Rainbow released the album Down to Earth on this day in 1979.
Down to Earth is an important transitional album in the history of the band. It marked the beginning of the transition of the band from a pioneering hard rock group into a more chart-focused, poppier outfit in the 80s. This album, while prefiguring the latter, still primarily took its cues from the band’s earlier work.
This album came amidst a massive lineup shakeup as well as a change in genres. In between Long Live Rock ‘n Roll and Down to Earth, three of the five members of the group were let go. These three included singer Ronnie James Dio, who disagreed with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s desire to take the band in a more commercial direction. Dio was the last member other than Blackmore to have been on every previous Rainbow album. Singer Graham Bonnet replaced him, marking Bonnet’s entry into the heavy metal genre. Prior to this, Bonnet had been best known for much softer, R&B work, but after his time with Rainbow has since become a fixture in the heavy metal world.
This lineup also launched the career of another notable on the hard rock scene, Don Airey. Drummer Cozy Powell, who was the only member other than Blackmore to stay on after Long Live Rock ‘n Roll, had worked with Airey early in his career in Cozy Powell’s Hammer, Airey’s first major rock band. Airey had since gone on to be in Colosseum II, a jazz fusion outfit; this jazz association had cooled Blackmore to the idea of bringing him in, as he wanted someone with a strong classical background.
As Airey related, when he went in for the audition, Blackmore placed a Bach piece in front of him and told him to play. The joke was on the guitarist, however; Airey was an alumnus of the Royal College of Music in Manchester, where he’d spent a year getting a thoroughly classical piano education. He was thus very familiar with the piece he had been asked to play!
As a contrast to Airey and Bonnet, Blackmore brought a familiar face in as the final member of the lineup. This was Roger Glover, originally brought in for production but then drafted into the roll of bassist again. Glover had not been in a band since June of 1973, when his tenure with Deep Purple came to an end. His firing has apparently been largely at Blackmore’s insistence, making his recruitment into Rainbow somewhat ironic. Glover would go on to become one of the longest-serving members of Rainbow other than Blackmore. This combined with his work in Deep Purple would make him Blackmore’s longest-serving rock collaborator, and second-longest collaborator overall.
This lineup, in my view, is probably the strongest all-around lineup of Rainbow overall. Single members of other lineups may be more memorable or beloved, but the band as a whole was never stronger than during the Down to Earth era. The Down to Earth lineup also had the greatest implications for the music scene around Rainbow; Roger Glover was restored to the stage, while Graham Bonnet and Don Airey became fixtures of the hard rock scene after their involvement with this project
Critical reviews for the album seem overall positive, both for the overall album and for individual members. Fans, meanwhile seem to have reacted more positively to this album than some of the group’s later, poppier efforts. Some were let down and most agree that it’s not as good as the Dio era of albums, but it is still fairly well-received.
Interestingly, opinion seems divided amongst the former members of this lineup as to its merits. Don Airey raves about it to this day. Ritchie Blackmore, meanwhile, stated in an interview at the time that most of the album was “a waste of time”. Even he would say that some of the music was okay, though!
Rainbow went on a world tour to support the album, during which they visited the US, Europe, and Japan. Along the way, they dealt with several serious stage setbacks; this included a physical fight between three members of the group, multiple people falling ill on one night, bad weather, and at least one riot. Three members of the band would be gone within just over two years of this album’s release.
Despite this mixture of bad luck and tension, the concerts we have from this era are absolutely top-notch. I’ve reviewed one here, and would recommend looking into the live albums and unofficial recordings from this era. You’ll be in for a real treat!
- Airey, Don. Airey Remembers