Randy Rhoads died 10 years before the official guitar tablature for Tribute found its way through my door, subsequently bogarting so many onanistic early-90s teenage years of practising guitar for the edification of no one save for the family spaniel. But the impact of his style—all neoclassical Ritchie Blackmore one minute and kinda like a collegiate Van Halen the next—was still like the freshest thing I'd heard. Considering the early 90s was all grunge guys saying "fuck scales" and ultimate shredder dudes choking up guitar magazines looking very much like they were been endorsed equally by Charvel and Hawaiian Tropic, sounding mortally enervating and validating the grunge guys' point, Ozzy's first and far-and-away best shred lieutenant for his solo post-Sabbath career was the guy posthumously shining the torch for those wanting to get some Jedi-shred moves going for the greater glory of metal and extreme music. Randy Rhoads only released four full-length studio albums—two with Quiet Riot, and two with Ozzy—before his death in March 19, 1982. He was 25. But his legacy was pretty gigantic. There were those he influenced/inspired, like Mastodon's Brann Dailor, who is obsessed with him and he's a drummer; the Jackson series guitars that he helped design; the reasonable assertion that his guitar on Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman totally resurrected Ozzy's career would have most likely have sank without him: that's a lot for a man who died at 25, a guy whose actual persona was dwarfed by his playing so much so that we know little about him.
So when renowned rock/metal biographer Joel McIver put that right with with Crazy Train: The High Life And Tragic Death Of Randy Rhoads, we thought we'd give him a call to get his thoughts on the the man, and also to find out what it's like piecing together someone's biography when they've been dead for nearly 30 years.
What made you want to do a book on Randy and when did you start working on it? Joel McIver: I’d been tinkering with the idea for ages. I’ve been writing books and magazine features about guitarists and guitar techniques for years, and it occurred to me a while back that there was no biog dedicated to Randy, although of course books such as Rudy Sarzo’s informative Off The Rails cover some of his story. I wrote a biography of the late Cliff Burton in 2008 and the objectives of the Randy biog were broadly similar, as was the method of assembling it. I took about a year to write it, although I’d been asking musicians about him for at least five years or so before that.
Ozzy perusing a lost Rhoads solo outtake
What is the first step when you're putting together a book whose protagonist is dead? JMc: You stop and take a moment to consider how best to go about telling his or her story in the best way, and then proceed very carefully. In the subject’s permanent absence, the danger is obviously that you will end up portraying him/her incorrectly. You also need to bear in mind that there is a fanbase with an emotional investment in the story that you do not want to alienate with an inferior book. It’s a tricky balancing act.
Indeed, without Randy to interview, how do you piece together his story, his thoughts on his transition from Quiet Riot to Ozzy? Were there any particular sources that were particularly inspirational on that front, eg. Magazines, fanzines, diary entrys etc... JMc: Certainly printed and online sources helped, but in my experience it isn’t enough to simply recycle existing quotes. You have to deliver value to the reader who has been kind enough to pay X bucks for your book, and for me the only way to do that is to provide information and perspective that has not been available before. With that in mind, I tried to paint a picture of Randy supported by the memories and commentary of people who knew him and who hadn’t spoken on the record before.
Who did you really want to speak to, and was there anyone you couldn't get a hold of? JMc: One of the most rewarding parts of writing this book was how willing people were to be interviewed. The aim was to speak with Randy’s schoolfriends, guitar students and fellow musicians, and I got hold of everyone I wanted, pretty much.
What was the biggest challenge you had piecing the story together? JMc: The brief duration of Randy’s career in the public eye. He was plucked from obscurity in 1979, recorded two killer albums in 1980 and ’81 and died in March 1982. That’s a cruelly short span of time, and not easy to place within the parameters of an 80,000 word book.
What sort of help did you get from the Ozzy camp? JMc: I asked Ozzy’s people for an interview and they said no, as I expected. No big deal. Is it difficult finding the tone, given that I'd imagine you don't necessarily want to come over too sentimental, nor too objective? It would be if I actually thought about it, but you just have to trust your instincts as a writer and go with what feels right. Also, the publishers employed a really good editor, who was able to apply some perspective if the tone ever fluctuated too much, although in fact it was more or less right from the first draft.
Did you learn anything about his rivalry with Eddie Van Halen? It was always something that people talked about, and I always wondered if it was exaggerated posthumously. JMc: It barely existed. Randy was very open about EVH, acknowledging that Eddie was there before he was, and that he would sometimes find himself playing like Eddie at times when he lacked inspiration. The media of the day did what they always do, running headlines like "Is Randy the pretender to Eddie’s throne?" and so on, but really there was no more to it than that.
Without giving away the book's family silver, do you have any favourite story/anecdote? Guitar geeks will love the revelation about how difficult he found it to use his first whammy bar and stay in tune when he used it. He really had no idea how to use one at first.
Did your impression of Randy change after you'd finished it? JMc: Yes. Beforehand I’d heard what a decent guy he was: his humility and friendliness were legendary. After writing the book I knew that he had a darker side too. He never really antagonised anyone, but he had a temper like the rest of us, that’s for sure.
Impossible question, one for idle conjecture, but what do you think Randy would be doing had the crash not happened; would he still be with Ozzy? JMc: No way. He was about to quit Ozzy’s band anyway. I think he would have become a respected session guy, or possibly a solo artist of the calibre of Satriani or Vai.
What do you see as his legacy? JMc: His albums, the Jackson sharkfin shape and the fact that he demonstrated to the rest of us that you can come from nowhere, get stupidly famous and still not be an asshole.
Oh, shit, what's your favourite Randy track? What would you say is his greatest moment? JMc: In both cases, ‘You Can’t Kill Rock And Roll’. I love the acoustic tracks, although he’s obviously best known as an electric player. That’s a side of his playing that he would have focused on, had he survived.
What's next book-wise for yourself? JMc: I’m co-writing the autobiographies of three very famous heavy metal dudes, for publication in 2012. It’s a very exciting process and I can’t wait to reveal who they are, although clearly I can’t for ages. I’ll give you a clue: none of them are Joey DeMaio or The Great Kat.