Deep Purple's Roger Glover talks the origins of "Smoke on the Water" and more
The first time I saw Deep Purple was on a steamy Sunday evening in June 1973. I casually informed my parents that I was skipping church to spend the day at the Brady Street Festival before heading to the concert.
"You're going to see who?" my dad asked. "What kind of show is this?" I reminded him that a few months earlier he'd listened to "Jesus Christ Superstar" and enjoyed it immensely. "You know the guy who played the part of Jesus?" I said. "He's the singer in this band." That put everyone at ease and I was out the door.
The next day, however, the Milwaukee Journal was laid out on the kitchen table, folded to reveal a review of the concert entitled "Rock Concert Turns into Fracas." The writer was appalled at the pushing and shoving as many of the 12,000 fans tried to get closer to the stage as the music began. He observed that Deep Purple was "primitive rock music played at ear-splitting volume and breakneck speed." My mother's left eyebrow arched high enough to disappear into her hairline.
I explained that Roger Glover and Ian Paice were on a par with Wyman and Watts or Jones and Bonham. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was in the pantheon with Clapton, Beck and Page. And the riff from "Highway Star" was cribbed from none other than Johann Sebastian Bach! Of course it was like standing under a 727 just before takeoff, and yes, people wanted to get close to the stage. After all, this wasn't Perry Como, where they'd be running for the exits. This was the sound of the men working on the chain gang, baby. This was rock and roll.
Flashback five years from that night, and the British band Deep Purple was just getting started. They were a modest success on the pop charts with "Hush" and "Kentucky Woman," but far from being the worldwide sensation they would eventually become. In 1969, founding members Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards) and Ian Paice (drums) brought in a new singer and bass player from a British band called Episode 6. The new members were singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover. Their distinctive sound comprised a thunderous musical machine with Gillan's shattering screaming leading the way. Fans loved the unforgettable riffs of "Speed King," "Woman from Tokyo" and "Smoke on the Water" as Deep Purple evolved into one of the most popular and influential heavy metal bands of the 1970s. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, they were also the loudest group on the planet.
But at the height of their success, Deep Purple tore itself apart at the seams. Infighting among the band members led some to leave and form bands of their own. Others stayed and tried to pick up the pieces with new musicians. In 1994, Gillan, Lord, Paice and Glover put a new version of Deep Purple back together, this time with Steve Morse, guitarist from the Dixie Dregs and Kansas. The combination gelled as the band recorded new albums and toured the world a number of times. The band has sold 100 million albums worldwide, and in 2016, the members of the group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Deep Purple's current tour, "The Long Goodbye," will stop at Milwaukee's Riverside Theater on Sunday, Oct. 13. Before then, bassist Roger Glover talked with OnMilwaukee about the band's highs and lows.
OnMilwaukee: If you live up to that reputation as world's loudest band, you'll bring the Riverside Theater down around everyone's ears.
Roger Glover: I think the world's loudest band thing was somebody's idea of a marketing campaign. Sure, Deep Purple was loud in those days, but we were playing with equipment designed to drive the sound in huge arenas, just like all the other bands that drew large audiences. To us, volume was just another arrow in our bow. I believe live good sound lies in the mix. Bands that balance their sound beginning with a bass drum are going to going to get a bass-heavy mix. We never wanted to sound like that.
As for the upcoming Milwaukee show, well, we certainly don't want anyone's ears to bleed. (Laughs) The volume will be appropriate.
Do you have any hearing loss after 50-plus years with the band?
Not as much as you might think. I have my hearing checked from time to time, and the hearing loss I have is due to my age as much as anything. I tried using ear monitors on stage about eight or nine years ago, and after two weeks, I gave up on them. The sound that came though the ear monitors was not what the audience was hearing, and it's not what the band was putting out. I didn't feel connected to what was going on around me.
Deep Purple had the opportunity to stumble a few times before becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Bands today don't seem to have that luxury.
I would disagree that Deep Purple stumbled at the beginning. After all, they put out three albums and a couple of charting singles in 18 months. But it's true that many of the songs were covers. I think it's more accurate to say they were a band in search of an identity.
Did they find that identity when you and (vocalist) Ian Gillan joined the band in 1969?
I think so, yes. The difference was that Ian and I immediately started writing new material, and the resulting album, "In Rock," was entirely made up of original songs. I hesitate to analyze it too much, but I must point out that the band was made up of stellar musicians. Ian Paice was, and is, a fabulous drummer.
Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore were both classically trained players, and they brought that element to the mix. I couldn't believe how good everyone was. I had never played with people like that! It was a fragile connection, as these things often are, but I think their virtuosity as musicians was one of the keys to our success.
I get the part about the fragile connection. More than a few fans single Ritchie Blackmore out as the architect behind the band coming unglued in 1973. Was he really the villain?
Yes and no. A lot of it is perception. If someone wants to believe Ritchie's the villain, then he is. It's certainly true that he was never a good team player. Ritchie was all about Ritchie – his ideas and his alone. It's kind of like Sinatra's Rat Pack. If you were in, you were in. If you didn't go along, you were out. Ritchie is an artist that had to travel his own path. That's what makes him great.
(Guitarist) Steve Morse has been with the band since 1994. I'm guessing he doesn't bring all the drama that Blackmore did.
Steve is an excellent guitarist, and he's every bit as good as Ritchie. He's very creative, and he's on his own path as well, but he's much more team-oriented. He has his own sound and style, and that's very important. But he's perfectly willing to play Ritchie's iconic solos on songs like "Highway Star." He's not above that. When he first joined the band, he had to endure the inevitable comparisons, but he shrugged it off. He's just that good. I'm so glad he's been with us for the last, what, 25 years now? Steve was an inspired choice.
With the exception of someone like Paul McCartney, bass players in rock bands are often invisible on stage.
(Laughs) I suppose so. There's an old saying that a bass player is half drummer and half musician. It took me quite a long time to find my space. I think it was when I was in Rainbow (1979-84) that I started to feel comfortable on stage. From the start, though, we all felt there should be a bit of dignity in what you do on stage. It's about the character of the music. You can't be playing your best if you're running around in platform shoes or making faces and posing.
What music influenced you while growing up?
I was born in 1945, in Wales, and lived there until I was 9. After the war, there was still rationing, and things like butter and sugar were rare in our home. England was in the process of rebuilding itself, trying to return to its former glory. The music on the radio was pretty dull, lots of unlucky in love stuff. It wasn't until we moved to London in the mid-'50s that I heard some things that excited me. Trad jazz was popular then and skiffle music as well. I also heard American blues for the first time. It was real and emotional. That was a shot in the arm.
Then the tsunami from the United States hit England: Bill Haley, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, so many others. When I was 14, I formed a band with some classmates to play this music. Of course my schooling was the first thing to go bad. (Laughs) I knew all the records, the hit sides and the B-sides. I knew who wrote the songs, who produced it, everything!
How did you decide to play the bass?
That was easy. One of the kids in the band got an electric guitar, so he was the lead guitarist. Another kid learned how to play bar chords so he was the rhythm guitarist. That left me, so I became the bass player. My first bass was a guitar with the top two strings taken off and an electric pickup over the hole. That was the accident that turned out to be a blessing.
How did the band come to consensus on a setlist for the current "Long Goodbye" tour?
We're five creative individuals and we disagree on a lot, but it always comes down to a balance between the older songs and the new material. The hardcore fans like to hear some of the more obscure cuts, but there are songs that we just can't leave out because a lot of people want to hear the stuff from "Machine Head" and "Fireball." Those are the ones that have lasted. The final decision on what we'll play really isn't made until a day or two before the first show.
Arena rock songs like "Free Bird," "Stairway to Heaven" and "We Will Rock You" are timeless classics that define a period in history. "Smoke of the Water" is one of those songs.
You can analyze it until the cows come home, and I still don't know why a song catches on like that. We had no idea at the time that we were creating something with such lasting appeal. I almost hate to admit it, but we wrote "Smoke on the Water" as a filler track. Just made up some words about something that happened to us in Switzerland. That's not the sort of thing one expects to become a classic.
I'd have to say the reason for the song's longevity is the riff. Ritchie just plucked it out of the air one day. It's so simple yet it's got an underlying complexity that's incredibly powerful.
Your audiences contain a large percentage of people who weren't even born when "Machine Head" and "Made in Japan" revealed a band at the height of its creative powers.
Certainly there are the hard-core fans that have followed the band for decades, but those people introduced Deep Purple to their kids – and in some cases their grandkids. We're seeing the result of that.
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