Deep Purple: The Rock Brigade

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Heavy rock, hard rock, pomp rock, space rock, heavy metal – they’re all genres that today’s average music fan would regard as part of the vocabulary of everyday life. There’s no getting away from rock in all its forms – even if you wanted to.

Acts as disparate as, say, Coldplay, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Audioslave all fall under the mantle of rock, a term we associate mostly with big guitar riffs, powerful vocals – and a broad array of (sometimes questionable) sartorial styles and hairdos. Everybody knows what ‘rock’ means. But it wasn’t always so.

More than a third of a century ago the death of the 60s had landed the world and its groupie with a colossal cultural hangover. The decade of free love, peaceful protest and sticking flowers in soldiers’ guns was over, and the grim 70s – oil shortages, over-generous sideburns, Margaret Thatcher, punk – was just getting into its stride.

The Beatles had just waved farewell to the world after arguing themselves into dissolution. Jimi Hendrix, the man thought most likely to bring guitar music to the masses, had recently checked out; The Doors’ Jim Morrison, the lizard king, had mere months to live. Cream and Blind Faith had been and gone in a multimillion-selling flash. Loud music from blokes with generous facial hair and a fondness for lots of drugs and/or girls (usually both) was an endangered species.

Luckily, however, three British – yes, British, not American – groups weren’t about to take this lying down. Black Sabbath, a bunch of greasy herberts from Aston, Birmingham, had somehow stumbled into a recording contract, and were laying down some anvil-heavy sounds. By combining a primitive grind with comedy-horror lyrics, the band featuring Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi were on their way to helping to define heavy metal. Meanwhile, a band called Led Zeppelin had knocked out two albums in quick succession at the tail-end of the 60s, gaining a reputation for effortlessly handling folk and blues influences while adding doses of guitar heroics and histrionic screaming. Although people were calling Zeppelin heavy metal, in truth the mere mention of the phrase was enough to send the band members into a rage.

The third in this unholy trinity of British rock bands, and the one that really opened the gates for a new era of loud music, was Deep Purple – guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, singer Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover, organist Jon Lord and drummer Ian Paice (known now as the Mk II line-up). An earlier line-up of Purple (with singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper, before a radical change in personnel saw the arrival of Gillan and Glover from the pop band Episode Six) had released three albums in the late 60s. The first recorded work from the new-look Purple – the single Hallelujah, followed by the Jon Lord-spearheaded album Concerto For Group & Orchestra – gave little hint of what was to come. Once the overblown Concerto… was out of the way, the introduction of new blood into the mix of Blackmore, Paice and Lord’s outfit quickly proved to be a magical alchemy.

When the first real fruits of the ‘new’ band – the Deep Purple In Rock album – emerged, it was the start of a whole new ball game in terms of guitar music. In comparison, where Purple were deft and nimble-fingered, Sabbath seemed heavy and harsh, and Zep’s juggling of traditional and roots music on their own 1970 album III was somewhat diffuse compared to the widescreen game of riffs and rests that was _I_n Rock. A vast army of rock fans agreed, and bought Deep Purple’s record in droves. The scene was set for a whole new type of heavy music, epitomised by Blackmore’s gutsy, controlled riffs and fluid soloing, Lord’s keyboard counterpoint, and the piercing wails of Gillan. If you’ve ever enjoyed the guitar/vocal interplay of Iron Maiden, Uriah Heep, Dream Theater, Kiss, Rainbow, Metallica and many more, you owe In Rock a huge debt of gratitude.

In 1970, popular (as opposed to pop) music was finding its feet – and its balls. “A whole lot of people were thinking the same way at the same time,” says Ian Gillan with a nostalgic cackle. “You look back at seminal moments and influences, and you’ll notice that things were getting heavier and harder, because of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. You look at the power of those songs that Dylan sang, just with a guitar and a harmonica, and then how powerfully other artists interpreted them. And there were other messages from people such as The Doors, The Beach Boys and the John Lennon part of the Beatles. All this was leaning toward a more rebellious stance.”

As for Deep Purple, the times were indeed a-changing. “All of a sudden the music came together,” Gillan recalls. “It was the transition from our semi-pro years, and it seemed as if the music was coming from within the band instead of outside the band.” He has a point.

In Rock wasn’t just the sound of a new form of music in the making, it also marked the point when the key members of two bands – Deep Purple (with Rod Evans and Nick Simper) and Episode Six – came together. Evans went on to join Captain Beyond and lead an ill-fated bogus version of Deep Purple (soon shut down by ensuing legal action) before vanishing. Simper remained in London and formed a band called Warhorse; he later became a painter and decorator. The latter in particular has been vocal about the way he was ousted from Purple. But all this strife had a positive side. The feelings of jealousy, betrayal and anger that surrounded the coming together of the Mk II line-up of Purple were also the catalysts that spurred them on creatively. Add to that the eagerness of all the band members to achieve recognition for their own work, and the new band was primed for take-off.

“We’d all been recording artists before In Rock, but none of us had done something like this before,” Gillan offers. “Purple were more known in the States for cover songs like Hush [by Joe South], Kentucky Woman [by Neil Diamond], River Deep Mountain High [previously made famous by Ike & Tina Turner] and so on, where they were hit records.”

He adds that Purple’s three previous studio albums – Shades Of Deep Purple (68), The Book Of Taliesyn (69) and Deep Purple (69) – “had been much admired by aficionados such as myself, but the self-penned material largely went unnoticed by the media – not that the media was called that in those days. So there was a desire in Ritchie and Jon and Ian to explore that area of their music a bit more. This was the reason for the band changing and Roger and I being invited in.”

Gillan and Glover had become dissatisfied with their roles in Episode Six, just as Lord, Blackmore and Paice had in Purple. “Roger and I had started writing,” Gillan explains, “and we had been lucky enough to gain some understanding of rhyme and meter. We understood that a lyric was different to a poem, generally speaking, and that there were some vowel sounds you had to avoid when you were hitting a high note, and we learned about some of the percussive values of the words, and so on.

“So we were in a similar position in Episode Six to what the others were in Purple, although we hadn’t had the same level of success as them insofar as we’d mostly been recording covers by other people. Episode Six was just a good old-fashioned pop group, really, although we drifted from style to style.”

All this unfulfilled angst meant that when the revitalised Purple line-up finally began playing together, the creative spark between the members was very powerful. When rehearsals began, the band immediately noticed something strange: a kind of drive that transcended the music they were striving to create.

“It was a kind of joy,” Gillan smiles. “I have absolutely fond memories of that time. All the rehearsals I’d been to before were about learning songs; these [for In Rock] were all about writing songs, from the perspective of being totally inside them and jamming them.” Attempting to define this intangible factor, he says that there’s “a joy in writing something as five people, rather than just one. That’s the great thing about a band. When you find yourself in that place, when you’re all singing off the same hymn sheet, then it’s very natural to play that music, because it comes from a rhythm and you just join in and build it up as it goes along.”

In an early interview, Jon Lord looked back with great affection on Gillan and Glover coming into the band: “When Ian and Roger joined, something very nice happened within the group. We were trying to develop unnaturally before; we would grasp all sorts of different ideas at once, like a child in a garden full of flowers – he wants them all at once. Now, we believe in experiment and excitement within the framework that we have set ourselves at this particular moment in time. That will change… we will extend, obviously. We’ll get older, get different influences; we’ve not reached a point where we’re perfectly happy and contented to develop naturally.”

Each member of the Deep Purple line-up that recorded In Rock had an indefinable but crucial contribution to make to the songs. As bassist Roger Glover remembered: “Ritchie wasn’t just the guitar player, he was a brilliant innovator. Things he wrote defy description. Ritchie was phenomenal in what he was doing in the late 60s and early 70s. He did things that you wouldn’t even think of. He was a magnetic, dynamic writer. I don’t think he could have done it in a vacuum by himself, it did require the rest of us. But I’ll certainly give him his due. He was the motivating character in the band.”

Gillan himself, a laid-back character in person, still possesses the necessary frontman skills in abundance – which, according to Blackmore in a 1996 interview, stem from an unfortunate backstage incident: “I often blame myself. We were in a club, the Rock’n’Roll Circus, a big, pretentious place in France in 1970. For some reason I retain this very childish love of pranks. I love practical jokes. At one point Ian went to sit down and, because I saw he was a bit drunk, I pulled his chair away. But I didn’t realise that behind us was a big drop of about 15 feet, and he crunched his head. I heard his head go [thumps the table] on the stone floor. I thought it was all over. I thought he was dead. But then he got back up and I asked him: ‘Are you all right?’. And he just said: ‘Yeah, I just hurt my head a bit…’. But after that, he was never the same. He hit his head and he seemed to change as a person.”

Songs for possible inclusion on In Rock came thick and fast, and often without any obvious effort on the band’s behalf. It has become a cliché for songwriters to claim that they don’t actually create music, it’s simply channelled through them from some unidentified, perhaps unearthly, source. But in the case of Deep Purple and In Rock, the cliché appears to be the truth. Asked how the band conceived the album’s classic opening track, Gillan shrugs: “I don’t know how we came up with Speed King, any more than I know how Ian Paice started playing it, or how Ritchie Blackmore started playing it. I see a lot of young stars on chat shows these days denying any knowledge of having any formative years or any influences in their early life, but I think we all did in Purple. What you got was a mish-mash of everything we ever listened to.”

So what were the main influences on In Rock? After all, Gillan and Glover’s lightweight pop past was something of a contrast to the other musicians’ adventurous, less orthodox but more unfocused experience. “It’s an accumulation,” Gillan says. “Jon Lord had his classical and Jimmy Smith background. Ian was Buddy Rich personified. In my case it was Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald and Jerry Lee Lewis. In later times Roger’s Bob Dylan influence came in. When you bring all that together, you’re gonna come up with something unique. If you took one of us away it wouldn’t be the same. Rock music, to me, was an attitude.”

“All this analysis is very difficult,” he continues, reflectively. “You’re never aware of these things at the time. It’s always an objective look back at the past, by which time you’ve forgotten half of what happened anyway.”

In any case, he says, In Rock wasn’t actually developed in the studio, it was created and honed by endless days and nights on the road, when the songs were put through their paces; their finished form took shape after months of being pulled and bent in all directions.

“If you’re going to write about In Rock,” Gillan admonishes, “you’ve got to combine the making of the album with the live performances. They were so much more important than the actual making of the record. Making records is almost an inconvenience, because you have to compromise in the studio.”

The importance of the songs’ development in the live arena cannot be overstated. As Ian Paice told the late Tommy Vance: “There’s a lot of good physical quality in the songs we made. More so than there ever was on record. The songs on record were okay, [but] on stage they were brilliant – and it’s still that way. They’re much better to play live than they ever were on record. And when you put them in front of an audience, especially a big audience, they’re that much better again.”

Glover also explained: “The one constant is the live experience – live music. On the radio and TV, that’s really your reflection of pop music. There’s always live music and there’s always going to be live music, [even] in the worst times of rock music, like in the mid-70s, when everything was disco and to be in a rock’n’roll band you were really old-fashioned. Then punk came along and kicked everyone’s arses, but punk was also a live experience. The same happened later on: the hair bands – or whatever you want to call them – were still performers, they still went on stage and performed. Throughout the years there has always been this cyclical effect.”

It emerges that the recording process had been something of a nightmare for Ian Gillan prior to joining Purple: “The first time I recorded with Episode Six was one of the most horrible moments in my entire life, and it should have been one of the most joyous. We were at the studio early – keen as mustard, obviously – and we carted a vanload of equipment down to Studio 2 at Cumberland Place Studios [London], only to be asked 15 minutes before the session: ‘What are you doing?’. All this other equipment started arriving, and they told us: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not playing on your record, we’ve got a load of session musicians in. We only want the people who sing, and the rest of you can go home’.”

Having been through the experience of being treated like unnecessary baggage, Gillan was determined not to endure it again; he approached Purple’s In Rock sessions with renewed enthusiasm. The songs they had, the band members agreed, were worth doing properly.

“We had developed the songs in our rehearsal rooms in Hanwell [West London],” Gillan remembers, “and one by one they started creeping into the stage show. You could see the look on everyone’s face in the band – this was something which we were all excited about.”

In case you’re thinking that they had developed an inflated idea of their own importance, it wasn’t just they who thought Purple were on to something special at this point in their career. “The underground knew all about Deep Purple by this stage,” Gillan says. “All the other acts knew about this incredible band. So when we took ourselves into the studio for In Rock it was a very special thing for us. The circumstances were right – for a change.”

Forty years ago, recording studios by and large offered a different environment to the slick, digital outfits of today. In the BBC studios, for example, the staff wore laboratory- style white coats. Abbey Road Studios, where much of In Rock was recorded, was a little less stiff-necked – after all, pre-In Rock years had seen seminal albums by The Beatles take shape there – but much still depended on the attitude of the producer and (often in-house) engineers. Luckily for Deep Purple, who had convinced management and record company to allow them to self-produce In Rock, they were teamed with a young, progressive engineer called Martin Birch (who would later find fame as the long-time producer of Iron Maiden and many other ground-breaking bands).

“Yes, we had a dynamic engineer in Martin Birch,” Gillan affirms, “and we were working in a studio that everyone was familiar with. We were much more on our own terms – we didn’t have a producer falling asleep over the console – so we just went in and treated it like a rehearsal room. More than anything else, we had the feeling that we were actually playing on a record.”

Birch was a revelation. “Musically, Martin didn’t have to do anything,” Gillan says. “He wasn’t a producer in that sense, but he was an engineer with a new way of thinking. He didn’t ‘close down’ the studio and baffle everything up and reduce it to zero and then rebuild it on the desk, which was the received knowledge at the time. What he did was listen to how a drum kit sounded in a room and then try and reproduce the sound. This was revolutionary thinking, believe it or not.”

The fact that Purple – all in their early to mid-20s at this time – had been allocated an engineer of their own age, rather than some lab-coated authority figure, was crucial. “Everyone was of the same generation; we were all thinking along the same lines. It was just the band and Martin in the studio. He wanted to mic it up properly, so he found the brightest [in sound terms] part of the room for Ian Paice and just somehow got it sounding right. He recorded it loud, and to hell with the meters – they were going into the red all over the place.”

When he’s asked whether the band got the sound they were looking for, Gillan laughs: “Well, I didn’t know what I wanted it to sound like! But it was hugely exciting. So much so that my uncle, who was a jazz pianist, ran screaming from the room when he heard what he described as ‘a cacophony of sound’. The songs needed a bit of touching up. I think Speed King was originally called Kneel & Pray or something, and lyrically they needed tightening up. But that didn’t even matter, it was the attitude that counted. For me, the energy was the thing that came through.”

Gillan also reveals, surprisingly, that beneath all the swagger was a band with a certain lack of confidence: “We could deliver a good show live, there was no problem there, but psychologically it was a different story. We all had our areas of fragility,” he confides. But it was the very essence of Purple’s music – a preening, don’t- give-a-damn pretence of invulnerability – that carried them through.

“There’s a bombast, you know, which later in life would be called arrogance,” Gillan offers. “But at that time of life it’s expected up to a point, and it gets you through a lot of things. It’s a combination of skill and luck, and being at the right time of our lives, because we had enough experience behind us to be able to pull it off and escape on stage. Most people are in a terrible panic when they get on stage after they’ve blown up with their first hit, because they just haven’t got the mileage behind them.”

Asked to explain the huge attraction of Purple’s first major, commercially successful album, Gillan is as disarming as always, shrugging off any pretences of grandeur: “It just happened that we had the band that made it cohesive enough to pull it off. If you took three musicians and cloned their style of music and playing – three Ritchie Blackmores, or three Steve Morses [current Purple guitarist] – you’ll find that the public will take more to one than the others, even if they’ve listened to the same music or have the same ability.”

Surely it’s the music that counts, ultimately? “I don’t think it’s a lot to do with the music,” he muses, “although without the music it wouldn’t have happened. People are drawn towards personality, and a lot of that is to do with the make- up of the band. If you get a bunch of guys who can project what they’re doing in a slightly different way to the others, that’s probably it. But we didn’t realise any of this, because you are what you are when you’re 20. It was quite a while later that we realised that we were part of something bigger, because you’re all big-heads at that age.” He concludes: “Imagine if Arthur Brown had done an album to the same level as his big hit, Fire – he’d have been the one to instigate heavy rock.”

Now there’s a sobering thought. And so the die was cast. Deep Purple In Rock, released on the Harvest label in June 1970, was a revelation. Critics warmed to the confident songwriting, the expansive, Birch-engineered production, and the iconic sleeve art that depicted the five Purple members’ faces carved into the surface of Mount Rushmore in place of the faces of US presidents. The delicious insolence of the image drew buyers in their thousands; the album stayed on the UK album chart for a thumping 68 weeks, peaking at No.4. After In Rock came the most successful period in Purple’s history, with a run of what became classic albums (Fireball, Machine Head, Made In Japan, Who Do We Think We Are!, Burn and Stormbringer) released over the next four years and making them into one of the most revered and respected rock bands in the world.

By the end of that run, the band’s line-up had fractured again, and for the latter two records David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes had replaced Gillan and Glover (who both returned for 1984’s ‘reunion’ album, Perfect Strangers).

During an interview in 1971, Jon Lord, for years a quiet but significant force within Deep Purple, looked back perceptively on In Rock, pondering: “The first three [studio] albums were pleasant, but directionless. Nobody knew quite what on earth the group was doing. Then we made a conscious effort to stop and think about writing material we all understood. And the result was In Rock, which was really our stage act. That was the turning point. And the point is, we believe in what we’re doing together. We aren’t too much interested in educating our audiences, we’re more interested in entertaining. That’s what it’s all about.”

He added: “We learned a terrific amount with In Rock. It took six months to make that album, and we think it paid off, really. I can honestly say that it’s the first album we’ve been 100 per cent satisfied with. It gave us a hell of a lot of confidence. During that long time we learned a lot about ourselves and our music, and our sense of direction. I suppose it’s our basis now for our whole sound and our whole way of working. We’re very extrovert, really. We like to excite an audience, get involved with them.”

Some reviewers had expected the new album to be classically influenced, probably because of Lord’s interest in classical music, and also because of some song structures that had appeared on earlier albums, climaxing with Concerto For Group & Orchestra. However, Lord made it clear that this wasn’t going to be the case, explaining: “I feel we’re moving away from [classical music] now, because it was never intended to be part of the direction of the group; it was merely an experiment. As you know, we did experiment with classical themes in the beginning, and with classical chord structures in the music, but it all got a bit soulless. We don’t normally use any form of classical music now – except maybe in our solos.”

As for Purple’s great stage act – responsible more than anything else for the epic songs on In Rock – Lord added: “I feel that British groups at least make an effort somehow that is more concerned with projection, with putting themselves across. Sometimes it can get a bit soulless, but on the whole I think it’s preferable to the American alternative. The actual group now is trying to develop into being good at what we’re best at – which is what we call rock’n’roll.”

By the middle of the 70s a heavy rock template had been established, with extravagant, arrogant (some would say macho, but that came later) music being made by artists borrowing from the blueprint that had been drawn by In Rock as the decade began. But it was some time before Deep Purple were matched. While Black Sabbath hammer-forged their metal, and Led Zeppelin covered all bases with their glorious hybrid flights of fancy, Purple left a Technicolor trail behind them for others to follow. And follow they did.

The family tree of rock soon branched off into genres and sub-genres, with only a few maverick one-offs such as Queen emerging as serious challengers to Purple’s throne.

Now, 35 years on (at the time of writing), Ian Gillan is philosophical about In Rock, the album from another time and place that played a significant part in shaping so much of today’s musical topography: “This album was unique, because it was the first studio one we [the Mk II line-up] did together, but that joy we felt when we were making it was repeated quite a few times on later albums, too – but not all of them. If you take Who Do We Think We Are!, for example… I play it every now and again, and it doesn’t have bad songs on it – in fact they’re rather more developed – but there’s an elusive element missing, and it’s called the spirit of the band. It’s just a series of songs on a record. But with In Rock and Fireball and Machine Head, and maybe also Perfect Strangers and the last few albums we’ve done, there was exactly the same joy in writing and producing music with the band. We didn’t realise what kind of a well we were tapping into.”

The well that Deep Purple tapped into was bottomless. Heavy rock music was here to stay.

This was first published in Classic Rock issue 83.