Machine Head (1972)
Some of the most exciting and ubiquitous sounds in the history of rock music are contained on Deep Purple’s sixth album and Mark II’s third – and there is no doubt that it remains the most important album in defining the band’s lasting impact on popular culture. Armed with a defined and clearly established identity and ‘sound’, by now Deep Purple had gotten to the point of making brilliance look easy as a matter of routine, and, in a year of era-defining long players, proceeded to turn out a whole album’s worth of high-octane, gold-plated rock anthems. In Smoke on the Water, they found their Stairway to Heaven – a song that can get you dirty looks, if not fines, if you dare to play it in a music shop, and that people who otherwise know absolutely nothing about the band whistle the tune of. Add to that acknowledged classics like Highway Star – has there ever been a more thrilling song with which to open an album? Or a concert? – Lazy, and Space Trucking, and toss in underrated gems like Maybe I’m a Leo, Pictures of Home and one of my absolute personal favourites, Never Before, and surely no rock fan with half a brain could possibly dispute that we are in the presence of greatness.
The album is also notable – and this is surely a huge factor in its success – for achieving perhaps the best ever balance in lead playing duties between Lord and Blackmore, with both parties firing on all cylinders throughout. Lord’s opening salvo on the album – taking the first solo on Highway Star before Ritchie went ahead and did that – is surely one of his very finest, proving beyond doubt that J.S. Bach was always a rocker at heart. The ramped-up Hammond lead on Pictures of Home is similarly electrifying, while, in a different vein, the electric piano solo on Maybe I’m a Leo has always held a special place in my heart, with Jon’s exemplary feel for rhythm and blues oozing through every delightful phrase. And, limiting myself to picking one more favourite Lord moment from an album that boasts so many candidates, I’d have to give the nod to the extended, dramatic intro to Lazy: Jon’s big moment on the live stage, where he could go wherever he wanted for as long as he wanted – and invariably keep the audience eating out of the palms of his hands – before finally hitting them once again with those beautiful rhythm and blues . . . play that riff, Ritchie. You know the one.
Who Do We Think We Are (1973)
An album that was made in challenging circumstances, with few happy memories for most of the protagonists, the classic line up’s final album (until reuniting in 1984) is nevertheless a very rewarding and deeply classy affair. Somewhat after the fashion of Fireball following In Rock – but, if anything, even more dramatically so – Ritchie seemed to withdraw a little into his shell, and give the extrovert showman in him a well-earned sabbatical *. It fell to Jon, then, to take the reins once more, to the greatest extent since the Mark I days. And, just as Mr Gillan delivered one of his all-time great performances across the album (ironically so, given his imminent departure), so Mr Lord, I humbly submit, gave to the fans some of his very finest performances on this criminally underrated belter. Most famously, of course, there is the rollicking piano solo towards the end of the album’s most celebrated cut, Woman from Tokyo – always a highlight of Deep Purple’s post-Blackmore concerts; also, in a rare moment of classic Purple one-two lead punches a la Machine Head and In Rock, we have the manic end Hammond break on Place in Line that follows Ritchie’s terrific solo, cited below. Perhaps the most astonishing Lord moment of all, though, comes in the middle of Rat Bat Blue, as the song breaks into an unexpected fast section and Jon rattles off some of his most turbo-charged, jaw-dropping Hammond leads ever, only to switch abruptly over to the harpsichord (?!) for some more Bach-inspired fireworks. Completely barking, and utterly brilliant – and the sudden shift back into the pulsating groove of the mid-tempo chorus is wonderfully effective. Lastly, we do well to remember that great Jon Lord moments aren’t always about the solos, so my final nomination from this album is the way he works that simple chord modulation on that famously solo-less song, Our Lady. The sound of Deep Purple Mark II bursting out of the stratosphere, and heading off to who know’s where . . .
That’s all for now. Don’t forget to check back soon for my survey of Jon’s contributions to the heady and turbulent era of Mark III Deep Purple!
* Only up to a point, though: check out the scorcher he tears off on Place in Line. Why that one gets so few plaudits, we can only surmise.