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.