The most famous show that Deep Purple ever played was also the most infamous. On April 6, 1974, they headlined California Jam, a festival staged at the Ontario Motor Speedway racetrack.
With a heavyweight bill that included Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Black Sabbath, the event drew an audience of 250,000. And what those people got for their 10 dollars a head was a mind-blowing performance from Purple in which Ritchie Blackmore delivered a master class in guitar heroics, topped off with an orgy of on-stage destruction. Not bad when those 10 bucks also included parking.
It was a new version of the band that was seen at California Jam: the so-called Mark III line-up, in which lead singer David Coverdale and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes had replaced Ian Gillan and Roger Glover respectively. Burn, the first album with this line-up, had been released just two months earlier, and it was this new material that dominated their set-list at California Jam – beginning with an electrifying version of the album’s title track, Blackmore ripping through its fast riff with characteristic nonchalance, Ian Paice drumming with tremendous force, Jon Lord laying down heavy-duty keyboards, and Coverdale and Hughes trading lead vocals.
They had a powerful chemistry between them, a groove than ran deep through new songs, including the mighty blues of Mistreated, Mark II standards such as Smoke On The Water, and a combination of the two in a brilliantly improvised version of You Fool No One. Also evident was a marked contrast in the demeanour of the two new guys. Coverdale, thin as a rail, was humble back then. Not so Hughes. Dressed extravagantly in a white satin suit and no shirt, he was sky-high on cocaine, as betrayed in the moment when, during his introduction to Mistreated, he sniffed heavily into his microphone.
But for all Hughes’s flamboyance, this was Blackmore’s band, his show. The power in Mistreated, the deft touches in Space Truckin’ – he made it all look so easy. And in the finalé the famously volatile genius lived up to his billing by trashing guitars, breaking the lens of one of the film cameras that was shooting him close-up and setting amps on fire.
California Jam 1974 – the new DVD version – has only one minor bonus feature, with grainy Super 8 footage of the show. But no matter. As Glenn Hughes says in the liner notes, “This is Mark III in all its glory”.