40 Years Ago, Ronnie James Dio Cemented His Greatness with Holy Diver
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When Ronnie James Dio left Rainbow in 1979, he didn’t wallow in self-pity or rest on his laurels. Instead, he replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath and further solidified his place as one of the genre’s greatest singers via 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules.
He then faced a similar crossroads post-Mob Rules when he parted ways with Black Sabbath. Rather than front someone else’s band yet again, however, he took the opportunity to spearhead his own project – Dio – and set the heavy metal world aflame with the quartet’s landmark first album, Holy Diver, which arrived on May 25th, 1983.
Forty years later, Holy Diver remains one of the genre’s superlative debuts and most legendary collections.
Regarding why Dio – and new drummer Vinny Appice – quit Black Sabbath so soon after arriving, Appice told Sonic Perspectives in 2022: “Tony [Iommi], Ronnie, and Geezer [Butler] weren’t seeing eye to eye anymore.” So, Dio decided to leave, and he asked Appice to come along.
“I could’ve stayed with Sabbath,” Appice explained. “I loved Tony and Geezer . . . but I thought that this would be pretty exciting, starting a band with Ronnie.”
In an interview for the 2005 remaster of Holy Diver, Dio reflected that the new group was born from “a lot of frustration,” adding: “I decided that I better take control of my own life. . . . [Holy Diver] gave me a chance to choose the people that I want[ed] to play with and make the kind of music that I want[ed] to make.”
While that desire might imply that he wanted to be the star of the show, he really didn’t. In the same conversation, he expounded: “It never was a solo project to me. It had my name on it, which I thought was clever from a business standpoint. Coming out of Sabbath and Rainbow, people knew who I was. . . . [Holy Diver] was a total package put on by the four of us . . . they did such a great job.”
Speaking of those other two members – guitarist Vivian Campbell and bassist/keyboardist Jimmy Bain – Dio knew exactly what he was looking for once he and Appice got together.
First, he decided that he “wanted an English [guitarist]” because he needed someone “who had . . . romance in his solo and beauty in his playing and could write.” After futilely scouring London for a few days, he phoned former Rainbow bandmate Bain to see if he could suggest anyone.
Dio reflected, “[Bain] came to the hotel with two tapes: one with Vin Campbell and one with John Sykes. We liked John’s playing but there was something special about what Vin did. . . . [W]e got a rehearsal room and Jimmy came down with his bass. . . . We played ‘Holy Diver’ and ‘Don’t Talk to Strangers’ and they were magic. We decided we wanted to do it and that was that.”
Indeed, Dio already had “Holy Diver” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” written. In fact, his widow Wendy Dio revealed in 2022 that both were initially meant for Black Sabbath but came with him when he left.
Overall, Holy Diver was written without a central concept in mind. Instead, the foursome spotlighted an unconnected mix of private, moral, and fictional inspirations.
Chatting with Artist Magazine in late 1983, Dio explained: “What I’ve tried to do is write the way I always have – from my heart and from my head. On this album, all the lyrics, melodies, and changes are mine. My writing has always been medieval-flavored, but I’m concerned with what we’re doing with ourselves and our environment.”
On that note, numerous tracks ventured into personal territory. For instance, Dio once stated that opener “Stand Up and Shout” was “a negative statement of my own disenchantment.” Likewise, both “Straight to the Heart” and “Shame on the Night” mirrored his “own trauma at the time.”
In the 2004 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Dio admitted that the title track criticized how Christianity frequently “teach[es] by fear more than by love.” It centers around “a Christ figure” from another planets who dies “for the sins of man so that man can start again and be cleansed.” Consequently, people start “calling him the ‘Holy Diver’” and asking him to stay there rather than do the same on other worlds, thereby demonstrating Dio’s commentary on “how selfish humanity is.”
Similarly, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” wrestles with the duality of pure good and evil, so Holy Diver’s compositions – as well as its artwork – continued the fantasy focus of Dio’s prior works with Rainbow (and even predecessor Elf). As such, it’s a seminal proto-power metal statement.
That’s not to say that those aspects weren’t controversial, though, especially Randy Barrett’s iconic main image.
Widely assumed to be depicting mascot Murray whipping a defenseless drowning priest, Wendy Dio told Goldmine in 2022, “the record label did not want [it] at all, but Ronnie was very adamant and would not budge.” Why? Because he wanted people to consider whether or not the priest is actually “the bad guy.” In other words, the artwork embodied the music’s insistence on seeing things from multiple perspectives.
In any case, Holy Diver – recorded at California’s Sound City Studios and produced by Dio because, as he put it, “Nobody’s ears were going to be better for a band called Dio than mine” – quickly become a critical and commercial success. Correspondingly, Dio “built a big stage set” for several arenas as they embarked on an international tour alongside heavyweights such as Aerosmith, Queensrÿche, Dokken, and Twisted Sister.
Of course, the LP has also become a permanent part of modern pop culture. Just look at Dio performing the title track on South Park; the Holy Diver graphic novel and video game; and the use of miscellaneous songs in movies such as Bad Teacher and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Decades later, the record’s lost none of its luster.
“Holy Diver” is still wholly invigorating and confident due to Dio’s rising screams, Campbell’s biting guitarwork, Bain and Appice’s rhythmic chemistry, and the atmospheric use of synths and wind. Likewise, “Rainbow in the Dark” (which was originally called “A Bottle of Wine” and almost discarded because Dio thought it was embarrassingly “poppy”) is just as irresistibly catchy and hectic yet even more fun thanks to Bain’s playful keyboard riffs.
Beyond that, “Stand Up and Shout” is a fervidly anthemic way to showcase the quartet’s unity, and its fieriness bleeds into the purposefully Stones-esque “Gypsy,” the mournfully melodic “Caught in the Middle,” and the resolute “Straight Through the Heart.” Meanwhile, “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “Invisible,” and closer “Shame on the Night” prioritize heaviness amidst incorporating lighter, quirkier, and sadder timbres and tempos.
“Holy Diver is one of the proudest things I’ve ever done,” Dio once reminisced, and rightly so. After all, it simultaneously signified the arrival of a superbly collaborative new act and saw its namesake mastermind effectively taking ownership of his career and creativity.
For all those reasons – and more – it’s a downright holy part of heavy metal history.
Holy Diver Artwork:
40 Years Ago, Ronnie James Dio Cemented His Greatness with Holy Diver
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