BOOKS: Metal Guru


BY CHRIS DIPINTO It’s an understatement to say that when I heard about the new book Randy Rhoads – The Quiet Riot Years (with an accompanying DVD), I was totally psyched. Randy’s playing, look and songwriting changed the course of music and his influences can still be seen and heard today. I never stopped trying to figure out his riffs, his playing style, and what he brought to the stage. I was good at copping other players’ styles but couldn’t fully master Randy’s. I read every article and searched out every picture of the guy, but never completely understood how he did what he did: create some of the greatest neo-classical/pop-metal ever heard.

The book took three months to show up. It felt like an eternity! Once I got my hands on the thing, it did not disappoint. The oversized hardbound book has a full glossy cover, full glossy pictures on every page and a fold-out poster inside. Just by looking at it, I knew it was going to be like a wild teenage pin-up ride from the glory days of Creem, Circus and Hit Parader.

I’ve worshipped Randy since 1980. I grew up in the suburbs but my parents were pretty hip and liked good music, so the Beatles and the Stones on 8-track are some of my earliest memories. Back in the days when “progressive rock” FM radio stations would play entire albums, my parents would record them. I remember hearing Yes, Heart and the Eagles at 4 or 5. My favorite was Elton John. My parents took me to see him at age 5 in ‘73. I was totally hooked: wild outfits and great guitar riffs! A few years later my dad got a hold of the first Boston album and that was when I knew I wanted to play guitar.

My older brother was also into music, but he went for the harder stuff. That’s when I first heard Black Sabbath, Rush and Van Halen. One day he told me the singer from Black Sabbath started a solo project and that he was buying the record the next time we were able to get to Sam Goody’s. When I saw the cover of Blizzard of Ozz for the first time, it was downright frightening – in other words, exactly what an 11 year old loves! We would have dug it even if the music sucked. But it didn’t suck – it was amazing. Growing up in the ‘70s, unlike today (sorry, youth of the aughts), there was so much great new music coming out and it was around you at all times. To us, Eddie Van Halen was God and had reinvented the guitar – but Blizzard of Ozz had something else going on.

It had blistering heavy-metal guitar with pop hooks and classical music mixed in. I remember stealing the record when my brother wasn’t around and lying on my bed listening to the “Crazy Train” solo over and over. When that solo comes in, it was like the entire song took a left turn and lifted-off into the air. I remember vividly the feeling of flying when hearing it, like the accounts people would give while listening to Bach perform in the 18th century. The music was so soaring that people would be lifted to their feet uncontrollably. Randy’s playing has that power, and it was never heard in rock music before him as far as I’m concerned.

Randy’s playing spurred a whole movement of neo-classical metal guitarists but no one was able to do exactly what he did. It was only recently that I figured out why, and this book really helps to hit it home. Along with Randy’s virtuosity, there was another element that was always overlooked in the articles and analysis about his playing: glam rock.

Lately I have been re-discovering glam rock – you know, Bowie, T-Rex, Alice Cooper, Sweet , Slade, etc. – and now I see that Randy Rhoads was really a glam rocker. He and Quiet Riot singer Kevin Dubrow were as much into fashion as music and this book shows it in full ‘70s Technicolor. And it’s the glam rock and blues-based rock and roll that’s missing with other neo-classical players.

Take for instance shred guitarist Yngwie Malmstein: fast, heavy, Bach influenced, minor key playing but without a trace of Bowie, Alice Cooper or Slade. With Randy, you hear Bach in his riffs but his catchy choruses are straight from “Top of the Pops” (listen how Randy’s finger-tapping arpeggios at the end of the “Flying High Again” solo lead seamlessly into the radio-friendly chorus Ozzy sings over). Along with the Bowie-style choruses, Quiet Riot had the look to boot, and this book has great shots of the band in their wildest outfits.

The book was written by Kevin and Randy’s childhood friend and aspiring rock photographer Ron Sobel (brother of Stan Sobel, aka Stan Lee of The Dickies). It’s as much about Kevin as it is about Randy, explaining how they met and how they grew up as close friends in suburban L.A.

Along with amazing photos, the book is loaded with stories that guitar players and Randy fanatics will freak over. For instance, Randy’s first real electric guitar was a black Gibson SG Special that apparently never stayed in tune. So one day, one of Quiet Riot’s early managers couldn’t take it anymore and drove to the L.A. Guitar Center and bought Randy a new white Gibson Les Paul Custom … now considered one of THE quintessential Randy Rhoads axes. Randy, who had been teaching Stan Lee how to play guitar, later sold the SG to Stan. The Dickies go on to get signed as Quiet Riot is doomed to linger in L.A. with no major record deal.

The “getting signed” part of the story is downright frustrating to read. Quiet Riot with Randy on guitar is a great band as documented on two albums: Quiet Riot and Quiet Riot II. They were only released in Japan. I remember getting these duped for me on cassette by my friend Bill Groh, an avid record collector, and I loved them. The tapes disintegrated over time and I got Bill to dupe them for me again, digitally this time (thanks Bill!). The songs still hold up and the singing and guitar playing is spectacular on both.

Even when their L.A. rivals Van Halen got signed, Quiet Riot couldn’t get a deal. They were seen as out-of-date compared to the new wave and punk music that was exploding. In hindsight this is crazy logic. Yes, they looked outdated to some – the glammed-out bell-bottom jumpsuits and black and white striped spandex, Randy’s trademark polka-dot bow ties and tight vests (credit goes to Randy’s girlfriend Jodie Raskin and her friend Laurie Mac Adam for designing and sewing all their outfits). Compared to what Bowie and Bolan were up to in 1978, this may have felt a little behind the times.

What wasn’t obvious at the time was that Quiet Riot was changing glam. I see them as the first band to take ‘70s glam and turn it into ‘80s hair metal. In a few years, Randy’s slightly longer Mick Ronson haircut is being sported by every metalhead (including yours truly). Their poppy, bubblegum metal riffs were being copied by bands like Motley Crue, Poison and Bon Jovi but no record company could see it. So the Randy-era Quiet Riot never gets a major release.

Randy does, however, bring his sound and look to the world through two mind-blowing Ozzy records: Blizzard of Oz and Diary of a Madman. On these albums Randy is free to create without labels and producers telling him to give them something “more sale-able” or “more disco” which is what Quiet Riot was often hampered with. You can hear the freedom and inspiration on these records – Randy is on fire. To this day, I can play the “Crazy Train” riff to one of my young guitar students who never heard it before and almost certainly get a rise out of them.

Randy and Eddie Van Halen together create hair metal, though at the time it was just known as heavy metal (I make the distinction because I’m not a fan of the later hair metal that follows). Their virtuoso licks and amazingly abundant heads of hair changed the sound and the look of rock and roll. Sadly, Randy had to leave Quiet Riot to get his entry in the proverbial “book of heavy metal.”

After years without a record deal, Randy gave in to constant badgering by the Ozzy Osbourne organization to try out for Ozzy’s new solo project. Apparently Randy had no interest in Black Sabbath and was dead-set on making it with his mates. When the book describes how he reluctantly goes down for the audition, you get the sense that a young artist is about to compromise his most deeply held principles. The book explains that Randy never formally quits Quiet Riot, and he even returns for a reunion show (it also explains that it was supposed to be two weekends worth of shows but the later ones are canceled when Sharon Arden, Ozzy’s manager and future wife, finds out). Toward the end of Randy’s time with Ozzy, it is well documented that Randy was unhappy and made it known that he wanted to quit. Kevin had written a song for him called “Thunderbird” which is about Randy leaving to play with Ozzy. Randy was slated to come back and cut a solo on the recording. It’s not written anywhere but if you ask me, Randy was coming back to play with his old friend Kevin and reunite with Quiet Riot.

The story is sadly cut short when Randy is killed in a plane crash while on tour with Ozzy. This part of the book is heart wrenching. You are forced to see the tragedy through the eyes of the people who grew up with Randy and knew and loved him best. It’s devastating to see a picture (one that only appears in the accompanying DVD and not the book) of Kevin Dubrow and Ozzy as pallbearers of Randy’s coffin. It’s hard to believe that any of them were able to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives and careers after such a blow.

But music is the great healer and both Ozzy and Kevin go on to record some great records. Kevin re-forms Quiet Riot and releases the great pop-metal record Metal Health. Ozzy obviously goes on to release countless records with a few noteworthy axe-men, but to me none ever came close to what Randy did on those first two Ozzy records … or Quiet Riot records for that matter.

There is a case to be made that Randy Rhoads is THE most influential heavy metal guitarist of all time. His flawless technique still inspires young hands to play, his fashion defined ‘80s metal, and his tone and the guitars that he designed and played are some of the hottest selling metal guitars to this day. His off-set Flying V that he designed with Grover Jackson never went out of style, even when hair metal died in the early ‘90s. The reason for this is simple: Randy was unique, fusing metal with glam rock and classical music while never leaving his blues-based roots behind. That combination is what makes the music soar.

Even now I find myself listening to “Flying High Again,” looking at the picture on the record of Randy playing his iconic polka-dot Sandoval Flying V and being lifted into the air by Ozzy on stage, as if to help him soar that much higher. As Kevin wrote in his tribute song to Randy, “Fly on Thunderbird, Thunderbird fly! Fly on, spread your wings to the sky!”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris DiPinto resides in Philadelphia, where he designs and build his own line of DiPinto Guitars. He also plays in a band called Creem Circus, which brings the look and sound of ‘70s glam rock loaded with Randy Rhoads-inspired riffs.