I came of age when music was dominated by British synthesizer duos. Some, like Naked Eyes, produced some interesting music. Others, like Soft Cell, were one-hit wonders that flamed out on heroin and boredom. Many of these groups took their cues from The Beatles. And as much as I loved (and still love) The Beatles, I missed the louder music from when I was a little kid. I didn’t know much about the bands. I just knew I liked the music better before the advent of cheap keyboards and disgruntled punk vocalists trying to croon.
And then one night, my best friend mentioned this song he listened to when his mother dropped him and his brother off at the pool a decade earlier. He gave me the name, but it didn’t ring any bells. As he had his stepmom’s car, he invited me to dinner and played it on the way home.
And then I heard the chords. Da da dah! Da da di dah! Da da dah! Dah dah!
Oh, yeah. That song punched me in the face hard. I remembered it from when I was a little kid, too. It was “Smoke on the Water.” I learned the band was Deep Purple. Soon, I knew all about Deep Purple, and by the time I graduated high school, I not only had all their albums, but I eagerly awaited their reunion that year.
I knew all about their origins as a psychedelic band. I knew all about the heavy metal years and “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water” and “Child in Time.” And then there were the three albums they did with this unknown lead singer named David Coverdale. He had some success later on with a little band called Whitesnake.
And just as I graduated high school, they got back together again. And they didn’t miss a beat with Perfect Strangers. They’ve been together ever since, but not without even more personnel changes. Ian Gillan was booted in favor of Rainbow singer Joe Lynn Turner. Only Purple did not like making Rainbow albums, so back came Gillan, out went Ritchie Blackmore, and in came Steve Morse, which turned the band back into creative highs.
Purple was like a lot of bands that started in the sixties. Their longevity guaranteed they would shuffle their line-up frequently. But the line-up everyone remembers is that of Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Ian Gillan on vocals, Roger Glover on bass, Ian Paice on drums (and the only member to play in every line-up), and Jon Lord, rock’s consummate gentleman, on keyboards. Blackmore was the fiery creative center, and he found his best synergy with Glover. Even though Glover was fired in 1973, he would be the one to guide Blackmore’s other band, Rainbow, to mainstream success before returning with him to Purple in 1984. But it was Ian Gillan, thunder-throated and full of raw power on vocals, who mixed best with Blackmore. Like oil and water.
Like Cream or the Beatles, though, that kind of creative ego can’t last long. Gillan abandoned Purple, Glover was fired, and in came an unknown Coverdale and Trapeze bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes. That last a year and a half before Blackmore packed it in. They brought in the very un-Blackmore-like Tommy Bolin to take his place. Paice and Coverdale were already fans of his jazz fusion work, and Hughes and Lord thought he was the perfect character to fill Blackmore’s shoes. Blackmore himself thought it was a good choice, but found, to his amusement, that Bolin was a babe in the woods. There’s an interview somewhere with Blackmore relating a visit to his successor’s home and finding the young up-and-comer had not changed the strings on his guitar in four years. Alas, Bolin did not survive the original breakup of the band. The former members were devastated, and Ronnie James Dio once related how Blackmore’s guitar howled on stage the night he found out Bolin had died.
Blackmore left again in 1994, this time for good, permanently ceding control of Purple to Gillan. There was a very short list of people who could take over. One was Joe Satriani, who did fill in for Blackmore for a time after his departure. The other was Steve Morse, formerly of the Dixie Dregs and Kansas. After that, there was no one. Either they landed Morse, or that was it for Purple. Fortunately, Morse took the gig, and has been their guitarist for 25 years now.
But Purple has lost one more member. In the early 2000s, Jon Lord retired, hand-picking his successor, Don Airey. Airey, who is a joy to watch live, has been with them ever since, but Mr. Lord passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012.
The band, now in the Rock Hall, is on its “Long Farewell” tour. Paice is playing despite a stroke a few years ago, and Gillan, in his seventies, can’t keep adjusting his style for age forever. Unlike some bands – I’m looking at you, KISS! – Purple’s farewell tour is a true farewell tour. It’s not a sham to make money off the past. At some point in the next year or two, they will stop.
Hopefully, we’ll get to see Blackmore and Morse on stage together. Just once.
They owe us.