Deep in conversation
Don Airey didnít just live through the golden age of rock and roll, he helped shape it.
From the early ‘70s, the British keyboardist amassed a breathtaking CV of musical collaborations before joining hard rock pioneers Deep Purple as a full member 12 years ago.
Among the acts Don has recorded with – and we’re just cherry-picking here – are Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Rainbow, Brian May and Judas Priest.
Speaking to City Times over the phone, the 64-year-old mulls over how his life has changed since joining Deep Purple in earnest.
“We’ve still got quite a bit of friction,” he readily admits. “You always get that in any band – if nobody’s being annoying then it must be you!”
But when Don talks about growing up and seeing his group welcomed into the mainstream, it’s with a hint of nostalgic regret.
“When we all started out in bands, we were kind of outlaws,” he says. “It was difficult to get into hotels, to be accepted as part of society. Obviously we’ve smoothed out some of the rough edges a bit.”
So does he miss the feeling of being a vigilante?
“Yes, I do,” says the Sunderland native. “Those were very exciting times. “I can’t explain it…bands are very tribal. I was once working in theatre and I was amazed at how actors behaved. They were all so polite and funny and they all got along. It was a revelation to me – whereas in bands it was always fighting. And you’d never talk to another group either.”
Classically trained on the piano from the age of three, Don went on to hone his craft at Nottingham University and the Royal Manchester Conservatoire.
After a diverse and fleet-footed career leaping in and out of projects – including winning the Eurovision Song Contest for the UK in 1997 with Katrina and the Waves – Don was drafted into Deep Purple at a day’s notice.
Deep Purple performing in London’s O2 Arena
Founding member Jon Lord (who passed away last year) had sustained an injury, with the hard rock legends scheduled to play Denmark’s Skanderborg Festival in August 2001.
“Something just happened from the first moment I walked in the rehearsal room,” he recalls – while confessing that he took to the stage in front of 30,000 fans with minimal preparation (“They had put me on the wrong plane, so we had about 10 minutes together rehearsing as a band, but it all seemed to work. I don’t know why.”)
In fact, the hastily assembled partnership went so well that Don eventually joined the band full-time when Lord retired in 2002. During the gig itself, his improvised intro to Lazy from the band’s seminal 1972 album Machine Head remains in the live set to this day.
ROCK IN A HARD PLACE
The legacy of Deep Purple, who formed outside London in the late 1960s and have been through numerous line-up changes, is indisputable. Though their hit singles were few and far between (with only Hush and Smoke on the Water denting the American charts), the band have sold more than 100 million albums while cementing a reputation as one of the world’s most bombastic live acts.
They have influenced everyone from Queen to Metallica to Aerosmith, while their continued exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has drawn widespread criticism from the music community.
Despite the titanic achievements of Deep Purple and their peers, Don doesn’t feel that today’s rockers have properly shouldered their inherited mantle.
“I hear some good things, but I don’t hear anything like I used to in the ‘70s,” he says. “I don’t hear the guitar players anymore. You don’t have the raw sound or primeval feeling which used to tumble out of the Marshall amps.
“From around 1963 to 1975, there was just a succession of amazing guitar players: Hendrix, Clapton, Ritchie (Blackmore, ex-Deep Purple guitarist).”
Conceding that the ‘80s produced a handful of greats – namely Eddie Van Halen and the late Randy Rhoads – Don isn’t optimistic that hard rock will ever recapture its glory days.
“I don’t think we’ll ever experience it again,” he says. “I often think it’s like the Elizabethan age of literature when you had Marlowe and Shakespeare and Ben Jonson – the most wonderful plays that have ever been written – and it really has never happened again.”
As for Don’s own slate in 2013, he’s embarking on a world tour with Deep Purple which begins in Delhi this Sunday, before a headline slot at the Dubai International Jazz Festival four days later.
The band are also preparing for the release of their 19th studio album, due out in April. And, for the first time in our conversation, Don gets a little flustered when we ask him for the record’s name.
“Well…I don’t know,” he replies. “I really don’t. It’s under wraps. Apparently there is a title and I’ve been told that I know what it is – I don’t know if it’s something I suggested.”
So he knows but he doesn’t know?
“Exactly,” he laughs. “I sound like Donald Rumsfeld, don’t I?”