Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Long Beach 1971

Some bands take things too far; other bands take things to the very limits of human endurance. Such was the case with Deep Purple live. They felt they were doing their audiences a disservice if they played a song shorter than 11 minutes, and they preferred to go 20. And the English heavy metal legends weren’t just long-winded; they were loud as well. None other than the Guinness Book of World Records declared the Purple “the globe’s loudest band” following a 1972 concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre.

I have no problem with loud, but the band’s longevity is another matter. A 20-minute song inevitably turns into a horrendous jam, with lots of stoppages for the singer to utter fatuous comments and for the drummer to demonstrate his chops. Which is why Deep Purple hasn’t aged nearly as well as its contemporaries Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They didn’t have that guy at the side of the stage drawing a finger across his neck as a sign for them to shut up and move onto the next tune.

Take Long Beach 1971. It consists of four songs and goes on for almost 70 minutes, and in short is an abomination. No one not blotto on heavy downers could have survived such a show. On the band’s best albums—1971’s Fireball, 1972’s Machine Head, and 1974’s Burn—they kept things short, which is why human beings can still listen to these records with a modicum of enjoyment, if Deep Purple’s amalgam of Jon Lord’s ham-fisted organ playing, Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics, and the otherworldly vocals of first Ian Gillian and then David Coverdale are their thing.

Ah, but live, the band simply couldn’t help itself. I’m forever amazed that the infamous “stupid with a flare gun” didn’t burn the club in Montreux that Deep Purple was playing in down, driven mad by sheer insane song length. Long Beach 1971’s opener, “Speed King,” kicks ass in the studio, roaring along just like it should based on its title. Live, it drags and drags, from its ponderous opening to its closing chords. The song, which should take off like a nuclear rocket sled, doesn’t kick into gear until the band is good and ready, and they then proceed to take a deep breath and slow the thing down, so that Gillian can do some pseudo-blues shouting. He even defines the term “speed king” for the audience while the organ vamps behind him before taking a lackadaisical solo. It’s totally insufferable.

“Strange Kind of Woman” is just a bad song, with a bad melody and bad lyrics, and I can simply not imagine a human being enjoying this song. But they must! They must! At least Ritchie Blackmore plays a couple of furious solos, filling the time (11 minutes plus) allotted to the tune with something other than Gillian’s chatter or Lord’s bore-gan. Why, he even manages to light a fire under the asses of his fellow musicians, and the song briefly threatens to become interesting. Ah, but then he slows things down to play some standard issue blues, flavored with a tinge of neoclassical fare. Then, and this is the final straw, Gillian scats along with Blackmore, and had I been the sheriff of Long Beach I’d have arrested them for vagrancy, because they weren’t doing anything or going anywhere.

“Child in Time” comes in at 20-plus minutes and I will tell you now I couldn’t listen to the whole of it. I don’t know anyone who could listen to the whole of it. I don’t think there’s a person alive who could listen to the whole of it. It’s songs like this one—which starts as a bathetic ballad and goes downhill from there—that disabuse me of the notion that I missed something by being born too late. In fact, being born too late to see these fellows—I’m listening and Gillian is twisting his vocal chords into knots—just may have saved my life. Gillian goes on and on, shrieking as the drums pummel and Lord’s organ joins in the fray, and then Blackmore takes off, and all I can say is that had every song consisted of just Blackmore soloing this might be a listenable record. Because the Lord solo that follows is enough to put you off your dinner. Was he the worst keyboardist of his time? This album offers convincing evidence that he was.

Finally, the 27-minute “Mandrake Root” starts on a Hendrix-like note, all guitar bluster and Gillian singing about a mandrake root in his brain, and how he has “the power baby.” For once Lord pretends to be alive, but the song quickly stalls, thanks to Gillian’s irksome tendency to talk, talk, talk. Meanwhile Lord plays some kind of neoclassical rebop behind him, and it’s not pleasant. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually find myself wishing Keith Emerson were around. Lord’s solo goes on forever, and this is the most egregious example of early seventies song bloat this side of Canned Heat. The song nearly expires from boredom, as in it’s barely breathing, and I’m talking about what seems like forever. It doesn’t help that whenever he isn’t putting the audience into a coma Lord is a shameless ham, and Blackmore’s monstrous entrance is both welcome and the highlight of this LP. The man plays some super-heavy guitar without sounding like he’s standing in place, and it’s great. I’ll lay down good money that his joining in caused hundreds, if not thousands, of luded-out audience members to come to and wipe the spittle off their chins.

Long Beach 1971 is, so far as I’m concerned, as close to unlistenable as LPs get, and is redeemed only by Blackmore and the later minutes of “Mandrake Root,” which are rock of the highest order. If only they’d played with that passion on the rest of the LP, we might have an excellent album here. But instead we have a frighteningly bloated album, because Deep Purple spends far too much time wanking off and too little time playing bona fide hard rock. It’s self-indulgence of the highest order, and proof that bands that want to show you what they’re capable of, by stretching good songs to great length, are the devil’s playthings. My ex-wife’s father, an East German sailor, used to sneak Deep Purple albums into the country by having his daughter, my ex-, hide them under her shirt. It staggers the imagination that he took such a risk for such a small payoff. And it kind of makes me wish I’d lived in East Germany. Sure, it was a dictatorship, but at least you weren’t in danger of encountering Deep Purple, or Deep Purple albums like Long Beach 1971.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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