Ian Gillan and the other members of Deep Purple will concede that 'Machine Head' and its hit single 'Smoke on the Water' are indeed high-water marks for the band, but they're more concerned about what the group is up to now
IN A year of major musical anniversaries, from 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (1967) to the Monterey Pop festival of 1967 and the first Guns 'N Roses album, 'Appetite for Destruction' (1987), Deep Purple's landmark 'Machine Head' (1972) album quietly turned 35.
So quietly, in fact, that the band members themselves barely noticed.
"I didn't even know it was," singer Ian Gillan says with a laugh. "Is it really? When did it come out? '72? Oh, well, there you go...
"But there are so many anniversaries, 25th of this, 30th of that, 40th and whatever," he adds. "Next year it's 40 years since the band formed, so there may be something in the works for that."
Gillan and the other members of Deep Purple will concede that 'Machine Head' and its hit single 'Smoke on the Water' are indeed high-water marks for the band, but they're more concerned about what the group is up to now: regularly touring the world and working on new material, including a pair of recent studio albums, 'Bananas' (2003) and 'Rapture of the Deep' (2005), and this year's 'Live at Montreux 2006' CD and DVD.
But Deep Purple's past is also clearly important to the band, as it is to its fans, as evidenced by a variety of archival audio and video releases. Nevertheless, Gillan is adamant that the band be viewed as a current concern and not merely as a staple of the 'classic rock' world.
"I despise that term," he says. "It means you're dead. It's nothing to do with what we do.
"You know, the average age of our audience in the rest of the world is 17 years old and wants to hear our new music," the singer says. "We have to adapt when we come over (to the U.S.) for fans that remember those (older) songs and material. We try to keep them alive by surrounding them with new stuff and improvisations."
Deep Purple, which formed in 1968 in Hertford, England, had an early pop hit that year with 'Hush', but soon began to stretch out with original keyboardist Jon Lord's 'Concerto for Group and Orchestra' (1970) and the lengthy arrangements and intricate soloing that marked such early albums as 'Deep Purple in Rock' (1970), 'Fireball' (1971) and 'Machine Head'.
Membership changes and a hiatus from 1976 to 1984 sometimes changed the group's creative direction, but the current lineup - which features former Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse, who's been with the band since 1994, and keyboardist Don Airey, who replaced the retired Lord in 2002 - is perhaps the most improvisation-oriented in Deep Purple's lengthy history.
"It's nice to have a blend between pleasing the audience and doing some jamming and new things," the 53-year-old Morse says. "I think you have a responsibility to throw new things in that aren't expected. I'll change dynamics or change guitar voicings to have some variety. I'll still play bits and certain themes from solos that are familiar, but not the whole thing, and then improvise the rest.
"It's sort of a middle-of-the-road compromise that works fine for me, and the vast majority of the people do seem fine with it."
Singers don't always appreciate improvisation, in which they usually take a back seat to the instrumentalists, but Gillan seems not to mind.
"If you listen to Steve and Don trading licks," he says, "they're more articulate with their instruments than most people are with their voices when they're having a conversation, and so the ideas come very quickly and flow. I just think the quality of these guys ... They still practice for six hours every day, even on concert days, just walking around with their instruments all the time. It's inspiring."
It's also something of a throwback, Gillan adds, which is appropriate in a year when those outside the band are celebrating Deep Purple's most famous album.
He likens the current version of Deep Purple to the band that made 'Deep Purple in Rock', on which he and bassist Roger Glover joined the band to form its famed 'Mk. II' lineup, and 'Fireball'.
Gillan describes "In Rock" as "five guys let loose in a room going absolutely mental," adding that "Fireball" "stretched us and let out the funkier side and the bluesy side, and so it completed the picture. And then you put all the ingredients together, and you've got 'Machine Head.'
"I'm really convinced that we couldn't have done 'Machine Head' without those two albums, but they don't get the same kind of attention."
There was a time when Gillan wondered if Deep Purple would ever get back to that kind of creative point. After regrouping the 'Mk. II' lineup in 1984, the group endured some turbulent years as both Gillan and notoriously mercurial guitarist Ritchie Blackmore came and went from the band even as it released a succession of studio and live albums, and even had one of its top-selling albums with 'Perfect Strangers' (1984).
But Blackmore left for good in November 1993. It was, Gillan says, "a major divorce, and we had to put the house back in order."
The first step, obviously, was to find a new guitarist.
"We all made a conscious effort to avoid having a Ritchie clone," the singer says, "because that would have brought the thing to a standstill as far as the creative process was concerned. We wanted somebody with a strong but different background who was going to add something to the musical process in the band."
It didn't take too much effort to convince Morse, he adds.
"There was only one phone call," Gillan says.
Deep Purple is now looking ahead to a new album, and Gillan reports that plenty of ideas for new songs have evolved from the group's improvisations on stage and during sound checks. Given a touring schedule that stretches into early 2008, it may be awhile before those ideas are developed, but the singer says that coming up with new material is rarely a problem.
"I know it sounds boring," Gillan says, "but we don't make plans. We never do. A few weeks ahead we might say, 'Oh, let's go into the studio on such-and-such date,' but we never make a plan as far as the style of the record or anything. We never go into the studio with a single song written, even."It's just fun, really," he concludes. "We just go and have a bit of a good time, and have a lot of faith that something good will come out."