Vinny Appice: The John Lennon Connection

Vinny Appice: The John Lennon Connection
By Peter Lindblad

Going to high school was a drag for Vinny Appice. Absolute drudgery it was for the future Black Sabbath drummer, sitting in class listening to teachers drone on and on about subjects that bored him to death.
His only salvation was that in the evening hours the 16-year-old Appice could slip into a whole other world that was far beyond anything his classmates could imagine.

Holding down his end in a nine-piece rock band with full horns that also dabbled in funk and jazz, Appice was part of a group that was managed by the Record Plant Studios in New York City. It was called BOMF and Jimmy Iovine was their producer.

“So we used to rehearse upstairs at the Record Plant,” recalls Appice. “We had our room. And we’d be up there every night, like the boys’ club, hanging out. At night we’d rehearse and write songs.”

As it just so happened, at the time, Iovine was also working quite a bit with John Lennon in the same facility. Eventually, Appice would cross paths with the former Beatle.

“One night they needed handclaps, so Jimmy said, ‘Hey guys, come on down here. We need handclaps,’” said Appice. “All right. There were nine of us, so it was easy. And we get down there, and there’s John Lennon and Elton John in the control room, so we did handclaps on ‘Whatever Gets You through the Night’ for that song. Those handclaps are me and my band. So we left. We didn’t get to meet them, but I guess John said, ‘Who the heck is that? Who are those guys?’ We’d just done handclaps. ‘Oh … they rehearse upstairs. I’m producing them.’ That’s what Jimmy said. So, a couple of days later, [Lennon] came and hung out – came up to the rehearsal room, watched us play. He liked the band, and he’d come in. We’d smoke pot with him and shit. He actually always wanted coke, but I didn’t do that. But I always had good pot. And we smoked some joints with him, we played pool, we hung out.”

The story doesn’t end there. Later, Lennon would ask the band to back him during a TV performance, and they did three videos with Lennon, all of which appear on “The John Lennon Video Collection” released in 1994.

“So we played at The Hilton, the New York Hilton,” remembers Appice. “We had outfits made, we went to get fitted for them with him and a van… the whole week was us getting prepared for the show, hanging out with him. And then he asked us to do a bunch of videos, and we did that. And then … he produced the owner’s wife in the studio. She had eight songs to record. He was the producer. We were the band. So we worked with him as a producer, too, which was amazing. And we wound up playing live ‘Imagine’ and ‘Slipping and the Sliding.’ So we got to play that with him. So it was pretty cool. It was an amazing time.I was going to high school. I was doing that at night. I would hang out with him, and then the next day, I’d be in school, not paying attention.”

It being the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s tragic death, Appice can’t help but think back to what was going on in his own life back when the world was still in mourning over what had happened. And again, Appice found himself linked to one of popular music’s biggest icons.

Black Sabbath was in the midst of its tour supporting Heaven and Hell, the doom-metal architects’ first LP with Ronnie James Dio taking the place of Ozzy Osbourne. Original drummer Bill Ward had left the band, and Appice was called to fill in without much time to rehearse for an outdoor show in Hawaii. If ever there was a trial by fire, this was it, but Appice held up his end of the bargain.

“Yeah, on the first tour, until I learned those songs, it was a bit mechanical for me until I got the parts right, and then didn’t have to think about it and play it with feel,” said Appice. “So yeah, it became better and better.”

Out of the blue, Warner Bros. contacted Sabbath about doing a song for the soundtrack to the animated sci-fi movie “Heavy Metal.” During a break in the tour, Sabbath, with Appice in tow, took the opportunity to record the song “Mob Rules.”

“We had a couple of days off, somewhere,” said Appice. “And on those days off, we went to John Lennon’s house in England, and he had a studio in there. Ringo owned it at the time, but it was where John [did] Imagine. And it was right after John got shot, too. And it was weird going there. We stayed there for three days, and that’s when we wrote ‘Mob Rules’ and we recorded it there. So after we finished everything and listened back, obviously, it was a really strong song, a good song, and it came together well, and it was really cool. Everybody that brought the band together was like, ‘Oh, this is going to work with Vinny.’ And that reinforced it a little bit for everybody that, yeah, this could work. It’s not just playing a tour and playing the parts that Bill played. That was a turning point for us, becoming more of a band.

The specter of Lennon seemed to haunt Appice. Lennon’s death, in October of 1980, had occurred just a couple months prior to Sabbath’s session at his former house.

“And years ago, I played with John Lennon. I used to work with him,” emphasized Appice. “It was weird winding up … I actually met Lennon and hung out with him and knew him somewhat and then he got shot and now we’re in his house and I got assigned his room. Because you stay in rooms there, and on the front of the room, it said ‘John and Yoko.’ So I got his room, but I didn’t stay in it. I was afraid. I was a kid. I don’t know if I’d stay in it now either with somebody who just got killed, but it was an amazing house. And it was amazing to be a part of anything Beatles. Very cool experience.”

Most recently, Appice was part of Heaven and Hell, the new name given the classic Dio-fronted Black Sabbath lineup. Fans can see and hear Heaven and Hell, for all intents and purposes done now after the death earlier this year of Ronnie James Dio, one more time on CD and DVD versions of Heaven and Hell’s “Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven and Hell” that capture the band’s fiery live performance at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany on July 30, 2009. 

CD / DVD Review: Heaven & Hell "Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell"

CD / DVD Review: Heaven & Hell "Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell"

Eagle Vision/Armoury Records
All Access Review: A-

Ozzy Osbourne was gone, and this time, he wasn’t coming back, at least not until the “all is forgotten” reunions that would, perhaps inevitably, come years later. Black Sabbath had moved on with Ronnie James Dio, but not everyone was ready to welcome the new vocal sorcerer with open arms.

As Dio remembers it, in an interview included with the new Heaven & Hell live DVD, crowds that came to the first shows featuring the reconstituted Sabbath lineup greeted him not with a pleasant “hello,” but with middle fingers pointed straight at him. Acceptance would come grudgingly, as fans started to realize that it was Dio who was helping usher in a period of restoration for Sabbath, the 1981 classic, fire-and-brimstone LP Heaven & Hell letting all know that a slumbering heavy-metal giant, wracked by substance abuse, personal problems and creative dissension, had awakened.

The world of metal is still in mourning Dio’s death, having lost one of its most spellbinding voices and imaginative lyricists earlier this year. On July 30, 2009, the Dio-period Sabbath, now christened Heaven & Hell, performed at the famed Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany, still riding high on the warm reception, from fans and critics alike, given their deliciously evil 2008 comeback album The Devil You Know. They had lost none of that old black magic, as the new “Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell” DVD and its companion CD so poignantly bears out.

Time stood still that night as Heaven & Hell, consisting of Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice, bulldozed and bludgeoned its way through a set of well-chosen numbers from their glorious, and somewhat underappreciated, past. From the opening instrumental “E5150,” only on the DVD version, Heaven & Hell crash headlong into the violent brutality of “Mob Rules,” before steering their ship straight into the massive rogue wave of riffs and melodic undertow that is “Children of the Sea,” making it sound as epic and majestic as ever, and coming out the other end on the shores of some distant land as rampaging marauders in an especially mean version of “I.”

It’s a breathless beginning, and it only gets better from there. A punishing “Bible Black” is followed by an even heavier “Time Machine” and their latest crushing missive from the depths of hell, “Fear,” with Dio giving it his all and Iommi roaming his way through a tight, fluid little solo that packs a big punch. All of this is captured in crystal-clear video and rich sound, cameras sweeping over and around the action like fighter jets, providing wide views of both the colorfully lit stage – with a giant fiery cow’s skull above the fray – and the endless throng of people gathered at Wacken to get a glimpse of a band that was not at all ready for the grave. The editing is smooth and seamless, putting to good use the wonderful variety of camera angles to emphasize the band’s still potent musicianship – Appice’s thundering drum solo and the beautifully framed close-ups on Iommi and Butler blazing away are not be taken lightly, especially true with the mesmerizing sonic adventure Iommi takes listeners on prior to the raging “Die Young” – and its flair for the dramatic.

As an epitaph, this is as good as it gets, even if it’s difficult to make out what Dio is saying between songs and you can’t help but miss perhaps the greatest achievement of this Sabbath lineup, “Sign of the Southern Cross.” They make up for it, though, with a soaring “Heaven & Hell” that stampedes to a wonderfully chaotic meltdown.

Choosing between the two, the DVD – and its 13 songs, compared to 11 on CD, both including a nice color booklet with a few photos and a well-written history of Dio’s time with Sabbath – is the way to go here, though the CD is an aurally magnificent recording. Actually seeing onscreen this timeless foursome, still breathing fire, live again and enjoying the moment, is priceless, and 30th anniversary interviews with all four members, conducted by venerable metal media king Eddie Trunk, are full of great behind-the-scenes war stories from the past and the kind of wry humor that always comes as a surprise from four men known for some of the gloomiest, most horrifically doom-laden music ever conceived.

-Peter Lindblad

DVD Review: Jackson Brown "Going Home"

DVD Review: Jackson Brown "Going Home"
Eagle Vision
All Access Review:  B+

In the basement of his house, there are stacks of unopened boxes everywhere. Jackson Browne walks through it in one of the scenes from “Going Home,” saying into a camera he’s always had a place like this in just about every place he’s ever lived – be it a garage or even an otherwise empty living room. Somewhat sheepishly, the legendary artist admits he’s just never been able to figure out what to do with it all, and so there this stuff sits, closed up to the world and a mystery to it owner.

As for Browne, the singer-songwriter is an open book in “Going Home,” a scrapbook of memories and live performance clips – some of it fantastic vintage material – that makes up the recently reissued video biography that the Disney Channel originally broadcast in 1994. A long time in coming, this re-release is a beautifully edited, heartfelt look at the career of one of the most enduring artists to emerge from the Seventies singer-songwriter boom.

The concert material, both from Browne’s glorious past (the rousing closer “Running On Empty”) and his more recent 1990s’ resurgence, is seamlessly and artfully melded together, especially on the classic “Doctor My Eyes,” for a nostalgic and timeless document of his ability to recreate his richest songs in a live setting. A horde of rare home-movie footage, from little pieces of backstage and rehearsal room jams to snippets of private conversation and a piece that shows Browne with Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt on an airplane talking about the horrors of nuclear waste dumping, fleshes out the tale and reveal much about Browne’s offstage personality. Going further afield, a variety of interviews with David Crosby, David Lindley, Don Henley and others, including Browne himself, dig deeply into Browne’s politics and his artistry. And all of it is pieced together so professionally that it doesn’t feel as fragmented or awkward as it could, which is sometimes the case with such documentaries.

The glue that holds everything together is the richly filmed 23-song concert – featuring cuts like “World in Motion,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Pretender,” and a host of others, culled mostly from 1993’s I’m Alive album – from the Nineties that is a simply magical, nuanced performance that speaks to that hauntingly melodic quality that pervades Browne’s best work. Watching Browne and Lindley play “Lives in the Balance” with Crosby and Nash is at first a funny little interlude of friends joking around, but then it grows into something that is particularly moving and inspiring, and the wonderful interplay of vocals is mesmerizing.

What we get from “Going Home” is the good stuff. The bad, in particular the troubling domestic violence episode between Browne and Daryl Hanna that happened around the time of this film, is not addressed here, and perhaps this is not the venue for that sordid affair, though it feels like an opportunity was missed to put that matter into perspective. Still, this is a celebration of Browne the songwriter and the activist, the poet who articulates matters of the heart with great sincerity, humanity and passion, and the friend, the band mate and the performer who is as smart as anybody in the room and an artist of inestimable talent.
-         Peter Lindblad

A Tribute to Ronnie James Dio from Vinny Appice

Famed drummer also unveils new Kill Devil Hill project and reveals what’s in his memorabilia collection

By Peter Lindblad

Tributes for Ronnie James Dio have been pouring in since the iconic heavy metal singer’s death back in May. The sense of loss throughout the metal community is still palpable, and even now, one of his closest friends and musical conspirators can hardly believe he’s gone.

“He was a leader, a father figure, a brother, musician … it was like he was going to live forever,” said Vinny Appice, who served as drummer for Black Sabbath during the Dio years and subsequently followed Dio when the singer left Sabbath in the acrimonious aftermath of Live Evil to form his own project, the hugely successful fantasy-metal outfit Dio.

Sabbath was in a state of flux when Vinny Appice joined the band in 1980. One year earlier, following the unceremonious dismissal of Ozzy Osbourne, Dio was plugged in to replace the legendary wild man as the band’s singer. Beset with personal problems of his own, bassist Geezer Butler exiled himself from Sabbath during the lion’s share of the writing sessions for Heaven and Hell, the band’s first album with Dio, with Geoff Nicholls of Quartz at the ready just in case Butler wasn’t coming back – he would eventually become Sabbath’s keyboardist, however. And then there’s the fuzzy evidence of the involvement of former Elf and Rainbow bassist Craig Gruber in Sabbath during the whole Heaven and Hell period; he left when Butler returned.

As for Appice, he had to fill the shoes of none other than Bill Ward as Sabbath’s drummer in the middle of the band’s tour backing Heaven and Hell. He had to learn the songs on the fly as Sabbath was preparing for a huge outdoor show in Hawaii. As time went on, Appice and Dio grew close, understandable considering their similar East Coast backgrounds.

“We’d always say, ‘I’ll kick you in the ass.’ He’d kick me in the ass onstage. We had the same New York attitude,” said Appice.

On the other hand, Butler and Iommi were British, born and bred. And when arguments erupted over the making of Live Evil, it was Iommi and Butler on one side and the Americans, Appice and Dio, on the other. So, when Dio left Sabbath, it was only natural that Appice would go with him, even though, according to Appice, he didn’t really take sides in the dispute and had gotten along with everybody in Sabbath.
In Dio, Appice saw something special, and it wasn’t just that magnificent voice.

“First of all, it’s just the way he sang, you know,” said Appice, when asked what it was that made Dio such a unique talent. “I’ve never been around anybody who sang like that – just soul and heart, you know. The way he sounded, the sound of his voice, and then he was just totally into his music – totally loved it. And it was just nice to be around somebody so strong. He was a great leader, and just an incredible voice. It made you feel secure. You know, if I stay with this guy, nothing’s going to happen. That’s why his death was a shock. Man, this is one of the strongest persons I’ve ever met in my life. He was a leader, a father figure, a brother, musician … it was like he was going to live forever. Or if he got sick, he’ll beat it. And that’s why it’s a shock. Man, he went down. He had so many qualities. It was so easy to be drawn to him.”

As so many people were, be they fans or fellow musicians who idolized Dio. Not surprisingly, Appice has wonderful memories of his days with Sabbath, Dio and Heaven and Hell. And, as expected, over the years, Appice has accumulated many prized mementos from those halcyon days.

“Obviously, I got gold and platinum records,” said Appice. “And then I got different things that were given to the band, one from Madison Square Garden in 1980 [that marked how the band] sold a million dollars worth of tickets, cool stuff. Years ago, you used to get a lot of swag; there were Black Sabbath bags that only the band had, Black Sabbath robes … it was like that kind of stuff, some old posters, not a lot. And Dio, I got a lot of the same kind of stuff, plaques and different things like that. There are some pictures, but that’s about it. Not a whole bunch of stuff.”

What are the pieces that mean the most to him?
“Well, all the gold records,” says Appice. “So, all the gold records and platinum records; those are priceless."

As has been reported recently, Appice has a new project going called Kill Devil Hill with former Pantera bassist Rex Brown “ … and two unknown guys – Dewey Bragg on vocals and Mark Zavon on guitar. And this stuff kicks butt. Right now it’s called Kill Devil Hill, but we might change the name, so we’re working on that right at this moment and it’ll be out next year. So there’s a lot more stuff coming along.”

And Appice isn’t closing the door on his days with Sabbath’s survivors. “We might continue. Who knows?”


DVD Review: The Rolling Stones "Ladies And Gentlemen...The Rolling Stones"

DVD Review:  The Rolling Stones "Ladies And Gentlemen...The Rolling Stones"
Eagle Vision
All Access Review:  A

The shock and horror of Altamont had subsided, and to avoid a tax hell in England, the Rolling Stones had reluctantly taken their rock and roll circus to France. And somehow, in that crumbling palace of sin and dissolution known as Nellcote villa, where Keith Richards lived and did an obscene amount of drugs and parties went deep into the night, as did the occasional recording session, the Stones created a masterpiece, Exile on Main Street.

As the recently released documentary “Stones in Exile” so eloquently illustrates, the hazy, elegantly wasted atmosphere was hardly conducive to focused, intense work. Indeed, the Stones took their own sweet time in finishing the album, and by all rights, considering the environment, Exile on Main Street, a double album of all things, should have been a mess. And it was … but what a glorious mess it was.

Released to lukewarm reviews initially, the fabled Exile … would, as everyone knows, become one of the most revered albums in rock history, but then came the supporting tour. By Mick Jagger’s own admission, the far-flung band, spread out all over France, wasn’t always on its game every night. They could be sloppy and uninspired, but by the time they got to Texas, the Stones had transformed, once again, into the raucous, energized and tight-as-a-corset unit that made them one of rock’s greatest ever live acts.

Filmed over four nights in the Lone Star State in 1972, “Ladies And Gentlemen … The Rolling Stones” was original released theatrically for limited engagements in 1974. Few eyes have seen it since. Hidden from the public for 35 years, “Ladies And Gentlemen … The Rolling Stones” is an absolute treasure, a beautifully shot concert film – the colors rich and dark, and the camera angles varied and placed just right – that captures the Stones at the height of their live prowess. If previous shows on the Exile tour didn’t exactly set the world on fire, the performances here are the work of gleeful arsonists, the Stones blazing from the onset through such spirited numbers as “Brown Sugar” and “Bitch.” 

Cameras hone in on the flashy Jagger as he prances and crows with undisguised enthusiasm for the material, and he never lets up, even when sharing the spotlight with Richards on a rip-roaring, horn-splashed version of “Happy.” And his deliciously mischievous drawl wraps around every word of the acoustically tangled country gold of “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers” with equal doses of pleasure and pain.

In sharp contrast to Jagger’s attention-grabbing histrionics, Mick Taylor stands in stony silence off to one side, fluidly wringing out guitar leads that curl up and around Richards’ rhythmic stabs like ivy, while drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman set a quick pace for every song, handling their melodic contours with grace and toughness. An absolutely joyous “All Down the Line” chugs into the evil blues of “Midnight Rambler” like a runaway train, and the Stones inject a shot of adrenaline into Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny” to name just a few of the many highlights here. And though the absence of the soaring female backing vocals on the recorded version of “Gimme Shelter” might be missed here, the band’s electrically charged performance will make you forget they were ever there. Every song is pure dynamite, the playing dynamic and forceful and Jagger rallying the troops with that trademark herky-jerky vim and vigor is a total delight.

An “Old Grey Whistle Test” interview with Jagger that’s included with the DVD isn’t very interesting, except as a piece of nostalgia from the period. Jagger’s 2010 interview about the film serves as a better companion piece, as do tour rehearsals from Montreux that find the band working through “Shake Your Hips,” “Tumbling Dice” and “Blueberry Jam.”

A deluxe edition box set of “Ladies And Gentlemen … The Rolling Stones” is also out. It includes additional bonus material and memorabilia. But if that’s a little out of your price range, this DVD is an essential historical document all on its own. 
-         Peter Lindblad