern Europe to help victims of a devastating flood in Germany and the Czech Republic - though admittedly the single does not appear to have been a major hit anywhere.
Perhaps one of the most revealing insights comes from Gillan, the singer who soon found that no band was big enough for both of them at the same time. Blackmore, the author quotes him as saying, has a personality blockage somewhere, likes to be quiet, on his own, unquestioned - and difficult, but in spite of that he is still something special. He concludes that 'without him, wouldn't life be boring?'
The book told me a good deal about the guitarist's career, as I had expected to. But it left me feeling I knew little more about what he was like as a person. However that can't be blamed on the author. If a living being is determined to retain his privacy to a certain extent and erect an invisible wall between himself and the public, it's his choice.
Any fan will find this book well worth their while. Bloom has done a good job, but not surprisingly he hasn't done the impossible.
EXTRA AND APPENDICES
There are three sections of black and white plates. In one group shot, of November 1961, Ritchie is almost smiling. After that he learned not to. There is also a very extensive discography, plus filmography of commercially released concert, TV and film recordings. But bearing in mind that this is a fairly hefty volume and the text stops at page 370, an index would have been very welcome as well.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on other review sites]
Paperback: 400 pages / Publisher: Omnibus Press / Published: 2 July 2008 / Language: English