If you were born after 1984, you may think Ronnie James Dio was a strange, small, scaly singer, a past-his-prime artifact of that weird period in heavy metal history when it wasn’t a live show without an inflatable dragon. You would be wrong.
Wait, no, he was those things. But he was more than that. Much more. He was the missing link, the man who took the various minerals that were lying around and smelted them into what we now call heavy metal.
Before Dio joined Black Sabbath to replace Ozzy Osbourne, hard rock was still very much fixated on the melody, on the message. Led Zeppelin, often called the originators of metal, were no metal band. Ozzy-era Sabbath was far heavier, but it was a sludgy kind of heavy. The other blues-oriented hard bands of that era, like Savoy Brown, Cream, the Doors (seriously, and please don’t laugh) and Deep Purple crunched it in the same way Kurt Cobain would two decades later: dirty, unsophisticated and simple, a conscious “fuck you” to the clean white pop scene that had dominated the 60s.
- Note: Heavy metal was invented by Dave Davies of The Kinks, when he sliced up his little amp and roared out the distorted, disturbed riffs of You Really Got Me and its better brother, All Day And All of the Night. Later, Blue Cheer took it further.
But as that experiment in unwashed dirty urban hard rock started to slip in the face of the rising punk onslaught, Ozzy quit Sabbath and a little lizard named Ronnie James Dio took his place. Dio, an American whose first gig was in 1957, dumped the sound he’d cultivated in Elf and Rainbow and opened the valve wide. He turned out to be the first metal star, the man who came up with the things metalheads now take for granted: the devil-horn hand salute (I was joshin’ ya, Ori), the hair, the leathers, the swords and stomp, all that. But most of all, what he did was incorporate an operatic element to the music, finally removing the blues from hard rock and giving it something new: opera.
Classic metal is opera with guitars. It’s a story, a vocals-based thematic blast with high drama, emotion and pathos, with dry ice and helmets with horns. Dio understood that, and he brought that to his bell-bottomed buddies. The voice became an equal partner to the guitar. Ozzy tried hard to play catchup after the fact, but really, it was Dio’s game.
His death on Sunday was no shock. He was sick. And he was 67, and ready to go back on tour. Think about that: 67 years old, cancer ridden, ready to strap on the leathers and howl and shriek and roar to the storms.
You may think he was a fossil, a forgotten relic. But he wasn’t. Everybody currently listening to, making or producing modern rock music owes Ronnie James Dio a debt. He reminded us, in the 70s, that music is a spectacle, not a sound, and an emotion, not a product.
Thank you, Dio. You rocked, you rock, and you always will.