Randy Rhoads and 1981

Randy-Rhoads

I remember the day I’d heard Randy Rhoads had been killed in a plane crash. I was at work and the local FM radio station, KLRB, made the announcement. It was a punch in the gut. I’d skipped the Ozzy Osborne concerts because I’d figured I’d catch him at an outdoor show at some point. One of those shows had been just up the highway at the Santa Cruz Civic, in Santa Cruz, California, which was a small venue that Randy would have been right in my face no matter where I sat. When I got off work I went for a long walk that ended up at the beach. I don’t think I listened to any of his music for a week, and that was a huge deal for me.

I’d listened to Randy Rhoads every day since “Blizzard of Ozz” had been released in September, 1980. That album was a major point of contention among my high school friends at the time, Osborne had left Black Sabbath (or had been kicked out depending on who was telling the story at that time), and his fans hated him for it. They wanted to hate the album, they wanted it to suck, so it would fail. This way Ozzy would see the error of his ways and return to Black Sabbath and all would be right in the Heavy Metal universe. But it didn’t suck.

Nobody had anticipated Randy Rhoads.

“Blizzard of Ozz” was a thunder clap riding the lighting of shit-hot rock guitar. There isn’t a weak spot on the entire album thanks to Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, having the good sense to hire rock veterans Bob Daisley on bass, Don Airey on keyboards, and Lee Kerslake on drums. Kerslake had done 10 albums with Uriah Heep, had just done two tours with Rainbow but had earned his bones with the progressive fusion band Coliseum II (featuring Gary Moore on guitar), and Daisley was also a Rainbow alumnus. They laid a foundation allowing Rhoads to excel. Fans will always talk about the solos, but guitar players like me and my peers were equally blown away by his rhythm playing.

1981 had been a seminal year for Californian rock guitar. For the six previous years the Los Angeles rock music scene had been fermenting an army of over-the-top super guitarists who, in spite of selling out clubs and backyard parties, where being ignored by the morons at the record labels. While Van Halen had broken through selling three platinum albums thanks to the Godzilla-like playing of Edward Van Halen, they were considered a “Pasadena Band”, an anomaly. Ed was considered a unicorn, but the truth was he was an equal part product and engine of the nuclear reactor that was generating other guitarists like George Lynch, Warren Di Martini, and others. They weren’t swimming in shark infested waters – they were the sharks. Yet only Rhoads was the other to get exposure to the larger music world.

In Northern California we had Neal Schon of Journey, Ronnie Montrose, and Dave Meniketti of Y&T, and all were great players, but they weren’t melting brains like the L.A. guys, and one could argue that Rhoads and Van Halen had come from another planet. It wasn’t just the speed- it was the power and the attitude. With “Blizzard” suddenly anything was possible on the guitar. Rhoads’ playing, while fantastic, was accessible. Van Halen inspired a lot of copy-cats, but few grasped the fact that he was skating on the other side of the ice. In 1981, if you played guitar you were either a Van Halen guy or a Randy Rhoads guy.

I loved Van Halen but I was a Randy Rhoads guy.

Rhoads worked within a structure that I could understand, and his playing was elegant. The second album with Ozzy was “Diary of a Madman”, and here we got to see him stretch out. His playing was a little more insane, but the songs were more complex, more orchestrated. His acoustic work is outstanding. His tone was evolving into a fuller voice that seemed to reach inside my head to turn on switches I didn’t know I had. We are left with the pain of wondering what was to come next if only…

…If only…

Rhoads’ death left a black hole in the potential of rock guitar. His willingness to teach others along the way would have shaped the musical landscape in positive ways.

The worst thing about his death is how he died. I am still angry at him, and while this is selfish it is the truth. He hated to fly, but he got into that plane flown by his bus driver who’d just pulled an all-nighter. What was he thinking? I can’t come up with any good answers and it makes me mad.

His death would propel his old band, Quiet Riot, into the Top 10, in 1983. Suddenly any band with big hair that was sober enough to hold a pen was being signed by the labels. We got some great music out of the deal, but it didn’t last because it wasn’t always honest. Rhoads never lied with his music. He kept Quiet Riot on course. Without his voice to keep things in perspective the 1980s were lost.

And they were lost.

Everyone who knew him says that Rhoads was planning to attend UCLA to study classical music. The effect this would have had on young guitarists cannot be understated; there would have been a flood of guys with big hair headed back to junior colleges across the country so they could transfer to a university. Instead we got MTV Spring Break, cocaine-fueled antics, and the crime of pointless and forgettable music.

There will always be 1981.

That year everything was still possible. Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”, while not ripping up the charts, was a game-changer, and “Diary of a Madman” showed that supped-up rock guitar was ready to shave and get its driver’s license. Stadiums still waited to be filled with thunder.

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Boston: Right Album at the Perfect Moment

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My brother had Boston’s first album, Boston, in his collection early on. I don’t think he played it that often, I never did. We didn’t have to. Songs from that record were always on the radio. By now there 17 million copies sold so there’s a good chance that you have or had one in your collection. The songs are good, and the first three: “More Than a Feeling”, “Peace of Mind”, and “Long Time” represent the strongest 3-song lead-off block on any debut rock album as far as establishing the sound and soul of the band. The question is why, in a year that saw the release of “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Changes” by David Bowie, “Fly Like an Eagle”, by Steve Miller, and “A Day at the Races” by Queen, Boston’s album made the cash registers ring so much more than the others?

The answer is technology.

Boston sounded great. Tom Scholz had resisted the fools at Epic and recorded the album in his basement instead of an L.A. studio, which the label brass had demanded. Scholz, an M.I.T. graduate, was a sound technology innovator, and had he buckled and gone conventional the album might today just be a forgotten gold record. What was delivered was an album that performed well on the evolving stereo systems which were finally becoming affordable to regular people in 1976. Dolby began to appear on the receivers music lovers plugged their turntables into and Boston became a spaceship of sound just as their album cover advertised. This was an album recorded so well it made the hair on your arms stand up.

The other technology ready for great sound was the car stereo systems. 1976 saw the 8-Track tape deck introduced to the driving world, and Boston became a staple of that format. Even today when someone discovers a box of 8-Tracks in an attic there’s 75% chance Boston will be one of them. Cassette tapes were right on the 8-Track’s heels that year, and the album was tailor made for the high fidelity cassettes offered. Did people buy a record just because it sounded great in the car? Yes they did. Of the many “Road” albums perfect for the long stretches of lonely American highways Boston ranks in the top ten. The sound fills the car perfectly.

Boston is a cornerstone album. I make this judgment based on the albums that came before it, and the ones which followed. Boston opened the minds of engineers and producers to what could be done in the studio. Albums became more polished. Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”, and Pink Flyod’s “Animals” were so smooth and clear compared to each band’s previous work that both albums are considered landmark works for each band. Boston’s sound quality became industry standard. As a rock purest I understand how this might be viewed as a bad thing. Rock at its best should be delivered raw and twitching. The Sex Pistols were a direct response to what Boston was doing to rock music, and God bless them for it.

But it wasn’t Boston’s fault.  People like what they like.

I’m not arguing pros or cons of what became Industrial Music. Tom Scholz was the George Lucas of rock music, a guy who was fiercely independent and ended up creating something that made so much money the corporate suits bought the into the works without looking back.

Boston, at the end of the day, is a good rock album. Solid musicianship with songs tightly performed. Tom Scholz played all of the guitars, bass, and keyboard parts to perfection, Barry Ourdreau played “Monster Guitar” on “Long Time”, Sib Hashian locked down the drum parts on all but “Rock & Roll Band” (Jim Mesdea handled that song), and the wonderful Brad Delp did all of the singing. On the album he’s listed as vocals, but damn it, that man could sing, and what you hear is real singing on Boston. Delp was a treasure. Every hack song writer and musician has Tom Scholz as their patron saint. His “Rockman” portable headphone guitar amp meant axe men could get monster tones on their cheap 4-track cassette recorders for the first time, which lead to all of the sound modeling technology musicians of all stripes enjoy today.

Boston was and is just a perfect album, a rock and roll hole-in-one.