Ritchie Blackmore: Shallow Purple

The guitarist at the Deep Purple helm talks about the band's massive following — and going it alone

English guitarist Richie Blackmore of rock group Rainbow, performing on stage, UK, circa 1975. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

Ritchie Blackmore's face fell into a tortured grimace. "Fucking hell, " he growled through a mouthful of steak. "This tastes like burnt rubber!" Fuming, he sank a fork into the meat and flung it across the dining room of the high-rent restaurant. The maitre d' hustled up to the Deep Purple guitarist.

"Is something wrong with your steak, sir?"

Blackmore looked down at his now meatless plate. "What steak?"

"The steak you've just thrown across the room."

"Oh yes, of course." Blackmore smiled innocently. "The steak was fine. It's the baked potato that's a bit... well, overcooked."

"Very well, sir. I'll find you a new one."

"No, no. Don't worry about it." Blackmore picked up the potato and chucked it into the kitchen door. "Could I have my check please?"

Later that evening, tuning his guitar backstage at the Jacksonville Coliseum, Blackmore explained himself: "I love this business," he said. "I can do exactly what I want with who I want. I don't have to be nice to anyone. I don't like people anyway, they're too suspicious. To me, they're guilty before proven innocent. I wear black all the time, and people stay away from me. It's all part of this dark, moody image I've got.

"I'm happy, I'm contented, I just don't go around laughing my ass off like a drunken Irishman. When I'm relaxed, I look miserable. That's the way it is. The only thing that makes me laugh is a good practical joke. Like tonight. I love setting people up for them. Destruction is also very funny to me. Maybe I'll look back in 10 years and say I was a bit naughty then, but fuck it. I'm having a great time as a moody bastard."

The guiding hand behind Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore, 29, can count among his peers English guitarists Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Eric Clapton. Blackmore began his professional career at 17 as lead guitarist and arranger for Screaming Lord Sutch, and he recalled being the whiz-kid sensation of London. "All the big groups knew and raved about me. We played with the Stones once and Mick Jagger said in an interview that I was the best guitarist he'd ever seen. The next week I slagged the Stones in print and that was the end of that friendship. Still, I was well respected, from top to bottom."

After quitting Sutch's band, Blackmore took a look around at the budding British pop scene and fled in horror. "Everywhere you looked, all you could see were these pretty faces – the Hollies, the Beatles... I moved to Hamburg, Germany, for a few years. Meanwhile, I practiced five hours a day. Finally, Hendrix hit it big in England. I figured it was safe again, so I moved back and got together a band [Deep Purple] of my own."

Deep Purple's lineup has yet to be constant for any long stretch of time. The original members, Jon Lord (organ), Ian Paice (drums) and Blackmore, could easily be likened to Traffic, where musicians outside the basic core are highly impermanent. "I have a short attention span," Blackmore said.

One wonders why Blackmore has spent most of his career outside the spotlight, content to call the shots from the dark side of the stage. "I haven't taken steps toward becoming a guitar star simply because I don't fit the mold. That's best left to people like Jimmy Page, who look the part. I always get embarrassed when I start flaunting myself. I could be very sexy onstage, but all that business is rather silly. I know I'm a great guitarist. I know I can blow any other guitarist off any stage. I'm totally satisfied with myself. Combing my hair doesn't make me a better artist. I get knocked by other musicians for guitar bashing, but then they're all starving and they wonder why."

And while he groaned over his sizable alimony payments covering two ex-wives ("I can't resist temptation") and a son, Blackmore is certainly not a starving man. Throughout Europe, the Far East, Scandinavia and Australia, Purple's relentless power-riffing has held a massive following ever since their first 1968 hit, "Hush." In America, where the band soared to supergroup status two years ago with the success of "Smoke on the Water," their newest album – Stormbringer – is already a gold addition to their nine-LP catalog on Warner Bros. According to a company spokesman, no one, not even Elton John, the Allman Brothers Band or Led Zeppelin, sells more records worldwide. A forthcoming European tour and a new double album showcasing bassist Glenn Hughes can only increase their totals. After a turbulent seven-year existence, Deep Purple have made their home at the top of the heavy-metal heap.

Blackmore takes issue with that categorization. "Nothing's worse than hearing someone say, 'Deep Purple? Wow, man. They're just like Blaaaaack Saaaaabath, knocking out all the riffs.' If people can't comprehend the certain subtleties that we put into the music, I'm afraid I haven't the patience to explain them. I have no tolerance for fools. Nobody tells me what to do."

Case in point: last April's California Jam. Purple, lured by the $400,000 headliner's fee, signed up for the ABC-bankrolled festival, taped for television. The band's only contractual demand was that they be the first band to go on after sunset. But the jam ran an hour and a half ahead of schedule and when it came to the group's position in the show, the sun was bright.

"The show's producer – I won't name him – came into my dressing room and demanded that we go on immediately," Blackmore said. "I had just gotten there. I just ignored him. The guy kept standing there and said we'd be off the show if I wasn't onstage by the time he counted to 30. I sat there, tuned my guitar and listened to him count out loud. He hadn't reached 15 when I had him thrown out. Forget the money we stood to lose, it was a matter of principle. Even Jon Lord came to me in the end and said, 'Look, will you go on... for the band?' I told him absolutely not and was ready to quit the band right then and there."

Blackmore "had a few drinks" and remained in his dressing room until sundown. "Somebody else from ABC came in and asked me politely if I'd go onstage. I was angry, but because he was nice about it, I went on." Asked about his onstage smashing of an ABC television camera, he issued a snickering laugh. "Actually I hadn't planned to go for the camera. I was out to kill this guy who gave me the countdown. I thought he'd be onstage. If he had been, you would have seen more than a smashed camera. I don't like violence, but I was raving that night. He talked to us like we were absolute shit. Anyway, I couldn't spot him so I had a go at the camera.

"Listen, we get the brunt of a lot of disrespect. People get pissed off that 'those fucking long-haired hippies' are making so much money. The tax people have gone berserk over us. They're really trying to skim us. We've all moved out of England. I live in Oxnard. Glenn Hughes [bass and vocals], David [Coverdale, the band's lead singer], Jon and Ian live in Los Angeles now. I'm sure they're trying to make an example out of us."

If Ritchie Blackmore gets defensive – sometimes violently so – over those who run his band down, it could be because he wants to do the honors himself. "Selling the amount of records that we do is no big deal," he said. "I guess it's nice to know you're being appreciated, but to me Deep Purple is best onstage. On record, we're pretty average. And that includes myself. Sometimes I cringe when I hear our records, they're so flat. You can never excel yourself on record. It's hopeless. I have to be turned on by an audience. I like to show off, that's what makes for great guitar playing. But when I go in the studio, who am I playing to? An engineer and a few other people. It doesn't do anything for me.

"We hardly ever rehearse together, except for a tour. When someone says we have to get an LP together, that's when we start pulling together songs. We're all very lazy, but professional enough to churn the songs out just in time. Deep Purple isn't too dedicated a band. I think we'd all rather sleep."

Two nights before, on an off night, Blackmore had given up some of that sleep to complete a long-promised solo project – a single – at a Tampa studio. His backup includes Ronnie Dio and Gary Driscoll (the vocalist and drummer, respectively, of Elf) and cellist Hugh McDowall (of Electric Light Orchestra). This "weekly toy" impressed Blackmore enough for him to plan an entire solo album with the Elf musicians. Tentatively entitled Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, the record is scheduled for production in a German studio at the conclusion of the Deep Purple tour.

"Nobody knows I'm up to this," he confided. "I just want to prove a point to myself that I can do it on my own. I don't want to do a big solo thing. There will never be a Ritchie Blackmore Band. Everybody knows who's leading a group, you don't have to mention his name in the title. Besides, I couldn't handle the responsibility. For now this is my weekly toy, but who knows what'll happen if it takes off."

He began to elaborate, then decided against it. "Sometimes I speak a bit too frankly in interviews. The fans don't really want to hear the truth." Ritchie Blackmore grinned sardonically, as if to hint that Deep Purple, his jaded outlook, the moody black image and his mondo-destructo guitar style are all part of one big practical joke he's been working on for the last 29 years. "After all," he said, "honesty does not pay."