I was a slave to Holy Diver. For a couple of weeks prior to the album’s release Tommy Vance had been playing tracks from it, teasing his Britain-wide Radio 1 listenership with its brilliance, and I’d salivate like a metallic Pavlovian pooch every time I got a sniff of one of the tracks. I couldn’t buy it on its day of release – I’d already spent my pocket money for the week on Panini football stickers - but the following Saturday there I was in Tescos supermarket in Northampton, handing over five pounds and twenty nine pence for this hotly-anticipated slab of metallic grandeur. It didn’t let me down.
The needle dropped onto the vinyl. My jaw dropped onto the carpet. Stand Up and Shout is still one of the best album opening tracks in the history of metal, but in 1983 it was quite simply one of the best tracks I’d ever heard. Guitarist Vivian Campbell’s coruscating riffage transported me to another plane as I battered away in my bedroom at my cardboard guitar in time to the music, but it was the vocals, courtesy of the seemingly timeless Ronnie James Dio, that were what Stand Up and Shout was really all about. For Holy Diver, the first album by Dio’s eponymous solo band is one of the great expositions of metal singing. If not the greatest.
The title track, for all its faintly ludicrous allusions to riding tigers and drowning vicars, is pure brilliance, Dio exhibiting his mastery of the art of epic metal in five and three quarter minutes of pure vocal nirvana. But whilst Dio even in 1983 had something of a (deserved at times) reputation for penning silly dungeons and dragons ditties for a non-critical legion of dopey be-denimed followers, Holy Diver demonstrates a keen ear for melody and, above all, songwriting smarts that most of his contemporaries couldn’t touch. Caught in the Middle is a great pop song swathed in crashing drums, throbbing bass and razor-sharp axework, whilst the albums show-stopping piece de resistance – Don’t Talk to Strangers - shows what can be done with a stellar riff, a songwriter’s ear and the best set of hard rockin’ pipes this side of... well, the best set of pipes period actually. Put simply, DTTS is perfect heavy metal. And let's not forget Gypsy, Invisible, Shame on the Night - great songs all.
But why all this misty-eyed reminiscence? Because when I woke up today I found out that Ronnie James Dio had died at the age 67 after a brief but savage battle with stomach cancer.
I mentioned earlier that Dio seemed to me as a young headbanger to be ‘timeless’ and, over the ensuing twenty seven years since Holy Diver emerged that has always been my sense of the man. He was already a veteran when I first entered the wonderful and frightening world of heavy metal, and for nearly thirty years, whatever modern musical mores have come and gone, he’s accompanied me on my sonic journey. Sure, he’s birthed a few turkeys over the years, but the bottom line has always been a legacy of involvement in three of the classic hard rock albums of all time (the man’s vocals can be found on Rising by Rainbow, Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath and the afore-mentioned Holy Diver, a triumvirate of brilliance across three different acts that will surely never be matched ) and a voice that for many sums up an entire genre. The man was gracious, generous (his almost single handed stewardship of heavy metal’s contribution to Bob Geldof’s Live Aid/USA for America tie-in project – Hear n’Aid – earned him many plaudits from many outside of metal’s sometimes wilfully ghettoised community) and, perhaps most importantly, a lover of both beer and curry.
I’m sad as I type this, but perhaps to prove to myself that the man lives on in his music, I’m cranking Rainbow in the Dark at neighbour-bothering volume – and it feels good.
Rock in Peace Ronnie.