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Gillan: The Glory Years

It’s some point in the late 1980s in a pub in Old Compton Street, Soho. Ian Gillan is dressed head to toe in figure hugging denim, his great mane of hair halfway down his back. A booted foot is propped, in louche fashion, against a nearby bar stool. After a while, he puts down his pint and says, ‘Here, do you notice something about this place? It’s all blokes in here…’ He’s right as well. Lots of them are dressed similarly to Ian Gillan, too, although probably for different reasons.  It transpires that the pub has been recommended by someone upon whom Gillan has recently perpetrated a practical joke, and revenge is suspected. Not that he is thrown off his stride by the odd admiring glance heading his way – he is a lead singer after all. Indeed, he’s soon recognised and a ribald conversation ensues, capped by Gillan re-telling to a hushed bar his famous anecdote about the stripper, the cigarette and the ping pong balls (more details of which can be found in the Deep Purple song Mitzi Dupree).

Since then, much has changed. Gay pubs are no longer remotely remarkable. Mitzi Dupree’s act has become widely imitated, and head-to-toe denim is not now the rocker’s uniform of choice. Ian Gillan, though, remains the most unflappable and approachable of rock stars. 

That has sometimes been to his detriment in terms of media regard and perception - he does not come attended by the starry aura of a David Coverdale or a Steven Tyler - but it is to his credit as a man. For all that he has achieved, he lacks Ozzy’s car-crash watchability and Robert Plant’s epic seriousness. He’s about as far removed from the madness of a W Axl Rose as you can get. And yet Gillan’s contribution as a vocalist can be heard everywhere, from Bruce Dickinson’s screams to Justin Hawkins’ falsetto. 

Gillan was born in Hounslow in 1945, an early qualifier for the post-war baby boom. He found himself on the doorstep of a cultural revolution, and by the time he was twenty, he was on the road and gigging hard. "There was a great deal of excitement,” Gillan remembers. "The Rolling Stones were doing a Saturday night residency at the Castle Hotel in Richmond. Our band took over when they had their first hit. We got the same twenty pounds that they got. The Yardbirds and the Who were coming on. All these things were happening in the same area. There was a lot of work in England and in Germany as well. We were doing five shows a night and eight shows on Saturday. We would get paid four marks, which is about a pound a day. You would get a bed to sleep on and a sausage in the morning. You would get free beer during the show. You learned your trade and you paid your dues.”

Gillan had joined Episode Six, a standard-issue blues band, in May 1965. Already in situ was bass player Roger Glover. At the same time, Richie Blackmore was returning from Hamburg to audition for a group named Roundabout, which also featured Jon Lord. Both were already acquainted with bassist Nick Simper, Lord from a band called the Flower Pot Men and Blackmore from Screaming Lord Such’s Savages. Rod Evans and Ian Paice played in Maze before getting the Roundabout gig, too. By the time Roundabout changed their name to Deep Purple and had a hit in America with a cover of Joe South’s Hush, London was in full swing. When the Lord-Blackmore-Paice axis dispensed with Simper and Evans, Glover and Gillan found themselves in the right place at the right moment. 

Gillan in particular flourished. He was a proto-rock God, from the leonine head of hair to the vocal range that swept from a low E to the fabled high C. He looked so much like Jesus that Tim Rice cast him in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he and Andrew Lloyd Webber planned to develop as a stage musical, a movie and a soundtrack album.

"I went to the studio and I was talking to the film director,” Gillan said some three decades later. "Tim Rice wanted me to be in the movie and also in the stage stuff. But they wanted me for twelve weeks in Israel, where they were going to shoot the movie, and I was with Deep Purple then. It was no contest, really. So I declined the movie and I declined the stage show, because Purple was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

It was of course the right choice. From 1970-73, Gillan and Purple cut some of rock’s landmark albums: In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Who Do We Think We Are, plus one of the first iconic live records, Made In Japan. The work rate was to prove all too intense. They toured Japan twice in the summer of 1973 alone, and exhaustion told. Gillan and Glover were out.

Gillan retired, apparently to pursue ‘business ventures’, and he stayed away for two years. It was Glover who was to drag him back in again. The bassist had become involved with an all-star rock opera called The Butterfly Ball, a project he’d inherited from Jon Lord. It was based on a children’s poem written in 1802 by William Roscoe, and Glover assembled a cast that included Ronnie James Dio, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes and Lisa Strike to record the album of songs he’d written. Love Is All, sung by Dio, was a hit, and the concept was popular enough to sell out a full show, staged at the Albert Hall and narrated by Vincent Price, in the summer of 1975. By then, Dio had joined Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, so Glover invited Gillan to take his place for the show. His reception was stirring enough to reawaken his interest in music.

"It was thanks to RG that I got back,” Gillan says. "I made a few records that might best be described as ‘experimental’. Not that I disassociate myself from them at all, they were great fun and the musicians were terrific. However, I drifted in a direction with which I was not entirely comfortable – or adept, it must be said”. Indeed, the Ian Gillan Band found themselves knee-deep in three albums’ worth of jazz-rock, Child In Time, Clear Air Turbulence and Scarabus, released from 1976 to 1978. John Gustafson, Mark Nauseef and Ray Fenwick were the rather studious musicians, and they were joined for the last two records by keyboard player Colin Towns. It was Towns who would re-shape Gillan’s future.

 "Colin was the catalyst,” Gillan says. "He is a truly amazing talent. He presented a song called Fighting Man to the previous line-up and it was airily dismissed, probably for its simplicity. This was another important lesson I learned; ironically, as a musician becomes more competent he tends to get lost in his craft. The ability to play complex pieces doesn’t mean you have to inflict them on your audience”.

Gillan’s solution was to streamline everything, including the name of the band, which became simply Gillan. He dispensed with Gustafson, Nauseef and Fenwick and pulled a new line-up together around his writing partnership with Towns, adding another ex-Episode Sixer (and the man who’d introduced him to Deep Purple) Mick Underwood on drums, beefy bassist John McCoy and a guitarist named Bernie Torme, a man who was part Hendrix-part Adam Ant. 
Gillan’s new music emerged to an altered landscape. Just as he’d rejected his own excesses, so a generation of rock fans, prompted in part by punk, were uniting around lean and uncomplicated new bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. Gillan’s muscular sound fitted right in; half of the vocalists around had stolen his shrieks and screams; now the real thing was back.

The jazz rock of the Ian Gillan Band had become so anachronistic that the new Gillan couldn’t get a deal for their first record, Mr Universe. When they did, their indie label Acrobat, folded almost immediately. It was only when they signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin that some momentum kicked in. Their no-nonsense sound was crystallised by a new identity – Gillan’s own signature became the band’s logo - and some fierce cover versions of classic, formative tunes like ‘Trouble’, ‘Livin’ For The City’, ‘New Orleans’ and ‘Helter Skelter’. The band’s original music was equally focussed; ‘Unchain Your Brain’, ‘Demon Driver’, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, ‘Born To Kill’, ‘No Laughing In Heaven’ all set an uncompromising agenda.

The fate of Gillan’s first line-up would echo that of Deep Purple’s second. They had an intense and successful three years before burning out hard. Gillan toured almost constantly, and inevitably, things came to a head on the road, this time in Germany rather than Japan. Invited to break the tour to appear on Top of the Pops, Bernie Torme objected to losing a rare day off and refused to fly home. Gillan sacked him and pulled in White Spirit guitarist Janick Gers at a days’ notice. The pair sat up all night as Gillan taught Gers the live set. 

Gillan’s catalogue – Mr Universe (1979), Glory Road (1980), Future Shock (1981), Double Trouble (1981) and Magic (1983) – stands up well more than twenty years later, largely because Gillan eschewed any of the complexity that might date it. They might be overshadowed by his work in Deep Purple, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. "I think what you have to do… there is no point doing the same sort of stuff as Deep Purple” Gillan says. "It would only be an inferior copy. I have always found it strange that people expect you to do exactly the same thing all the time.”

What he did next, though, came as a surprise even to him. His tenure as the new singer in Black Sabbath began in a pub. He woke up the following morning with a headache and an unlikely gig in one of the few bands that could claim to have been as influential as Deep Purple, albeit in an entirely different fashion. "I had no plans to join Black Sabbath,” Gillan says. "I went out with Geezer (Butler) and Tony (Iommi) and we got drunk, and I found out the next day that I agreed to join the band.”

It seemed an improbable mix, but there were precedents to offer hope: both bands had succeeded with replacement vocalists who were radically different from the men they had followed through the door. David Coverdale was more Paul Rodgers than Ian Gillan, yet he and Glenn Hughes had revamped Deep Purple. Ronnie James Dio’s reinvention of Black Sabbath was more dramatic still, repositioning them from purveyors of elemental horror to semi-mystic hard rockers. 

Yet Gillan’s Sabbath lacked the singular vision of either, and the singer’s slightly wry take on rock was never likely to work for a band that depended on a wholehearted commitment to its heightened version of reality. 

The title of the record that they made, Born Again, proved somewhat optimistic. The best things about it were its opening track, a heads-down rocker called Trashed, and the press speculation over the identity of the subject of the song ‘Digital Bitch’ ("The only thing that I can reveal is that neither she nor her father had anything to do with computers,” Gillan said, coyly). 

As if battling a muted, muddy production wasn’t bad enough, the record was issued in a sleeve considered one of the most horrendous of all-time, a demonic purple newborn, complete with fangs and horns. It seemed that the hearts of no-one were involved.

But Gillan’s time in Black Sabbath is best known for the tour that followed, a farce of Spinal Tap proportions if not the inspiration for the actual film that it was later claimed to be. Gillan has said that the idea to use Stonehenge as a theme for the band’s stage-set was Geezer Butler’s. Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly, remembers things differently.

"We had Sharon Osbourne’s dad, Don Arden, managing us,” he says. "He came up with the idea of having the stage set be Stonehenge. He wrote the dimensions down and gave it to our tour manager. He wrote it down in meters but he meant to write it down in feet. The people who made it saw fifteen meters instead of fifteen feet. It was 45 feet high and it wouldn’t fit on any stage anywhere so we just had to leave it in the storage area. It cost a fortune to make but there was not a building on earth that you could fit it into.”

The first show of the tour was at the Maple Leaf Gardens, an ice hockey arena in Toronto. Only three of the fibreglass monoliths fitted on stage. The rest remained outside in a container lorry. Then came the dwarf. He was meant to assume the role of the demonic baby from the Born Again cover, who would appear atop the Stonehenge monument as the show began, emit some eerie baby screams and drop from the top of the monolith as the band entered, accompanied by roadies dressed as druids. 

"After the rehearsal Bev Bevan (drummer for the tour) and I questioned the integrity of the whole dwarf thing,” Gillan says. "but Don Arden, said ‘Don't worry, the kids will love it’.” Alas, Arden’s confidence was misplaced, as was the large mattress that was supposed to be behind the stage to break the dwarf’s fall. As the band entered, great clouds of dry ice obscured Gillan’s view of the cue sheet he was using to help him with his lyrics. 

"I vainly swatted the mist for a clue to the first line,” Gillan remembered. "On cue, I stood up, just my head above the dry ice, and sang some lines of total gibberish. As the dry ice was beginning to lower and thin so my flapping and crouching became more bizarre and I was reduced, along with the audience, to a giggling wreck. All I could hear was the dwarf screaming behind me because someone had moved the mattress.” The dwarf, who bore the inevitable nickname ‘Ronnie’, never reappeared, and Tony Iommi once told me that the Stonehenge stage set was dumped in a dock at Rotterdam, where it sank without trace.  

The similarities between Sabbath’s over-large Stonehenge and Spinal Tap’s tiny one (in the movie, Tap’s is meant to be 18 feet high, but the designer misreads this as 18 inches), and the fact that both also featured dwarfs, gave rise to stories that Tap’s creators had borrowed Sabbath’s storyline. It would be a lovely coda to the tale, yet it was more likely a bizarre kind of synchronicity: a twenty-minute preview tape of Tap, which featured the Stonehenge stunt, was being shown to investors in 1982.

"We got away with the Ronnie Dio thing but when Ian Gillan took over that was the end of it for me,” said Geezer Butler some two decades later. "I thought it was just a joke and I just totally left.  When we got together with Gillan it was not supposed to be a Black Sabbath album.  After we had done the album we gave it to Warner Brothers and they said they were going to put it out as a Black Sabbath album and we didn’t have a leg to stand on.  I got really disillusioned with it and Gillan was really pissed off about it. 

"It was great fun and it paid the bills, I had a lovely year with them and that was it,” said Gillan in conclusion. In truth Black Sabbath were about to enter a decline in success and credibility that would last until their successful and lucrative reunion with Ozzy Osbourne. Gillan – appropriately, given that it was the 1980s – was about to enter his own years of boom and bust.

By the April of 1984, he was back in Deep Purple. A reunited Mark II line-up played it safe for a couple of albums, Perfect Strangers and House Of Blue Light, and remained a powerful live act, drawing 80,000 to Knebworth for one British show. The eternal struggle between Gillan and Blackmore resumed, though, and Blackmore seemed to have won when he instigated Gillan’s replacement by Joe Lynn Turner, a favourite of Blackmore’s since his time in Rainbow. Yet after one record, 1990’s Slaves And Masters (Freudian title, anyone?), an insurrection led by Glover and Lord saw Gillan rejoin for The Battle Rages On, before Blackmore finally walked during the subsequent tour. Joe Satriani stepped in until the band signed Steve Morse as a full-time replacement. 

"I don’t talk to Richie at all,” Gillan told the US radio station KNAC last year. "That asshole—I will never speak to him again, as far as I’m concerned. I loved Ritchie, though. I used to be his roommate and everything was fine. But he turned into a weird guy and the day he walked out of the tour was the day the clouds disappeared. And there are certain personal issues that I have with Ritchie, which means that I will never speak to him again. Nothing I’m going to discuss publicly, but deeply personal stuff.”

Gillan regards Deep Purple as a vital and ongoing force. Whilst they don’t come with the cache of Led Zeppelin or produce the financial bonanza of Ozzy and Black Sabbath, their very existence is somehow reassuring. Gillan has found both inspiration and contentment with them but has used some of his down time for several solo releases. During the turbulence of the last Blackmore days, he cut two solo records, Naked Thunder (1990) and Toolbox (1991) and in 1992 released Cherkazoo and Other Stories, a set of solo sessions from 1973 and ’75. He pursued side projects with Roger Glover (Accidentally On Purpose, 1988) and as Garth Rockett and the Moonshiners (Live At The Ritz, 1990). In 1998, he released Dreamcatcher, and then took on the retrospective project that became Gillan’s Inn in 2006. That warm recap of an epic career, also caught on DVD, was a quite typical way of celebrating: he still loves to sing.

"My voice is working brilliantly,” he says. "I’m very pleased with it. I’ve got this theory - it’s along the lines of use it or lose it. I know a lot of people who slowed down a bit in their 40s or late 30s as singers and then some years later tried to come back, and their sound had disappeared forever, because the aging process can definitely affect your voice, more than anything else. So I figure you gotta keep going. I find that the key is to take very short holidays...”

Jon Hotten
© 2007


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