March 19, 1982. Amid the fiery wreckage of a single-engine airplane crash in Florida, the life of a gifted young musician came to an end. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Randy Rhoads.
But the musical legacy of Ozzy Osbourne’s classically-trained guitarist – a legacy forever emblazoned on two of the most revered hard rock albums of all time, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman – lives on through the devotion of his fans.
The 30th anniversary remastered reissues of both these landmark albums were released last year with rare bonus tracks, giving fans many reasons to celebrate. Also included was an entire CD’s worth of newly discovered unreleased live tracks from the Blizzard of Ozz tour, mixed by Ozzy Osbourne’s producer Kevin Churko.
A native of Moose Jaw, Sask., Churko is a Juno-winning engineer and songwriter who has worked for some of the biggest names in music including Ringo Starr, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan and Shania Twain. His influence can be heard on Ozzy Osbourne’s albums Black Rain and Scream, both of which Churko co-wrote, produced, engineered and mixed.
To reflect on the 30th anniversary of the death of Randy Rhoads, Kevin Churko sat down with Rock Cellar Magazine for an exclusive interview, chatting at length about Rhoads’ undying influence on hard rock music.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What do you hear in Randy Rhoads’ playing on that live CD you mixed at your studio in Las Vegas?
Kevin Churko: I hear that fire. That fire of discovery and that attitude that weighs so heavily in Randy playing those exceptional parts of those songs. You can tell that he was really thinking about his ideas, he was discovering and putting forth those ideas and saw his guitar playing as a piece of music, rather than just treading or playing a bunch of fast notes. In those songs he had a starting, an end, and a point in between. And while you do find those kind of guys who do that now at this stage in music, what Randy was doing was inspiring guitarists to really explore new ideas. As a result, that generation of guitar players really went through a lot of changes because of those new ideas Randy put forth, and I think that excitement and innovation of what he was doing was captured on those live recordings.
RCM: Do you know the source of that live recording? I once read that it was from Montreal’s St. Denis Theatre in July ’81.
KC: I think it was a combination of different shows. The record company supplied me with the live tracks that Epic would have transferred over to digital files. I can’t be sure.
RCM: Where have those rare unreleased live recordings been all these years?
KC: I think most of the time, something like that just gets lost (laughs). And then eventually somebody stumbles across them and says, “Hey, this is awesome!” I think at that time, they were recording a lot of those shows, so I would think that Sony or Epic had all the content somewhere and they just went down to the Ozzy cupboard and said, “What have we got? Oh, this sounds good,” so they sent it along to me.
RCM: So there are more of these live shows recorded from the Blizzard-era out there?
KC: Oh yeah, they have a lot more in the vault, and definitely more that could be gone over, mixed and released.
RCM: The live CD includes early classics like I Don’t Know, Crazy Train and Mr. Crowley along with some Black Sabbath tunes like Children of the Grave, Iron Man and Paranoid. How did you decide which tracks to include and which to omit?
KC: The tracks we included are basically what we all considered to be the best. When I got the live tracks, I talked to the people at Sony, I talked to Sharon, I talked to Ozzy, and asked them what they were looking for and how they wanted it to sound.
Mark Neuman at Sony was very involved in the whole process and song selection. His input was crucial. They all shared their thoughts, then I took it from there – bringing up all the tracks and fine-tuning them one by one, until I got something that sounds good.
RCM: Had you previously heard unreleased live recordings from this era featuring Randy Rhoads?
KC: Like other fans and collectors, I heard bootlegs over the years, but I never had the raw tracks to listen to, so it was really fun, you can imagine. I mean, there was a lot of stuff going on at that time in all their lives, and it was really exciting to hear them playing live, as they were kind of inventing the wheel at that time. And not just from Randy’s point of view, it was really interesting to listen from (drummer) Tommy Aldridge’s point of view, along with Ozzy’s point of view.
RCM: Having co-written and produced albums with Ozzy in recent years, what changes have you noticed in his singing, when listening to those early live tracks?
KC: After working with Ozzy all these years, I’m pretty familiar with all the intricacies of his voice, so it was a real thrill to listen to him singing live from that time in his career. And because I’ve mixed a lot of his recent live stuff, too, I’ve noticed quite a bit of differences in the youthful sound of his voice from that time. It’s kind of like being a parent, in a sense, where you’re looking at past pictures of your kids and you remember where they started out.
That was then – a little bundle of joy (laughs), a younger version of Ozzy and that’s what he sounded like. Obviously, I wasn’t fortunate enough to work with him in those days – I was a kid myself – but in retrospect it’s really nice to be able to go back and have a little window into the past and see where it all started.
RCM: Though you weren’t the engineer who mixed the previously unreleased Randy Rhoads guitar solo on the anniversary box set (it was Mike Fraser), the documentary Thirty Years After the Blizzard shows you and Ozzy listening to the studio outtake together for the first time. What was that like?
KC: Bringing out master tapes is always an amazing thing because you never know what you’re going to find. And to find that at the end of the take is really, really cool. I was really eager to listen to those tapes and it’s always a bonus to find something you didn’t expect, then to listen to it with Ozzy who had never heard it before.
Kevin Churko plays “the lost” Randy Rhoads solo for Ozzy Osbourne.
It was a great experience to be able to look into those records and see what was actually recorded on tape versus what got mixed. When I actually got to listen to the Blizzard tapes, I remember thinking, “Wow, what a treat this is! And how many people in the world would want to be sitting here listening to the individual tracks as they were first recorded.” I feel very fortunate and blessed to be the one chosen to come in and listen to those tracks with Ozzy, who hadn’t heard most of this stuff in 30 years. Or, in the case of that Randy Rhoads outtake – ever.
RCM: You seem to have had many of those “pinch me, is this real?” moments in your career. Tell us about renowned producer Mutt Lange who plucked you from the Canadian prairies to spend three years working together in Switzerland.
KC: There’s really not many people who could touch his brilliance, his work ethic, or his drive. He’s an exceptionally talented person and has been a huge influence on me. It was Mutt Lange who steered me in the right direction and showed me a lot of things, which eventually led to me working with Ozzy.
RCM: Can you share some insight on working with heavy metal’s so-called Prince of Darkness?
KC: Out of all the people I’ve worked with, Ozzy has to be one of the most pleasurable. He’s really funny, and by ‘funny,’ I mean witty. He can tell a joke and story better than anybody else.
In the studio, I think Ozzy’s brilliance is really coming up with those magical melody lines, and those one liners that wound sound simple in their verbal form – like that riff from No More Tears – but make for a really powerful hook. I can’t even begin to describe what it felt like at first when I started working with him. It was absolutely insane. He’s an icon and, with Black Sabbath, started this whole genre.
I kept thinking when I would show up for work that this was the day he wakes up and says…
“Hey, I’m Ozzy Osbourne, and he’s Kevin Churko – what the fuck is he doing here?! He’s fired!”
(laughs). I’ve never met a more gracious rock star in my entire life.
RCM: You would have been a teenager when Blizzard of Ozz was first released in September 1980, right?
KC: Yes, I was quite a young kid, 14 or 15, and I remember putting the tape in my walkman and listening to it over and over again, from the first song to the last, flipping the tape and doing it all over again.
My brother Cory and I were playing in a country band at that time, and we actually played Crazy Train in every country bar in half of Canada. I remember by two in the morning that everybody was so drunk in the bar, you could get away with those kinds of things, and people would just start two-stepping to Crazy Train. It was a very surreal experience when I look back now.
And if I would’ve know then that one day I’d be working with that guy, I would never have been able to believe it because at that point, I was such a planet away from where I am now. Even now, I sometimes think about how much I was listening to (Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman), and that one day I would be working with him. Then, to be sitting there with him listening to old live tapes and Randy Rhoads outtakes — it’s absolutely crazy.
RCM: Can you share some thoughts on Ozzy’s guitarists who came after Randy Rhoads, and how they approach playing Randy’s guitar parts live?
KC: I think in Zakk Wylde’s case, he’s such a true fan of Randy Rhoads that I hear the respect he has for him when he’s playing Randy’s parts live. I think at this point in Zakk’s life, it’s probably a lot different listening to him play Randy’s parts now compared to when he was 18 or 20 years old, himself. Because now Zakk is such a personality and he’s such his own character with his own sound that I just always hear Zakk. It is so identifiable. Having recorded him, he just sounds like himself no matter what guitar he picks up or what amp he’s playing through.
But I know he truly is a huge fan of Randy, and a lover of all Ozzy’s guitar players, so I know he really respects those guys when playing their parts. Especially with Randy’s parts, he tries to be pretty honest with it, where it came from, and I don’t think he tries to imprint his ‘Zakk Wylde’ sound on those parts when he plays live. But he can’t help it. We can’t help being who we are.
But for me, I’m a fan of both, so it’s wonderful to hear the combination of both Zakk and Randy.
RCM: How about Jake E. Lee, who played on Bark at the Moon and The Ultimate Sin?
KC: I’d have to say most of the guitar players who I’ve worked with acknowledge Jake as one of their favorite players, though he doesn’t get all the commercial credit. I think he was a really special player too.
RCM: And how about Gus G, who you worked with on Ozzy Osbourne’s 2010 release, Scream.
KC: As far as Gus goes, again, he’s an exceptional technician and an exceptional guitar player. And what I found especially exciting was that Gus had already learned all the old material from early Sabbath all the way up. He can play any of Ozzy’s guitar players’ parts, and do it with authority. He’s very respectful toward Randy’s parts, and that whole genre of music. When he joined Ozzy, he didn’t have to learn any of those songs, he already knew them note for note. And that’s what’s so special about him.
He’s still pretty true to what Randy was doing, and guitarists like Jake and Zakk who followed. Gus just wants to give them their due respect and keep their music alive. And I can’t think of a better guy to translate it. He’s a tremendous player and an all-round great person.
RCM: The albums Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman shaped not only the legend of Randy Rhoads and Ozzy, but the careers of Bob Daisley (bass) and Lee Kerslake (drums), don’t you think?
KC: Yes, people look back at that time and those records as being something truly special. It’s like an imprint in time, and I think no matter who you are you can never go back and recapture that moment. It captured where everybody’s headspace was at that time, the personalities involved, how they treated each other, and what was going on – good or bad. Great music is always a combination of personalities and circumstances, what everybody was going through in their lives, and if you take out one piece of the puzzle or add one guy to the chain, it changes everything.
And that’s always the most interesting thing to me, all those variables that ended up making such great music. Because even if you took those same guys – if Randy was still here – and you put them back in the studio today, it would be different. It would never be the same. For whatever reason, that just happened to work between those guys. The music spoke to everybody at that time, and those recordings have stood the test of time.
RCM: Bob Daisley told Rock Cellar Magazine (LINK) a few months back that he has hours of rehearsal tapes from those early sessions, and that he offered up as bonus material for the anniversary box set. But he and the Osbourne camp couldn’t come to an agreement on payment and royalties, he said.
KC: Well, life is a long time, so who knows what will come of it.
RCM: Were you happy with the 30th anniversary box set, overall?
KC: Yeah, I think all the bonus material is really interesting and the photo album is really awesome. All those amazing concert photos in there, it’s a really nice accompaniment to the live audio tracks. You can see all the changes Ozzy went through in the early part of his career, how he kept rollin’ with the punches, and kept thinking up fun and interesting things to be doing, like that elaborate castle stage set he had for the Diary of a Madman tour. Then there’s the outdoor concert photos of him and Randy playing to these giant crowds in stadiums. It’s really fun to look back on it, 30 years later.
I was surprised that it has been 30 years since Randy died, but then, I was surprised that it has been 30 years since Blizzard. It really gives you an idea of just how brief their time together was. It’s amazing how the music they created is still as revered now as it was then. It’s a great thing, and I hope it continues to live on and on — like Randy’s legacy has — and I’m sure it will.