And just as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was taking off, so one of the second-wave bands was drifting in a rather different direction. Whitesnake were David Coverdale’s project after the break-up of Deep Purple. By 1980 they’d parlayed their Purple-stable pedigree into a nice position of prominence. Their third album, Ready an’ Willing, give them their first hit single:
I have very mixed feelings about Whitesnake, and about David Coverdale in particular. What I love about his early Deep Purple recordings — the Burn album and especially live versions — is the rawness of his voice. It’s hugely powerful, but rough. Already on his second Deep Purple album, Stormbringer, you can hear that his voice is starting to smooth out (to good effect at this stage), and that process continued pretty much throughout his career.
Immediately after Purple disintegrated, Coverdale made two solo albums, Whitesnake and Northwinds, both of which I love (though to be fair, no-one else seems to). Off the back of these minor successes, he formed the first incarnation of the band Whitesnake, using several of the backing musicians from the solo albums. To my mind, the first two proper Whitesnake albums are a delight — inventive, varied, bluesy, and full of ideas. Trouble established what would be the Whitesnake calling cards: the heavy-blues title track begins “I was raised a gambler’s son / And before I could walk, I had to learn how to run”, which is pure Coverdale.
If you can get past the awful cover art, Lovehunter is an even better album. Its opening trio of songs, Long Way from Home, Walking in the Shadow of the Blues and Help Me Through the Day, are as good as anything the band recorded, and arguably the most solid opening of any album by any of the Purple-stable bands. Yes, there’s some filler elsewhere on the album, but it finishes strongly with the acoustic farewell ballad We Wish You Well — a song so timeless and universal that I’ve used it to close my folk-club set.
So things were looking good for Whitesnake by 1979, and most reviewers seem to think that their next album was better still. But for me, it’s where the rot started to set in. It’s not that I don’t like Ready an’ Willing. I do (though I think it has an excess of filler). By this point, Whitesnake had become the continuation of Deep Purple by other means, with drummer Ian Paice and keyboard wizard Jon Lord joining Coverdale. In Ritchie Blackmore’s place, Whitesnake still had their classic-era dual guitar combo of Mick Moody and Bernie Marsden — a pairing that gave them much of the distinctive character of their sound. Fool for Your Loving, with its classic Coverdale lyrics (“I was born under a bad sign / Left out in the cold”), is a fine example of riff-oriented melodic rock, and worthy of its minor success as a single (it reached #13 in the UK).
But, but, but …
With the benefit of hindsight, you can hear the smoothness starting to take over from the blues roots. That would accelerate through the next couple of albums. By the time of 1982’s Saints and Sinners, the band line-up had become unstable, and the distinctive pair of guitarists was broken up for good. In their place, Coverdale brought in players who were technically better but who lacked the character and soul of Moody and Marsden. By the time of the confusingly named 1987 album Whitesnake, the sound of the band was unrecognisable.
… and much more successful. That album went to #2 in the USA, and its followup Slip of the Tongue also reached the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. It turned out that this was the Whitesnake that people wanted: slick, predictable, and devoid of anything that made them any different from the likes of Kiss and Van Halen. The best way to hear the difference is in the 1987 re-recording of Fool for Your Loving — a version that systematically boils all the charm out of the original leaving behind a residue of by-the-numbers Lite Metal that could have been recorded by pretty much anyone.
So for me the significance of Whitesnake is mostly negative. Just as the NWOBHM bands were starting to do something new and (in places at least) exciting, so Whitesnake’s convergence on the American “hair metal” sound, combined with Rainbow’s unconvincing gropings towards a commercial sound, confirmed that the old order had become moribund. Although at the time I was delighted by the Deep Purple reunion of 1984, in retrospect it looks like an inevitable move forced by the failure of the progeny bands to push on. And while the reunion album was good, going backwards was hardly the way to move forwards.