THE BATTLE RAGES
ON … AND ON… AND ON…
The Fathers of Heavy Metal? –
‘THAT CHILD IS NOT MINE!’ roars Jon Lord,
who played keyboard through twenty-five years of
Deep Purple splits, reformations, recriminations and tears.
Now he’s got a new album and tour re-uniting the classic
‘Deep Purple In Rock’ formation to talk up, with
side-swipes at Metallica, the David Coverdale/Jimmy Page
album, and just why Coverdale’s sexually explicit
lyrics made Lord ‘a tad embarrassed’. A 1993 interview
‘This will be my last time in a band…’
(Jon Lord in ‘Melody Maker’ 5 May 1979)
‘Did I say that? The awful thing about being in bands is that guys like you can throw back at me things that I said ten years ago… or fourteen years ago in this case!’
Deep Purple are back on the road, with new product to promote – a CD called ‘The Battle Rages On’ (July 1993), their fourteenth studio album, and one that’s marketed through the unique selling point of a ‘Twenty-Fifth Anniversary’ logo. ‘Yes, it’s funny really’ muses Jon Lord (then aged 52). ‘It’s just sneaked up on us. It seems like three minutes ago that we were playing the City Hall, Sheffield in 1975. It’s rather frightening. Yes… twenty-five years…’
He reels off potential venues, ‘two or three in London, two nights at the Manchester Apollo, Birmingham NEC, I don’t think the tour’s absolutely written in stone yet, but you know, the usual places.’ To Jon Lord this is usual. Deep Purple play the Birmingham NEC like you or I go down the Lounge Bar in the City Centre. Jon Lord was in Deep Purple before ITV’s first colour transmissions, before Neil Armstrong took his first small step onto the surface of the Moon, and while the original ‘Star Trek’ episodes were being screened for the first time. Deep Purple’s debut gig – in Taastrup, Denmark (20 April 1968), took place just sixteen days after Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Beatles were still a band, Jack Kerouac and Jim Morrison were still alive, and I was still trying to lose my virginity. Probably you weren’t even born yet!
In a Pop Soap Opera world of fleeting ‘Eldorado’s, Deep Purple are Rock ‘n’ Roll’s never-ending ‘Coronation Street’. Jokes about trading in their psychedelics, debauchery and volume in favour of Phyllosan (which ‘fortifies the over-Forties’), Grecian 2000 and tinnitus are as predictably regurgitated as a vindaloo after too many lagers, but they’re still capable of inflicting a killer set. Jon Lord is a founder member of these pioneers of the dubious art of recycled riffology, he’s the guy on the Hammond organ, the guy – in all those yellowing 1970’s press-cutting photos, with the long dark hair and droopy moustache.
And yes, after all the turbulence, splits, personnel changes and reformations, this time Deep Purple is back to its twenty-four carat classic 1970 Purple Mark: 2 ‘…In Rock’ formation – Ian Gillan (vocals), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (organ), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums). And Blackmore’s guitar range remains as impressive as ever, from the arrogant swagger of “One Man’s Meat” to a fleet-fingered flamenco intro that kicks off the epic 6:31-minute “Anya”, written five-handed. Elsewhere, “A Twist in the Tale” hits the same kind of intensity as vintage “Highway Star” – with Lord’s standout Hammond C3 organ solo.
‘“The Battle Rages On” is the album’s (hard-driving) title track, and some would say, the way our band has been running, it’s a well-chosen title.’ Lord jokes defensively, in a matey practiced interview technique. ‘Basically, this is the band that it should always be. It’s easy to look back with hindsight and say you shouldn’t have done this and you shouldn’t have done that. But I just wish that this line-up had never drifted apart and that we’d stuck together. Life would have been so much easier. But still, life wasn’t meant to be that easy. When we get together there’s no problems. That’s not the problem. The problem is when we’re apart. Once we’re together and working, it’s pretty good. There’s too many good times stored up between the five of us to let it just drift apart in acrimony. That would be wrong. I’m really glad to see it back together again.’
But surely, looking back across twenty-five years of Deep Purple history, is it possible to still get a buzz from playing? ‘From recording – yes. A qualified ‘yes’. But on stage – an unqualified yes. That’s the way it happens for me. That two hours on stage. That’s still without peer in my life. That’s the brilliant moment. Playing is the highlight. I find the studio a little more tiresome, always have. I’ve never been a great studio musician. I don’t mind if it can be done as quickly as possible, that’s OK. But to go over and over and over something, constantly searching for some kind of meaningless perfection, that drives me to distraction. We recorded the new album’s backing tracks last summer. Then halfway through the recording we decided it had to be Ian Gillan on vocals again. He should never have left. But you know what we’re like. So he came back in the autumn and we spent the remainder of that year and the first part of this year writing lyrics. The vocals were recorded in February in Florida (in Greg Rike Studios, Orlando) and that’s it – the baby is christened, and ready to bring joy into the world!’
But what about the other Purple graduates scattered across the subsequent years, those not included in the reunion? David Coverdale – for example, and his current album collaboration with Jimmy Page, ‘Coverdale*Page’ (Geffen Records, March 1993)? Has Jon heard it? ‘Yes I have. I’ve always made it a practise to try not to criticise other musicians too strongly, you know. Nobody tries to make a bad album. But I must say that I was disappointed with the Coverdale-Page album. I played it, and I’m going ‘COME ON! GRAB ME!! GET ME!!!’ And it never quite did. I mean, there’s some wonderful moments. Jimmy is a great guitarist. But I didn’t feel that it really caught fire. The guy who was going to mix our album was doing the engineering and producing for them (Mike ‘Fraze’ Fraser). So little bits and pieces filtered back to me. That it was taking longer than expected, and so on and so on. And as I say, I was a little disappointed with the end result. There are a couple of moments when my hair stood on end, the goose-bumps moments, you know? But David sounds like his voice needs a rest on some of the tracks. He sounds very very hoarse. Maybe he should take some of the money he earned on that huge ‘Whitesnake’ (1987) album, and just lay back for a while…’
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‘We’re as valid as anything by Beethoven…’
(Jon Lord in ‘New Musical Express’ March 1973)
To me, Deep Purple were never a class act. In Olympic terms, as a Rock band, they always seemed one steroid short of the Gold Medal. But they are the Mount Rushmore of Heavy Rock.
If you were at school in 1972 and Captain Beefheart or Led Zeppelin are too difficult or just too plain weird, then a Deep Purple album looks good with your tie-dye ‘T’-shirt and loon-pants. They have the added Pop bonus of solid metal charts hits, ideal for miming air-guitar to – “Black Night” (no.2 in August 1970), “Strange Kind Of Woman” (no.8 in February 1971) and “Fireball” (no.15 in November 1971), so you got to see them on ‘Top Of The Pops’ too. You know those hits, they’re lodged in your subconscious. Vic Reeves mined the vogue for tacky 1970’s revamps by covering “Black Night” on his ‘I Will Cure You’ (Island, 1991) album. Human League’s Phil Oakey was an accessory – producing the track in a passable tribute to the Purple template. If you had long permed hair and were in a ‘Progressive’ Rock band in 1974 but couldn’t play the tricky bits like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, you could always bash out a passable “Smoke On The Water”. Hell, everyone did it. Some people still are.
‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (Harvest, June 1970) is still – for many, the classic benchmark statement. ‘It’s one of those benchmark albums isn’t it, for that time’ Jon agrees. ‘That – along with ‘Led Zeppelin II’ I suppose, and perhaps a couple of others, they sort of define the early Seventies, don’t they? I’m very proud of that album. I mean, it was white-hot. There were no harsh problems with that album at all, it just fell out of the band. Like “Highway Star” was written in five minutes on a bus, in the back of a bus going down to Plymouth. It was really a wonderful, lyrical, marvellous time.’ “Highway Star” is on ‘Machine Head’ (Purple Records, March 1972), and not ‘…In Rock’ – but with the same line-up. Yet there was more to Deep Purple than just turgid riffs. Lord prefers the term Rock ‘n’ Roll to describe what they do, as distinct from ‘Heavy Metal’ anyway. Although he’d probably settle for Hard Rock.
And they have track records extending back into the Sixties, that even now – to neatly coincide with the quarter-century merchandising hoopla, are being reissued on CD’s with enticing group names like The Outlaws ‘Ride Again: The Singles A’s And B’s’ (See For Miles 1990, featuring Ritchie Blackmore), Episode Six ‘The Complete Episode Six: The Roots Of Deep Purple’ (Sequel Records, 1991, featuring Ian Gillan and Roger Glover), and the Artwoods ‘100 Oxford Street’ (Edsel, 1983, featuring Jon Lord). ‘Yes, I understand these things are coming out. Good Lord, the things they do to the poor unsuspecting public. It’s really strange to have your professional life come out again for scrutiny on CD in this way.’
John Douglas ‘Jon’ Lord even played back-up with cabaret instant-Hippies the Flowerpot Men. ‘I try to keep that out of my CV’ he laughs. ‘“Let’s Go To San Francisco” (no.4 in August 1967) was never one of my favourite songs.’ It was soon after this – March 1968, that he linked with Ian Paice and Ritchie Blackmore – with Rod Evans and Nick Simper, to co-found the first Deep Purple line-up. ‘I got a very strong grounding in Rock ‘n’ Roll when I started to play with Ritchie. So I was very lucky, because I have quite a few influences to play with.’
‘Deep Purple In Rock’ remains Jon’s favourite, ‘either that – or maybe ‘Made In Japan’ (1972), because that’s the band playing absolutely on the top of its form. I don’t think I’ve ever played as well as I did on those nights in Japan. I listen back and I think ‘christ, is that me?’ Excuse me immodesty, but it’s tough to choose a favourite album ‘cos I love ‘em all. They’re all great. There’s bits on every single one of them that encapsulates a certain time of my life for me. I’m very proud of the things we’ve done. I’ve had a great career. I’ve been very lucky.’
The Deep Purple split came in July 1976, and until the first reformation in November 1984 Jon Lord played as part of David Coverdale’s Whitesnake. ‘A great fun band. We were playing in the middle of a time when everyone was out buying Punk, and what were they called… the New Romantics or something? All those kinds of early Midge Ure kind of bands. And right there in the grip of the teeth of that, we were the top-selling concert-ticket band in Europe. And we were playing a sort of modern R&B!’
The second Whitesnake album – ‘Lovehunter’ (UA, October 1979), came packaged in Chris Achilleos’ lurid sleeve-art portraying a naked woman straddling a hugely phallic serpent, the kind of Neolithic sexual imagery suddenly shoved into even sharper caricature by the prevailing anti-sexist mood of the New Wave. Imagery matched by its explicit lyrics. ‘David’s lyrics? Yes – he liked to write that way, didn’t he? I must admit the rest of the band used to be a little worried about David’s lyrics’ he chortles. ‘We felt like saying ‘can’t you… you know’? Occasionally he wrote some wonderful glorious Rock ‘n’ Roll poetry, which he got into some of his songs. Not great poetry – you understand, but great Rock ‘n’ Roll poetry. I mean, the opening lines of “Here I Go Again”, they are great – ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I sure know where I’ve been’, that’s a classic opening line. So I have a lot of time for his ability as a writer, except when he used to get into that “Slide It In” double-entendre sex bit (title-track of Whitesnake’s sixth studio album, ‘Slide It In’, 1984). David’s double-entendres were more like SINGLE entendres!’
But Heavy Metal itself can be seen as a ham-fisted clichéd stylised style populated by more living dinosaurian relics than Jurassic Park, yet even here – over Purple’s quarter-century lifespan, there’s been radical evolutions in various directions, Death-Metal, Speed-Metal, Thrash, Pop-Metal. What does Metal-veteran Jon make of Deep Purple’s contemporary opposition? ‘I hear some good things. I hear some things that make me cringe. But that’s the same with any music isn’t it? I can’t possibly make a sweeping statement and say ‘I like that kind of music’ without any reservations. I went to see Metallica last year, they’re supposed to be one of the credible bands. And they’re brilliant… at what they do. I met the guys and they were very pleasant. They played a superb show and they did a couple of Purple numbers as a tribute to us, which was very nice. Superb stuff. But it’s not… it’s not… it’s not what I would choose to go and listen to. If you want high-power stadium Heavy Metal they’re very exciting. But at the same time, I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan.’
So what’s it like to be described as the inventor of all this global metal mayhem? ‘Someone once said to me ‘your band are the Fathers of Heavy Metal’’ he relates with evident amusement. ‘And I said ‘THAT CHILD IS NOT MINE!!!’’
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In keeping with Deep Purple’s turbulent history, and with the title of the reunion album ‘The Battle Rages On’, after the ‘Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Tour’ had played the Manchester Ardwick Apollo, the Brixton Academy, and Birmingham’s NEC, Ritchie Blackmore quit the group during the 17 November 1993 show at the Helsinki Jäähalli Icehall, never to return. He was replaced for the rest of the tour by Joe Satriani. Jon Lord himself eventually retired from Deep Purple in 2002. He died 16 July 2012.