The good folks at Orion’s Cold Fire have generously allowed me the opportunity to contribute to the site. I write primarily about politics, economics, and history at https://theportlypolitico.wordpress.com, but as a “semi-pro” musician (and a full-time music teacher), I enjoy occasionally critiquing music. The purpose of this feature is to review classic 70s and 80s-era hard rock and heavy metal albums. Why such a specific genre and time period? Essentially, I believe this genre represents the pinnacle of rock music. With its confluence of blues, acid rock, country-western, and all the other distinct musical “flavors” of the mid-twentieth century, rock and roll reached its greatest artistic and technical summits during the “classic rock” era. I’ll write further about that contentious claim at a later date; but now, let’s boogie!
When considering an album to review, I more or less use this criteria: does it sound like hard rock/heavy metal? Have I listened to it enough to comment upon it? And does it rock? That’s not the best criteria, as it predisposes me to writing glowing reviews of every album, but there you have it—the highly unscientific approach I take to writing about music I generally love.
All that aside, my first album review for Orion’s Cold Fire was a no-brainer: 1979’s Down to Earth by Rainbow. This album perfectly encapsulates the direction of rock music at that crucial turning point between punk and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Down to Earth was the first and only Rainbow album to feature Graham Bonnet on lead vocals, who replaced legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Rainbow’s guitarist and mastermind, Ritchie Blackmore, was notorious for sacking musicians on a whim, so most of the album’s personnel was wildly different than even the previous Rainbow release.
Regardless, this album rocks. While he’s no Dio, the songs on Down to Earth are uniquely suited for Bonnet’s vocals—probably because he wrote the melodies after the band had already recorded all of the tracks.
The album’s big hit—and Rainbow’s first hit single—is “Since You Been Gone,” a Russ Ballard-penned tune that strikes the right balance between rock and pop. The chorus is catchy as the flu, but like any good hard rock song, the pre-chorus build really sets up the triumphant release of the chorus beautifully. Listen to the bass and guitar after the line “Your poison letter, your telegram” and you’ll see what I mean.
That said, my favorite tracks are the opening and closing numbers, “All Night Long” and “Lost in Hollywood,” respectively. Musically, they rock, and “Lost in Hollywood” passes what I call the “drive test”—I drive much faster when listening to it. It also features some of Rainbow’s signature neoclassical embellishments, pointing to the rise of neoclassical metal.
Lyrically, they’re fairly depressing commentaries of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, not to mention the Sexual Revolution. “All Night Long” is sung from the point of view of a jaded, lonely rocker, searching the crowd for a babe to spend the night with him (the most poignant line, from the third verse: “I know I can’t stand another night on my own”). “Lost in Hollywood” describes a man so dedicated to rock, he’s lost the woman who makes it all worthwhile.
There are some less memorable tracks—the neoclassically-inflected “Eyes of the World” is a commentary on humanity’s rapacious capacity for violence and waste, but is a bit ponderous; “Makin’ Love” has its moments, but is forgettable—but, from start to finish, Down to Earth is as good an introduction to classic hard rock as I can conceive. Crank it up!