[28 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In 1979, after a spectacular run that helped usher in the second wave of heavy metal in the mid-1970s, Ritchie Blackmore wanted a change. Upon leaving Deep Purple in 1975, the guitar virtuoso’s collaboration with former Elf singer Ronnie James Dio yielded three classic studio albums, 1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, 1976’s Rising, and 1978’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, each a thrilling combination of Blackmore’s classical-tinged heavy blues jams with Dio’s swords-and-sorcery storytelling. Always a mercurial sort, however, Blackmore had his eyes on a more mainstream rock sound, perhaps encouraged by the success of the simple yet contagious anthem “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Dio, who was every bit as set in his ways as Blackmore, decided that this direction wasn’t for him, and left the band, eventually rising to even more prominence as the new lead singer for Black Sabbath.
Blackmore, on the other hand, quickly gave Rainbow an overhaul, creating a lineup that catered more to his new musical direction. Drummer Cozy Powell and keyboardist Don Airey were kept on, with Blackmore’s former Deep Purple bandmate Roger Glover returning to the bass, but the most significant change was in new singer Graham Bonnet. Practically the polar opposite of Dio, the short-haired, blazer and aviators-wearing Bonnet was a far cry from the flamboyant, shaggy, flared look of his predecessor. Musically, Bonnet’s background was unconventional too, having tasted success with the pop group the Marbles, whose 1969 single “Only One Woman” was a top five hit in the UK, and then as a solo artist specializing in more R&B-oriented fare. That said, he possessed a phenomenal voice perfectly suited to middle of the road arena rock that Blackmore’s new Rainbow was set out to cash in on.
The resulting album, 1979’s Down to Earth, is somewhat underrated compared to the towering Dio discography, but it remains a strong outing 31 years later, and has been re-released as an expanded, remastered deluxe edition. With the band’s new material sounding so much more stripped-down compared to the overtly epic heavy metal arrangements of Dio-era Rainbow, a lot depended on Bonnet’s performance to make the album a success, and he steps in and does the job mightily on eight searing, hooky hard rockers. With Blackmore’s swaggering opening riff and Powell’s thunderous groove, “All Night Long” is a perfect song for Bonnet to make a strong first impression, and he wastes no time in doing so, his booming voice carrying the entire track. An absolutely incessant single, “All Night Long” achieves exactly what Blackmore had set out to do, and it remains one of the band’s finest post-Dio moments on record.
The rest of the album, though, is surprisingly varied. With Airey’s ominous synth intro and Blackmore’s marching riff, “Eyes of the World” tips its hat to past Rainbow songs like “Tarot Woman” and “Gates of Babylon”. “Love’s No Friend” is very similar to the blues direction of the band’s first album, while the opening riff on “Makin’ Love” foreshadows the masterful “Perfect Strangers” that Blackmore would record with a reunited Deep Purple five years later. “Lost in Hollywood”, “No Time to Lose”, and “Danger Zone” all focus on a more American-oriented sound, yet doesn’t ever feel like pandering, pulling it off successfully. All the while, the charismatic Bonnet tackles every song with verve, throwing himself into each performance, and his energy is infectious. A song as silly as the band’s cover of Russ Ballard’s ebullient “Since You’ve Been Gone” has no right to work as well as it does, but while Blackmore sleepwalks through the track, Bonnet makes it all his own with a performance that’s too charming to resist.
The reissue has no shortage of bonus tracks as well. B-side “Bad Girl” is a mildly interesting curiosity, but the way it stacks up to the album tracks, it’s easy to see why it was left off the record. The instrumental “Weiss Heim”, on the other hand, is a gorgeous Blackmore jam, a welcome addition. The second disc delves even deeper, with a series of alternate instrumental versions of several tracks, as well as alternate versions of “No Time to Lose” and “Love’s No Friend”, titled “Spark Don’t Mean a Fire” and “Ain’t a Lot of Love in the Heart of Me”. However, just how worthwhile the second disc of bonus tracks is depends on how excited you get over an isolated track of Cozy Powell drumming on “All Night Long”. Rainbow completists will be mildly satisfied (though they’ll wonder why the unreleased cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” hasn’t seen the light of day), but casual listeners are better off getting the first ten tracks from iTunes instead.
Bonnet’s tenure in Rainbow would last a little over a year, but while Joe Lynn Turner capably replaced him during the Difficult to Cure sessions, one can’t help imagine just how good the cover of Ballard’s “I Surrender” would have sounded with Bonnet at the helm. To his own credit, he went on to have a superb run in the following years, first singing on the Michael Schencker Group’s classic Assault Attack in 1982, and then forming Alcatrazz with a young Swedish guitar phenom named Yngwie Malmsteen. As for Blackmore and Rainbow, they’d settle into a good groove with Turner with a successful string of three albums in the early-‘80s. In retrospect, Down to Earth is a mere blip in the deep Rainbow back catalog, but as this reissue proves, it’s far too good an album to be ignored.