The 1980s was a difficult and confusing decade for most of hard rock’s old guard. Fired by NWOBHM and the emergence of thrash, metal went from strength to strength and attained a level of cultural prominence and commercial viability that was hitherto unimaginable. For the likes of Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, that was good news, and they, along with certain of their peers, found themselves able to ride the crest with varying degrees of success. For other founding fathers, though, with whom the ‘metal’ tag had always sat less comfortably, things weren’t quite so simple. The alternative obvious path to continuing relevance was provided by AOR, melodic rock, or whatever one wants to call it – waters in which almost all of the old guard would dip their toes at one point or another, bigging up the hair and cranking up the choruses in pursuit of commercial success and stadium glory during that heady, hedonistic decade. And really, who could blame them? Magnum, for one, flirted with major American success following their majestic 1985 opus On a Storyteller’s Night, while managing to remain as British as fish and chips or Coronation Street through it all. For others, though, the transition was not so seamless – and for fewer still, so successful. Positively rabid melodic rock fiend that I am, there is no doubt that the stadium rock gravy train could prove a poisoned chalice, and always carried the risk of being seen to have sold your soul in the eyes of the die hard supporters.
For Deep Purple, to my mind, the terrain was particularly difficult to negotiate. Although they had long been recognised as a landmark influence on the development of heavy music – In Rock set new standards in face-peeling intensity on its 1970 release that were more than matched by their legendary live performances from the era – they clearly were not, and are not, a ‘heavy metal’ band. And at the same time, while Ritchie Blackmore, abetted by the silky stylings of Joe Lynn Turner, had evolved Rainbow into basically an AOR outfit (with notable success) it was difficult to see how Deep Purple could pursue that direction to any significant extent, while remaining Deep Purple; for one thing, Ian Gillan, undoubtedly one of rock’s all-time great vocalists, emphatically does not have an AOR voice – a fact that the majority of the band’s fans surely rejoice in. Another serious challenge they had to confront upon their 1984 reunion, was the sheer weight of expectation. Eight years had elapsed since the ignominious dissolution of the Bolin/Hughes/Coverdale incarnation of the band and subsequent split – and more than ten since the ‘classic line-up’ had performed together. All of the protagonists had kept themselves busy turning out some damn fine, often very adventurous, music through those years. The hunger to see Deep Purple Mark II – rightly regarded as arguably the greatest live rock band of all time – treading the boards again, was clearly there in bucket loads. Whether they could successfully reboot the Deep Purple brand in the context of a new and very different musical landscape, and deliver the goods creatively with new music on a par with that of the albums upon which their formidable reputation rested, was a more troubling question. And it’s the question I’d like to focus on here.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I was but an ickle nipper when the Purple reunion was in the offing, and did not get into the band until the discovery of the wonders of hard rock and metal hit me like a freight train in the early nineties. So, all of my observations are those of an enthusiastic lay historian – and, not being in any way a band or industry insider, just my (very ‘eavy very) ‘umble opinions. However, it certainly doesn’t take any extraordinary feats of the imagination to understand just how exciting it must have been for all of the Purple fans, who had waited so long for the moment, when the opening bars of ‘Knocking at Your Back Door’ (the first cut from comeback album Perfect Strangers) kicked in. With an intro teeming with tension and drama – with Jon Lord’s enigmatic keyboard stabs swiftly joined by Roger Glover’s brooding root notes, followed by Ian Paice’s brash, dynamic drums, before Ritchie Blackmore piles in with the memorable riff, and that voice confirms beyond all doubt that ‘they’ are back – the song was the perfect opening gambit for the new Deep Purple, and encapsulated all of the key elements of their strategy in reinventing the band for the new decade. David Lee Roth, one quarter of the Van Halen that had blown Black Sabbath off the stage on their Never Say Die tour in 1979, had opined that the coming decade’s rock music would be about energy and adrenaline rather than more inward-looking, prog-oriented displays of epic virtuosity. And, with Ronnie James Dio at the helm, Sabbath had brilliantly streamlined their sound in line with the new metal aesthetics of NWOBHM, without sacrificing the flair for atmospherics and storytelling that had been amongst the hallmarks of their early years. Purple, too, clearly intended to take on board the lesson, opting for a sound that was both slicker and more punchy than that of their heyday, while taking due care not to compromise too much of the raw intensity that made them Deep Purple. Lord would generally favour synthesised strings over the screaming Hammond that had been his trademark, and Paice’s drum sound would be crisper, more processed. If the new Deep Purple’s sound would lack something of the warmth of the classic sound, it would also be defined by an expansive feeling of space that was entirely conducive to the kind of compulsive energy sought out by the rock artists and producers of the day. Purists listening to the album for the first time, meanwhile, would soon be reassured that their sensibilities were not wholly to be shunned, by the frenetic extended solo that Blackmore pulls off in ‘ . . . Back Door’. The title track, opening the second side of the album – and most of its original audience would have consumed it in ‘sides’; those were the days! – is just as dramatic, built around a riff of devastating simplicity, with Ian Gillan’s unforgettable opening line, “Can you remember – remember my name?” coming over as a cri de coeur, and letting the opposition know that they’re really only there to be trounced at this point in the proceedings. If one word sums up these two gold-plated songs from the comeback album, it is ‘swagger’. And really, in the circumstances, nothing less would have been acceptable.
There is much else to recommend Perfect Strangers. ‘Nobody’s Home’, with its hypnotic riff, so perfectly tailored for Gillan to wrap his tonsils around, has always been a personal favourite, as has the melancholic, blues-flavoured ‘Wasted Sunsets’. Not all of the tracks are classics, though, and, listening to some of them – notably ‘A Gypsy’s Kiss’ and ‘Mean Streak’ – you begin to understand part of the reason why Joe Lynn Turner resented so deeply the ‘Deep Rainbow’ gibes that accompanied his brief stint with the band. The songs are by no means bad, but you do get the uncomfortable feeling – that would linger on the follow-up album The House of Blue Light – that the distance between Turner-era Rainbow and the new Deep Purple is not quite as great as it should be, being marked out at times primarily by the utterly distinct voice and style of the lead vocalist: ‘Deep Rainbow’, one is tempted to observe, did not begin with Slaves and Masters (1990). My feeling (and again, I must stress that these are but the impressions of an interested spectator) is that Ritchie had a little too much power in the band at this point in its history, and that he had very definite ideas about what it took to make a hard rock band commercially successful. The House of Blue Light (1986), less heralded (inevitably) than its predecessor is more commercially oriented, and less inspired. I have to admit that when I first laid hands on the album – on vinyl, many years ago – I basically thought it was pretty rubbish. However, having bought up the Purple back catalogue on CD in recent years, I have revisited it, and come to realise that I had been too dismissive, and had never really given it a fair crack of the whip. Tracks like ‘Bad Attitude’ and ‘The Unwritten Law’ are convincing hard rock anthems, and in ‘The Spanish Archer’, the album boasts a real gem that I would be delighted to hear in concert (a vain hope, I fear). Propelled by a ‘Pictures of Home’ type shuffle, the song seems fired by a conviction that too many of the album’s cuts lack, and features Lord and Blackmore on the kind of scintillating form that will always delight anyone who has ever been a fan of the band. The same goes for the album’s closer, ‘Dead or Alive’, which had completely passed me by the first time around – a track with real attitude and many of the classic Purple hallmarks in the Blackmore/Lord sparring, which closes the set in much the same resounding fashion that the excellent ‘Not Responsible’ polishes off Perfect Strangers (leaving aside the CD only bonus track ‘Son of Alerik’ – a mesmerising ten minute instrumental that no Blackmore fan can possibly afford to miss). Some of the House of Blue Light tracks, however, are certainly weak by the band’s standards, and there are a couple of distinct misfires. ‘Call of the Wild’, perhaps the most transparent attempt to write a hit single in the band’s history, is interesting primarily at that level – i.e. not exactly for the right reasons. It really only serves to prove how ill-suited were Deep Purple to the radio-friendly AOR furrow that some of their peers ploughed so convincingly (notably Uriah Heep, especially once they’d got the excellent Bernie Shaw on board). ‘Mitzie Dupree’, as well, sticks out like a sore thumb, and not for the right reasons; a track with which Mr Blackmore reputedly wanted no truck, and in this instance, I can’t say I blame him – Deep Purple have done the blues thing so much better, on so many more occasions.
The cracks in the Mark II reunion are clearly beginning to show by The House of Blue Light, and, sadly enough, the ‘musical differences’ and personality clashes that had broken the line-up apart in the first place quickly came to the surface once more, leading ultimately to Ian Gillan parting company with the band on acrimonious terms for the second time. Ultimately, the reunion proved to be a turbulent and frustrating, if sporadically brilliant, affair. In terms of the period’s enduring legacy the two songs with which the discussion began, ‘Perfect Strangers’ and ‘Knocking at Your Back Door’, obviously stand out. Both tracks established themselves as unfailingly powerful live numbers, with the former remaining a staple of the band’s shows to this day. Thanks largely to those tracks, Perfect Strangers has retained a sturdy aura of enduring quality, if not of genuinely classic status. With the best will in the world, few would say the same about The House of Blue Light, which seems to have been rather swept under the rug, regarded as something of an embarrassment by the musicians who continue to fly the Purple banner. I have been pleasantly surprised to realise, though, that even on that record – which I must continue to regard as one of the band’s weakest albums – there are moments when those five incredible musicians are, truly and fully, Deep Purple. For all of its tribulations and disappointments, the decision to reignite the legend would ultimately be vindicated, and did not turn out to be a backward step for the protagonists. As all fans know, the band would attempt to bounce back from The House of Blue Light in truly astonishing circumstances, stunning the rock world with the appointment of Blackmore’s erstwhile sidekick Joe Lynn Turner as Mr Gillan’s replacement. More astonishingly still, the battle between messrs Gillan and Blackmore would rage on for one more memorable round, before the final knock-out punch (which one of them delivered it, I will leave you to judge). But those are stories for another day.