If Led Zeppelin’s contribution to the developing sound of hard rock was a blues influence, then Deep Purple’s was a classical influence. More than any other of the pioneering metal bands, Deep Purple were consummate instrumentalists, with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and keyboard player Jon Lord both classically trained and drummer Ian Paice fully their equal for technique.
Deep Purple have an interesting and complicated history. Originally conceived as a vanity project for Searchers drummer Chris Curtis, they were half-formed by the time he lost interest, and kicked off without him. (I sometimes wonder what he made of their subsequent success.) The Blackmore/Lord/Paice trio was at the heart of all three classic line-ups, with a revolving cast of vocal-and-bass pairs completing the various versions of the groups.
Their first three albums, released in 1968 and 1969, placed them as a psychedelic pop group, albeit one with heavy tendencies. The sleeve notes on their debut, Shades of Deep Purple, rather endearingly described it as “The combined talents of five young men are here extended to create realms of musical colour such as have never been heard before”. But the core trio, having become dissatisfied with a lack of apparent progress, fired singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper, and replaced them to form Mark II of the band — generally considered the canonical line-up. Roger Glover played bass, and Ian Gillan contributed distinctive vocals — more screaming than singing, but smooth and silvery where Robert Plant over in Led Zeppelin was rough and raw.
Even then, the band hadn’t figured out what it wanted to be: their fourth album was an all-out classical collaboration, Concerto for Group and Orchestra, recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This project was Jon Lord’s baby, and is more admired than actually liked. Their next album was to represent Ritchie Blackmore’s vision of what the band would be, and that is the version that stuck.
The 1970 album In Rock was much harder and heavier than anything the band had created before, and finally got their career up and running. They would follow this album up with Fireball, then Machine Head (including the all-time great heavy metal riff from Smoke on the Water) before the acclaimed double live album Made in Japan. Mark II fizzled out with the relatively uninspiring Who Do We Think We Are? before replacing their singer and bassist once more.
Arguably the high point of In Rock is the song Child in Time (above). In its slow steady build from the gentle organ introduction to the frantic jam at the half-way point, the band is in absolute control throughout. After the opening verse, Gillan’s wordless vocal steps effortlessly up from a whisper to a cry to a scream. Blackmore’s lead guitar entry at 3:30 is muted and fluid, and draws the band organically into the lengthy instrumental passage that crescendoes before coming to a sudden halt — and, magically, dropping back into the peaceful waters of the repeated verse. The construction is perfect. (It’s worth watching this live version to see how the band build it up and bring it down; also to marvel at the completely unresponsive crowd in their rows of chairs.)
Mark III of Deep Purple included David Coverdale as the new vocalist (we’ll be hearing more of him later) and Glenn Hughes on bass and backing vocals. For my money, the first Mark III album, Burn, is the equal of any of the Mark II albums; but their followup Stormbringer is less consistent, and suffers rather from mission creep, with a soul/funk influence changing the direction. (Numerous subsequent versions of Deep Purple have released numerous subsequent albums, but Stormbringer ends the classic run.)
Where pop groups like The Kinks, The Who and The Beatles had all flirted with hard rock, Deep Purple were among the first to make the permanent transition. Gavin Burrows has commented that “the problem wasn’t inventing hard rock but working out a way to sustain it”. Deep Purple emphatically did this with a huge repertoire of very different songs songs that all used hard-rock idioms, but deployed them in distinctive ways. I would argue that they were by some distance the most creative of the classic-era heavy metal bands, and worthy of more critical respect than they tend to get these days.
One final note: there are a lot of Deep Purple tribute bands out there. Ian Paice, even though he is still drumming with the original band 46 years on, often drops in and plays a song or two with them at their gigs. For the members of those bands, that must be the best thing ever. You’ve got to love someone who does that. What a nice guy.