Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The gift of rock and roll: Making sense of Deep Purple's messy half-century sprawl

"We're gonna give you some rock and roll," David Coverdale says calmly at the outset of the live Deep Purple release Graz 1975. Was a truer bit of stage banter ever captured? I spun this album again yesterday, along with parts of the band's earlier, iconic live album Made in Japan (recorded in '72 with a different lineup), and I was re-shocked by, well, the degree to which it all just fucking rocks.


The slashing Ritchie Blackmore intro riff at 1:10, the way the band explodes out of the gate, Jon Lord's keys gleaming through the mix in all their gothic glory, Ian Paice tumbling through the verses like the Tasmanian Devil, Coverdale and Glenn Hughes proudly belting out those operatic harmonized "buuuuuuurn" harmonies. And then my favorite section, the little post-chorus coda around 3:00, with Hughes crooning that beautiful "You know we had no tiiiiiiime" melody. Blackmore and Lord's neoclassical duo/solo, and so on.

I could continue (and I could just as easily have picked the godly 19-minute "Space Truckin'" from Made in Japan to go off on) but what I mean to convey is just the Dionysian rush of it all, the abandon and the fun of this band at their peak — or one of their many peaks. How clearly this track demonstrates the fact that the less you use your brain (really as a listener or as a player, in the moment at least), the better rock and roll sounds and feels. And I'm not slighting the virtuosity of the musicians in the least bit. I really just mean that, of all the great, old British hard-rock overlords, Deep Purple seem to me to be the most connected to the party at the heart of the genre, the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis rave-up mentality, so that when Coveradale says, "We're gonna give you some rock and roll," what he really means is, "We're gonna free you from your mind and electrify your body."

This was Deep Purple's stock-in-trade during their so-called Mk. II, Mk. III and Mk. IV glory years (roughly '69–'76). The personnel changed and the sound broadened, but as I hear it, that fundamental mission didn't waver. A core dedication to honoring that principle of liberation, of bombast and explosive power, of whatever the opposite of overthinking is.

And yet, looking back, the members seem somewhat conflicted when it comes to the "turn off your brain" mindset. In the Classic Albums doc on the making of the band's iconic Machine Head LP, Blackmore discusses being almost embarrassed when he came up with the "Space Truckin'" chorus riff. "I took it to Ian Gillan and I said, 'I have this idea but it's so ridiculous. It's so silly and simple that I don't think we can use it.'"

This concept comes up a lot in the doc, the idea of that line between "dumb" simplicity and genius — there's a great bit where Blackmore seems to need to invoke Beethoven to convince himself that the "Smoke on the Water" riff is really more highbrow than it seems. At another point, bassist Roger Glover chalks up the band's essential chemistry to the play between their virtuoso and intuitive factions. "Purple was really, to me, it was two elements: It was the superb musicianship of Ritchie, Jon and Ian Paice, and sort the naive, homemade, simple quality of songwriting that Ian Gillan and I brought to the band."

This whole discussion touches on my own early misjudging of this band as somewhat pedestrian. I caught the Sabbath and Zeppelin bug years ago, but moving on, as one does, to Deep Purple — and I'm not proud to say this, but as I discussed in my Bruce Springsteen post a while back, I think it's important to own up to my initial prejudices about the classics; all the better to dismantle them  — I found myself turning up my nose a bit at them: "Highway Star," with its corny "Nobody gonna take my car/girl" conceit and so on. Not that Zeppelin wasn't guilty of same, but something about Machine Head just sounded not mean or aggressive enough to me. And it's true: Deep Purple as a band were not out for blood in the same way that Sabbath were, or out for pure world-swallowing sleaze the way Zeppelin were. There's something almost effete about them — watch interviews with Blackmore, Lord and Gillan and you'll see what I mean. They're the aristocratic gentlemen of hard rock, the ones who seem sort of tickled by the idea of the genre's primal power but seem to have a hard time really and truly immersing in it. (I think here of Gillan's dorky little march-dance around 2:00 in this 1972 live version of "Smoke on the Water," as though he doesn't feel quite comfortable really inhabiting the caveman snarl at the heart of the song.)

But at the same time, they were also consummate cock-rock showmen. Blackmore's scenery-chewing pyrotechnics here (which really heat up around 3:00) might be the most fun-to-watch guitar-heroism I've ever beheld:


This is how Paice puts it in the comprehensive and informative Heavy Metal Pioneers doc from '91: "My role was exactly what I wanted to be. I had no concept of being 'the drummer.' I was the star in the middle of the stage, and Ritchie was the star on the left of the stage, and Jon was the star on the right of the stage. We used to have this sort of permanent friendly battle: who was going to steal the limelight from the next guy."

So at the same time that there's a wariness of rock's core "ridiculous" qualities, there's also a reveling in them. And like most bands, Deep Purple were at their best when inhibition and "good taste" went out the window, when they could blast off from somewhat mundane raw materials (sometimes, in classic Zeppelin fashion, these were just borrowed scraps of old rock songs, as on "Speed King") into a kind of jam-fueled ecstasy. One reason the Coverdale/Hughes era is so badass is that everyone seems to be on the same page about what the band's M.O. is, namely to "give you some rock and roll," plain and simple, without the slightest bit of hand-wringing. Their shows were, for better or worse, textbook mid-'70s testosterone orgies, full of songs that implore women to get in line or get out of the way.

But whether due to lineup shuffling, squabbling over musical direction or even death (RIP Tommy Bolin), Deep Purple never seemed to stay in one phase very long. The band always seemed to be wrestling with what it wanted to be, which might explain why it has been so incredibly many different things over the years, whether that was the stuffy but remarkably developed prog/psych unit of the Mk. I period; the hugely versatile and charismatic Mk. II (it completely blows my mind that in the same year, 1969, this group recorded Jon Lord's monumentally ambitious Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic — probably the most engaging and convincing "classical fusion" project I've ever heard — as well as portions of the stupendously raw and greasy proto-metal mission statement Deep Purple In Rock), who in their own minds shot wide of the mark post–In Rock with the fussier Fireball before correcting the course on the no-frills Machine Head; the soulful and unabashedly preening Mk. III/IV; and so on, all the way up to the impressively cohesive Mk. VIII — heard on the band's latest LP, Infinite — which to my ears is maybe their most enjoyable incarnation since the mid-'70s, mainly because despite being occasionally spotty on a song-for-song level doesn't suffer from the at first convincingly but later somewhat depressingly streamlined quality of the Deep Purple of the '80s and early '90s, where the band seemed to gradually straitjacket itself within a radio rock format (probably as a result of Blackmore's rumored desire, alluded to here, to turn Deep Purple into Foreigner), writing the occasional good song (Perfect Strangers, esp. the title track and "Knocking on Your Back Door," marked a convincing '80s-ification of the classic Deep Purple sound, and I have a soft spot for the catchy-as-hell cheesefest "King of Dreams", from the brief, ill-fated Joe Lynn Turner era) but losing sight of the looseness and abandon that makes, say, that Graz 1975 set so much fun.

Wading through a good chunk of the Deep Purple catalog during the past month or so — and I ought to note that I have Lars Ulrich and Opeth's Mikael Ã…kerfeldt to thank for this listening jag; both cited different Deep Purple records on their Rolling Stone lists of their favorite metal albums and it inspired me to give this catalog another shot — has been somewhat baffling and occasionally exhausting (I'll admit to hitting the skids around the House of Blue Light era), but the peaks have been well worth it. The band no longer seems like some sort of third-place finisher to me in the great late-'60s/early-'70s hard-rock grand prix. Their occasional corniness or awkwardness, their sometimes muddled aesthetic is really beside the point, because when they locked in and found common ground during this or that period, they were as awe-inspiring as any rock band I've ever heard. On In Rock; on the absurdly rocking "Black Night"; on the majestic, hard-grooving Stormbringer; on Come Taste the Band (their first post-Blackmore album but to my ears, as good as anything from the earlier period; proggy instrumental "Owed to G" is a crucial DP deep cut); on Graz 1975; on Made in Japan (which, to me, even more than Machine Head, in some ways feels like the quintessential Deep Purple album); on the stunning and at times even scary California Jam footage (with Blackmore's infamous exploding-amp gag that could have literally blown up the band). On this 1970 "Child in Time":



The very essence of power-ballad-dom, with fire-and-brimstone peaks (or depths) as heavenly/infernal as anything in the Zeppelin oeuvre. Elegantly destructive, a masterful hush-to-howl opus.

These days Deep Purple aren't soaring quite as high — who could? — but their current music is worth hearing because they seem completely comfortable with their weird, shapeshifting eccentricity, playing borderline-pedestrian blues-rock one moment and sci-fi-infused gothic prog the next. In the latter vein, a track like Infinite's "The Surprising" seems as close to the early spirit of the band — in their super-nerdy, fussily awesome proto-prog guise — as anything they've done since. They finally seem comfortable with the idea of not choosing any one sound, free of the power struggles, aesthetic and otherwise (I'm looking at you, Ritchie), that have defined their history. Embracing all of it: the smart and the dumb, the lofty and the primal, the raucous and the refined.

What I wonder is, could there ever be a band like this again? An arena-filling, mega-selling juggernaut that also has the time and the space to stretch out, achieving — over years and years and years — staggering triumphs, running head-on into aesthetic walls, shedding members, taking on new ones, inviting back old ones, righting itself, falling flat again, soldiering on, winning acclaim, inviting derision, becoming a kind of self-parody even as they become immortal. What I'm trying to say is, it's a fucking saga, the Deep Purple story, maybe the most convoluted one in so-called classic rock, and it's also an absolute delight to muddle through, just because of how big and sprawling and messy it is. (I think of the great testimonial quote in the trailer for the Descendents/ALL doc Filmage where Hagfish's Doni Blair says, "You have to be a fan at the whole thing" — see around 2:30 here — which is a great way to sum up up the sort of zen attitude of appreciation and acceptance you reach after you take the time to make sense of a catalog this massive.) You don't have to love everything but you revel in the muchness of it all, marveling even at what you don't happen to like, because what it is, is a life in music, an adaptation to decades' worth of fickle audience tastes and market demands. Blackmore's out, Lord's gone (RIP), but Gillan and Paice are still on the road, fighting the good fight, roughly 50 years after the band's formation.

Everything that's happened in between is worth treasuring, precisely because it could never happen again, or not in the same way. And goddamn, amid everything else they churned out, did they ever give us some rock and fucking roll.

/////

*This is all pretty new to me, so I'd be very interested to hear comments from anyone who has a firm grasp on the DP catalog: What are your favorite moments, either "classic" or obscure?

*Here are 15 Deep Purple songs I love, spanning many periods: