One of my earliest memories of MTV was seeing Joe Lynn Turner fronting Rainbow for the video of “Stone Cold.” Clad in a leather jacket, sporting a dark mane, and staring down the camera with confidence, he sang an atmospheric ballad of faded love and disillusionment while masked women circled him in front of a wall of mirrors. It wasn’t super revved up like later anthems I’d be exposed to, like “Power” or “Can’t Happen Here,” but I remember thinking about how cool the band was.
Little did I know that this was a video from their second-to-last album, Straight Between the Eyes, and that the group had a much deeper history that dated back to 1975. In fact, little did I know that Ronnie James Dio, whose video for “Rainbow In the Dark” was also garnering MTV airplay, initially led that British band. But this was the early ‘80s, and I was just beginning to learn about rock music. For a lot of teens then, Rainbow was the group fronted by Joe Lynn Turner for three albums: Difficult to Cure, Straight Between the Eyes, and Bent Out of Shape.
Singer: Joe Lynn Turner
Then I saw a video with Graham Bonnet fronting the band and singing “All Night Long,” an ode to, you know. This was around the time I was exposed to different Black Sabbath videos featuring Ozzy, Dio, and Ian Gillan and began learning about how some bands changed members. A few, evidently, did that a lot. And it was only until later on that I discovered that Rainbow had been fronted by Dio for three albums prior to Bonnet and that Ritchie Blackmore was part of an iconic group called Deep Purple he co-founded that would reunite in 1984. (Hey, I was a kid.)
Ultimately, I learned about the history of Rainbow backwards. Given my young age and the way in which I discovered the group, it makes sense. And with this week being the 45th anniversary of the release of the group’s debut as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, I thought it would be an apropos time to offer a primer for younger listeners and a nostalgic trip back for older fans. But in the proper order.
Rainbow was originally formed after Ritchie Blackmore grew frustrated with the direction that Purple had been going in. Frontman Ian Gillan had left the band in 1973, singer David Coverdale and bassist/singer Glenn Hughes were brought in to share vocal duties, and the group took on a bit of a funkier direction with their second album together, Stormbringer. They produce some fantastic tunes, particularly on the 1974 album, Burn, but the guitarist didn’t love the nature of the new music.
Originally, Blackmore planned to do a solo album, and he began collaborating with Dio and three of his bandmates from his group, Elf. That latter band had often opened for Deep Purple and had been produced in the studio by Purple bassist Roger Glover. Pleased with the results of what he did with Ronnie and his mates, Ritchie decided that they should do more music and recorded a whole album. He also left Purple.
This new ensemble was obviously not a typical hard rock group, especially considering they were playing heavy music under the moniker of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and later performed with a curved, lit-up rainbow over their stage. Their name was reportedly taken from the famed rocker hangout, The Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. Funnily enough, Elf had a song called “Rainbow” on their second album, Carolina County Ball.
The musical combination of Blackmore, Dio, and the three Elf members clicked, received acclaim, and found them an audience. For the following two albums, the group (known simply as Rainbow by album No. 3) recorded a lot of seminal hard rock and metal. The through-line for the group on this first trilogy was the pairing of Dio and Blackmore, the latter who would ultimately become the only constant member throughout the group’s eight-year tenure. Future Iron Maiden producer Martin Birch was on board for all three Dio releases.
What made the group’s debut work was the combination of his blues influences, neoclassical style, the interwoven keyboards, and Dio’s heartfelt lyrics that were inspired by medieval fantasy themes. Despite the name of Dio’s previous band Elf – which itself grew out of (seriously) doo-wop group Ronnie and the Prophets – that boogie rock group was not the vehicle for the types of lyrical themes that Dio would explore in Rainbow and later in Black Sabbath and his own group.
Beyond being in a heavy band called Rainbow, Dio’s lyrics might have been more in step with the prog-rock of the time. But he made them work from sheer passion and conviction in his delivery. As one meme floating the interwebs has declared: “You may be metal – but you’ll never be as metal as Dio riding a tiger under a rainbow.”
Singer: Ronnie James Dio
The debut Rainbow album certainly was an eclectic offering. “Man On The Silver Mountain” served up the kind of gritty riffing that was signature Blackmore, while by contrast, “The Temple of the King” delivered a graceful ballad (not a love song, thank you) and “Catch The Rainbow” took us on a more tranquil, Pink Floyd-ish journey. The upbeat covers of Quatermass’ “Black Sheep of the Family” and the boogie of “If You Don’t Like Rock N Roll” were there to satisfy the blues-rock fans, while the instrumental cover of The Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” not only grooved along but would satisfy anyone demanding, “More cowbell!”
Although a bit uneven, Rainbow’s debut showed a lot of promise, but Blackmore was not convinced of this configuration’s potential and the group never played live. Because of the boogie style of Dio’s bandmates from Elf (keyboardist Micky Lee Soule, bassist Craig Gruber, and drummer Gary Driscoll), the guitarist replaced them with a new lineup for Rainbow’s sophomore album. That roster would include keyboardist Tony Carey, bassist Jimmy Bain, and drummer Cozy Powell, with only the latter fully surviving onto the next album. (We’ll discuss that revolving door soon.)
While Rainbow’s debut was an eclectic affair, Rainbow Rising (1976) was a more focused, cohesive, hard-rocking release that put them more squarely in the metal camp and is the best album of the Dio era. Tunes like the hard-charging “Tarot Woman” and “A Light In The Black” paired with the mystical, epic “Stargazer” showed the quintet firing on all cylinders and forging a distinct sound. They also proved without a doubt that fantasy themes and keyboards could fit comfortably in the heavy rock realm. The group did a successful tour and attracted a respectable following, and Rising is now considered by many to be one of the finest metal albums of all time.
Their third album, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (1978), also a top metal legacy pick for many, continued that trajectory and injected a surprisingly pastoral ballad called “Rainbow Eyes” that included gentle electric guitar, strings, and flutes and never burst into any sort of metallic fanfare. If you want to pinpoint the gestation of Blackmore’s Night, the guitarist’s Renaissance-flavored folk-rock project that he founded in 1997, listen right here. The tune is also musically closer to the 16th-century folk tune “Greensleeves” than Blackmore’s electric “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” from their debut.
But after the third album, Blackmore and Dio did not see eye to eye on the group’s musical direction. The guitarist was plotting a more commercial trajectory, while the singer liked their heavier slant. Instead, the latter got to join Black Sabbath and give those struggling icons the kick in the ass they needed (after Ozzy was booted out). Blackmore shuffled the line-up again, retaining drummer Cozy Powell and bringing aboard keyboardist Don Airey; his old Purple bandmate and bassist, Roger Glover; and a singer with powerhouse pipes called Graham Bonnet.
Singer: Graham Bonnet
Produced by Glover, Down to Earth (1979) combined gritty hard rock like “Danger Zone” and the Eastern-tinged “Eyes Of The World” with more commercial numbers like the raunchy “All Night Long” and the poppy, Russ Ballad-penned “Since You Been Gone,” which almost cracked the Top 50 singles in America. Despite his over-the-top approach and impressive vocal prowess, Bonnet was also influenced by ’50s and early ‘60s rock and R&B, but working with Rainbow would lead to the hard-rocking realm of subsequent groups like Alcatrazz, Impellitteri, and the Michael Schenker Group.
The combination of Bonnet and Blackmore did not click that long, with the latter later grousing about Bonnet’s short hair and white suit which he felt looked more Vegas than rock and roll. But the more commercial slant of the group pleased the guitarist, who brought in drummer Bobby Rondinelli and Fandango singer Joe Lynn Turner for 1981’s Difficult to Cure.
Okay, let’s pause for a second. It’s clear that, despite the name of the band simply being shortened to Rainbow, this group was always Blackmore’s baby. He always enlisted talented musicians which kept the quality of their albums and tours at a high level. But, for undoubtedly varied reasons, the lineup kept changing. Around 1979, Blackmore claimed no one was ever fired from Rainbow. Regardless of why, it had to have been both elating and frustrating for many of those members who came in and out without planting deep roots there.
One thing is for sure: The Joe Lynn Turner years were the group’s most commercially successful. Each album produced a successful Mainstream Rock radio track in Billboard: “I Surrender” (No. 19), “Stone Cold” (No. 1, as well as No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles), and “Street Of Dreams” (No. 2, and No. 60 on the Hot 100). And they got a lot of MTV airplay, which, as former Scorpions drummer Herman Rarebell recalls, helped major hard rock and metal bands of the time break through to the masses. (American radio stations were not supporting them much then.)
Turner had a soulful voice, and like Bonnet, could belt things out for the big anthems. He had the right look for early MTV, and he won over a female audience, which was important for heavy rock outfits at the time. Beyond some ballads and more commercial numbers, Rainbow also hit hard with stompers like “Can’t Happen Here,” “Death Alley Driver,” and “Make Your Move” which showed off the prowess of the group. Even with Bent Out of Shape, the group’s most commercial effort, that line-up had some fierce chops. Don’t tell me that you can’t get your rocks off on the hyperkinetic “Fire Dance” and “Drinking With the Devil” (cliché title aside).
Singer: Doogie White
So what derailed this renewed Rainbow rising? Quite simply, the classic Deep Purple reunion that produced 1984’s Perfect Strangers, which quickly went platinum, launched a successful world tour, and brought that band back for good. Turner even joined for one album (1990’s Slaves and Masters). Blackmore stayed until 1993’s The Battle Rages On…, but reportedly dissatisfied with the more melodic direction that Purple was taking, left and reunited Rainbow with no one from any of the classic line-ups.
To be fair, 1995 album Stranger in Us All, while billed under Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, was allegedly meant to be a solo album. But pressure from RCA/BMG to make the album as marketable as possible supposedly forced that name change. Although the album captured some of the classic Rainbow vibe, it was not as strong as previous efforts and did not chart in the United States or the UK. However, it did introduce the world to singer Doogie White, who has since gone on to sing for newer line-ups of Praying Mantis, Tank, and the bands of guitar legends Yngwie Malmsteen and Michael Schenker. This newer Rainbow toured internationally in support of the album, including backup singer Candace Night, who would become Blackmore’s wife and musical partner in the long-running Blackmore’s Night, which the guitarist found much satisfaction with.
Prior to the passing of Ronnie James Dio a decade ago(“The Man On The Silver Mountain” is inscribed on Dio’s sarcophagus), there had been rumblings that there would be a reunion of the classic Rainbow lineup. It’s a shame that never happened, although Dio was busy with the reunited Black Sabbath (their lineup rechristened Heaven and Hell). In recent years, it was rumored that Joe Lynn Turner would return to the band to launch a successful reunion. However, that didn’t come to pass, as Turner himself has openly discussed in the press. Instead, Blackmore re-ignited the band again with a lineup of lesser-known musicians (with the exception of keyboard Jens Johansson of Yngwie fame). They have toured in Europe where they are more popular (they had numerous Top 10 UK albums back in the day) and have recorded some singles, but no new album is forthcoming. Singer Ronnie Romero has been gaining attention and has also joined the reunited Vandenberg, who are set to release their first studio album in 35 years.
Singer: Joe Lynn Turner
Regardless of whether we’re going to get any sort of real Rainbow reunion ever again, they left behind a legacy of very strong studio albums and numerous live releases. Their sound and songs are unmistakable. The group’s founders were certainly proud of what they achieved together. Dio played many Rainbow songs live with his solo band from 1982 onward, while Blackmore’s Night did their own folksy versions of the band’s tunes. And, by the way, “Can’t Happen Here” is more relevant than ever. Just watch the video.
Because this is the 45th anniversary of the first Rainbow album, it would be best for newbies to start there. The group would solidify their sound more on the second and third album, produce a lot of classic tunes, and lay down the beginnings of the power metal movement that has been popular throughout Europe over the last 25 years. They also influenced the melodic rock scene of the ‘80s. Every Rainbow album has at least one or two tracks that certainly stand the test of time. You may prefer one incarnation over the rest or, like me, embrace them all.
It’s a rare thing for a group that changed singers on three consecutive albums to maintain that level of consistency. But Rainbow did that and more.
Now, how about that Joe Lynn Turner reunion?
Special thanks to Gail Flug for her historical insight and anecdotes.