Hertford, 1968. Can that really be over 40 years ago?! I dare say not bloody much happens in Hertford, but that year saw the formation of the heavy rock band once listed in the ubiquitous Guinness tome as the loudest on the planet. The very same group that's sold in excess of 100 million albums. Not bad f'r a bunch o' geezers from 'ertford! Of course, the lineup for the 2010 world tour by Deep Purple (now more a whiter shade of pale grey: Ian Gillan is 65) isn't quite what it was. Which isn't to say it's lesser; just somewhat different. But the backbone is still there: the thunderous, flashy and constantly busy Ian Paice, on drums; the ground effect of Roger Glover, on bass; the sublime scream of Mr Gillan, on vocals. The cantankerous, if brilliant & seminally influential, Richie Blackmore has been gone for a decade or more. Replacing him is Steve Morse, who has, by all accounts, helped to reinvent and reinvigorate the band. And on keys, taking the reins from Purple's other founding member, Jon Lord, is Don Airey.
Morse hails from a diverse background, taking in country, folk and jazz. To mine ears, jazz is a native habitat for his fluid feel, which makes him an exceptionally intriguing choice, given I've always noted and been tickled by the understated, underlying swing sensibilities and propensities of Purple's rhythm section; Paice, in particular.
Airey has populated many of the bands that have been in Purple's orbit: Cozy Powell's Hammer; Colosseum II; Blackmore's Rainbow; Ozzy Osbourne's; Whitesnake; not to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber's, ELO and Jethro Tull.
Neither Morse nor Airey sound like their predecessors and it's a good thing they don't try to do so. Even the inevitable Smoke On The Water sounds different now and there are those who probably don't, or won't, or didn't, like it, as the power chords and general disposition of the song have become very much more redolent of North American stadium rock.
So much for introductions.
It's a sign of my times, as opposed to the times, that my attempts to recruit old highschool mates who share my nostlagic attachment and admiration for DP were met with excuses like 'I've an antenatal seminar'; 'the wife's away'; 'I've a [um] truckload of work' and, worst of all, 'I've a pilates class'. Pilates, instead of Purple?! I don't bloody think so!
We're a long way removed, in the space-time continuum, from Purple's very first album, released in September '68. Shades of Deep Purple's original cover art featured effete-looking mods, with bouffant hair, posed awkwardly, against a mauve background, and the hit single which really broke the band: Hush; a song written by the highly-regarded & quite prolific American, Joe South, & recorded by his protege, Billy Joe Royal. It was a good vehicle to flag the raunchy sound of the band, 'though it featured the looser, more spacious, flower-powered air of the day. Original singer Rod Evan's clear, tobacco-warm vocals were really to the fore, that's for sure, and bore a prescient, uncanny resemblance to those of the man who'd follow in his pioneering footsteps. Similarly, Nick Simper's bass wasn't, to my ears, so much different from Glover's. Paice was already there, developing his inimitable percussive style. Blackmore hadn't fully flourished, but Lord was already well-and-truly on his mettle.
But I digress. It's been a while. A long while. Intervening songs, singers, guitarists, albums, departures, breakups, breakdowns and tours have been many. The latest, on the recorded front, has been Deep Purple Live At Montreux 2006, released in July, 2007; a fitting tribute to fire that inspired 'Smoke', all those years ago. It incorporates old (Pictures Of Home) and new (Wrong Man; Rapture Of The Deep), from the last studio album, released late last year.
The warmup was Electric Mary, a more than competent band that seems to be developing a real presence (I've run into them once or twice before), not least in large venues in support of big, international acts. They really put in, were suitably loud, play powerfully and passionately, and featured songs from their second and latest album, Down To The Bone. Singer, the robust-looking Rusty, with his Cockeresque and, come to think of it, Gillanesque hand-sans-puppet contortions, characterful stage persona and considerable voice, fronts a very tight, hard-hitting unit of five very talented musicians; lead guitarist Irwin Thomas' soloing proved exceededingly impressive, giving all, almost as if he were playing his last gig on earth. Their songs are solid-as: heavy, ripper-riffin' tunes with catching choruses & neoclassic potential. Standouts include Let Me Out, with its relentless, dirty, grinding rhythm, Ackadacka-reminiscent chord progressions and deft drumbreaks. Sorry is even harder, and faster. Put it this way, even if you turn up in your most cynical suit, you'd be hard-pressed not to succumb to the raunchy rockin' out of EM; they really live up to the warmup concept, but stand loud and proud in their own right. Best of all, while taking on influences from the masters, including Purple and Zeppelin (check out Gasoline 'n' Guns for a Plant-Page-Jones-Bonham flashback), they still sound unmistakably Aussie.
Purple launched straight into Highway Star. It was evident from the first that Morse has well-and-truly mastered his predecessors licks and, better yet, he also plays with feeling. His lead is clean and clear like Richie's too. The remaining founding members, and Gillan, have given their new recruits plenty of rope and scope, to the extent that one could be forgiven DP is now the Steve Morse Band. It's generous, mature, smart and shows an openness which is obviously keeping vitality in the band. It's not very rock 'n' roll though: where are all the petty jealousies and rivalries? Maybe that left with RB. From the get-go Morse was grinning like a Cheshire cat; the one that swallowed the canary. He seemed genuinely enthralled to be where he is, and why not? Airey, too, has really found his feet and, although he can't be seen physically rocking his Hammond to the point of the teetering brink, as Lord used to do, he plays with all the vigour and virtuosity of the man who was more-or-less forced to retire after injury.
Anyway, Highway Star still has the Purple stamp, even with the new boys on board. The insistent tempo, the driving rhythm, the full-tilt lead breaks, the menacing bass. And Gillan's brilliant vocals, which never deviate from being throroughly tuneful, nor from his characteristic and always-a-treat timbre.
From there on in, it was old, new and especially blue. Well, blues. And the susceptibility to swing I spoke of before has really been pushed onto the front foot: it's unashamed, rather than understated, now. Maybe Morse has brought a Southern rock sound to the band, which sounds, altogether, a lot more American (which, I should stress, I don''t mean in a pejorative way). There was a moment, though, when the ambience felt a lot more, er, Bon Jovi, than perhaps it ought. There were numerous grungy chordal references to their successors, like Metallica, too; curious to see the originators imitate the imitators, the influential inflect the influenced, but very cool, at the same time. Again, I think of a new openmindedness keeping the spirit alive and flame burning bright. In fact, Purple has never looked so free, relaxed, chilled, comfortable, fresh or fun. It's terrifying to contemplate, but I reckon it's about 25 years since I last saw them, with the full Mark II lineup; again at the close-to-Godawful EntCent. My recollection, correct or not, was of a certain halfheartedness not evident in the circa '75 gig I attended at the Pavlova, which was a serious-minded affair: no smiles, just flatout rock genius; Paice as busy as a beaver (I recall a good half-hour solo, of which every second was compelling), Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale bringing a funky feel to the band, as well as some very tight harmonies (even if Coverdale needed oxygen to accomplish his vocal histrionics) and the late Tommy Bolin strutting his James Gangster stuff. On that occasion it was easy to believe they were the world's loudest band: the high notes brought a wince of pain and I couldn't hear my teachers the next day for the tinnitus (which seemed no bad thing, at the time, if slightly alarming; in truth, the cred it brought was invaluable in terms of playground status). On that occasion, too, the sound, notwithstanding the volume, was crystal; no small achievement at the Hordern Pavilion. At the EntCent (just an hour or so ago, as I write) the sound was by no means altogether bad, but variable at best. But what can you do, short of knocking it down and starting from scratch? Has anyone got a sledgehammer, a few mates, and some spare time? I'm in!
Ian Gillan, with his long-sleeved red shirt, loose black trousers and sneakers, looks more like a long-lunching creative director than one of rock's iconic vocalists and I don't remember him looking so gangly and awkward; but it's kind of endearing. Morse, Paice and Glover look more the part, in their muscle shirts, with arms to match. Glover actually looks like a man that knows how to look down a lens and shows off in a way that assumes there's always one on him. He looks good. Which is helpful, as they're not especially visual and, for once, I was thankful for what was a pretty speccy lightshow, including a prolonged strobe sequence which must have really upped the epileptic ante.
The new material, exemplified in songs like the aforementioned Wrong Man, is strong and, in that particular case, even political, being lyrically focussed on a man in the States the band contends has been wrongfully accused. Who would've thought Purple would momentarily reinvent themselves as Bob Dylan? But, of course, it sounds nothing like the Zimmerman. Rapture Of The Deep has something of the dark, mystical, mythical, epic qualities one associates with Blackmore. So much so, it could almost be a Rainbow release, with its soaring gypsy guitar runs. This track is good enough to be added to the core canon of Purple's legacy: it has the characteristic Purple swagger, the depth, layers, virtuosity & melodic transcendence. It's really quite staggering they've been able to find new ground, even in paying homage to their past. Hats off to the Purple people-eaters!
Yes, they did Smoke, blowing the bronze-cast original version to the weeds, with a looser, less intense approach to it. It was brave of them to do something like Wasted Sunsets, which Gillan dedicated to an apparent hangover, but the real, out-of-the-blue treat was a loving and meticulous rendition of their first hit, Hush (discussed earlier), as an encore.
All-in-all, their tour has given permission to blow any dust that might've settled off my vinyl copy of the iconic live double- album, Made In Japan, in particular. As well as an excuse to really throw myself into the deep end of the new Purple.
And, of course, there's no substitute for the pulse-quickening opening gambit of Space Truckin'; speaking of which, when Hawking's aliens arrive in their gigantic craft and one is grasping for a living, breathing example of what defines rock, as a fundamental expression of human culture, the colour is, still, Purple. Whether that motivates them to colonise, or clear off, is anyone's guess.
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre
Sydney Entertainment Centre
Newcastle Entertainment Centre
Adelaide Entertainment Centre