Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Machine Head

If I’ve never come forward publicly about the indelible mark I made on rock history at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1971, it’s because I’m still peeved that Deep Purple saw fit to slander me as “Some stupid with a flare gun” in their big hit single “Smoke on the Water.” Firing that flare gun into the roof of the Montreaux Casino may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but STUPID? I was EXCITED, and I just happened to have a flare gun on my person, and one thing led to another and before I knew it the rattan ceiling was on fire and all manner of shrieks were freaking towards the exits.

But enough personal history and on to Deep Purple, a band that I’ve always had reservations about. I find the English heavy metal avatars ponderous, plodding, and unduly portentous, and if you don’t know what I mean I direct you to “Smoke on the Water,” which is the very un-lightweight little ditty they’ll probably best be remembered for and which I can only describe as a very stoned dinosaur stomping in slow dazed circles to the accompaniment of one gargantuan and omnipresent guitar riff.

That said, Deep Purple–who after a lot of early creative experimentation and moments of serendipitous genius finally settled upon a sound that combined elements of prog rock and the grinding blues-based hard rock that would become known as heavy metal–had their moments, and lots of them are to be found on their sixth and most commercially successful LP, 1972’s Machine Head. From its very metallic (the title’s stamped in steel!) cover to its far-out boogie numbers Machine Head is one wild ride, what with Ian Gillian’s shriek, Ritchie Blackmore’s blazing guitar, Jon Lord’s “I am two separate gorillas” organ, and the positively intimidating drumming of Sir Ian Paice, who has yet to be knighted but certainly ought to be lest he become angry and start throwing punches.

Deep Purple originally intended to record this baby at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland, but that was before, well, I’ve already broken my long silence about the fire that “burned the place to the ground.” After deciding that it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to record their next album atop a smoking ruins, they retreated to the empty Grand Hotel at the outskirts of Montreaux, and with the help of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit proceeded to make this surprisingly uptempo (by D.P. standards) piece of music history, which the very clear-headed Ozzy Osbourne has called one of his ten favorite British LPs of all time.

Machine Head has one thing going for it that I would never have expected from these very serious guys–a sense of fun. They may not actually intend the rave-up that is “Highway Star” to be funny, but it is. In fact it’s a veritable hoot; nobody’s gonna takes Ian Gillian’s car; it’s got big fat tires! And nobody’s gonna take Ian Gillian’s girl; she’s got “moving mouth body control.” And ain’t nobody gonna take Ian Gillian’s head; he’s got speed inside his brain! Of course none of this would matter if “Highway Star” weren’t one full-tilt boogie blazing an unholy path down the largest freeway in your brainpan. It’s great dumb fun right down to Lord’s pomp-rockin’ organ solo and Blackmore’s even better Bach- and Hendrix-inspired guitar solo with its “neoclassical descending runs.” Shows old Johann Sebastian how it’s supposed to be done, Ritchie does.

The LP’s other standout track is also a laugher; “Space Truckin’” is a howdy folks from the world’s first intergalactic rock’n’roll band, whose popularity extends from your local planets (“We always had a lot of luck on Venus/We always had a ball on Mars”) to points infinitely more distant: “Yeah yeah yeah yeah the freaks said/Man those cats can really swing/They got music in their solar system/They’ve rocked around the Milky Way.” The song is a bit too “lurching” for my tastes, but as it picks up steam towards its groovy choruses it really cooks, even if I do wish Lord had employed a lighter touch on the organ.

For me, the bottom line on Deep Purple is Propulsion = Joy; I don’t much like ‘em when they plod. “Maybe I’m a Leo” doesn’t move me because it doesn’t move; it lumbers when I wish it would dance. Blackmore’s solo turns are tasty, but the boys in the band sound like they’re sitting down. And that goes double for “Smoke on the Water,” which with its big signature riff (repeated ad nauseous on both organ and guitar) may epitome “heavy” as a concept but doesn’t go anywhere. Try as Blackmore might to solo his way out of its inexorable lockstep groove he can’t, because Lord’s organ is going “Da Da DA, Da Da Da DA” over and over again. You have to possess a certain kind of mind to love music this ponderous and repetitive; me, I find myself shouting, “Stop it! Make it stop! For God’s sake turn it off already!”

“Lazy” opens with some snazzy organ noodle that brings to mind Garth Hudson’s organ turn on “Chest Fever” before turning into a semi-relaxed boogie number that makes me think of, believe it or not, Lynyrd Skynyrd. If I have a complaint it’s that the tune isn’t relaxed enough; the lads keep putting a stop to things to show off their chops. But “Lazy” is a keeper as is the funky “Never Before,” on which all of the players come together to create a song that is both slinkier and prettier (the chorus is lovely) than your average DP dirge. As for “Pictures of Home” it sounds like a kissing cousin of Uriah Heep’s “Easy Livin’” and books at a speed that exceeds the speed limit; I love the fancy drum work that opens the song, and I even like Roger Glover’s very brief turn on bass, but what I like most about this one is that Deep Purple sounds like they’re in an unholy rush to get their hands on their next royalty check.

I’m not entirely happy with Machine Head, or with any of Deep Purple’s studio LPs for that matter, and I would recommend one of the band’s many best-of compilations were it not for the fact that I’m not completely happy with any of them either. If I had to pick one I’d go for 1980’s Deepest Purple: The Very Best of Deep Purple, which has the decency to include all of Deep Purple’s legendary barn-burners (“Speed King,” “Fireball,” “Burn,” etc.) on one very long-playing (I’m talking 60-minutes plus) slab o’ vinyl.

Looking back on the infamous Montreaux Casino incident from the vantage point of age I can only say that my hair was too long to think. I was a hippie, and hippies don’t stop to reflect; they just do what comes naturally, which in my case amounted to sparking a doobie the size of a Doobie Brother, dropping some very strong blotter acid, and then freaking on over to the Montreaux Casino to see the Mothers of Invention while packing a flare gun. In hindsight this was a rather poor life choice, but hey: without me you wouldn’t have “Smoke on the Water” to annoy you every time it comes on the radio.

Stupid? I belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!


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