"The freedom and joy we had, and the confidence in each other, is remarkable": Ian Gillan looks back at Deep Purple's Machine Head era

Deep Purple during the recording of Machine Head
(Image credit: Didi Zill)

The dramatic tale of Deep Purple’s sixth album has rightly been etched into rock music folklore for more than half a century. Frankly, if you haven’t heard it, then you’re probably reading the wrong website, but here’s the gist of what happened. 

Fancying the idea of working in an unusual environment and also avoiding punitive UK tax laws, the band’s celebrated Mk II line-up – vocalist Ian Gillan, guitarist Richie Blackmore, keyboard player Jon Lord, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice – booked the Montreux Casino, overlooking Lake Geneva, a picturesque yet somewhat unlikely location, with producer-engineer Martin Birch and the Rolling Stones Mobile hired to capture the sounds. 

The events of December 4, 1971, shall never be forgotten. Immediately before the session, during a concert by Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention some idiot shot a flare gun into the ceiling, and the building burned to the ground. On the other side of the lake, the Purple contingent looked on as their plans literally went up in flames. However, inspired by the billowing smoke drifting across the water towards them, at least they got a pretty good song out of it all. 

Looking for a new place to record, an attempt to use a local theatre was thwarted due to noise pollution. So with hundreds of mattresses and blankets piled up around them in a corridor to dampen down the sound, and the Stones Mobile set up outside the building, making checking the playbacks very difficult, they began work on the record now known as Machine Head at freezing cold, out-of-season hotel The Grand. 

“It was a huge, forbidding place – cold, damp, with great ceilings and echoing corridors,” Jon Lord recalled decades later. “I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there in a million years. But we could get it for about thruppence a week.”

Alt

Released on March 25, 1972, Machine Head topped the chart in the UK and across the world. In America it thrust them into the Top 10 there for the first time. By 1986 it had sold two million copies in the US. 

Blackmore, who quit the band for the first time three years later, told Classic Rock: “We made Machine Head in three weeks and three days, I think. It was very productive, very constructive, and it had some really good songs. It captured what we were about at the time. Machine Head came out and it was a reasonable hit. But it wasn’t until Made In Japan [Purple’s celebrated double live album released in December 1972], when we did those songs on stage, that people actually absorbed it and registered that it was a good record. I was surprised because I preferred the recorded [studio] versions.” 

Down the years and in various formats, Machine Head has been repackaged many times, including a seemingly definitive five-disc 40th-anniversary package. Now comes the Super Deluxe edition – a three-CD/gatefold LP/Blu-ray bumper package that adds new stereo and Dolby Atmos mixes by Zappa’s son Dweezil, using the original multitrack tapes, nine previously unheard tracks performed at the Montreux Casino in 1971, and a performance from the BBC’s Paris Theatre in London during the year of the album’s release. 

When asked how he feels about the repackaging of albums he made more than half a century ago, Ian Gillan shrugs: “I can see why [the record companies] are doing it. They have to make the music reach today’s audiences, I suppose. Everyone has to work their catalogue, so from a business point of view it makes complete sense. I think this new version will reach a lot of people who weren’t there at the time.” 

On the day that Classic Rock spoke to Ian Gillan, he hadn’t heard the Zappa remixes in their entirety, although the singer remains enthusiastic. 

“Roger and I were at my place in Portugal working on the new Purple album when we were sent the new version of Smoke On The Water, and we went: ‘Oh my God’,” he exclaims. “It’s hard for me to compare the two versions, because obviously one is ingrained in your mind over a very long period of time. But having said that, there’s also the fact that the Smoke On The Water that I know best is the one that we do on stage. From a subjective perspective, I’m quite happy with all of this."

One rarely mentioned aspect is that nobody holds a gun to anyone’s head. If you’ve still got the original vinyl bought back in the 70s, or you consider any of the CD reisues to be sufficient, then stick with those. 

“That’s right. And there’s a big discussion about this,” Gillan acknowledges. “I must admit, I can see both sides of the debate. I had some things to say when The Beatles and the Zeppelin albums were remixed. It was a struggle for me, because I had been there at the time. The same rule applies here, I’m aware of that.” 

However, if the process is conducted with sufficient care and thought, then it’s possible to do it with integrity. 

“Again, I agree,” Gillan affirms. “I’m very impressed with what has been done here.” 

The live tracks recorded at the ill-fated Montreux Casino are a nice touch. 

“I haven’t heard those, either” [laughs]. “I have just signed off on the new Deep Purple album, so that’s where my attention has been.” 

At such an early stage, Gillan is reticent to discuss that album, Purple’s twenty-third and the follow-up to their 2021 covers set Turning To Crime, apart from saying: “I’m thrilled to bits with what’s coming. It’s the first album that we’ve made with Simon [McBride, the guitarist who replaced Steve Morse in ’22] and I think the fans will be very pleased with it. I don’t want to say much more than that, except that I think it will be out in July.” [The official release date is July 19]

Let’s go back to the early 1970s. What goes through Gillan’s mind when he hears newly unearthed recordings from the period, full of improvisation and charged with the spirit and fearlessness of youth?

“Well, I’m very proud to have been in the band,” he says. “Whether through serendipity or not, call it what you like, we are bloody survivors. Back then we took all of the things that you just mentioned for granted, though I didn’t realise that at the time. I came from a musical family; my grandad sang opera, my uncle was a jazz pianist, and I was a boy soprano in the church choir. 

"Then I heard Heartbreak Hotel [released by Elvis Presley in 1956] and everything changed. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the elements of Purple covered the whole spectrum of music, from classical composition to jazz, blues and rock’n’roll, soul and funk – it was all there. For all of that to come together was almost a miracle. I think that’s what gave us the ability take things into different areas. It got us through an awful lot. 

“I don’t think the band was ever contrived, except maybe perhaps during the 1980s,” he continues. “We felt a little displaced from our identity as fashions changed. I don’t think we had the confidence to be quite as bold as before [the reunion]. There was pressure to shrink into something that was acceptable, but that wasn’t the fault of Roger [Glover], because we didn’t have in-house production the time. 

"We were spending far too long on arrangements, and to be perfectly honest sometimes the writing wasn’t really up to scratch. As we emerged from that, I was able to look back with more confidence on the early days, and they were quite remarkable. So listening to those live recordings, the freedom and joy we had, and the confidence in each other, is remarkable.” 

Did being on stage with Purple sometimes feel like walking a tightrope? 

“I’d call it a multi-dimensional trapeze act, not a bloody tightrope [laughs]. “There certainly was no safety net, that’s for sure.” 

Dweezil Zappa says Machine Head is: “One of those records where I think: ‘How did they come up with this?’” And Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden has stated that his first exposure to Deep Purple was like hearing music from another planet. Gillan touched upon this theme already, but has he ever pondered along the same lines as Dweezil and Bruce? 

“Well, I only did so only afterwards,” he considers. “Distance provides objectivity, but at the time we didn’t spend much time analysing things. We were too busy doing it. There was no need to analyse – it just was.” 

Do you think of Machine Head as the crown jewel of the Purple catalogue? 

“Yes – of that [first] era. And it’s certainly one of the top three [of our career]. Which albums are those?” he asks with a laugh. “Well, it all depends on the day. I’ll say that Fireball was important. We couldn’t have done Machine Head without [its 1971 predecessor] Fireball. But it changes on a daily basis."

In issue 326 of Classic Rock – still available to buy online – dozens of musicians pickeded and talk about their favourite tracks by Deep Purple. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi went with Speed King, Paul Stanley of Kiss and many others chose Burn, while Joe Bonamassa picked a very specific version of Child In Time – it had to be the one from Made In Japan

“I’m looking forward to reading them,” Gillan states. “I think Joe is probably right. I’m not a big fan of live albums, but the live version of Child In Time is better than the studio one. The Made In Japan version is crazy.” 

In discussing his choice, Mr. Big singer Eric Martin related a tale of being invited into your trailer to discuss a guest appearance on a Rock Meets Classic tour in Germany, only to find you butt-naked. “Apparently, Ian is a nudist,” he told us. 

“That’s right,” Gillan says, “I am a nudist. That’s why I live up in the hills.” 

Martin also mentioned that you are, as he put it, “hung like aClydesdale horse”. 

“I don’t know what Eric had been smoking that day,” Gillan responds with a laugh. “If I am hung like a Clydesdale horse, then it’s only during the warmer weather.” 

Deep Purple’s Machine Head: Super Deluxe is available via Universal Music.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.