The band Dio would also feature Vivian Campbell on guitars and Jimmy Bain on bass and keyboards. Soon after they would add Claude Schnell on keyboards. That was the initial lineup, but Dio would change members frequently as the years piled up.
The themes of Dio-as-a-band almost universally portrayed magic, fantasy, medievalism, and the tension between light and dark, Heaven and Hell. Most of the music was written by Ronnie himself, with plenty of help from other band members. Dio was sucked into the mid-80s furor over “Satanic” bands due to their admittedly dark and religious imagery. Some bands merited that label, some didn’t. But since Ronnie’s motifs showed in so much of his music, his beliefs are worth a brief look. Several interviews throughout his career revealed that, while he wasn’t a Christian, he was definitely no baby-sacrificing Satanist either. He was raised Catholic, but that environment struck him as frightening and judgment-based, so he turned from it to a perspective of relativist humanism. He saw good and evil as emanating from the same source, mirroring pre-Christian paganism, which was ultimately the human soul.
Furthermore, Ronnie had a fascination with magic and myth from a young age. As he formed Dio, there was a concurrent rise in sword-and-sorcery interest, exemplified by works like J.R.R. Tolkien or role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Ronnie made use of those elements. At one point he said, “When I became a songwriter, I thought what better thing to do than what no one else is doing… to tell fantasy tales. Smartest thing I ever did.” (1) So, in the ’80s if you were a fantasy nerd and a metalhead, you got a two-for-one punch with Dio.
# 10 – “The Last in Line,” The Last in Line, 1984
The Last in Line was Dio’s single best-selling album, coming only a year after Holy Diver, which slung them to instant recognition. It fetched #24 in the U.S., going platinum, and a respectable #4 in the U.K.
Much later in Dio’s career, as an interviewer was asking Ronnie about his philosophy, Ronnie explained that, in his view, humanity was indeed “the last in line.” He meant that we create our own heaven or hell with our choices, implying there is no higher arbiter. This first pick on our list describes a quest of self-discovery.
The song starts out with a bard-like acoustic trill, then morphs into an indomitable metal parade. Campbell mixes rapid fretwork with lingering whang bars to artful effect. Appice throws in a cowbell during the bridge and chorus.
Somehow, despite the album’s success, “The Last in Line” itself did not chart at all. Go figure, two other singles did though. One of them, “Mystery,” reached #20 in the U.S. and #34 in the U.K.
# 9 – “Between Two Hearts,” Lock Up the Wolves, 1990
By 1990 Dio had undergone a complete lineup change from their previous album, retaining only Ronnie himself. Now it featured Rowan Robertson on rhythm, lead, and acoustic guitar, Jens Johansson on keyboards, Teddy Cook on bass, and Simon Wright on drums. Whether because of that change or despite it, Lock Up the Wolves boasted some of Dio’s best music.
Our next pick is “Between Two Hearts.” In a departure from the usual subject material, this slow piece decries the plight of a female character in love with a man who treats her shabbily. We’ve all been through that at least once, right, regardless of the jerk’s gender. The song has an interesting structure in that the guitars play a sort of staccato arpeggio in the chorus while lapsing into long mournful notes in the verses. Picture a sad lonely violin with the ‘woe is me’ card, then set it to heavy distortion. Somehow it works, and the listener gets weepy and ticked off all at once.
# 8 – “Night People,” Dream Evil, 1987
Dream Evil featured Craig Goldy on guitars, having replaced Vivian Campbell, who eventually ended up with Def Leppard. Other than that the group members stayed the same, and on this album they churned out some excellent creations. One of Dio’s better techniques was that they used just enough keyboard to provide a wonderful counterpoint to the hard axe-work. Like a steak so gravy-laden you can’t taste the cow, many 80s bands poured excessive synthesizer all over their tracks. But Dio never went glam, didn’t even experiment. Their guitars were some of the heaviest for their day, in line with Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil.”
“Night People” opens with a keyboard teaser before Goldy’s guitar starts slashing in at triple time. It’s a tribute to the night-owls, the movers and shakers in moonlight. If you “come alive when neon kills the sun,” this round’s for you.
# 7 – “Holy Diver,” Holy Diver, 1983
For those bands that make it big, some start out in obscurity and then gradually win the limelight. Others explode right out the gate. Dio was one of the latter, and Holy Diver was their first breakaway sprint. It charted at #56 in the U.S. and managed #13 in the U.K., achieving platinum and silver statuses respectively. With this release, Dio established itself as an entity that could fine-weave adamantine riffs with gorgeous melodies.
The title track attained #40 in the U.S. and #72 in the U.K. Appice showed off his skills nicely with some machine-gun fills. As for Ronnie, this would be one of the first introductions to his voice. Never having taken voice lessons, there was a definite gravelly timber there, but early listeners were impressed by his sheer decibel level. It was the voice that led Rainbow/Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore to describe shivers down his spine when he heard it. In this song Ronnie managed an impressive howl in the bridge: “There’s a truth that’s hard as steeeeeeel… like some never-ending wheeeeel.”
# 6 – “All the Fools Sailed Away, Dream Evil 1987
Speaking of exploding out the gate, if we were to continue the race track analogy, Dio would be that horse that attained a healthy lead at the beginning but faded well back toward the end. Dream Evil was the first album to not medal at all, selling only 52,000 copies. And despite releasing records well into the 2000s, Dio would never medal again. In a way this is unfortunate because in some reviewers’ opinions, Dio’s very best songwriting was displayed on Dream Evil, as well as the next album, Lock Up the Wolves. But then, we don’t rely on popular opinion to tell us where to go for our music.
With “All the Fools Sailed Away,” we embark on another journey for identity and self-discovery. This track begins with a lovely trickle of acoustic guitar as Ronnie chants, “And as we drift along, I never fail to be astounded by the things we’ll do for promises, and a song.” The verses kick into a lock-step 8-count progression as the keyboards call out in two tones, like a foghorn’s warning. How do they know to place those just so? The chorus manages an introspective and fanciful air, which is impressive given that it’s hard to achieve those moods in metal. Guitarist Goldy joined Ronnie in the writing of this piece, which is the longest one on the record, and we applaud the finished product.
# 5 – “Egypt (The Chains Are On),” The Last in Line, 1984
Today news is in the air about the remake of the movie “Stargate.” Since the original movie came out, themes of aliens meddling in ancient human affairs have become trendy in American sci-fi culture. But before those notions hit the mainstream, Dio released “Egypt (The Chains Are On).” A saga is spun of a people living in a land of milk and honey until the arrival of the “strange ones” with rainbows in their eyes. Extra-terrestrials? Ancient gods? You pick. But they are not friendly, and the people are enslaved. The stanzas lift a haunting wail as the people look to the blowing desert sands which know the liberty they cannot have. And yet there is a small kernel of hope, disguised almost beyond recognition. “Maybe one day you’ll be just like me, and that’s free.” The lyrics are multi-hued and powerful, Dio’s storytelling at its best.
For those interested, the 2000 tribute album Holy Dio offers a cover to this song performed by female metal legend Doro Pesch, as well as a healthy array of other Dio cover tunes.
# 4 – “Lock Up the Wolves,” Lock Up the Wolves, 1990
As with Dream Evil, Lock Up the Wolves features keen songwriting. One thing Dio has always excelled at is those pieces that combine very slow tempos with massive dynamism, like battalions of clone soldiers passing in review. This song is one of those. Cook’s bass and Wright’s drums start us down a foreboding trail. A gorgeously-timed synthesizer lilt picks up as Ronnie takes us to another time “at the cradle of the world.” This is an unmistakable warning to be on guard against evil.The mood is tense, and otherworldly, and we are reminded that darkness can take many forms. Don’t give an inch!
# 3 – “Sacred Heart,” Sacred Heart, 1985
Sacred Heart was well-received, attaining #4 in the U.K., as well as #29 and gold status in the U.S. It was the last album to feature Campbell, and Campbell wasn’t included in most of the songwriting. Still, the band had buffed their sound to a high shine, and this album presented some fine songs.
“Sacred Heart” is one of them. It’s just a treat for the ears, the aural equivalent of a king’s coronation. The high quest theme radiates by both melody and lyrics as hard guitars chime together with pipe-organ keyboards. It’s an unabashed beacon for those among us who still resonate with the archetype of noble deeds. After you hear it, don’t be surprised at the urge to put a saucepan on your head, a fire poker in your fist, and go in search of dragons to slay… or at least a lizard or two.
# 2 – “Rock’n’roll Children,” Sacred Heart, 1985
“Rock’n’roll Children,” relates to a story of a boy and a girl who initially do not like each other, but are fated to be together like Romeo and Juliet. They are cast into a world that does not treat them kindly, and they must trust each other to survive. The corresponding video fleshes out this theme. We watch as the boy and girl, both counter-culture rockers, are lured into Ronnie’s curio shop with Ronnie playing the part of a wizard. The wizard casts them into a magic maze, and around every corner are scenes from the real world in which ridicule and shame prevail: failure in gym class, bombed tests, parents’ lectures, snide older siblings, etc. It’s like the heavy metal version of the movie “Pump up the Volume,” and it parallels the message of Rush‘ “Subdivisions”: “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out.”
As for the song itself, it builds majestically with keyboard and drums, then unleashes screaming guitars as Ronnie growls, “Just like somebody slammed the door, bang, yeah!” The result is a metal inferno, searingly beautiful, flinging melodrama in all corners.
# 1 – “Rainbow in the Dark,” Holy Diver, 1983
“Rainbow in the Dark,” is our choice for the number one spot on our Top Ten Dio Songs list. It offers no build up, no gentle introduction. It simply shatters the walls of mundanity and unfurls like a flower of chromatic sheen and diamond-edged petals. It boasts a standard keynote riff, but to this day still remains one of the best and strongest songs to do so. Campbell’s guitar groans in the voice of thunder, while synthesizer notes dance like ball lightning, coaxed by Ronnie himself on keyboards. Though gloom and threat try to destroy the rainbow, at the end the rainbow is still there, defiant and vindicated.
Ronnie’s career with his various bands spanned almost 50 years. One of his albums in 2002 was entitled Killing the Dragon, but in 2009 Ronnie came under assault from his own personal dragon, stomach cancer. After the diagnosis, his wife Wendy Dio claimed that Ronnie would kill this dragon and get back onstage. Alas, the dragon was stronger, and Ronnie died in 2010 at the age of 67. But if the dragon is death itself, that dragon always claims us in the end. Perhaps the real victory is not eluding its clutches for as long as possible, but in reaching past it to the height of what lies beyond. Certainly, that’s what Ronnie would have hoped for.
Less than a month before his death, Ronnie accepted the Revolver Golden Gods awards for “Best Heavy Metal Singer.” He was the oldest artist ever to do so. Ronnie exemplified the best of heavy metal for his day, with the weight and brilliance of gold.
- Ian Christe, “Heavy Metal America: Highways & Video Waves,” in Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, 67-68, (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Top 10 Ronnie James Dio Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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