It’s a riff so well-known, some now hear it as a joke. But when Deep Purple released the 1972 classic “Smoke on the Water,” it was no laughing matter. That song’s simple opening riff, a kind of rudimentary blues lick, has become a rock signifier and icon in its own right. Part of its appeal is in its ease at being recognizable and for its simplicity mastered by a legion of budding guitarists. “Smoke on the Water” hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Before that success, and like their UK peers Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple had already taken the blueprint created by the likes of Cream, Jeff Beck Group and Vanilla Fudge and carved out a whole new genre: heavy metal.
Formed in Hertford, England in 1968, Deep Purple started out with psychedelic and progressive rock stylings. The first lineup—vocalist Rod Evans, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, bassist Nick Simper, keyboardist Jon Lord and drummer Ian Paice—released three albums. Those efforts had their moments both artistic and commercial (1968’s “Hush” also hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100; it’s still a fan favorite), but it wasn’t until the release of ’70’s Deep Purple in Rock that the band dimed out the amps, ramped up the intensity, and began to lay waste to their rock peers.
Vocalist Evans and bassist Simper bowed out of the group; in stepped vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover, joining founders Blackmore, Lord and Paice. As they made ready to create In Rock, Blackmore later told journalist Tony Dolan, he thought the band “should be an all-out assault on the eardrums.” Mission accomplished.
In Rock opens with “Speed King,” a five-minute whirl that comes across like Little Richard on (more) amphetamines; a readily available clip of the band performing the song on UK TV shows the lineup in destructo mode. The band starts off with a subtle blue riff, Lord playing jazzy filigrees on top, and then all hell breaks loose. They merge into a hive mind; Gillan displays stellar vocal skills, Glover and Paice show that the best rhythm sections know how to murder the beat. At one point, Blackmore flashes his signature move, whipping his Fender Stratocaster around his body in a swift 180-degree swing. Deep Purple didn’t rock; they attacked.
“Controlled chaos” is a term that’s been played out to the point of irrelevancy. As Led Zeppelin became more byzantine in its albeit highly successful recordings, and Black Sabbath proved time and again that some of the best music is rendered with one sonic color scheme (uh, “black”), Deep Purple—on stage and in the studio—became masters of aiming for the guard rail without crashing over.
Deep Purple’s success could arguably be chalked off to serendipity. Talent aside, at that point in the British rock scene, there were other equally innovative, head-smacking contenders. Lesser-knowns like Hawkwind, the Pink Fairies, Fuzzy Duck and Atomic Rooster also played heavy, thumping music that took cues from earlier acid rock yet swapped out LSD for a skin-eating, hydrochloric burn. One thing those groups lacked, however, was songwriting.
In Rock featured one of DP’s other definitive classics, “Child in Time,” showing the band’s skill at using an extreme whispering/deafening dynamic of restrained sensitivity-meets-nervous-system murder. A ballad tethered by Lord’s simple, two-chord organ vamp, “Child in Time” soon swells up into a … there’s really no other word … majestic buildup by the entire band. A third of the way in, the band accelerates into a solo passage that inexplicably blends Bach riffs with blues boogie and makes it seem natural. The lyrics are refreshingly hopeless. Gillan warns the listener of the “bullets flying” in this world, assuring them to “wait for the ricochet.” Quality, moody stuff, out the same year Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful” rode the charts.
When the band released Machine Head in ’72, they’d honed their songwriting and conveyance of that craft into a seminal album of hard rock. Along with “Smoke on the Water,” the album had two more now-classics: brutal road song “Highway Star” and brutal space-flight song “Space Truckin’.” Deep Purple has always enjoyed strong record sales. Their debut album alone, Shades of Deep Purple, sold a million copies. From start to end, Machine Head is a tight-as-a-drum release, free of any early ’70s production wankery or la-di-da arrangements. Music fans ate it up: Machine Head sold in the millions and the band played stadium-sized concerts.
That same year, Deep Purple released the now-classic live album, Made in Japan, showing off their skills extending and magnifying Machine Head tunes and earlier songs in their catalog.
Though artists like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell were the music critics’ darlings, hard rock and metal were routinely bashed. Rock writer Lester Bangs was the apostate, an early (and nearly lone) champion of the directness and artifice-and-bullshit-free stance of bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.
In a March 25, 1972 Rolling Stone record review of Machine Head, Bangs wrote: “In between those two Deep Purple classics lies nothing but good, hard-socking music, although some of the lyrics may leave a bit to be desired” of “Highway Star,” “Space Truckin’” and the rest of the album. “I do know that this very banality is half the fun of rock ’n’ roll. And I am confident I will love the next five Deep Purple albums madly so long as they sound exactly like these last three,” he wrote.
Inexplicably, as if cursed by Bangs, subsequent Deep Purple albums degraded into ’70s rock glooch-boogie. Gillan and Glover, who’d just injected some much-needed overdrive, split. Vocalist David Coverdale and bassist Glenn Hughes signed on for 1974’s Burn. The title track was a minor hit, but the rest of the album yawns its way through hard-rock paces. Deep Purple went from being pioneers to bit players. The records of this era sold well but, to be fair, Rick Dees’ 1976 novelty ditty “Disco Duck” also sold millions. By the time DP released its 10th effort, the uninvitingly titled Come Taste the Band, even Blackmore left, starting a new music project, Rainbow.
As the ’70s faded, DP bandmembers stayed busy. Blackmore’s Rainbow made some worthy metal albums, Gillan sang vocals on Black Sabbath’s Born Again—a fantastic addition to the metal canon. In 1984, Deep Purple’s classic lineup reunited for Perfect Strangers, ’87’s The House of Blue Light and The Battle Rages On … in ’93.
Since then, Blackmore and the others have been locked into a Spinal Tap-style pissing contest—old British rock bands seem to have invented and continue to perfect this lunacy. With Jon Lord’s 2012 death, any hopes of the band caging the lawyers long enough for another reunion were laid to rest.
In 1994, American fusion-blues guitarist badass Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Kansas) signed on; he’s been crucial in keeping the legacy alive and the sound current. Veteran UK keyboardist Don Airey has been master of the Hammond organ. When the band plays this week with fellow metal legends Judas Priest, fans get to witness not one, but two, of the greatest rock bands ever known—able blast their Marshall stacks to the point of audio derangement.
Deep Purple was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2016. Again in mode, an ego battle was waged before the ceremony. Gillan forbade Hughes, Coverdale, Evans and Blackmore to play onstage. Blackmore blew it all off, i.e., “Smoke on the Lawyer.”
Deep Purple is a band defined by successes. Subsequent bands ranging from KISS and Rush to Metallica, The Flaming Lips and Guns ’N’ Roses have acknowledged DP’s influence. Like countless listeners since, those musicians were pulled in by that simple “Smoke on the Water” riff, then worshipped at the altar of 20th-century rock’s true pioneers.
DEEP PURPLE & JUDAS PRIEST
7 p.m. Sept. 12, Daily’s Place, Downtown, $69.25-$217.75, dailysplace.com