Wizard Of Oz
Keyboard player to Rainbow, Black Sabbath and now Ozzy Osbourne, Don talks to Tim Oakes about his keyboards, how to Bark At The Moon, and life on the road with a werewolf...
Behind the make up, the excesses, the volume and the images of heavy rock lies a world of concentrated musicianship and dedication. Don Airey has been a part of some of the most influential and important rock music of the seventies and eighties — and reached one peak earlier this year — simultaneous album and single number one hits with Ozzy Osbourne's 'Bark At The Moon'. Here he talks to Tim Oakes about his approach to rock keyboards, and the world in which they are played.
"Ozzy really isn't the madman that everyone thinks of him - basically its a product of the publicity machine. We lead a very nice life on the road really, we live on the bus and we tour at night, leaving just after the gig and getting to the next place the next day. That means that if you have a day off then you can spend it in a town - rather than belting along the freeways.
It all gets made so much easier when you have a good pro road crew - this time, in addition to the PA crew the lighting crew, the stage crew there's about twenty people, plus the band and assorted people too. But then, there's a lot to do - like the stage set itself which is incredible, its like a huge cathedral organ that goes up and down... we would have liked to have used that in the U.K. but the venues here are just too small.
I have two keyboard sets, one is over here, and one is always in the States. There's a CS80 which is the basic keyboard, a MiniMoog, the Roland Vocoder Plus, Yamaha CF70, Oberheim OBXa, and a MemoryMoog. To them I'm adding a DX7, another MemoryMoog (because I use it so much), and the Wave 2.2 and the Waveterm. Other keyboards I've used recently are the Poly 6 which is quite amazing, a Korg Organ, and the Pearl electronic keyboard which is not widely known here, but is quite popular in Japan. You can get a Fender Rhodes sound, or even a Wurlitzer sound from it. Its a strange keyboard really, it's touch sensitive but I use it a lot, especially when I'm doing a jazz gig. I play around the local pubs a bit when I'm 'off the road' and that's the keyboard that I usually take.
Most of the keyboards that I've got I've had for a long time - I've had the CS80 for five years now. In fact, the one I've got now is a new one - the last one got dropped and I had to rush out and get another while it was away. The thing is - they really are very heavy, they weigh around 200 pounds and no one in their right minds would buy one now - but I think they are tremendous. They really stand up extremely well to some rough handling on the tours. The only real accident was that time it was dropped. It was on the Ozzy tour two years ago and I was up on the battlements of this castle, and they hoisted all the gear up. Inevitably half way up the sling slipped - and down it went. To cap it, a young gentleman from Milwaulkee claimed he knew all about them and he'd fix it - and he blew it to pieces! I came in and he's standing in a cloud of smoke... I wept.
But breakdowns, thankfully, have been quite rare - but when they do go, they all go at once. The last Ozzy gig we did, in France, three bits went down simultaneously, the MemoryMoog, the OBXa and the echo machine - and it just so happens to be in the middle of the solo keyboard section! I did a lot of praying... I just switched the CS80 over to the Church Organ sound in time and managed to scrape through.
The organ sound that is on Bark At The Moon was done on the MemoryMoog - and I actually helped them to get the sound on the prototype. Val Publasinski played it to me, and I nearly fell over - its a fantastic sound. Val actually told me that he went along to his sisters wedding, and just took that along!
Undeniably, there are real problems with being a keyboard player in a heavy metal band, and not least the guitar. First off, the guitar is very loud, but also the guitar is an amazing instrument, it is very expressive and you just have to listen to it. But what works for me is trading ideas with a guitarist. Almost any keyboard can sound great on its own - especially in the studio, you put a bit of Lexicon on them, down into stereo and wham! It's wonderful. As soon as the guitar comes in it vanishes. So you have to hone your sound very much so that you have something that can compete with the guitar and also to get right behind it. I try to get a blend with the guitar so that we can support each other. Over the years I've obviously worked with a lot of guitarists, and there have been varying levels of success, but between Gary Moore and myself there is a sort of bond. We've worked on a lot of things together which sort of came to a level on Variations - what a long time ago that was!
I listen to all sorts of music, but obviously there's an interest in the heavier end of things. I do listen to other rock keyboard players - I have to know what they're up to! Eddie Jobson is a very good friend of mine (we used to live next door to each other in Finchley) and it wasn't so much exchanging ideas, more a sort of "beat this then...!"
Eddie has always impressed me as a player... we kind of 'discovered' the CS80 together at a trade fair and we both jumped on it. Its still his main keyboard, I think on Zinc it was just about the only keyboard that he used, with a bit of MemoryMoog thrown in. Quite amazing.
The CS80 was the instrument for me up to about six months ago. But with all the new sounds that you hear - especially in England - it seems the new bands really have taken the new digital keyboards and made a start for the future. The sounds are quite new, and I really feel that digital is going to be very important over the coming years.
It's really the clarity as much as anything that appeals. You can really hear the difference folks! I've just ordered a DX7 and that's waiting for me over in the States. I played one in Rod Argent's not long ago, and I'm itching to get my fingers on one again.
I started playing when I was about three, my Dad was a piano player and he set out to teach me all that he knew, which lasted until I was about seven when he said "Right, that's it! Music teacher time!" I went up through the usual grades, and when I was 13 or so I started playing in local bands. I was always very keen on jazz and I started there at school in Sunderland with little groups.
I also played the church organ - which could explain the various bits of organ playing I throw in now!
I did go to University, but I spent more time playing than studying there... I was doing English as well as music, but that got a bit neglected. Again I was playing with the jazz thing, and through University I got involved with the revues they put on. Eventually we took a show up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. While we were there we were spotted by a London Weekend Television producer, who bought the show and all the songs, so I got involved with TV. At 19 I was working on the Roy Hudd TV show, which was around '69 or so. After that I went to the Royal College of Music in Manchester for a year to do a piano course - I really couldn't believe that I got in there. I had an incredible teacher there called Richard Backs, to whom I will be forever grateful. But I got bored with being a student, so I went out again into the big wide world with a band that I formed while I was at college and we got work on the P&O Liners going round the world.
It was marvellous, a great job really. They had some superb acts on those ships and I learned a lot about shows and playing live from that. It was an idyllic existence - on twenty quid a week!
I carried on travelling for a bit after I left P&O, to South Africa and the Far East, and then back to England where I joined Cozy Powell's Hammer. Meeting Cozy was one of the great days of my life - I'd never seen a drummer play like that ever. Not just a kick up the backside but a kick up the whole system. I auditioned, and I was setting up and he was putting on these great big boxing boots and got hold of these great big sticks and started beating hell out of the kit. I suppose that gave me the training to play over something that was very loud indeed... if you can play over Cozy you can play over anything.
We toured with Hammer for a while, and then I met Jon Hiseman and Gary Moore and we formed Colloseum II in the wake of the Mahavishnu thing. I still get people coming up for me to sign the old albums from that time, and it never fails to bring back memories - I really felt that was a great band. One of my dreams is for us to do another album. Jon is working now with Rod Argent in a band, plus of course he has his studio and the record label - ever the entrepreneur, but then drummers are, I've never worked with a poor drummer...
After Gary left Colloseum II we carried on a bit with my brother Keith, but I fancied something a bit heavier. Then Cozy rang up and invited me to work with Richie, and I was a bit doubtful, but we got on great - for the first year, or at least that first album we did, Down to Earth. That was basically me Cozy and Richie. Then Roger Glover came in, initially as the producer and then subsequently at the bass player and we eventually found Graham Bonnett after about six weeks of recording, and the band was born. It was a truly English sound, very heavy and melodic and beautiful. Donnington festival was the next triumph for that band, and then inexplicably Richie let Graham and Cozy leave and he brought in American musicians which was fine and great, but he tried to go for a sort of Foreigner sound - much more commercial, which I felt was a mistake. We had four hit singles altogether, two from each album, including All Night Long that brought us in new audience altogether, but after that, the stage shows became, well, mistimed I think is the best term, and I handed in my notice and left at the end of tour - which didn't go down well...
I never really expected us to have a hit with the new Ozzy material, not because it isn't good, but just that its not the sort of thing you hear on Radio 1. It came as a shock to everyone, but we had a few inklings that it was going to be big. We did a signing session in a record shop, and the manager of the shop came over and said "You've just sold 400 singles... you've got a hit." I think my knees went...
I've been associated with Ozzy for about two years now, and we've put the two albums up together. Also, though I don't think a lot of people know, I worked on a Black Sabbath LP, Never Say Die, but I think I only get a credit on the English version and not the American one.
Bark At The Moon (the album) was actually mixed twice. The first was quite professional and everything. Max Norman did that one, but he'd been working non stop for six weeks on it, and I think his ears had gone. So they took it to a guy in New York called Milo Bodjovani and he did it in three days, zap zap zap. Which is why the whole thing sounds so fresh and sparkling. There are rough edges in there, but you can hear everything on there. I think a lot of that was Max, and the studios that we used, Ridge Farm. I like high tech sort of studios, but Ridge Farm is so nice to work there. We started on August 1st, and six weeks later the whole thing was finished.
I suppose we could have done it even quicker than that, but Jake took a lot of time getting the guitar sounds just right - and they are - which for his first album was marvellous. We literally watched him grow as a musician as we recorded it. I think he was very scared of being himself when we first started, he followed the stereotype of how he should behave in a studio, and it took a time for him to settle down and be Jake.
The writing stages before we even started at Ridge Farm took about six weeks really. On and off, we sat around and banged away with Ozzy singing things off the top of his head as a start. Then we sifted through all that and Ozzy began to form specific ideas. Some of them came up very quickly, like So Tired took about four minutes! Ozzy came in and went "Oh Oh I've got it, quick!" and there it was. It's a strange sound that one, and an odd track out in some ways. The piano sound there was done on the Yamaha. At Ridge Farm they had this beautiful old Steinway - it's the one that I used on Revelation Mother Earth on the Blizzard of Oz album but we couldn't get the sound this time, and I wasn't happy. Recording can be agony for me, I worry for a long time over what I've done and could I have done it better.
So Tired took just two takes, and Max said "Well, its not so bad, do you want to listen to it?" which from Max is rare praise, so I left it as it was.
Almost all the keyboard material for the album was recorded in a couple of days. That's a way that I like working because I like to have a bit of pressure. If I get left to think about things I start to worry, and if I start to worry I start tampering with it and it takes forever.
If you work quickly, conversely, you came up with more 'off the wall' stuff - like the growling sound we got on Bark At The Moon which was the CS80. It must be the best sound that I've ever got out of the CS80 and I've lost it! It's in there somewhere, so I'd better get looking.
The string sound on the - album were thickened up using the OBXa, and the 'real' ones were recorded by Lou Clark. I really feel that there is no way that you can get a really good realistic string sound from a synth though. Which brings me to the fact that I am starting to feel the constraint of electric keyboards because it is, per se, a mono signal, there in the air, and there's not a lot that you do with it. This is especially on strings but also applies to piano sounds. There's a certain feeling in a piano sound or with the Royal Philharmonic that you just can't get via a keyboard.
I have worked with the Fairlight and the Emulator. But I find the Fairlight very cumbersome, and the Emulator is just like a digital Mellotron - and I don't really like Mellotrons, though I did find that I used them for a while. They even used to have them up in the working mens clubs up north.
Playing live with a band like this can be a real headache - literally. Jake is very loud indeed, and Bob is earthshaking, and then you have Carmine Appice there between them, so I started using the Yamaha Tone Cabinets. The new ones, which are loud enough, are great - but the only problem is their lack of bass. They allow me to have a reasonable idea of what I am playing at the time, which can be a big problem. That guitar... Jake really does give that guitar a damn good seeing to, which causes problems in itself. There are sounds that you get from the guitar specifically when you play it that loud and I think Jake has found all of them, and some great new sounds, but the sheer action of playing so physically makes the tuning a bit volatile. With the bass and the keyboards playing against Jake, the bass can get away with it, but if I find that I'm out of tune there's not really very much I can do except to take it back a bit. But, when it works, it really does work and the sound is so full and powerful.
I've recently started to mix my own keyboards on stage. I suppose it gives me a little bit more freedom at that stage. All the keyboards go through Moog Synamps, and I use the Roland RS501 - that's the Chorus/Echo one, the CS80 goes through that, with the chorus on and just a little bit of reverb. The CS80 signal then goes through its own Synamp, but the others are fed through the Lexicon PCM41, which is one of the early ones - the best really - they give such a superb sound. It's a bit like the old Echoplex I suppose but without any of the problems. After that the whole lot are fed through the Dimension D so the guy on the mixer gets a stereo mix of all the keyboards. He also takes his own signal from the piano and the Vocoder separately. He treats the Vocoder sound out at the mixer desk with a Lexicon digital reverb and harmonises it - which forms the 'monks' sound at the beginning of Forever. I have to do that on my own on stage, along with the special effects. I'll give you an idea of what I do on stage: we have a haunted house backdrop which they flash lightning effects across while I'm making thunder and 'Vincent Price' noises which are done through a program run on the MemoryMoog. (One of those sounds is a reverse gong sound. I was experimenting and managed to find this incredible gong like sound, it even made Carmine go "What the hell was that!" But I switched it into another patch and put it into reverse. That's one of the lovely things about the MemoryMoog - but it is the Last Of The Great Analogues. It was such a natural step from the MiniMoog and all that I learned there. The key to the whole thing is the third oscillator sweep modulation). But back to the stage show... I switch over from the Moog on a big filter delay which takes me over of the CS80 for the bell sounds - and I'm not telling anyone how I get that sound - I've been offered money for it! So, I'm doing the bell with one hand, and the bass note on the MiniMoog with the other hand, and singing, and dancing... I ought to get Lionel Blair in to choreograph it... Just after the monks bit is the church organ and again, I'm running around to get to that one in time. Getting all that sort of thing right took a fair proportion of the rehearsals. You have to get that movement right, and have everything placed just where you need it, then you have to work out all the settings, and what's to come in where and when. After all that, you have to ask yourself - 'What will I do if it goes wrong?' There is no way you can say 'Oh it broke' or whatever, you have to develop the alternatives to everything so that you can patch up if you get problems.
When I first worked with Ozzy, I was still working with Rainbow, and kind of crept off down there. They had had problems getting a keyboard player in, and I went down there for a day to see if I would help. It went like clockwork, and I was very impressed with the way that Ozzy worked. That first Ozzy band with Randy Rhodes and Tommy Aldridge, I feel that was the best band that I have ever worked with, and that Blizzard of Oz LP bears me out I think. It has a sort of overall sound to it that is hard to get, but when you get there, well you know you've arrived.
There are always stories of what Ozzy gets up to on the road, and a lot of them are a bit short of the mark... but there are fun things that go on. There are times when you daren't go to sleep. They got one guy drunk, and dyed his hair bright red. I had a lucky escape - I got sozzled in Hamburg (not like me at all - honest) and we got arrested for something or other, and, to cut a long story short, I woke up in my room in the morning thinking "Oh no, Ozzy was in here last night... what's he done!" But I got away with it. Eyebrows intact.
When I'm not on the road, I play a bit with my brother, who is the guitarist with Mari Wilson, just a few jazz rock things, and I'm planning to do a solo album after we come back from the States. It's going to be a 'heavy' type thing, but with heavy keyboards. The art of heavy rock keyboards has been a bit thin on the ground really, not a lot going on there, and I'd like to try and get some of the ideas that have been building up for years down onto tape. I'd like to use the MiniMoog more, there are lots of sounds there that are applicable - like a good guitar sound that might come in useful somewhere...
I haven't got a studio as such at home, just a music room that seems to be full of old keyboards - elephants graveyard. I've never felt the need for a studio there, in fact I've been using the Sony Walkman professional model lately - just to get some of the sounds down, and some of the melodies recorded. I like the idea of being in a band and going to the studio to make an album - I just can't imagine doing one at home, it would be so boring.
I think that I might actually buy one of the Sony digital PCM series for working at home though. With the digital sequencer on the PPG I think that might be a nice match. I can record then on the keyboard and just run it off onto the digital recorded. That must be that way the things are going to go. But ideas like that - the technology - have to be set up against the natural ideas I have. I try hard to keep my piano playing up, playing a lot of Bartok.
One of the problems on the tours is the concentration - and getting the practice in. I take the little CS01 with me which I plug into a rockman so I can leap around the hotel bedroom pretending its me playing all the lead lines and not Jake... Which you can do with those rockman. You can plug them up to the PA, but I tend to steer clear of effects - they are just one more thing to go wrong. Plus there is the fact that no one would hear them really, all they will hear is the keyboard. It is a discipline - I can't hide behind the effects as such, so the keyboards have to do the work. I suppose that's why I find a keyboard that I like and hang on to it, learning what it can do from top to bottom. I also find that the keyboards themselves have a certain quality or character to their sounds. If you like, every CS01 sound is the same - in that quality at least. With the MiniMoog sounds, they thought that they had managed to reproduce that sound on the MemoryMoog. They said that they'd taken all the sounds down from the MiniMoog and that they had truly reproduced them on the Memory.
Well, I went to do some work with Gary Moore, and left the MiniMoog at home. We were doing all the dual lead sounds, and he kept giving me this funny look. Eventually he said "Don, it isn't happening you know... so we brought the Mini back, and we were back in business because we knew the character of the sound that we wanted - a type that just wasn't available on the Memory at all.
I wonder if the makers actually envisage what the musicians are going to find out on their keyboards and whether they have an idea of the capabilities. Like the MiniMoog and Jan Hammer - who for me is the Guv'nor - and some of the incredible things he's done, like the theme for The Tube which is absolutely superb. It's from the Jeff Beck album There And Back.
I just wish he'd sort of come out and do some more. But then I think he's obsessed with being a guitar-type - with his keyboards chained round his neck... You can never be the big guitar hero type on keyboards. I've given up even trying - I've got my little space in the corner of the stage, even if it does look like a music shop. I don't think that the keyboards are in the right place at the moment, (I'm off the stage right sort of pushing onto the stage) but before, I had the keyboards up beside the drums on the podium at the back behind the bass. That didn't interfere with the visual style of the band - and I got to see what was going on down there. In fact I have tried going out to the front, when I was on tour in Japan with Gary, with the Yamaha CS01. But when I got out there with this thing round my neck - I felt like an ice cream salesman.
I'd never picked up an electric guitar until recently, when I was working with Gary and had a go on his Les Paul. I thought it was about time that I actually had a go. Well, I tried, but I just can't work out how on earth they do what they do. It's like how a violinist gets to develop a sound. The system for keyboards - and especially synths, is no less personal, but there's something physical about playing the guitar that is more intense than the keyboard. Hard to explain, but even harder to play the damn thing.
About the only intensity that you can feel in my situation is on the grand piano. That has a real edge to it in terms of the way that you play simply through the physical way that the instrument makes its sound. The factors are you, rather than an envelope or a filter or anything, it's your fingers, out there on their own."
Interview by Tim Oakes
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