By 1983 Ronnie James Dio’s career had already enjoyed not one but two remarkable creative peaks. As singer with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, in 1976 Dio helped concoct the amazing Rainbow Rising – a milestone album in the annals of heavy rock, where the thermo-nuclear magniloquence of the Man In Black’s guitar playing was in perfect synch with Ronnie’s flamboyant lyrical musings and exalted tones. Four years later, in 1980, Dio almost single-handedly rescued Black Sabbath from the depths of post-Ozzy oblivion. Cynics said the appointment of the man born Ronald Padovana as the band’s new vocalist was doomed to failure. But that was before they heard the results of that unlikely (not to say unholy) alliance: Heaven & Hell. With Dio at the helm, the Sabs’ growling metal machine became something altogether more sleek and streamlined. As mighty as it was mystical. As brooding as it was bombastic. No one expected Dio to match remotely those twin achievements when he went solo. But with 1983’s Holy Diver, the debut album from Dio the band, Ronnie again defied his critics by producing a classic rock album par excellence. The man who cut his teeth in Ronnie & The Prophets and Elf assembled a brand new group featuring drummer Vinny Appice, who he had worked with in Sabbath, and ex-Rainbow bass player Jimmy Bain. On guitar was a relatively unknown Irishman, Vivian Campbell, formerly of Sweet Savage and now a member of Def Leppard. “I just remember being so fired up and so confident in what I was going to do,” Dio would recollect. “It wasn’t a matter of trying to match the standards of Rainbow Rising or Heaven & Hell, because those were special events. But I still felt extremely confident that I could make a great album of my own.” More than three decades after its release, Holy Diver still cuts the mustard (or sprinkles the curry powder, bearing in mind Ronnie’s propensity for a good Indian). As this feature saw print, the diminutive frontman with the voice of Goliath had reached the climax of his ‘An Evening With...’ British tour. Each Dio show naturally featured a host of songs from across the man’s huge back catalogue, but the main attraction was Holy Diver, which was played in its chain-whipping, priest-drowning, twin-horned entirety. Holy Diver was also reissued as a digitally remastered special-edition CD in September 2005.
Dio: Pearl Diver
Many believed Ronnie James Dio was dead and buried when he quit Black Sabbath for a solo career at the beginning of the 1980s. But he surprised everyone when he came up with a classic album.
When Holy Diver was conceived it was in the golden age of vinyl. Would it have turned out to be a different type of album in the CD age?
It would have had more songs on it. Absolutely. Vinyl can only hold a certain amount of music. But that’s part of the magic of the medium. With only 40 minutes or so to work with, you had to make sure every song was of optimum quality. There was no need to add stuff just to fill up an album. People expect much more in this age of CDs, DVDs and downloads. The restrictions of the vinyl format actually worked to the benefit of Holy Diver. All the tracks are so good, much like Rainbow Rising or Heaven & Hell. The songs just spoke volumes about how good the album was. Still is. It didn’t really matter that you couldn’t extend it by another 10 or 20 minutes.
How much pressure did you feel at the time, as a fledgling solo artist?
I never really felt there was pressure to equal or improve upon the things that came before Holy Diver. I’ve always felt that you shouldn’t have to live up to what you did before, you should just carry on and be what you are. Maybe I felt pressure for success. But that was only natural.
You produced Holy Diver yourself – wasn’t that adding to the pressure?
Martin [Birch] was unavailable at the time – I think he was doing an Iron Maiden album. He certainly would always have been my first consideration. So when Martin wasn’t available I decided to do the production. We had enough new ingredients in this pot to blend without bringing in an untried producer. An outside influence would’ve been more difficult. My head was probably too big for my hat at that time. But it did work. I really felt that taking on the producer’s role was a feather in my cap.
How do you rate the contributions of the other members of Dio on Holy Diver?
It was a very magical time. The right people came together at the right moment. It wasn’t because Vinny and I had played together before, or Jimmy and I had played together before, and only one new factor [Vivian Campbell] was being added. Take a look at the songwriting credits – it wasn’t as if they were a bunch of sidemen interpreting my songs. I didn’t say: “Stand back boys, it’s my band.” I only wrote two songs by myself: Holy Diver and Don’t Talk To Strangers. I wrote them before we put the band together. But following on from that the other guys’ contributions were immense.
And [keyboard player] Claude Schnell’s moustache was also immense.
Claude wasn’t there for the first album. We hired Claude to be the keyboard player for the tour we did.
The keyboard work on Holy Diver isn’t actually that prominent.
Jimmy [Bain] and I played all the keyboards on that album which is one reason why it’s not so prominent. Because it’s not very good! I just did not want to get bogged down by keyboards at that point. I wanted it to be a lot more raw, a lot more approachable, without too much padding in it. If it’d been Claude playing it would obviously have been a lot more prolific. But I didn’t want keyboards to get in the way. We became a bit more keyboard-oriented as the band progressed. I think that’s just a natural progression. If you have a great tool you may as well use it.
[Vivian Campbell left Dio acrimoniously after the band’s third album, Sacred Heart. Campbell famously described Dio as “one of the most odious people I’ve ever come across in the music business”. Which explains Ronnie’s taciturn answers to the following.] Everyone was querying your decision to put so much trust on a young guitarist for Holy Diver.
But that trust was borne out by the results.
Oh, I think so.
Talking about guitarists you’ve worked with in the past, Ritchie Blackmore is touring the UK with Blackmore’s Night shortly. If he turned up at one of your shows, would you let him jam with you?
Of course, if he wanted to. I have nothing but the greatest of respect for Ritchie. I’ve always said he’s a genius. He gave me my greatest opportunity [with Rainbow] and to have a guy like that playing with you would be an honour.
Would you jam with Blackmore’s Night?
If he asked me to I might. But I don’t think it would be something I’d look forward to.
Deep Purple did it with Machine Head, The Stooges recently did it with Funhouse: it’s a growing trend for a classic band/artist to build a show around a classic album. Is it a matter of having to reinvent yourself every so often?
I don’t think so. I’ve never felt very reinventable. It wasn’t something that I’d even considered doing until the question was posed. I was asked: “Would you like to do the Holy Diver tour?” At that point it wasn’t called ‘An Evening With...’ I don’t really like that title. It sounds like we’re supposed to sit on stools and play an acoustic set. Which we’re not doing, incidentally.
These are epic shows you’re playing at the moment. It’s quite an undertaking for a man of your age, if you don’t mind us saying.
No, I don’t mind you saying. But that really doesn’t have anything to do with it. You’re either good at what you do or you’re not, no matter how old you are. There are still some old honkers out there doing some pretty good stuff. But yes, it’s quite an undertaking to do all that maerial. It will be what it will be, and I can only guarantee that it will be good.
HOLY DIVER: Ronnie's track-by-track run-down
Are the lyrics, ‘You are the driver/You own the road/You are the fire/Go on explode’ a reference to you and your burgeoning solo career?
It was really more of a way of saying to people you don’t have to be told what to do, you can do whatever you set your mind to, so stand up and shout and just go for it.
But I guess in some ways it does reflect what we were doing with Dio at the time. I didn’t just want to sit around and do nothing after I was gone from Sabbath – I had a new band and we were in the studio recording our debut. I suppose in some ways those words do have a resonance. I wanted a powerful song to open the album. Some of the other tracks, like Don’t Talk To Strangers and Invisible, start kinda slowly. I wanted a strong, powerful track at the beginning.
This was a song I’d written between leaving Sabbath and putting my band together. I went into my little studio, which at that time was nothing more than a room with a Revox in it, and wrote Holy Diver. When it came time for us to rehearse in England, where we found Vivian [Campbell] and Jimmy [Bain], luckily that was one of the songs that I could present to them. It was a statement of intent for us at that early stage.
I just wanted to write something that was a little bit, again, harder and stronger. But having said that, Gypsy is slower than Stand Up And Shout – it’s more of a Stones kind of tune.
I wrote that one about our engineer, Angelo Arcuri. He did a lot of the early Dio albums and was also our out-front soundman. He had the propensity of always being caught in the middle. He was always being squeezed in some place. It was more about his personal life. He always seemed to make some really silly decisions that left him in a precarious place.
Is that you whispering the title of the song very softly at the beginning?
Yes, that’s me. Live it was Jimmy who always did the whispering. I was able to do it myself initially but after a while I thought, it’s only a whisper, Jimmy can handle this. So we gave the chore to Jimmy.
Then you sing the beginning of the song in quite a high voice.
That’s just a vocal technique, really. It was meant for texture purposes. I sang like a girl, I guess.
Talking about girls, there’s the decidedly unromantic lyric: ‘Don’t dream of women, ’cause they only bring you down.’
That’s pretty true if you think about all the broken hearts strewn across the world. The point I was trying to make is that if you’re in a man-woman relationship, you don’t want your partner to be a stranger.
Riff written by Jimmy. I love the riff. A lot of these songs have my feelings in them, because maybe things weren’t going so well in my personal life. Relationships are very, very difficult, especially the ones that are man-woman related. The man always feels he’s the one that’s getting it in the heart. Which is probably totally untrue, I’m sure it’s the other way around most of the time.
Invisible always reminds us of an Ozzy Osbourne ballad at the beginning, before it gathers steam.
I think you’re going to have be relegated for that comment. You’re in the first division now. Nothing that we did on this album was Black Sabbath-oriented at all. I just can’t see Ozzy singing that song. Not at all. Had I written it for him I don’t think he would’ve been able to do it.
There’s a lyric that goes: ‘She had 14 years of teenage tears.’ How’s that possible?
I see your point. It’s just alluding to the fact that the teenage years are your most difficult, because you have to learn how to do deal with yourself, and your body, and your mind. The number count is completely erroneous and I own up to that.
One of the album’s stand-out tracks, but it very nearly didn’t make it onto the record.
I felt Rainbow In The Dark was too poppy compared with the rest of the songs. I was about to take a razor blade to the tape – because we used tape in those days, of course – and luckily for me the lads talked me out of it. Thank God they did.
Did you dislike the song because of its squeaky keyboard theme?
I think that was probably why I didn’t like it so much. It just seemed so calliope-like, so fairground-like to me. But in retrospect its singularity made it memorable. At the end of the day the keyboard theme was the perfect foil to the overall heaviness of that song.
Tell us about all that howling at the start.
It’s the sound effect of a wolf.
So it wasn’t you squeezing Jimmy Bain’s balls?
I tried to stay away from Jimmy’s balls as much as possible. As any sane person would. But talking about sound effects, on Invisible, the track we mentioned before, at the beginning of it you’ll hear a kind of whooshing sound – as if someone has just disappeared. We tried for ages to get that sound and in the end we brought in a spare tyre from someone’s car. We jiggled with the valve until it made that escaping-air sound.
One of our fave lyrics is on Shame On The Night: ‘Shame on the sun/For you the light you sold.’ It’s a neat twist on the song’s title.
Well, I’m noted for that kind of thing, for saying things that don’t make a whole lot of sense at the time. But then people read into them and realise that in some convoluted way they do make some sense. I like that song very much and that lyric as well.