Randy Rhoads: The Blizzard King
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, March 2006
Producer Max Norman describes the recording of Blizzard of Ozz, the album that launched Ozzy Osbourne's solo career and made Randy Rhoads a guitar god.
Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman albums are heavy metal landmarks. Released in 1980 and 1981, respectively, they jump-started his solo career and are the best of the precious few studio recordings that guitar virtuoso Randy Rhoads made in his short lifetime.
While Blizzard was in the planning stages, Ozzy considered several producers for the project, including Queen studio guru Roy Thomas Baker and Hendrix and Led Zeppelin veteran Eddie Kramer. As recording got underway at Ridge Farm, a residential recording studio in the English countryside, engineer Chris Tsangarides was charged with laying down tracks for Ozzy, Randy, bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerlsake. Soon after, Ozzy and Tsangarides had a falling out, and the job of ushering Blizzard of Ozz into existence was handed to Max Norman.
A veteran British knob twirler, Norman had played a role in building Ridge Farm, at the time a brand-new facility, and had performed live sound engineering for Daisley and Kerslake’s prior bands, Rainbow and Uriah Heep, respectively. An affable bloke and consummate pro, Norman had the discipline and studio craft to meet the demands of Rhoads’ highly technical playing style, but his wild streak meant he could also run with Ozzy. Since then, he’s survived many of Osbourne’s mood swings and lived to tell the tale.
“Oh, Ozzy’s fired me many times,” he says, laughing. “He fires everybody.”
Norman, however, usually was called back. After Blizzard, he went on to make several more albums with Ozzy, including Diary of a Madman, Randy Rhoads’ final studio recording.
GUITAR WORLD Did Randy give you any direction as to how he wanted his guitar tracks on Blizzard of Ozz to sound?
MAX NORMAN He told me what he liked, basically. He didn’t really have a lot to say. I’d have to keep changing settings and looking at him for his reaction. He wouldn’t play much if he didn’t like the sound, and if he liked what it sounded like, he’d play a lot more. A lot of musicians are like that.
GW Randy was the least seasoned member of the band. Ozzy had been in Black Sabbath, Bob Daisley was in Rainbow and Lee Kerslake in Uriah Heep. Did Randy defer to their greater experience?
NORMAN I don’t really think it affected him. He did what he wanted. I think everybody was in awe of Randy’s compositional talents. His changes were great. He was the sort of guy you didn’t argue with—you just tried to keep up. He was very on the ball. If Ozzy didn’t like something, Randy could turn it around pretty quickly, but there were very few things Randy did that Ozzy didn’t like.
GW Ozzy speaks a lot about how patient Randy was with him.
NORMAN Yeah. Sometimes Ozzy would say, “That’s crap. What are you doing that for?” And Randy would say, “It’s gonna be okay.” He could placate Ozzy and keep doing what he wanted. He was pretty confident. At some points, Ozzy would come in and say, “It’s taking forever. We don’t need all these tracks.” And I’d be like, “Well, that’s what Randy wants.” And Ozzy would usually come around. Remember that Blizzard of Ozz was being done on Ozzy’s money. It was before he had a record deal [as a solo artist], so we didn’t have a lot of time to hang around in the studio experimenting with stuff. It was all the money Ozzy had in the world, I think, for four weeks of recording. I remember I had to mix the album very quickly.
GW What was Randy’s behavior in the studio generally like?
NORMAN Randy didn’t talk a lot in the studio; he just worked. To do solos, he’d say, “I’m going to need to listen to this a lot of times. You can just go to the pub for a couple of hours. I’d make him a rough stereo mix of the backing track on 1/4-inch tape. I’d record 15 or 20 passes of the solo section backing tracks, one after the other, starting maybe 15 seconds before the solo and ending 20 seconds after it. Randy’s amps were set up in a stone room underneath the control room; they were facing into the stone steps that led down to the stone room. Randy would stand at the top of the steps with two big 15-inch Tannoy playback monitors on either side of him, and he’d blast solos over the backing track. Sometimes he’d use headphones instead of the Tannoys, but it was the same basic principle. I’d go to the pub for a couple hours, and when I got back Randy still usually wasn’t ready.
GW What was he fiddling with all that time?
NORMAN Oh, just standard guitar player stuff. He’d find something he liked, then he’d try something totally different for a while, then he’d come back to his original idea. Once he knew what to do, he’d slam down a good one and then we’d try to get it doubled up. He actually tripled most of them.
GW Did you do any comping of solos? Use one line from take 11, for example, and another line from take 24?
NORMAN No. There was very little of that. We were only working with one 24- track machine; we weren’t syncing up a second 24-track. So by the time we were doing solos, we didn’t have a lot of tracks to spare. And in those days it would be almost impossible to punch in [rerecord part of an existing take by switching into record mode, and out again, while the tape is moving]—unless it was an easy punch, like if Randy had left a gap somewhere in the solo. Later on, I got into much more technical means of constructing a solo.