WHEN PURPLE REIGNED
If you've ever watched the excellent Steve Coogan series "Saxondale", you'll know it's the slightly surreal tale of a former Rock Roadie turned Pest Controller, dealing with his own anger management issues. If you haven't, I recommend it, though if you are expecting more Alan Partridge it's a lot less slapstick and far more low-key.
One of the key issues that always rankles with Tommy is when he gathers with his ex-roadie mates and they reminisce about their time on the road with Led Zeppelin - notoriously known as the wildest of all touring crews. They like to remind Tommy that he wasn't with them but with Deep Purple.
And it's more than just a metaphor because whilst Led Zep are seen as the starting point for hard rock in all its subsequent forms and offshoots, Deep Purple have never received the reverence or affection given to their contemporaries, such as Black Sabbath.
Yet, I would suggest that they wrote far more of the heavy rock rule book than the others - although not all of it reflecting so well perhaps. Although, Russian President, Dimitry Medvedev, would disagree having made one of his earliest acts in the role to invite his favourite band, The Purps, to Moscow. Apparently, he had previously told Bono how much he loved them and the singer replied that Led Zep were better, doubtless setting back the cause for global unity several decades.
This latest vinyl voyage looks at their 1972 classic "Machine Head" so we are full on already with the classic Mark II line-up of Blackmore, Gillan, Lord, Paice and Glover and when put alongside the "Made In Japan" album released as a record of the accompanying tour, probably marked the end of the strongest period of the band's career, just preceding the break-up of this particular line-up.
However, by the time of this album's release Deep Purple were already living out many of what would become the tropes of metal bands for decades since. "Machine Head" was already the sixth album they had recorded in two and a half years amidst several significant tours and during this time they had sacked their vocalist and bass player and tensions within the band were already bubbling away.
Like Zeppelin and Sabbath, Purple had found an audience in the States long before they were entirely embraced in their homeland but had been an odd psychedelic rock combo initially with hits written by Joe South and Neil Diamond. A Spinal Tap-esque conversion was to take place but not before the new lineup including Gillan and Glover had performed Jon Lord's "Concerto For Group And Orchestra" and that remains an awkward listen even now - though apparently not as much as the mercifully shelved follow-up "Gemini Suite".
At this point, particularly with the pop backgrounds of most of the band - Jon Lord was one of The Flowerpot Men - you would have been hard-pressed not to see Deep Purple as bracketed with the Moody Blues.
This new line-up would put paid to that.
Of all their albums, "In Rock" tends to be the most highly regarded critically but I just find "Machine Head" more enjoyable. This undoubtedly comes from the hand-to mouth feel that makes it come across as a whole-heartedly genuine recording, made regardless of all manner of turmoil and triumphs.
The opening track, "Highway Star" could easily be a Guns N Roses stampede without batting an eyelid, with vocal shrieks and riffs - all in honour of "a killing machine" car, straight from the Eddie Cochran playbook.
What is particularly interesting is that they wrote this on the way to a gig in Portsmouth when a journalist asked how they went about composing their songs and just knocked it off on the bus as they went along. They had been playing it to a rapturous reception long before its final recording but its creation is an indicator of how they really were pulling in their influences as they went along in constructing the album.
The band decamped to Switzerland in December 1971 having just come off the road from a cancelled tour after Gillan had contracted hepatitis in the US. Their respective recording and touring schedules were taking their toll. Songs like "Pictures Of Home" are absolute testament to the difficulties Deep Purple were facing.
They had wanted to create an album that reflected their live sound better and so had planned to record in the Montreux Casino in Switzerland. It was a venue that would work well for them for three reasons - they had played it before and liked it; it would be closed for the holiday period so they could take over the venue; it was very beneficial for tax!
The best laid plans of course...
The final gig in the Casino would be Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention and during the course of it someone let a flare off which pierced the second level of the roof and so burned down the building - mercifully without casualties.
Quickly, they had to reschedule and decided to move to the Pavilion Theatre which would give a great live feel. In true rock fashion, up came the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio to stand outside in the middle of a freezing winter.
So was born one of the greatest riffs in rock, and they told the tale of the burning casino in "Smoke On The Water" - a phrase from Iain Paice that led to the lyrical story of the background to their recording being told, as the fantastic track was already in place.
You might call it the Beethoven's Fifth of hard rock.
It's a classic for sure - despite its over-familiarity (especially if you ever wondered into a musical instrument shop in the late 70s) - particularly when you know about its inception. You might even hazard to say a stone-cold one... literally.
But the trouble wasn't over as the neighbours complained about the noise in the hotel and with only four takes of "Smoke On The Water" in the can and the police knocking at the door despite roadies trying to barricade them in, they had to move again. This time, they went to the Grand Hotel - also closed for the holidays - with the mobile studio in tow.
One of the elements I like about the album is that it does have quite a slinky bluesy feel on tracks like the funky "Maybe I'm A Leo" which has a lot of influence from Cream, whom the earlier incarnation of the band had supported.
"Never Before", which became the lead single, also follows this themel but seems to set the template that southern rockers and bands such as Bad Company would take up three or four years later. It is commercial but probably ahead of its time, though its middle eight (much loved by Jon Lord) once more drops back into slightly trippy psychedelia which is probably why it has not joined the pantheon of rock radio classics. It just breaks the mood too abruptly.
"Lazy" is another particularly bluesy song and with Jon Lord's hammond solo sounds like something from the mid 60s such as the Graham Bond Organisation. And here comes my one issue with the album and the band if I'm to be honest. Jon Lord's organ gives a wonderful texture to all the songs particularly when it serves as a platform for Ritchie Blackmore to stretch out on his lead but the organ solos seem to take the band backwards and somehow takes the power out of them when it comes front and centre. "Pictures Of Home" suffers from this as well.
Die-hard Purple fans will be very cross with me for this but I cannot help, it's part of what makes them seem less authentic than their crunching peer group. You may say that the acoustic diversions of say "Led Zeppelin 3" or even "Black Sabbath" are equally experimental but my contention is that they never lose the hard rock platform from which they are built. the organ seems to move towards a more "prog" feel and that is never a good thing in my book.
I wrote earlier about the tropes of heavy rock and of course, Deep Purple were well-known for their factionalism. By now, the tension between Gillan and Blackmore - two of the biggest egos you might ever find - was rife, but clearly, Lord still thought of himself as musical director - particularly after "The Concerto" and so there will have been several competing agendas at play during the making of the album but by and large it doesn't suffer too much from it.
In fact, I am a huge fan of the final track where it all comes together "Space Truckin". Here Lord's effect joins Paice and Glover's snap-tight rhythm section to lay down a berserk tribute to 50s science fiction. Lyrically, it's preposterous but it has such a relentless drive and groove that you cannot help but be beguiled by its pace and solidity. Alongside Blackmore's pyrotechnics and the wailing of Gillan, there's a flurry of a drum solo from Paice (always something that would normally make the heart sink) but it's all kept tight enough.that it never outstays its welcome.
In an extended work-out of over 20 minutes, it would close the show for several years and you can hear why - you could not help but go home happy. It's a blast.
"Machine Head" is relentless and you can hear everyone from AC/DC to Guns N Roses have used some of it as a template for their work. They had a stratospheric vocalist and a genius guitarist (and we know that is always combustible) but alongside it was a solid rhythm section that stayed the right side of solid and, despite the sometime over-indulgence Lord's keyboards, add a welcome texture.
But most impressive its that this is the sound of a band going a million miles an hour. They were writing, recording and producing everything almost as an immediate reaction to the world around them and that's what gives this release its authenticity. It never becomes po-faced or unnecessarily deep but just keeps cantering on regardless - perhaps because at the time, they were having to make all their music as they went about their business, rather than getting it together in Welsh farmhouses.
I always thought this was the kind of record I would never enjoy but it has melodies, excitement and variety in abundance and whilst never really dropping out of high gear, it still retains a knowing sense of fun.
Clearly they thought the same in the tower blocks of Leningrad.