Deep Purple: A Band In Time
Formed in February 1968, Roundabout, as they were originally known, was the brainchild of former Searchers drummer Chris Curtis. A Merseybeat group whose cover of ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ by The Drifters gave them a Number 1, by 1967 the psychedelic explosion had left Curtis itching to do something new. He’d already had a hit – ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ – under the alias of The Flowerpot Men. Now he wanted more.
As Jon Lord recalls, Curtis had "this very off the wall idea.” Namely, that he, Lord and a dazzling new guitarist named Ritchie Blackmore should form the nucleus of a band "that other musicians could jump on and off.” Hence, the Roundabout: "a lovely, psychedelic sort of idea.”
Leicestershire-born Lord was a 26-year-old classically-trained, jazz-loving keyboardist and in-demand session musician (he played piano on ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks) who had toured with The Flowerpot Men. Born in Weston Super Mare, in 1945, Ritchie Blackmore was 10 when his father bought him a guitar and paid for classical lessons. A gifted student, Blackmore soon began playing in semi-pro outfits like the 2I’s Coffee Bar Junior Skiffle Group. By 17, he was recording his first single under the aegis of Screaming Lord Sutch: ‘Train Kept-A-Rollin’’, and then soon after with The Outlaws, who released numerous singles and toured backing US stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. It was then that Blackmore perfected his flint-eyed, Man In Black image. "We were a bit mad,” he recalled. "We’d play at places and really smash them up. We got a lot of bills and not many return bookings.”
By 1967, Blackmore was living in Hamburg, determined to try something different. When the offer to join Roundabout came, he was ready. When Curtis then got cold feet and dropped out, Jon and Ritchie decided to take bassist Nick Simper, hurriedly recruited vocalist Rod Evans and drummer Ian Paice (the latter poached from small-time London outfit The Maze) on a string of "practise dates” in Denmark. They also decided to change the name. Ritchie’s suggestion: Deep Purple. The title of an old Nino Tempo soul tune, not everyone was convinced but Deep Purple it stayed. The first of many such occasions when Blackmore would get his way despite what the others thought.
Another idea of Ritchie’s was to record an old Joe South number called ‘Hush’ as their first single: a short, snappy soul tune Purple extended into a rock jam based around a 90-second Hammond solo from Lord. Released in the UK in May 1968, it did nothing. However, it took off in the U.S. where it became a Top 5 smash, selling more than a million copies. Their first album, Shades Of Deep Purple – recorded during the same non-stop 48-hour session that produced ‘Hush’ – quickly followed.
And so a pattern was established: the band concentrating on America, where cover version singles such as ‘Emmerata’, ‘Kentucky Woman’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ were all Top 40 singles, followed by the Top 20 U.S. album The Book Of Taliesyn and, in 1969, the eponymously titled Deep Purple.
Onstage, however, was where the band’s music first took a new, heavier shape. As Lord told Melody Maker, "We’re much louder live than the records would lead you to suppose,” adding that when Purple opened for Cream on their farewell U.S. tour, they were thrown off "because we went down too well.”
Blackmore was the star of the show. Now he wanted to take the group’s sound even further out, emulating the U.S. success of British contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. But first they would need to make some drastic changes. Exit: Evans and Simper. Enter: Ian Gillan and Roger Glover. Gillan was a 25-year-old Londoner who had formed his first group, Jess Thunder and the Moonshiners, when he was just 15. By 1965 he was fronting Episode Six, which also included bassist Roger Glover, who generously introduced Gillan to Blackmore when he found out Purple were looking for a new singer.
"When I first heard them I had never been moved musically so much in my life,” said Gillan of his new compadres. "We don’t plan things. People like Jon and Ritchie just play what they want to play. If Ritchie wants to play a 150-bar solo he’ll play it and no one will stop him.”
The same age as Gillan, Roger Glover grew up in a family-owned pub in Brecon, South Wales. He took up guitar, then bass, while studying art at Hornsey College in London, and joined his first band, the Madisons, in 1963. By 1965, they had morphed into Episode Six. When Gillan went for his audition with Purple, Glover tagged along – and ended up in the band too!
The new improved ‘MkII’ line-up began with an album straight out of left-field: the neo-classical Concerto For Group And Orchestra, recorded live at London’s Albert Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in September 1969. Blackmore loathed the experience, dismissing the violinists who "put their fingers in their ears” while he was playing. But the concert was televised and brought the band to the attention of the public for the first time in their homeland. As Lord said, "Controversy is never really a bad thing, and in our case it was a turning point.”
It wasn’t until the release, however, of Deep Purple In Rock, in 1970, that they really found their musical niche. After Concerto, said Blackmore, "I wanted to do a loud, hard rock record. And I was thinking ‘This record better make it’, because I was afraid that if it didn’t we were going to be stuck playing with orchestras for the rest of our lives.”
He needn’t have worried: In Rock was an instant hit, riding high in the UK charts for over a year. "The first three albums were pleasant, but directionless,” said Lord. "Then we made a conscious effort to stop and think about writing material we all understood.”
The lengthy ‘Child In Time’ had been recorded in three stages. "Nobody else would have attempted that, going up in octaves,” said Blackmore, adding that Gillan’s vocal had been key, scatting along to the guitar and keyboards. "Ian was probably the only guy who could sing that.”
‘Speed King’ was equally well executed, delivered with a dynamism that was breathtaking. The sessions had also produced their first original hit, ‘Black Night’, reaching Number 2 in the UK in January 1971.
Next album, Fireball, was another classic, containing ‘Strange Kind Of Woman’, another Top 20 single in the summer of ’71, its call-and-response vocals and guitar inspired by Edgar Winter’s version of ‘Tobacco Road’. As Blackmore recalled: "‘Listen to this scream’, I [told Gillan]. And Ian’s like ‘Who’s that?’ I said ‘Edgar Winter – Johnny Winter’s brother’. That’s where the scream at the end of the song comes from.”
There was also Blackmore’s splenetic new guitar showcase, ‘Demon’s Eye’, as well as the frantic title track itself. As a result, says Gillan, Fireball was "one of the most important albums Purple ever did. We’d just had this great success with In Rock and we wanted to prove we could still be innovative. It laid a cornerstone for everything we did afterwards.”
But the best was yet to come. Released in April 1972, Machine Head was the apotheosis of the Purple MkII line-up, going to Number 1 in Britain and selling more than four million copies in America, and spawning a Top 5 hit with ‘Smoke On The Water’ – now one of the most famous rock songs of all time.
Its genesis lay in their decision to record live at the Casino, in Montreux, Switzerland. The day before, however, Frank Zappa was playing there when fire broke out after someone fired a flare gun. There were no casualties but the old Casino was burned down and Purple was forced to record at the Grand Hotel, where police began banging on the door after complaints about the noise as Gillan was putting down the vocals to Ritchie’s hot new riff. Hence the opening line: ‘We all came out to Montreux…’ As they frantically tried to finish, another line occurred: ‘Swiss time was running out…’
"The police, who had a fleet of cars outside, kept hammering at the door,” Blackmore recalled. "But we didn’t want to open up until we knew we had gotten the right take.” Other tracks like ‘Space Truckin’’ and ‘Highway Star’ were equally inspired. For the latter, Blackmore had "fancied putting a bit of Mozart over that chord progression, which itself is taken from Mozart.”
Their last hurrah was the live double Made In Japan album, released in December 1972, and now regarded as one of the greatest live rock albums ever. "The original conception was to get as close to a natural sound from all the instruments as possible,” Blackmore explained.
One last studio album, Who Do We Think We Are?, followed but the golden era was over. Recorded partly at a villa outside Rome, where locals kept asking, "Who do they think they are?”, and written at a time when personal tensions were reaching boiling point, only one track, ‘Woman From Tokyo’, stood out. "No, it wasn’t a happy album,” says Blackmore, "very… strained.” Just how strained became clear when Gillan and Glover both announced their ‘retirement’ shortly after. It looked like the end of the band
When Deep Purple decided, against the odds, to try and find replacements for Gillan and Glover, it seemed a forlorn task. Enter, in June 1973, vocalist David Coverdale and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes. Cue: the inception of what became known as Deep Purple MkIII – and the second golden era of the band.
From Yorkshire, 22-year-old Coverdale had sung in several short-lived bands – including The Government, who had supported Purple in Sheffield, in August ’69 – but was now working in a fashion boutique when he answered the ad in Melody Maker. The same age, Birmingham-born Glenn Hughes had left school at 15 to play guitar in local group The News. His major claim to fame before joining Purple, though, was Trapeze, who he released a clutch of fine albums with, most notably their 1972 classic You’re The Music, We’re Just The Band, a modest hit in the States.
Contrary to expectation, Burn, the first album from the new Purple line-up, released in March 1974, was a tremendous comeback, and a huge success. Coverdale’s rich, deep voice and Hughes’ higher-pitched soulful vocals reintroduced a bluesier feel to the band’s sound, with a reinvigorated Blackmore, Lord and Paice adding extra layers of power. Tracks like the blistering title track, or the surprisingly funky first single, ‘Might Just Take Your Life’, proved a superb showcase for the twin-vocal line-up, and Burn became recognised as the band’s finest hour since Machine Head.
Stormbringer followed in December 1974, but the anthemic title track aside, the album was a disappointment after the rekindled promise of Burn. Blackmore was becoming increasingly disenchanted and admits he had begun keeping his best songs for his own planned solo album. When he left to form the first incarnation of Rainbow, it came as no surprise to the others.
Once again, sceptics predicted the end. And once again, they were proved wrong, the band finding a replacement for the previously thought irreplaceable Man In Black in the waif-like figure of 23-year-old Tommy Bolin. As Jon Lord told Purple biographer Simon Robinson, "He walked in, thin as a rake, his hair coloured green, yellow and blue with feathers in it. Slinking along beside him was this stunning Hawaiian girl in a crochet dress with nothing on underneath. He plugged into four Marshall 100 watt stacks and that was it.”
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Bolin had played drums and piano before switching to guitar when he was 13. Moving to Denver, he played with several now forgotten mid-’60s bands before joining Zephyr, who he recorded two albums with in the early-’70s. Bolin’s best-known recordings before Purple, however, were on Billy Cobham’s jazz-rock fusion classic, Spectrum (1973), and two albums with The James Gang: Bang (1973) and Miami (1974).
Bolin had also jammed with such luminaries as Dr. John, Albert King, and Alphonse Mouzon, and was busy working on his first solo album, Teaser, when he accepted the invitation to join the new Deep Purple MkIV line-up. Despite picking up mixed reviews, the resulting album, Come Taste The Band, released in December 1975, revitalised the Purple sound in all sorts of unexpected ways.
With the encouragement of Coverdale and Hughes, the guitarist came up with some of his best material, including ‘Getting Tighter’, co-written with Hughes, which also became a major highlight of the new stage show, and ‘Coming Home’, co-written with Paice, that was more in the hard rock tradition. "[Ian] started a beat and I just started making up these chords,” Bolan recalled in a rare interview. "We built the whole riff around that.”
Bolin’s guitar solo in the middle also became his onstage showcase. But not all the band’s fans were convinced about the new, more soulful direction Bolin was helping take them in. When his drug problems also began to manifest themselves in cancelled shows and missed cues, the writing was on the wall.
The end came on tour in Britain, in May 1976, when the increasingly addled guitarist’s nerve failed him during his solo spot at the final show in Liverpool. Coverdale walked off in tears. "It was a tragedy,” he told me years later. "Tommy was a brilliant guitarist but he just couldn’t… help himself.”
The real tragedy struck six months later, however, when Bolin, then touring as a solo act supporting Jeff Beck, was found comatose in his Miami hotel room by his girlfriend. She hurriedly dialled 911 but it was too late. Official cause of death: ‘multiple drug intoxication’. He was 25-years-old. That night, Ritchie Blackmore, touring Japan with Rainbow, dedicated a song to his memory. Bolin was buried back in Sioux City, wearing a ring his girlfriend had given him. The same one that had been on Jimi Hendrix’s hand the day he died.
And that’s where the story of Deep Purple really did end – for seven long years. Until the group shocked the world yet again with the announcement, in March 1984, that the ‘original’ MkII line-up of Blackmore, Gillan, Lord, Paice and Glover were back together!
None of the original members had been idle in their years apart. Gillan had formed his own eponymously named band and enjoyed a string of hits in Britain and Europe, before joining Black Sabbath in 1983 for a one-off album, Born Again, and US tour (as the replacement, bizarrely, of former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Even more bizarrely, Sabbath had originally offered the job to David Coverdale, who turned it down!)
Meanwhile, Blackmore had built Rainbow into a headline attraction in both Europe and America. Glover, who joined Rainbow in 1978, had also produced albums for Rory Gallagher, Judas Priest, and Nazareth, amongst others. He had even produced albums for Gillan, Rainbow and Coverdale’s own post-Purple band, Whitesnake.
Lord and Paice had first formed Lord, Ashton & Paice before both men ended up joining Coverdale in Whitesnake. (Lord had also played on David Gilmour’s solo album, About Face, while Paice had recorded with Gary Moore.)
The proof of the pudding for the rejuvenated line-up, though, would be in their comeback recording: Perfect Strangers. Fortunately, their first album together for 11 years was their best since their heyday, epic new tracks like the Zeppelin-esque ‘Knocking At Your Backdoor’ and the superb title track, ‘Perfect Strangers’, launching them back into the charts in both Britain and America.
Lord, who was "nervous as a kitten”, recalled how when they "walked into that room and suddenly these five people were together for the first time in 10 years, everyone just started smiling. And I think it was Ritchie who said, ‘Right then, well let’s do it.’” He added with a smile: "Ritchie jokingly said we should call the album, At Last The 1974 Album!”
As Blackmore told me, "The most creative we ever were, the most identity we ever established, was with this exact line-up. Obviously it could have been any line-up because they would have all been there quick enough, no matter what they say! But it was established years ago that this had to be it. There is chemistry within these five people, some sort of rhythm, and it does work.”
The reunion tour followed, starting in Australia and America before wending its way across Europe, climaxing in a massive outdoor show at Knebworth Park in June 1985. In the midst of their renewed success, however, Roger Glover had words of warning. "Purple is like an old love affair,” he said. "And ‘love’ can be very close to ‘hate’. When it’s love it’ll be really good, when it’s hate it’ll probably be disastrous.”
A prophetic statement, there was one more tremendous album from the reformed line-up, The House Of Blue Light, in 1987, which contained such highlights as ‘Bad Attitude’ (written by Gillan after a fight with Blackmore) and ‘Call Of The Wild’. But behind the scenes things were falling apart again as old enmities gathered. By the time they released the live Nobody’s Perfect album in the summer of ’88, Gillan announced he was leaving – again.
Since then the band’s fortunes have, in Gillan’s memorable phrase, "been up and down like a toilet seat.” Former Rainbow vocalist, Joe Lynn Turner, joined for Slaves And Masters in 1990. But Gillan was back for the release in 1993 of The Battle Rages On. Then Ritchie left – again – to be replaced by former Kansas and Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, Steve Morse, recording the excellent Perpendicular album in 1996.
The only other change since then has been the decision by Jon Lord in 2002 to retire to pursue personal projects (especially orchestral work). The band wished him well and invited Don Airey (another Rainbow refugee) to replace him. A situation that happily still persists.
In July 2005 they appeared at the Live 8 concert in Park Place, Ontario and later that year released the excellent Rapture Of The Deep album. The band have also continued to tour, headlining the Monsters of Rock festival to 50,000 in Britain in 2006 and continuing to bring their music, once described in the Guinness Book Of Records as "the loudest in the world”, to delighted rock fans the world over.
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