The road to Machine Head was an arduous one for Deep Purple, full of psychedelic detours and classical shenanigans. The re-release of their first three albums offers a fascinating glimpse into the obscure, self-described realm of “symphonic rock“ of the group’s beginnings. They also confirm just how hard these heavy metal heroes worked to get things off the ground.
In 1968, Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Ian Paice (drums), Nick Simper (bass), and Rod Evans (vocals) formed the first of many versions of Deep Purple. Shades Of Deep Purple was their debut album, and was recorded in just two days. The LP contained eight songs, four of which were covers. These guys were in a hurry, and basically brought their live set into the studio with them.
Under the circumstances, it is remarkable that they managed to get a hit single out of the results. “Hush” was an R&B staple written by Joe South that Purple had adapted to their unique guitar/Hammond organ approach. While the tune was completely ignored in Britain, it climbed to number four on the U.S. charts.
Although the rushed circumstances of recording dictated that the band would use a high percentage of outside material, they acquitted themselves well. Rather than settling for a perfunctory, rubber-stamp take of other people’s songs, Deep Purple added something special to each one.
The British Blues Boom was in full swing in 1968, so the inclusion of “I’m So Glad” was not surprising. The song was written in the 1930s by Skip James and offered Blackmore a space to indulge his considerable guitar chops. Perhaps more significantly, it is also the first recorded example of Jon Lord’s insistent attempts to meld classical music with rock. Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s “Prelude: Happiness” (from Scheherazade) is implausibly wedded to the blues standard as a suitably pretentious opening.
The other remakes are just as curious. Jimi Hendrix had scored with his definitive version of “Hey Joe” on his debut album, Are You Experienced. Blackmore painted a huge target on his back by attempting this one, but in the end Purple’s take worked out well.
Ambitious lads that they were, the group’s next stop was The Beatles. Redoing Lennon/McCartney tracks was something of a cottage industry in 1968, and very often resulted in hilariously disastrous results. This was not the case with Deep Purple’s take on “Help” though. The Fab Four’s bright, uptempo arrangement served to mask the insecurity plainly evident in John Lennon’s lyrics. Here, things are slowed down considerably, which turn the song into a naked lament. Paul is said to have given it the thumbs-up, a vote of confidence that would have unfortunate repercussions on album number two.
Of the four self-penned tracks on Shades, “Mandrake Root” would prove to be the most enduring. The band included this in their live set for years to come, and it was an early example of the powerful guitar/organ riffage Blackmore and Lord were capable of. According to the liner notes, the bomb that goes off midway through came straight out of the BBC’s sound effects library, as did all of the other found sounds on the album.
An indication of just how hard the group was working back then is the fact that they’d returned to the studio just three months after Shades was released. Tagged with the unwieldy title The Book Of Taliesyn, Deep Purple’s second effort was also released in 1968. Besides the hit single “Kentucky Woman” (written by Neil Diamond), the group remade Ike and Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and “We Can Work It Out” from The Beatles.
I know that Jon Lord’s classical leanings added a great deal to his playing, and when he was let go onstage he utilized his training in unexpected, and often brilliant ways. But sometimes it got a bit much. Tacking on Beethoven’s “Exposition” as the opening to a lackluster stab at “We Can Work It Out” just does not work. There were no kudos from Beatle Paul this time around.
On Taliesyn, the self-penned ditties were where the real action was at. “Shield” is very psychedelic, but the complex drum patterns of Ian Paice are what make it so memorable. In the case of “Anthem,” Jon Lord’s classical musings again threaten to derail the proceedings, but the bizarre harmonies overshadow any other elements. It is as if Deep Purple turned on the radio one day and heard “Cherish” by The Association and decided to give it a try. Weird beyond words.
“Wring That Neck” saves the day, though. This Ritchie Blackmore showcase is a classic, and is a piece that remained a part of Deep Purple’s live set for decades. Jon Lord’s keyboard work on the track is also outstanding.
Album number three was simply titled Deep Purple, and came out in 1969. By then, the group had toured America twice and were coming into their own. For starters the LP contained only one cover song, “Lalena,” by Donovan. More importantly however was the fact that much of the original material pointed the way to the hard rock future the band would soon enjoy.
“Chasing Shadows” is a powerful lead-off, featuring monster drums from Paice, and the by-now-trademark Lord/Blackmore one-two solo punch combination. Moreso than on either of the previous two records, Jon Lord’s presence is very prominent here. From the harpsichord sounds he evokes during “Blind” to his dominance of “Fault Line”/”The Painter,” the man is all over the place.
He is also responsible for yet another “WTF?” moment in the Deep Purple story, with the song “April.” Ok, “April” is actually credited to Blackmore/Lord, but who’s kidding who here? At 12 minutes, the cut is one of the longest studio tracks in the Deep Purple catalog. The listener is excused if it feels like the tune lasts 120 minutes. Basically, “April” is a bit of a rock song, with some typically superb Blackmore guitar, surrounded by all kinds of classical gas. If Concerto For Group And Orchestra is your thing, then you will probably dig “April.”
Besides the remastered editions of the original albums, Eagle’s reissues feature extensive liner notes, and a selection of outtakes and live material. Of these, the most notable are from the BBC Top Gear sessions. These live-in-the-studio takes are often superior to those that were immortalized on vinyl. Check out the versions of “Wring That Neck” and “Hey Joe,” in particular.
Deep Purple were signed to the small Tetragrammaton label in the U.S., which went out of business shortly after the release of Deep Purple. Consequently, the band’s first three records remained out of print for years, and many people are unfamiliar with this first chapter in their history. Although they would go on to headline stadiums with a very different type of music, Deep Purple’s humble beginnings make for a fascinating study.