For this particular writer, the nascent days at Donington for the Monsters of Rock festivals still hold a particularly warm place in my heart. Those one-day festivals with what amounted to six or seven headline bands all appearing on the same stage was a thrilling prospect and certainly something that was a highlight of the year.
Words: Paul Monkhouse
Whilst for many 1984 was THE year, the previous festival is one that holds the accolade of one of the finest days of my early gig-going life. With the top of their game Whitesnake headlining, the rest of the bill was a veritable Who’s Who of some of my favourite bands of the day. The most highly anticipated, though, was Dio, with a good many in the crowd buzzing at the prospect of seeing the legend with his new band.
With a ridiculously early slot of second on the bill, the band were out to make a name for themselves, firing on all cylinders and not just resting on past laurels, their newly released debut album already being hailed as a hard rock classic. Whilst Dio, drummer Vinny Appice and bass player Jimmy Bain were all veterans, it was young hotshot guitarist Vivian Campbell who really had the most to prove, keys player Claude Schnell being offstage until later tours.
A replacement for Jake E Lee, who had been drafted by Ozzy Osbourne to join his band, the twenty-two-year-old Lisburn six-stringer had served his apprenticeship with Sweet Savage and hadn’t written anything on the Holy Diver album but played on it. Whilst he and Dio went on to have a tempestuous relationship, there’s no doubting the fire in his belly in this, his Donington debut.
The truth is that the whole band played out of their skins that day, and the results are wonderfully caught here in a new vinyl edition of the set. With a set that rightly leans heavily on their debut, there’s the added bonus of Rainbow and Black Sabbath numbers that heightened the experience to a fever pitch.
Ronnie James Dio already had the reputation of one of the finest vocalists in rock, and the warmth shown by the crowd is certainly reflected by those on stage, the mutual regard humming in every note.
Kicking off with a driving Stand Up And Shout, the declaration of intent is there for all to see, the urgent riff and RJD’s commanding tones leaving no doubt that a major force had arrived. Similarly, Straight Through The Heart gloried in punchy fretwork and the steamrolling percussion of Appice and Bain, its traditional hard rock stylings just what the crowd wanted.
Sabbath’s Children Of The Sea is met with a roar, and the band make it their own, Campbell adding his own spin to Iommi’s guitar work, the whole both joyous and crushingly heavy. The parping keys of Rainbow In The Dark showed a more commercial side, the track tailor-made to be a single before the power and might of Holy Diver comes crashing in, its gargantuan weight a steamroller to the senses in one glorious tidal wave.
Still as thrilling as ever, this early recording sounds fresh and fiery and remains a highlight of the set, Campbell impressing in particular.
With a brief drum solo segueing into a tantalisingly short beginning section of Stargazer (how we wished they’d had the time to play the whole thing) and then an equally brief guitar solo, the familiar riff of Heaven And Hell elicited one of the biggest reactions of the day.
The ten minutes that follow are a masterclass on how to do a massive sounding epic that would have had Godzilla wetting itself with fear, the highs and lows of the dynamics a rush of aural adrenaline. One interesting side note, during the call and response singalong section, you can hear RJD thank the fans for supporting him, and another roar goes up from the crowd.
At that point, the singer had lifted up a banner thrown on the stage by a fan, and that fan was no other than a sixteen-year-old Toby Jepson, later of Little Angels and, aptly, Dio’s Disciples, fame amongst others.
The set closes with Man On The Silver Mountain, the track split in two by a snatch of frantic rock ‘n’ roll in the form of Starstruck, and it’s a fine way to finish things off. Whilst there were many gems on Holy Diver that could have made it into the song selection, including my personal favourite Don’t Talk To Strangers, it was all carefully tooled for maximum impact, the new material standing shoulder to shoulder with the classics.
In a day of great performances, the one that will remain the finest amongst many there is Dio’s UK debut, and this recording isn’t just a great collection of songs but rock history.
They came, they saw, and they most certainly conquered. Indispensable.
Dio, Donington ’83 and ’87 was released on vinyl by Niji Entertainment and BMG on 23 September 2022.