I’ve done a fair bit about morality in fantasy recently, and though I have at least another three meditations on that theme, I think it’s time for a break. Let’s get back to the origins of why I write fantasy. I’ve written a few columns on my literary influences, but I have been led to the land of fantasy by other routes, through art, film, and most especially by music.
I am unashamedly a child of the late 70s and 80s. Rock, and then metal were the dominant forces in my musical world, and though I explored and appreciated many other areas of music later in life, I have to be honest about my first love in music, and what a huge effect it had on my fledgling imagination.
My elder brother was a massive Motörhead fan. Every surface of his room, including ceiling, was covered in Motörhead posters, memorabilia, and articles about the band torn from the pages of Sounds magazine. He had an ancient turntable with a built in speaker that had to have an emptied spool of thread glued to the end of the tone arm above the stylus to keep the needle from jumping. However primitive it might have been, it was loud. The things you remember.
However, before he became an acolyte of the church of Motörhead and abandoned all other musicians, my brother had possessed other slices of 70s rock history, and the images of these album covers lingered in my memory as something to be rediscovered when I myself reached the age of 12, with enough money from my paper round to keep me in sweets for the week with a bit left over. I remembered two covers in particular: one was a glass head with a rod of strange lights going through it – Judas Priest’s Stained Class, the other a pencil drawing of five faces looking out from an interlinked mass of hair. Rainbow’s Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll. I vaguely remembered it, and thought I’d liked it, most memories of earlier music having been almost obliterated by a wall of constant Lemmy & Co. (Capricorn is a fantastic (and fantastical to me at the time) early tune, I always wanted them to play that rather than Metropolis when I saw them live. I dimly think my wish was granted once.)
So I wandered up town, and found that I had enough money to buy two Rainbow albums. I bought Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. I don’t know why I didn’t get Rising that day, but I’m glad I didn’t, it was a treat saved for a few months later, and appreciating Rainbow’s first album meant I wasn’t always looking for bombast in future – though in my teens that was mostly what I wanted! I went home. My mother and sister were out, off to the Usher Hall to listen to entirely other music. I put on side one of LLR’N’R, on mum’s good record player (no spools required), and was blown away by the voice that soared from those speakers.
I thought I was in heaven, this was amazing, I couldn’t believe how good everything sounded, right down to my gut, even as my mind sparkled and shone with the images bursting from Ronnie James Dio’s lyrics. Then the last song on side one began. Gates of Babylon. If there was ever a chance I would not be a lifelong fan of RJD, it was gone then. I mean, Ritchie Blackmore is amazing, and I love almost anything with his playing on it, but this is about first loves, and that love was Dio’s incomparable voice tempting me to look away from the sea and go with him anywhere. Get ‘em when they’re young. I was hopelessly hooked. The song ended, I lifted the needle, put it back to the start of that song, turned the volume up, and moved the speakers so my head was directly between them. I wanted to be inside the song. My odyssey into hearing loss had begun, but I didn’t know it then, all that mattered was how I felt, overwhelmed by the song, wanting to be part of it, to go where that incredible voice could take me, make the images that burst into my mind real. Music, like reading, offered a powerful avenue of escape from the humdrum daily life, a portal into other worlds that could exist in my mind. I was glad of another entrance, something else to daydream about as I stared out of that classroom window. The first of thousands of writing prompts were born right there, something not torn from the books I read, but borne on waves of sound into my eager consciousness, the first mixing of two huge imaginative influences in my life.
First with Rainbow, and then in his time with Black Sabbath, and on into his solo career, Ronnie James Dio wrote and performed songs that were the inspiration to, and soundtrack of my first writing efforts. The imagery of Tarot Woman, Stargazer, Temple of the King, Catch the Rainbow, Man on the Silver Mountain, Lady of the Lake, L.A. Connection, and A Light in the Black by Rainbow fuelled my dreams, helped at times to shape my imagination. Neon Knights, Children of the Sea, Heaven and Hell, Lonely is the Word, Mob Rules, Sign of the Southern Cross, Falling off the Edge of the World by Black Sabbath brought passion and intensity to the stories I wanted to tell. Holy Diver, Don’t Talk to Strangers, The Last in Line, One Night in the City and many more songs from Dio’s solo band continued to hit home emotionally and fill me with the yearning to be creative, and for me that was to write. Though I have moved on a long way from naming magical items in my first book after a Dio album and song, the wonder of those first impressions has not left me, and his turn of lyrical expression can sometimes still be found here and there in my writing style. I may not be obsessed with rainbows as RJD was lyrically, but I’m sure my own tics will become more obvious with time, just as his did. It didn’t stop him being excellent, even in later years when I was afraid he’d not be able to cut it in concert anymore, and came away awed and happy every time. He might have lost octaves, but his magic as a performer never waned, and that was an incredible achievement.
I think most us have musical heroes and inspirations, and I firmly believe that the more artistic exposure and inspiration you have in your life the better, as it is all raw material of the best quality for your own creative processes to transform and turn into something new: your unique combination of influences filtered through your own life experiences and forged by your creative will into something fresh and exciting. The music of Ronnie James Dio is a huge part of my creative unconscious now, along with other great bands of the 70s and 80s that I may bend your ear about another time!