RAINBOW – Down To Earth

RainbowWith the seventies drawing to a close and with three successful albums released under the Rainbow moniker, the ever-restless Ritchie Blackmore looked to make changes.  In a quest to push Rainbow towards a more commercial and radio-friendly direction a big shake up occurred, resulting in the departure of three of the band’s five members.  While Cozy Powell retained his position on drums, a quest for a new bassist saw the appointment of Blackmore’s old Deep Purple mate Roger Glover, while the role of keyboard player was filled by future Ten/Deep Purple member Don Airey.  Certainly the most devastating loss was that of Ronnie James Dio, who supposedly had no interest in Blackmore’s new vision for the band.  Since a talent like Dio’s comes along once in a lifetime, perhaps other musicians would have fought to reach a compromise; but in any band featuring Ritchie Blackmore, Blackmore’s decision is final.

To fill the all-important vocalist’s shoes, Blackmore hired the little known English singer Graham Bonnet as Rainbow’s new frontman.  Bonnet had already achieved cult status in Australia with the release of two solo records [1977’s self-titled and 1978’s ‘No Bad Habits’], but frankly, didn’t get much attention in his home country.  Joining Rainbow was just the kind of huge opportunity he had been seeking, though he was a somewhat curious choice.  A short-haired, shades-wearing man from Skegness, Bonnet looked more like a motorcycle cop than a budding rock/metal vocalist…and couldn’t have sounded any more different from his predecessor if he tried.  In accordance with Blackmore’s big plan for world domination, the new Rainbow was a half a world away from the old, with plenty of potential for alienating half of their existing fanbase. Still, Blackmore knew what he was doing…did he not?

The only release from this Rainbow line-up, ‘Down To Earth’ was a huge commercial success – a record that still thrills decades after it first appeared on record shop shelves.  The opening track, ‘All Night Long’ ushers in Blackmore’s more commercial vision with a simple, chest-beating riff; a riff that despite such basic intent is instantly likeable.  After the first four guitar notes and the introduction of Cozy Powell’s somewhat hefty drum part, it’s clear that Rainbow mean business.  That simplistic riff is bolstered by handclaps while new boy Graham Bonnet delivers a slighty shouty hard rock vocal; a performance that’s wholly fitting for its rather base lyrical content.  The previous incarnations of Rainbow with Dio at the helm were often driven by story-driven, fantastical lyrics, but here, Rainbow aims for the groin with a slightly grubby) lyric concerning band groupies.   It is unlikely Blackmore could have waved goodbye to the previous Rainbow in a less subtle manner.  Still, lyrics aside, the gathered musicians sound fabulous: those handclaps find a place alongside some well-placed gang vocals on the chorus, while Blackmore offers a majestic and sweeping solo.  The band slows down to accommodate this, but thanks to good judgement it doesn’t feel misplaced.  [Released as a single in 1980, ‘All Night Long’ peaked at #5 in the UK].

The album’s other single, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ (released as the first taste of the new Rainbow before the album’s release) not only provided Rainbow with a monster hit, but with a song for which they would be associated forevermore.  Although Blackmore undoubtedly welcomes the revenue the recording brings on a regular basis, it probably hurts his ego just as much to know that he had no hand in writing one of Rainbow’s most successful recordings.  ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ was penned by one-time Argent man Russ Ballard and in the previous year, he’d farmed the song out to US rockers Head East and Cherie & Marie Currie.  So obviously hit material, Ballard finally struck gold once the song fell into the hands of Blackmore who beefed up the arrangement a little and added an arguably superior guitar solo.  Compared to previous recordings, however, the Rainbow rendition features an even more notable change, with Bonnet choosing to throw a classic sounding “whoah-oah” into the chorus instead of the previous artists’ favoured – and somewhat cheesy – selection of “do-do-do”s.  It would be churlish to suggest these minor changes were responsible for the song’s success third time out, however: the fact remains that ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ is a superbly written pop/rock tune with a chorus most would have loved to have written –  its continued radio popularity on oldies stations across the world is handsomely deserved.   Looking closer at this oft heard Rainbow recording, Bonnet proves to be a masterful vocalist – more than his previous work would ever suggest. Throughout the three minutes he takes the song and pulls every piece of emotion from it possible, while Powell’s drumming comes with a hard edge matched only by John Bonham (and perhaps Dixie Lee, on the second Lone Star album). The decades pass and the track may be well-worn, but it’s still almost impossible to dislike ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’; it has a chorus that is the epitome of radio hit and an arrangement to match.  [‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ was released as a single in 1979 and reached #6 in the UK and has found a place on countless rock compilations ever since.]

Those listeners looking for something with a bit more weight are treated to a couple of absolute belters among ‘Down To Earth’s original eight numbers.  After beginning with a pompous intro reworking Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, The Bringer of War’, (played by Airey with real attitude), ‘Eyes of the World’ erupts into a mid paced stomp with Blackmore’s simple but hard-hitting riff, underpinned by great washes of organ.  Occasional guitar motifs recall an earlier Rainbow, but there’s still a strong feeling of the eighties looming and a continued commercial shine.  An epic number in every sense, Bonnet makes his presence felt throughout with a particularly powerful performance, but he’s still outshone by Blackmore’s soloing.  ‘Love’s No Friend’, meanwhile, is closely related to Deep Purple Mk III’s ‘Mistreated’ (a track which featured often in Rainbow’s live sets).  While the general approach brings nothing new to the table, it’s still a joy to spend almost five minutes in the presence of Blackmore and some bluesy chops.  The crying edge to Bonnet’s vocal on this number proves he can be a great vocalist when given the right material.  He sounds completely comfortable when tackling a number which is, perhaps, the closest ‘Down To Earth’ comes to offering something which could have just as easily been sung by RJD a couple of years previously.

‘Makin’ Love’, another slower number, once again, allows Bonnet ample opportunity to show off his voice in a very melodic fashion, backed by some good harmonies.  Most of the piece is dominated by some very understated staccato riffs and perhaps more could have been made of a reasonable pre-chorus – especially since the actually chorus changes the mood completely, to the point of almost sounding like it was written at a different time – but both are minor complaints.  Alongside ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, ‘Makin’ Love’ shows Bonnet at his vocal best.  Even Blackmore seems content to take a relative backseat in order for the vocal to carry most of the musical weight…and from him, that’s about as big a compliment as comes!  With its superb solos and lovely key changes, ‘Danger Zone’ presents yet another standout.  It mightn’t have the instant appeal of ‘All Night Long’ or ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, but just once, try and forget those cast-iron classics everybody knows ‘Down To Earth’ for and try and listen to this track in isolation.  In four and a half minutes, the band packs in a strong chorus (replete with more harmonies), those aforementioned key changes and a whole piece of pompousness based around some Middle Eastern musical motifs, in a way that only Blackmore can.  There’s no question: it’s classic Rainbow.  You have to wonder, with the ‘Stargazer’-esque flourishes, what Ronnie James Dio would have bought to the piece, had it been completed at a different, much earlier session… That said, the vocal structure, as it stands, is perfect for Bonnet’s slightly raspy tones.

For uptempo, no-nonsense rock, ‘No Time To Lose’ really hits the mark with another great riff, punctuated with an almost equally great use of stops during its intro.  While, perhaps, the most throwaway of ‘Down To Earth’s eight cuts lyrically [“Your mum’s going blue / Your dad’s gone grey / There’s nothing for you here to stay”, providing a particularly bad couplet], the energy throughout is palpable.  Glover joins with Powell to create a powerful rhythm section, with his bass pumping (although never quite as obvious as it should be, thanks to his own unavoidably 80s production), and over it all, Bonnet wails like he’s fronted the band for years.  Although short, the featured solo – split between Blackmore and Airey – bristles with a similar energy.  ‘Down To Earth’s weak link, ‘Lost In Hollywood’, attempts to capture similar thrills at the album’s conclusion, but somehow never quite follows through on the promise of Powell’s aggressive drum intro.  By the time the song finds its stride, there’s too much focus on an almost mechanical keyboard.  A neo-classical mid-section loses the track’s momentum, but despite these obvious flaws, it’s a track that manages to be enjoyable, thanks to another stellar vocal.

With the live shows for ‘Down To Earth’ peaking with a headline slot at the very first Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park in 1980, it was obvious that the new, commercial sounding Rainbow had been a resounding success.  The shift in sound to incorporate more streamlined material and radio-friendly choruses may just have alienated some of Rainbow’s existing fans, but a sharp increase in media exposure won the band more than their share of new ones.

However, despite reaching a career high, things were soon to change once more.  Following the festival appearance, Bonnet was let go from his position and Cozy Powell, too, moved on, leaving a very incomplete band once more.   Bonnet returned to solo work and his next release, 1981’s ‘Line-Up’, gained greater success than either of his seventies albums, thanks to an increased profile.  As frontman for Alcatrazz during a large chunk of the decade saw him working alongside virtuoso guitarists Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai [their 1985 release ‘Disturbing The Peace’ is another gem in the Bonnet discography].  Any success beyond that point could only be described as cult, but not that it matters too much: the enduring popularity of ‘Down To Earth’ has allowed Bonnet the luxury of lending his talents to various sessions since the early eighties, knowing full well there’ll always be a hard core of fans listening.

Blackmore, in an effort to keep his band on the road as well a viable recording unit, quickly replaced the departed members with American musicians Joe Lynn Turner (vocals) and Bobby Rondinelli (drums) and Rainbow’s career into the eighties capitalised further on the more commercial sounds set out by ‘Down To Earth’.  Another hit single in 1981,‘I Surrender’ [another tune written by Russ Ballard and previously recorded by the Currie sisters] gave Rainbow more radio play, but from then on, there were no more hits in the true sense. Regardless, Rainbow continued to enjoy worldwide popularity and consistent album sales.

Dio’s world of sorcerers, fantasy and regicide may have had no place in the 1980s Rainbow but, here, the band’s use of powerhouse riffs within the confines of radio-friendly rock music can be heard at its peak.  While some tracks are, naturally, stronger than others, there’s absolutely no filler to found within the original album’s eight tracks.  The music may be more streamlined, but, in the main, it’s no less brilliant. .  It’s a record that always comes with a strong “what if?” feeling.  A band line up with so much potential…all over too soon.  Maybe a follow up with Graham Bonnet would have only weakened the impact of ‘Down To Earth’, we’ll never really know for sure.  However, one thing is absolutely certain: like 1976’s ‘Rainbow Rising’, ‘Down To Earth’ is a recording which ought to be a part of every classic rock fan’s album collection.

[In 2010, Universal re-released the album with a bonus disc of leftovers and previously unheard session takes.]

March 2012