Goblin Rock: An Evening with Dio

by Justin

Follow me down, down to Goblin Town, where a prince among men made music.

I fell for Ronnie James Dio’s vocals, in a shallow way, the first time I heard “Rainbow in the Dark.” My sister, actually, lifted the curtain on it back in 2008. That track, from the 1982 Dio (the band) album Holy Diver, marries cheesy keyboard, nasty guitar, and demon vocals. It’s a wonder of a song. I defy you to listen to it and not be charmed. Lyrics, performance, goblin-dancing, it’s got it all. When there’s lightning, you know it always brings me down.

After that, Dio and I had a casual relationship. I’d nod appreciatively when our paths crossed, but I never really investigated this vocal behemoth. I’m a nerd about amazing male vocalists, from Robert Plant to Freddie Mercury to Layne Staley. I’ll listen to live recordings just to marvel at the sound those superhumans could make – beyond the amazing music, I’d get down on the sheer virtuosity of the vocals. And make no mistake: Dio’s voice shines as brilliantly as any in history. The real revelation was that he sang as easily as an angel as a demon. Also, the dude really loved rainbows.

Last night I took a self-guided tour through Dio’s history, after realizing that I’d never even listened to his work with Black Sabbath – Dio replaced Ozzy for a few years. Obviously, an evening’s crash course doubtless overlooked important tracks and signature moments in his most epic career. Nevertheless, here I’ll share a quick highlight reel.

First up, blazing past his work as vocalist for Elf (dude sang like Freddie Mercury, for real!) and other random notes on his rise (kid was offered and then declined a scholarship to Juilliard for either French horn or trumpet), let’s hit the band Rainbow.

Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore launched this group after recruiting Dio and other members of Elf, at the time an opening act for a Deep Purple tour. Their first album, ingeniously titled Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, came out in 1975. It’s excellent – mystical and raucous. Blackmore and Dio made a ferocious team. The runaway hit for me: “Catch the Rainbow.” Ignore the Skittles connotations. It’s wondrous. This is the music of the Misty Mountains.

And Part 2:

A review of their second album, Rainbow Rising, described young Ronnie James thusly: “A troll-like frontman with operatic pipes, he offers a whole new archetype of the rock god.” For my money, it isn’t as good as the debut. But nevertheless, worth a listen.

Word is that Blackmore (how’s that name?) and Dio parted ways because Blackmore wanted to move away from medieval magic in the lyrics. Problem is, goblins can only write about the world they come from. And so Ronnie James joined Black Sabbath – their 1980 Heaven and Hell is a devastator.

Here I’m skipping a chapter, because I believe my at-best-cursory knowledge of Black Sabbath deserves its own furious revision and evening-with post.

Jump forward to 1982 and the formation of the band Dio. Ronnie James and Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice launched this gem. Also, Vivian Campbell was the guitarist, later to join a dozen other rock groups and currently with Def Leppard. You really don’t need to look far past the first album, Holy Diver, to understand this monster. In the title track Dio asks you to both ride and jump on the tiger. The video is too real to be real.

The goblin king recorded and toured with Dio for the next 23 years. Then reunited with former Sabbath members to form Heaven & Hell in 2006 – The Devil You Know is a very dark and excellent album. His voice, impossibly, never flagged. Watch videos from his twilight and you can still feel the magic.

That video, from 2005, features a 63-year-old Dio performing as a guest of Deep Purple. The song comes from a bizarre and wonderful side project helmed in 1974 by original Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover called The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast. Glover pulled together rock giants of the era to recreate the narrative of the children’s book of the same title. It’s all kinds of bonkers and beauty. Dio sang on a few of the songs, most famously on “Love is All,” which had some commercial success. Here, from Wikipedia, is the coolest weirdness:

Its accompanying animated short movie also gained unexpected success in France, where the newly launched second TV channel Antenne 2 used it as a fill-in every time it experienced “technical difficulties”. These random airings, together with the psychedelic tone of the clip and the lack of subtitles, made it very popular amongst young viewers. In 2006 the song was used by the Dutch political party CDA in its election advertisements for the 2006 Dutch General Election. Many Americans in the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s recall seeing the animated song clip “Love Is All” being regularly played in children’s TV programs like the The Electric Company and Nickelodeon morning shows.

Without further ado, step into the mouth of madness:

How are those vocals at the end?

In 2010, stomach cancer claimed his life. By all accounts I’ve read, Dio was gracious and humble through it all. He kept making music right up to the end. Then he went back into the lightning, to haunt the halls of Mandos, to swing from the branches of Yggdrasil, or to grapple with serpents on the other side of forever. I swear, though, Dio was not of this world.

Dio - The Holy Diver