Sunday, 14 November 2010

DEEP PURPLE: Machine Head

(#109: 22 April 1972, 2 weeks; 13 May 1972, 1 week

Track listing: Highway Star/Maybe I’m A Leo/Pictures Of Stone/Never Before/Smoke On The Water/Lazy/Space Truckin’

Accidents can make great records happen as much as, or perhaps more than, meticulous preplanning. In late 1971 Deep Purple were looking for a suitable place abroad to record their next album, mainly to escape the clutches of the Inland Revenue but also to refresh themselves in a new environment. Montreux seemed as decent and quiet a place as any to wake up, and so the band, accompanied by the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, travelled there with the intention of recording the album “as live” in the Casino, home of the Golden Rose Awards and the jazz festival. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (then still including Flo and Eddie) were scheduled to play the last gig in the Casino before it was turned over to Purple, and it went well enough until “some stupid with a flare gun” (and it works so much better, on a “stoopeed” level as well as a scansion level, without the expletive) shot sparks into the roof halfway through Don Preston’s Moog solo on “King Kong” and the place slowly caught fire. Mark Volman solemnly announced to the audience, “Arthur Brown in person – FIRE!” and Zappa asked that the premises be vacated. Everyone, including Deep Purple and their crew who were seated in the front row, left the building but there wasn’t much evidence of anything except stray smoke, so much so that Roger Glover re-entered the empty auditorium shortly afterwards to inspect and drool over the Mothers’ equipment (two synthesisers!). Not long thereafter, however, the fire took firm and immediate hold and the place was gutted. Seated on the terrace of their hotel on the other side of Lake Geneva, the musicians watched the wind blow the flames and smoke across the expanse of water; the venue’s owner, promoter Claude Nobs, was more concerned about what the band were going to do than the destruction of his own property and living, and quickly sought alternative arrangements. Inevitably, in the midst of all this, the germination of a song entered some of the band’s heads.

The song, based loosely on the group’s perennial closing stage jam “Mandrake Root,” a riff developed by Ritchie Blackmore from his time in Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. However, another Savages guitarist, Bill Parkinson, claimed that “Mandrake Root” had been ripped off fullscale from his own composition “Lost Soul.” Thus it is possible that the man responsible for “Mother Of Mine” was also indirectly responsible for “Smoke On The Water” although legal niceties remain opaque (Parkinson did get a modest settlement for “Mandrake,” but as he himself has admitted, pursuing a claim for “Smoke” would “open up a whole new can of worms”).

Nevertheless, Nobs earmarked the Pavilion Theatre as a replacement recording venue, although only the backing track for “Smoke” was completed there; while recording it, the police were attempting to gain entry into the building – there had been complaints from elderly residents about the noise. Marooned for the next week, Nobs finally found somewhere handily out of town; the Grand Hotel. I am unsure whether Machine Head is the only number one album principally recorded in a hotel but the group made the best of it and came out with what many still feel is their best album; not quite as in-your-face as In Rock or as experimental as Fireball, but the definitive portrait of what the group was capable of at their peak.

Amazingly, nobody in the group thought of “Smoke” as anything but another track; it appears at the beginning of side two, was the last of the album’s songs to be added to their stage act and was not considered as a possible single; “Never Before” was the surprising choice for the latter. It’s a decent enough example of the group at work, starting off with a patient would-be Meters strut before rhythmically becoming more familiarly Purple, with subtle “Day Tripper” references from Jon Lord’s organ at the end of each chorus (Lord’s own solo on the song tickles like a seldom-disturbed duster before moving into a sequence that is remarkably prescient of the work of Dave Greenfield in the Stranglers) and standard woman-done-we-wrong wails from Gillan with a descending escalator of a chorus (“Never-felt-so-bad”). Earmarked as a surefire hit, it does its business but doesn’t quite grip in the manner of “Black Night” or “Strange Kind Of Woman”; the single poked its nose briefly into the top forty and most fans preferred to wait for the album.

But “Smoke” is the middle of the album’s three peaks, as towering in their ways as the distant Alps which the band would espy as they made their precarious way from studio to balcony to guest room to mixing desk several dozen times a day. Beginning with Blackmore playing that riff – so simple, so Sky Saxon – and joined systematically by (unison) organ, then drums, then (crucially) bass, the song’s dynamics stem from an understanding of funk as opposed to rock; Ian Paice is quite the funky drummer here (galloping up the pace for Blackmore’s solo, firing up the ride cymbals towards song’s end), and the whole suggests not crushing, abscess-filling rock, but (again) an almost New Orleans approach to the business of rhythm and space. Lord’s organ emits some onomatopoeic ’67 squeals as the song fades. Gillan’s vocal is careful, generous and quietly powerful. The production allows the performance and song to breathe, such that – and this is the secret of its continuing success and influence – you feel you are in their living room, and that you could play along with them. Wisely resisting the temptation to turn the fire into a symbol of sixties idealism burning to cinders, they recount, as though writing a diary, and tell their tale as any folk musician would, and it has correspondingly endured for far longer than more apparently “meaningful” and “profound” pronouncements.

The great thing about Machine Head is the joy of listening to the group just playing, and/or playing around, and the unexpected signs its road flags up. “Highway Star,” for instance, starts like Stereolab (specifically “John Cage Bubblegum”), with Lord’s jolly clockwork Bontempi and a rushing but not rushed rhythm before Glover’s bass and Gillan’s shriek rise like Man-Thing as played by The Odd Couple. Organ/guitar unisons take root while Gillan roars “Nobody gonna have my girl!” Riding over the descending chords of the middle eight, Gillan does indeed conjure the spirit of Arthur Brown, gleefully comparing the sex drive of cars and girls (“I LOVE her!”). Lord offers an energetic bouillabase of an organ solo, incorporating baroque bends and Eastern/Klezmer hiccups, while Blackmore quotes both Bach and Johnny Burnette in triple time. This Apollo Age rockabilly (with, again, Beatle nods, specifically “Drive My Car” in the “and everything” bridges) ends atomised, splintered.

“Maybe I’m A Leo” (it’s Gillan’s sign) goes on a trip-up “Black Dog” ride with a “Come Together” overlay (Lord’s Leslie cabinet-filtered Fender Rhodes) and is yet another woke-up-this-morning grievance, although this loneliness is set down more deeply in “Pictures Of Stone,” Gillan’s best vocal performance on the record. Paice knocks over several cases of cutlery in his introduction and Blackmore’s Leslied-up guitar meditates at half tempo over the busy “Black Night” backdrop – Blackmore really is a sample machine here; after the half-tempo main riff he makes with James Burton licks for the next two bars before wobbling back into the song. His own solo makes judicious use of the tremelo arm, high-pitched and unstable, before settling on one concentrated note of grief which he rapidly cuts off with a brusque wave of the tremelo arm. Meanwhile, Gillan could almost be predicting Ian Curtis or even David Sylvian here – “A prison of my own making,” “Where have they hidden my throne?,” “I don’t belong here” (Radiohead already?). Lord essays a one-man organ/Fender Rhodes duel, all up and down flurries over a Status Quo backbeat. Even Glover gets a bass solo; Lord then embarks upon a upward atonal organ cluster, and the song stops before everyone goes over the edge. After a meaningful pause, the song restarts, Lord’s organ now barking like a distressed Irish setter beneath Blackmore’s guitar, “whispering pictures of home.”

“Lazy,” based on an old Oscar Brown Jr riff (with a touch of Jimmy McGriff in Lord’s Hammond), begins misleadingly with a drone phaser box/organ fade-in before Lord and Paice’s cymbals set up an “Eye Of The Tiger” punch bowl. Blackmore then creeps into the picture and before you know it we’re back in Klook’s Kleek with some old-school grits n’ chitlins via Wardour Street boogie. Finally, Ian Gillan makes his belated entry (whereupon Paice immediately settles down) and berates his slacker subject for not getting out of bed, wanting bread, &c., even resorting to harmonica when words fail him. Then the group steps up the pace with furious organ blasts. Blackmore plays a more aggressive solo before all falls back down on a stock bar band ending.

The album ends with the superb “Space Truckin’,” which begins as though it were “Annalisa” by Public Image Ltd, Paice’s cheerleading stomp being the exact midpoint between “Dance To The Music” and PiL. The triplicate “Come on!”s recall the Troggs, the descending guitar/organ unisons in the choruses even suggest Joe Meek (as, inevitably, do Gillan’s deliberately silly lyrics, which despite or because of their silliness resonate in relation to the past as lovingly as Plant’s in “Rock ‘N’ Roll”: “Remember when we did the Moonshot?”). The overall effect is one of what Jefferson Airplane’s Blows Against The Empire might have sounded like if Sly Stone had still been producing them (and yes, Blackmore “samples” some Paul Kantner lines in his solo here). Paice’s solo revs up the Sly subtext as abstract keyboards float and flutter in the background (including I Hear A New World-esque beats). Then Gillan returns with a mighty shriek as Paice bangs and hiccups his way out of the song and into the fade.

As far as influence goes I would suggest that Machine Head’s is twofold; the cleanness of the riffs, together with their plentiful suggestions of what has gone before them, points the way towards the clinical-but-still-powerful likes of Boston and the legions of stadium pop-rockers who would follow in both their and Purple’s wake; whereas the childish naughtiness of the record’s multiple musical borrowings, tinted by a friendly dammit-let’s-just-dig-it aesthetic view, leads in part to the Jesus and Mary Chain. These fellows love their music; the love is unmissable. And yet, less than a year later, both Blackmore and Gillan would be looking for a way out. Never mind (and did you spot the other path there?); Machine Head remains definitive, not because it was more militant or further out there (where?) than any of their other albums of the period, but because it simply presents its audience with a group doing something better than anyone else at the time was doing it. Many times, that’s enough; the happy accident of getting it right.