Thursday, May 29, 2008

Classic Album Series - Deep Purple Machine Head

Last night on VH1 Classic, I caught the Classic Album Series episode on the making of Deep Purple's Machine Head album. It was their breakthrough release that had Smoke on the Water, Space Truckin' and Highway Star - all Purple staples - as well as the lesser known but very killer Pictures of Home, Maybe I'm A Leo and Lazy.

The recording of the album is laid out well in the song Smoke on the Water, but is re-told in much more detail in the hour long episode. The band was looking for a place to record its next release, and they wound up in Switzerland to record at a casino, using the Rolling Stones mobile studio truck to capture the sound.

One of the really cool things the Stones did in the 70s was to embrace this idea of the mobile recording studio - a truck that had all of the recording equipment (board, tape decks, associated gear) - that could be set up literally anywhere, effectively turning that spot into a recording studio. Want to record in a field? Roll the truck up and you're set.

So Purple just had to find the right location. But the casino that they booked burnt down during a Frank Zappa show the night before they were supposed to record (check the lyrics in Smoke on the Water for the details).

They wound up in the Grand Hotel in Montreux, which was shut down for a few weeks and they took it because it was the only thing available. It was gray and dingy inside, and they wound up setting up in basically a hallway. To get back to the truck to hear playbacks, they had to go all the way to the other side of the hotel, including walking on parts of the roof outside, over scaffolding, through the snow etc., so they tended to trust their producer Martin Birch's ear and not bother.

They had three and a half weeks to finish the album so they were under the gun. All the songs were recorded live with no overdubs. If they made a mistake, they did the song over from scratch.

All five of the Purple members are interviewed in the show, which is interesting because guitarist Ritchie Blackmore has been on the outs for more than ten years, replaced by Steve Morse, who apparently is much easier to get along with.

The stories behind how some of the songs were written is the key to the whole episode. People brought in bits and pieces and they were all built upon. Keyboardist Jon Lord shows how he gets his MEAN Hammond tone - instead of running the Hammond through the rotating Leslie speaker that everyone uses, he fed it into a Marshall amplifier. When you hear those keyboard parts isolated, they sound like heavy guitar parts.

In fact I realized that Jon Lord is the key to that band's sound. The editor of Guitar Player Magazine is interviewed in the show and he notes that the difference between Purple and other heavy bands of the era like Sabbath and Zeppelin was that Purple had a heavy full-time keyboard player. He's right! Outside of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman (and maybe The Band's Garth Hudson), who else was playing keyboards like this back in the late 60s/early 70s?

The album (and this episode) also highlight that Deep Purple was primarily a live band. They excelled at jamming and playing off of each other - sadly a lost art today.

In fact, when I saw the reunited version of this Purple lineup in the 80s, I noticed that they did more jamming onstage than I had ever seen.

One funny personal story comes to mind. My friend Bill and I saw the band at the Shoreline on the House of the Blue Light tour (where Bad Company opened). During one of the jams, Blackmore was messing with the tuning on his guitar. He then worked something out with bassist Roger Glover where they traded instruments in a jam (in front of about 20,000 people).

He handed his guitar to Glover and started playing Glover's bass over by Jon Lord while the two watched Glover move to center stage to take a solo. After noodling for a minute, Glover looked at Blackmore with a "what the hell" look and Lord and Blackmore started laughing. Basically Blackmore had thrown his guitar totally out of tune and then handed it to Glover, who had no idea. Nice practical joke in front of a sold out crowd!

Anyway, I am not sure if VH1 cut any parts out of the episode to fit it into an hour slot, but what I saw was very enlightening. To give an example of how killer the band was in the 70s, check this out:

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