A beginners’ guide to Deep Purple

Despite being one of the three great pillars of 70s hard rock and heavy metal, Deep Purple have not quite received the same level of retrospective love as either Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath in subsequent decades. Perhaps this is because they are so frequently associated with one single song. Or more accurately, one riff. Which just turns out to be THE riff.

Originally starting out in 1968 as a heavy psychedelic band in the mould of Vanilla Fudge, they enjoyed a big hit in the USA with their debut single, and then struggled to match that commercial success. With the virtuoso duo of big hairy organ punisher Jon Lord and scallop fret enthusiast Ritchie Blackmore as their musical backbone, they had a couple of great arrangers, but in those early days, no songwriters in their five piece line up.

Part way through 1969, and utterly frustrated with their inability to match their initial success, Blackmore and Lord showed vocalist Rod Evans and bass player Nick Simper the door, while retaining the services of bespectacled drum walloper Ian Paice. Evans and Simper were replaced by Episode Six members Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, thus forming the much loved Deep Purple MkII line up, and managing to snag themselves a couple of aspiring songwriters to boot.

While there was an initial foray into orchestral rock, Deep Purple MkII would reform the band’s sound to something much more dynamic and adrenaline pumping than the sometimes bloated psych-pop they had previously played. With an increase in volume, a vocalist with an operatic style, and a slightly more unkempt appearance, MkII would release a sequence of albums which saw them co-found what would become known as heavy metal.

Despite huge commercial success, Deep Purple MkII succumbed to infighting, with Gillan and Blackmore seemingly deciding it was just too much hassle not to tear into each other, so by 1973, Gillan walked away from the band, and Glover was sacked for seemingly no better reason than he was Gillan’s mate.

Of course, by this time Deep Purple had become one of the biggest bands on the planet, so Blackmore, Lord and Paice went about recruiting replacements for Glover and Gillan, with Glenn Hughes of Trapeze and relative unknown David Coverdale signing up to Deep Purple MkIII, which would prove to have more of a blues, soul and even funk influence. Almost inevitably Blackmore decided that he didn’t like it, and in early 1975 stomped off in a vague huff to form Rainbow.

Deep Purple MkIV would see American Tommy Bolin replacing Blackmore, however by this time drugs started to play a bigger part in the band’s tale, and after one album and significant dependency problems for both Hughes and Bolin, Lord, Paice and Coverdale called it a day for Deep Purple.

Meanwhile, Rainbow was on the rise, Blackmore having recruited American band Elf to be his new band, while simultaneously ousting their guitar player. After a single album he would oust all the rest of the band as well with the exception of diminutive sword and sorcery enthusiast and iconic vocalist, Ronnie James Dio, thus setting in motion the pattern of an ever rotating line up circling around Blackmore, which would ironically eventually see Roger Glover join Rainbow.

It wouldn’t be just Blackmore that would enjoy post-Purple success, as, after a slow start, David Coverdale had formed the band that would become Whitesnake, a group that he hoped would become a British version of The Allman Brothers. They didn’t. Instead, in the mid-80s they morphed from being blues rockers with questionable sexual politics, to generic hair-metallers with questionable sexual politics.

Other ex-Purple members would have post-Purple careers, but Paice Ashton Lord would not last long, with Jon Lord and Ian Paice eventually gravitating towards Whitesnake, and Ian Gillan’s self titled band would never really achieve success on the same level as either Rainbow or Whitesnake.

By the mid-80s, with Rainbow in commercial decline, Whitesnake heading to conquer America with their less interesting sound, and Gillan trying to figure out why he was fronting Black Sabbath, Deep Purple MkII inevitably reformed, and the arguments started all over again.

Since then Gillan has left and come back, Blackmore has once again stomped off in a huff, initially to reform Rainbow, then become a medieval minstrel, then reform Rainbow again (the man’s love of reputation is second only to his joint primary loves of scalloped frets and stove pipe hats), American guitar player Steve Morse came on board in the mid 90s, and the whole thing seemed to calm down again, with only the retirement of Jon Lord altering their line up in the last twenty years.

Deep Purple are still out there, releasing albums to a loyal audience. Blackmore is touring with Rainbow, and Coverdale still releases Whitesnake albums from time to time. Few would argue that Deep Purple’s glory days were the 70s though, hence, this beginners guide being focused on the band (and its most successful offshoots) 70s output.

Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock – 1970

Deep Purple in Rock was nothing if not a statement of intent. With Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra out of their system, the band shifted their style to something heavier and louder, with Blackmore and Gillan pilfering riffs and scraps of lyrics from the previous fifteen years of rock and roll.

If the all too literal artwork didn’t convince you that Deep Purple had put aside the majority of their psychedelic leanings for a more direct heavy rock approach, then the opening seconds of “Speed King” did. A loud distorted squall of noise eventually subsided to some gentle organ work from Jon Lord, before the whole thing kicks into gear as a heads down rocker. As statement of intent go, it was one you couldn’t really argue with.

The rest of Deep Purple in Rock saw the newly invigorated band expunge anything which that got in the way of them being a loud and dynamic heavy rock act, though the occasional thread of psychedelia could still be heard. Of particular note was “Child in Time”, a ten minute epic which saw the band go from whisper quiet, to ear-bleeding cacophony, and back again, via one of the finest vocal performances of Ian Gillan’s career, which saw he himself go from croon, to blood-curdling scream.

Although already established in Deep Purple MkI, the interplay between Blackmore’s riffs and Lord’s keyboards throughout Deep Purple in Rock made for a unique sound that neither Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath could match, easily making Deep Purple the proggiest sounding of the three acts. Really, the only way they could have made this album even more attention grabbing, would be to have found room for standalone single “Black Night” to be included.

Deep Purple – Machine Head – 1972

Released at the apex of Deep Purple’s most commercial successful phase, Machine Head for many is the definitive Deep Purple MkII experience.

Machine Head kicks off with the adrenaline rush rock of “Highway Star”, a song which starts at full throttle and does not slow down, with even Lord’s keyboards being played at seemingly twice the speed than is humanly possible. Married to a relentlessly chugging rhythm and some of Blackmore’s most show-off fretwork, it does what all Deep Purple MkII album openers do, and starts proceedings off with a belter.

Of course, Machine Head is best known for being home to Deep Purple’s most iconic number, and the one that threatens to unfairly overshadow the rest of their output. “Smoke on the Water”, although doubtless a hard rock classic, with that monstrous opening riff, each instrument entering one by one, and the true narrative of how Machine Head was recorded (surely making it one of the first meta songs ever recorded), has been a little overplayed over the years, in the same sense that “Alright Now” and “Hotel California” have been overplayed. Actually, over-familiarity with “Smoke on the Water” has caused it to be oddly underrated. Listened to with fresh ears, it’s an absolute blast.

“Smoke on the Water” isn’t Machine Head’s sole commercial moment though, as “Never Before” is an accessible pop rock number, with an oddly funky intro. Best of all though is album closer, “Space Truckin’”, where Paice sets the pace with an irresistible drum pattern, and the band collude to deliver their audience a unique proposition – a hip-shaking Deep Purple number, thus closing Machine Head with a number as equally heart-stopping as the one it started with.

Deep Purple – Made in Japan – 1972

As well regarded as most of Deep Purple’s studio albums are among their fanbase, for many fans they are a band that can only be truly appreciated by way of live performance, hence the bewildering amount of archive live releases that have seen the light of day down the decades. If you don’t include the aforementioned Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Made in Japan is Deep Purple’s first live album, and many maintain, their best.

Recorded on the tour to promote Machine Head, this live double album is seven tracks of Deep Purple at the peak of their performance powers, with four of it’s tracks taken from Machine Head, “Child in Time” from Deep Purple in Rock, “The Mule” from 1971’s Fireball, and “Strange Kind of Woman” being a standalone single. Later reissues would see additional tracks added, but for most the seven track original remains definitive.

While almost always an impressive hard rock group in the studio, on stage Deep Purple MkII would frequently take it to another level, with Glover and Paice becoming a seamless rhythm section, Lord and Blackmore acting as duelling maestros, and Gillan flipping between screaming his throat out and ad-libbing asides to the audience. Sure, not everyone needs a six and a half minute drum solo (sorry Mr Paice), but this was a 70s live album dammit, and these sort of things were expected.

If you’re into live rock albums, then Made in Japan is a must have, but if you’re specifically into Deep Purple, then this is the live album of theirs to grab before any other.

Deep Purple – Burn – 1973

With Gillan walking and Glover being given his marching orders, to be replaced with the unproven David Coverdale and the only slightly more experienced Glenn Hughes, there was a massive amount riding on Burn.

Perhaps surprising even themselves, Burn proved to be one of Deep Purple’s most consistent studio efforts, and Coverdale’s bluesy vocals harmonising with Hughes, as opposed to Gillan’s more operatic approach, gave the whole album a different texture. With the two newcomers rising to the pressure of proving themselves, the rest of the band raised their collective game as well, sounding reinvigorated after an argumentative year or so.

With the title track being yet another life-affirming album opener, any suspicion that Deep Purple would struggle without Gillan or Glover was immediately disproven, and early indications were that the MkIII line up was up there on a similar level with the beloved MkII. Of course, that didn’t prove to be the case, but on Burn at least, there was no more filler than you would expect on a top tier 70s Deep Purple album, and both “Might Just Take Your Life” and “Mistreated” are up there for discussion among the very best Deep Purple numbers, regardless of line up.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Blackmore was not a fan of the increasing funk and soul influences that Hughes and Coverdale brought to proceedings, and decided to walk after 1974’s Stormbringer, having made half hearted contributions throughout, with one eye on a solo career. This resulted in Burn being the only Deep Purple MkIII album where all five members were firing on all cylinders, but it stands as proof that Deep Purple MkII were not the only line up capable of greatness.

Rainbow – Rising – 1976

When the mean, moody and magnificent Ritchie Blackmore walked away from Deep Purple, there was inevitably no small amount of intrigue into what the enigmatic six string expert’s next move would be.

Recording the snappily titled Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow with 80% of the line up of Elf, Blackmore then sacked the rest of the band except vocalist Ronnie James Dio, whose fantasy informed lyrics would inform the how-to-manual for heavy metal wordsmiths to come. Dio and Blackmore would be joined by Tony Carey and Jimmy Bain on keyboards and bass, but the big name they recruited was drummer Cozy Powell, a man who became synonymous with hard rock and heavy metal drumming for the next two decades.

With the twin highlights of Dio’s definitively metal vocals, and Blackmore’s love of both repeated riffs and classical guitar playing, Rainbow were effectively a new breed of hard rock band, and Rising, despite only being the band’s second album, saw them flying high with a couple of good years ahead of them. Sure, they’d go on to greater commercial success, but only by going much, much more commercial.

What makes Rising the Rainbow album to go for, is that you can hear Dio’s growing confidence, throwing devil’s horn shapes as he writes the rule book on how to be a heavy metal vocalist. It’s also an album that covers a hell of a lot of ground, from the scene setting opener “Tarot Woman”, to the almost pop-rock of “Starstruck”, to the epic “Stargazer”, it does everything you want a 70s hard rock album to do and more.

Whitesnake – Live in the Heart of the City – 1980

Despite David Coverdale often coming across as the most amiable and candid former member of Deep Purple, the enduring image of he and the rest of Whitesnake in their big-haired pomp in the late 80s, while scantily clad models draped over cars in their music videos is problematic when measured against today’s sensibilities. What’s more, Whitesnake’s output from the mid-80s onwards hasn’t aged particularly well either.

The thing is, long before Coverdale decided to go all out to conquer MTV and the Amercian market, Whitesnake had started out as a hairy-arsed hard gigging rock combo, with little blokes with names like Bernie playing guitar and members employed for their ability to play as a unified band, rather than how good they looked on camera.

Even in the early years, Whitesnake weren’t without their problems. Their lyrics have always been the worst kind of misogynistic bollocks, and that is often where people lose their rag with the band. The thing was, back in their early years, you really couldn’t take anything away from them musically, they were just a tight rocking band, which is all they needed to be. This double live album of them at their performance peak in the late 70s, dawn of the 80s, emphasises their positives and does its best to distract you from their lesser qualities.

For all their questionable lyrics, Whitesnake could pen a solid tune, and, like Deep Purple before them, often took it to the next level on stage. For those of us that only really need one Whitesnake album, it really should be Live in the Heart of the City.

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