It is the most familiar opening bar in all of rock, more so than even “Stairway to Heaven.” When you hear the crunch of that dirty Strat going “Dah dah DAAAH, dah dah da DAAAH, dah dah DAAAAH, dah dah,” you know what’s coming. “Smoke on the Water,” perhaps the quintessential hard rock song of the 1970’s.
The band formed in 1968 out of another band called Roundabout. They started as a spacey, flower power band with freak hit covers of Joe South’s “Hush” and Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman.” After their third album hit record stores – and stayed there – the core trio of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, keyboardist Jon Lord, and drummer Ian Paice made a change. Out went founding members Rod Evans and bass player Nick Simper. In came thunder throat Ian Gillan and bass player Roger Glover. Up went the volume. Out came “Speed King,” “Child in Time,” “Black Night,” “Strange Kind of Woman,” and “Highway Star.” Deep Purple was now a hard-playin’, hard touring, hard drinking heavy metal band and rivaled contemporaries Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for sheer volume and aggressiveness. But after the 1973 album Who Do We Think We Are? (with “Woman From Tokyo”), Blackmore had an artistic snit fit. Gillan had quit, and Blackmore did what he always does when he’s in a bad mood. He fired a perfectly good bass player, and one that could write better than him. They recruited Glenn Hughes of Trapeze to replace Glover and handle some of the lead vocals, and found an unknown singer from the north of England named David Coverdale – Yes, the guy from Whitesnake – to take over.
The music became smoother, bluesier. 1973’s “Burn” had all the scary, angry goodness of the classic Deep Purple, while the rest of the album took advantage of Coverdale’s smokey barroom voice and Hughes’s blue-eyed soul vocals. Blackmore hated it and quit in 1974. Purple tried to press on with American guitarist Tommy Bolin, but the more funk than metal Come Taste the Band, one of my favorite Purple albums, btw, failed to catch on.
The music died in 1975, and Bolin died in 1976, never becoming the guitar-star a la Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai later on.
Then in 1984, they changed their minds. For a time, it looked like it would be Blackmore, Lord, Paice, Glover, and… Coverdale? Gillan was with Black Sabbath, but had also had vocal cord surgery. Lord felt the somewhat well-known Coverdale would do better, especially with Roger Govler writing and Glenn Hughes no longer in the band. Seems Hughes and Coverdale sound great separately. They sound horrible trying to harmonize. In the end, “Smoke on the Water” won out. Purple roared back with Perfect Strangers and House of the Blue Light. Again, Blackmore had one of his artistic fits of anger and forced the band to boot Gillan. In came Joe Lynn Turner, who made with Deep Purple the lost Rainbow album, Slaves and Masters. (Even Turner doesn’t think it’s a very good Deep Purple album. So the band foisted Gillan on Blackmore once more and told him if he didn’t like it, he could get lost.
So he did, and, after a brief stint by Joe Satriani (since Tommy Bolin was still dead in 1994, but wouldn’t that have been great if he was around?), they hired the man at the top of their short list, Steve Morse. This version of Purple, with Don Airey of Rainbow (Irony!) becoming Jon Lord’s hand-picked successor in 2002, did four albums.
Many people say it’s not Deep Purple without Ritchie Blackmore. Blackmore is the guitar. Blackmore is the face of the band. Blackmore is the main writer. Right?
Two out of three ain’t bad. Blackmore is a guitar player and a damned good one. But let’s look, shall we, at his contemporaries, Clapton, Beck, Page, Keith Richards with Brian Johnson, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. All these men are, technically, Blackmore’s equals in skill, style, and raw emotion through the instrument. Let’s take the lesser skilled Pete Townshend and throw him in the mix. He, along with the aforementioned British rock pantheon, stand head and shoulders above Ritchie Blackmore because they can write music. Blackmore…
Blackmore is nothing without Nick Simper – whom he never should have fired – or Roger Glover or even his wife, Candice Night. He is technically brilliant. As a writer, he needs to shut up and play his guitar and stop trying to make everything over in Rainbow’s image. (His Blackmore’s Night suggests he finally gets this, which means I could be wrong about his writing chops in more recent years.) With Steve Morse, the band is better at writing because they write to their strengths, not try to recapture the past. That’s what live shows are for.
So if I’m ragging on Blackmore so much, why are they on my favorite bands list?
Simple. From the psychedelic Evans-Simper period to the classic days of Gillan and Glover and even into the days of Coverdale and Hughes and the two post Blackmore periods, I’ve stuck with this band. They made interesting music to me that ripped the meat of rock and roll’s bones and chewed it raw. The 1970’s were great because all the personnel changes caused tectonic shifts in style. The eighties… I’d be happy if they stopped at Perfect Strangers and just hired Steve Morse in 1986. I love Purpendicular, which is better than most of what they’ve done since 1974. They’ve been the soundtrack to my life since high school.
Ever since my best friend Rob took me for a ride in his stepmom’s car and popped in this tape he had into the RX-7’s bitchin’s stereo. What did he play?
Dah dah DAAAH, dah dah da DAAAH, dah dah DAAAAH, dah dah