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Ronnie James Dio
Heaven & Hell, Evil or Divine? And how Tik Tok made Kate Bush famous (again).
Stranger Things is one of the most popular TV series of the streaming age. Both a homage to and a mish-mash of 1980s tv shows and movies, it evokes the spirit of movies like The Goonies, E.T., etc. If you’ve somehow managed to miss it, you should give it a go. It’s really good. Stranger Things is at the forefront of the great 80s revival. 80s music is back in vogue, with both synth pop sounds and hair rock being suddenly cool again.
We have a tendency to reject all of the art, fashion, and music, of the previous decade. This is why 80s rock and metal artists struggled in the early 90s. Grunge bands took over and were seen as authentic and genuine in comparison to their hairspray and pvc wearing predecessors. Likewise, the early 00s saw the rise in popularity of Emo and Nu-Metal, where the hyper-real and theatrical, was preferable to the crude baring of the soul of the early 90s bands.
What does any of this have to do with the greatest Heavy Metal vocalist of all time? Bear with me. ‘Running up that Hill’ by Kate Bush features heavily in Season 4 (part 1) of Stranger Things. It’s a great tune and it’s not the first Kate Bush song to feature in a modern tv show. Two of her songs have been used to devastating effect in The Handmaid’s Tale. But it seems the Tik Tok generation doesn’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale as much as Stranger Things (but perhaps they should). The snippets of ‘Running up that Hill’ in Stranger Things and their subsequent replays on Tik Tok have sent Kate Bush flying back to the top of the charts worldwide.
Eddie Munson is a new character in Stranger Things. He is a good natured, D&D playing, drug dealing, Heavy Metal fan, and on the back of his denim jacket he has a DIO patch.
The patch was actually sent to the producers from Dio’s estate. It’s a vintage design, contemporary with the era.
In a weird twist of serendipity, my good friend Bernard name dropped Dio in one of his latest posts in the terrific This Week in the 90s blog.
While commenting on the tweet I discovered Bernard wasn’t familiar with RJD. I was a bit surprised as Bernard is a huge music fan. He’s the kind of guy I’d ask for advice on 80s and 90s music. He is father to a teenager, so he probably knows what is actually cool (and like, relevant) these days. Of course nobody is a fan of every genre of music, and when we encounter people with differing tastes it can feel momentarily jarring. In truth, the vast majority of my friends have not heard of Dio. This got me thinking. Where did I first hear Dio?
In previous posts in the Aquanaut’s Diary I’ve mentioned my early music education in Bray, Ireland in the late 1980s. My cousin Eugene was a huge metal fan and owned a copy of this album on vinyl:
It’s incredible. I’ll get into it properly in next weeks post. The next time I heard Dio was when one of my best friends got a compilation tape from the magazine Kerrang in the 90s. This banger was on it:
Rainbow had multiple band members over the decades, but this lineup is one of their most famous, featuring Ritchie Blackmore (ex-Deep Purple), Cozy Powell (future Black Sabbath and Whitesnake), Jimmy Bain and Tony Carey (both of their resumes are ridiculously eclectic). With Dio on vocals they recorded a number of albums, but this single was strong enough to be on a compilation with Motorhead, Judas Priest, and Slayer. As teenagers, my friend & I had our minds blown.
Before I get too far ahead of the story here’s a quick Dio primer:
Early Days as a crooner:
Ronnie James Dio was born in 1942 and graduated from High School in Cortland, New York in 1960. He was in a number of early 60s bands where his magical voice evoked the likes of the Everly Brothers:
In 1967 he formed the band Elf. Elf were produced by members of the great proto Metal band Deep Purple, and they frequently toured together. Elf were on the psychedelic side of early hard rock and achieved some success, mainly from touring and the awesome pipes of Dio:
In 1975 Deep Purple guitar player Ritchie Blackmore (who created the memorable riffs on ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Highway Star’) formed the Metal band Rainbow. In truth, this was a match made in heaven. Ritchie Blackmore is a major fan of renaissance and medieval music. He learned how to play the Cello in order to better understand how to translate that kind of music to the electric guitar. Dio wrote lyrics about Dragons and whatnot and could make you feel goosebumps by just humming. Their work together with Rainbow can only be classed as a kind of Prog-Power-Opera-Metal (and laid the foundations for the likes of Nightwish and Dream Theatre twenty five or so years later).
Dio left Rainbow after three albums. Blackmore wanted to take the band in a more commercial rock direction while Dio craved more Metal. He got it. In 1979 he was announced as the successor to Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath. This was a huge job. Black Sabbath are generally acknowledged as the first genuine Metal band, and Ozzy was regarded as a great frontman (though a tad unreliable). Thus started one of the biggest Metal feuds in history. They both slagged each other a lot. Metal fans were divided. Dio was obviously amazing as a vocalist, but was this really Black Sabbath without Ozzy? Black Sabbath yo-yo’d between vocalists a lot over the decades. At concerts, Dio would sing both his songs and the Ozzy songs. Later, Ozzy would refuse to sing the Dio songs. After leaving Sabbath, Dio formed his own band, Ozzy launched his own successful solo career, and Black Sabbath would drift off into a weird kind of Metal obscurity where their two famous ex-vocalists became more successful than they ever were (at that point). However, Dio’s first two albums with Sabbath are regarded as classics. ‘Heaven & Hell sold around a million copies and is one of Dio’s and Sabbath’s best albums:
Dio was so good that Warner offered him a solo contract on the strength of Heaven & Hell. After ‘Mob Rules’, his second Sabbath album, he launched the band DIO. Borrowing some Rainbow and Black Sabbath members and adding Belfast guitar player Vivian Campbell, they released ‘Holy Diver’ which is considered by many to be THE definitive 80s Metal album.
It didn’t end there. DIO released ten studio albums together and RJD would reunite with Sabbath for another two albums (albeit one under the moniker Heaven & Hell). His discography is ludicrously long and successful.
Dio set down a template for a certain type of Metal. His lyrics featured standard fantasy fare like Dragons and Wizards. The video for ‘Holy Diver’ (above) is basically a D&D dungeon crawl. Between the lines, he was singing about the duality of humanity, the yin and yang, the evil and divine that is inside each human being. He clearly sketched this out in black and white in his themes and lyrics. As a role model for teenagers, he was a great one as he had a clear sense of morality. He sang about evil, and about redemption from it. He also popularised the use of ‘the horns’ and is one of possibly three different popular music artists who may have used the hand gesture first (the others being Jinx Dawson of Coven, and Gene Simmons of Kiss).
But what really set Ronnie James Dio apart from everyone else was his voice. Dio was a genuine singer. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden later utilised similar vocalists in their music, who had a soaring range over the top of galloping guitars. But even vocalists as awesome as Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson looked up to Dio. Dio’s voice was the most distinctive and effective in hard rock and metal.
Elizabeth Zharoff hosts a vocal coach reaction channel on YouTube. It’s an excellent show and worth a subscribe. As a trained Opera singer she is well qualified to do her own deep dives into vocal styles. She has analysed Dio many times and it’s always great fun to hear her gushing admiration for his voice and explanations as to why the way he sings is so unique.
Ronnie James Dio passed away from stomach cancer in 2010. He left behind a massive legacy in Rock and Metal. Even Ozzy offered his condolences and a tribute. One of Dio’s last big crossover appearances was when he appeared as himself in Jack Black’s rock opera movie, ‘Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny’. He performs alongside two other amazing vocalists, Meatloaf and Jack Black himself. It’s a great clip from the movie. When you’re done watching it, check out the second clip which shows the recording of the vocals.
After he reads this blog post, I’m pretty sure Bernard is going to start dressing like Eddie Munson from Stranger Things. I think you should get on his blog and encourage him to do so!
Is there a particular Band or musician you discovered later in life? Drop a comment below.
Next week: Now that we’ve finished with this introduction to Dio, we make a DIO album fight to the death with an OZZY album! Hit subscribe so you don’t miss it!