By: Dennis Cook for JamBase.com
On June 3, 2007, Kansas City classic rock station KYYS gathered together 1,683 guitarists to simultaneously play Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” and beat the previous Guinness Book World Record. The four-notes that open the song may be the most widely recognized riff in popular culture. Not bad for a little rock combo that started in the backwater of Hertford, England in 1968.
They’ve gone on to release nearly 20 studio albums and innumerable live collections with multiple lineups, always staying true to an aesthetic that helped give birth to the descriptors “hard rock” and “heavy metal.” Since 2002, Deep Purple has consisted of Dixie Dregs shredder Steve Morse (guitars), Don Airey (keys) and foundation members Ian Paice (drums), Ian Gillan (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass). While many might (and do) argue for the sanctity and brilliance of the classic lineup with founder/guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord – both instrumental alpha males of the highest order – one has only to listen to today’s Purple to know they’re every bit as switched on and capable as any time in their history. What’s more, there’s a consistency and naked joy to their music making now that’s sometimes been muddled by drama and ego in the past.
Despite many of them approaching senior discount status, it’s abundantly clear the minute they start playing that Deep Purple doesn’t intend to give an inch to ANY hard rock band. The primordial muscle that drove monsters like “Highway Star” and “Woman From Tokyo” like a steel spike into our collective conscience remains fully intact. They just look like they’re having way more fun now.
While Led Zeppelin may be getting barrels of ink for their solitary reunion show, Deep Purple has been marching around the globe for close to four decades, warmly embracing their beloved back catalog but also moving forward and creating new chapters with a determination most young bands would envy. There’s a startling lack of nostalgia because this music remains very much alive for them, fueled by steady touring and a sharp refusal to rest on their laurels.
When the great electric bassists of the past 50 years are rattled off, Roger Glover’s name is often conspicuously absent. It’s a bloody oversight but anyone who’s really listened to the man can hear his ferocity, thumping groove and technical daring in Les Claypool, Victor Wooten, Reed Mathis and many more. We sat down for a chat with Glover before a concert in San Francisco this past August (see our review here). Face-to-face backstage, Glover was a casually dressed, quiet, very articulate gent with reading glasses hanging from a chain around his neck. It’s a far cry from the perpetually erect persona he thrusts at us onstage, the one with a bandana clinging tight to his head while he sweats and ripples with palpable power. Like many great artists, Glover is a bundle of grand contradictions that ultimately fuel the depth and feeling in music that’s stretched across generations and the entire planet.
JamBase: Let’s start by talking about Deep Purple’s latest studio album, Rapture of the Deep (released November 2005 on Eagle Rock with a Deluxe Edition out June 2006), which you’ve been touring for almost two years now. There’s something special about this record that begs inclusion on a list of your band’s best.
Roger Glover: We tour whether we have a record out or not. Touring is a way of life. It’s pretty much the only way to promote a record these days, in America these days anyway. Classic rock radio wouldn’t even take a look at us. Live is always where we’ve lived. We’ve always been a stage band. Studio albums have always been fraught with difficulties. Sometimes they came easy but often full of difficulties. In fact, a strange phenomenon is that an easy album always seemed to be followed by a difficult one. I don’t know if that’s true for other bands but it’s certainly true for us. Deep Purple In Rock (1970) was easy, it just flowed out, Fireball (1971) was kind of tough. Machine Head (1972) was a breeze, Who Do We Think We Are (1973) was tough.
JamBase: And it just goes like that?
Roger Glover: Perfect Strangers (1984) was easy, House of Blue Light (1987) was tough. Maybe Rapture of the Deep broke that mold a bit. Bananas (2003) was a breeze and so was Rapture. Maybe because we had a producer [Mike Bradford (Butthole Surfers, Kid Rock) helmed both releases], maybe because we had a change of lineup, I don’t know. You can talk about reasons and excuses till the cows come home. What’s the word I’m looking for? Ah, hypotheses!
That’s such a wonderful word!
They’re dying out, by the way. The only few I know are in Africa.
You mentioned the lineup change. There’s a rather complicated family tree as one tries to follow Deep Purple over the years. How do you think that’s affected the music? There’s a core to your catalog that you’re probably going to play no matter who’s in the band but looking at the current lineup, what’s distinctive about this bunch of guys?
We get along pretty good, and have really since Steve [Morse] joined the band, which is now 14-15 years ago. It’s been a relatively happy band. Not to say we don’t have our differences or fights. You take any five people and put them together and you’ll have some fights, but it’s not a fight that destroys the band. It’s a fight for something you believe in. You gotta fight for your corner, you know? But it has been a fairly contented lineup, in that respect. Contentment can sometimes breed lackadaisical attitudes but it hasn’t.
There’s a real hunger in the band that comes from the fact that when Ritchie [Blackmore] left we were determined to carry on. And that determination is very strong. I suppose that’s because of the unhappy Blackmore years of the late ’80s/early ’90s. There was a will to not give him some kind of moral victory and have the band fold when he left. We all felt very strongly about that. Joe Satriani [who filled in when Blackmore abruptly left in November 1993, staying on through summer of the following year] led the charge, as it were, and gave us hope that there was life after Ritchie. And, of course, Steve Morse was that person.
Years ago I was talking to someone really famous about – and I don’t want to name drop so I won’t tell you who – the idea of being in a band where everyone is equal and speak their mind and come up with ideas without fear of being made fun of or just plain rejected. I always thought I’d have to leave Deep Purple to find that because I desperately wanted that. I love being in a band. There’s nothing like it. I don’t like being a solo person. Just being in a team is really very satisfying. When Steve joined it actually sort of happened physically. We were standing around in a circle, all of us throwing in ideas, and we’d decided to share the writing no matter who came up with what – which is something we hadn’t done since the early ’70s. We were all looking around at each other and it was pure joy. That’s why Purpendicular  is such a favorite album of mine, not necessarily the music but the time.
And that tour was fantastic. For a lot of fans, myself included, it rekindled our passion for the band.
It was a rebirth in every sense of the word. We all came out of our shells. We improved as musicians. I know I did. I suddenly felt like a bass player again, and I noticed that Jon and Paicey and Gillan just burst out with stuff. It was a wonderfully happy period and it seems to have continued. Jon [Lord] left very amicably [in 2001], and I couldn’t think of a better replacement than Don [Airey]. He’s a wonderful musician, suitably eccentric, very funny and knows a lot about football [laughs]. He’s making his mark. Bananas was his first record and I think he really didn’t quite know how we worked at that point. We basically went into the studio completely unprepared, which is normal for us. You can’t prepare for a proper record; it just happens on the spot. A couple of years later after we’d toured Bananas he was much more confident and much more assertive in his ideas. He was the one who came up with the riff that became “Rapture of the Deep.”
The tendency with bands that have been around for 30-plus years is to just trot out the songs that people know. Deep Purple seems very interested in making new material and fitting it together with what you’ve done before. There’s a very active sense that this band is alive in the here-and-now.
It is important to us. First off, you can’t stop writing. As soon as we get together we’ll start writing stuff. That’s not to say we can play it all onstage. We have disagreements in the band, as much as the fans, about what the setlist should be. I would love to do far more newer material.
I want to hear “Junkyard Blues” (from Rapture of the Deep) become a regular part of your shows.
We did it live for about a year or so. It basically got dropped in America because of the old “classic rock syndrome.” The song “MTV” [off Rapture] sums it up very well, and that came from a true story.
[The first verse from “MTV”]
I was driving through the night
Into an endless tunnel of fog
When it dawned on me something was wrong
I was in a trance, hypnotized
Bored beyond belief
I was listening to the same old song
I know every lick, every word
I’m on first name terms with the crew
But I’d better get used to this poop du jour
Sure as hell they won’t play anything new
Roger Glover: I went to a radio station when Bananas came out and did a long, in depth interview about Bananas and Don and Bradford and all the interest in the new album. And the guy says, “It’s been great having Roger Glover in the studio. Now let’s hear some music.” And then [sings the famous first few notes of “Smoke On The Water” and sighs deeply]. I know I shouldn’t complain about people playing our records. It’s just frustrating when they play the same two or three all the time.
Do you ever have a strong urge to just retire “Smoke On The Water?” It’s such a part of what you’re identified with but how do you come at it every night so you can enjoy it?
It’s a magical thing, really. Steve said once that if there was a button you could press onstage that when you pressed it the audience went crazy, well, you’d be hard pressed not to press it every night.
The band started as a musical band. The whole point was music made by really good musicians. When I joined the band I was the least worthy bass player they could have found because the standard of musicianship between Ritchie and Jon Lord and Ian Paice was stunning. I’d never heard anything like it. I came from the old school where you pick up a guitar, learn a couple chords and eventually make your way. These were musicians in the real sense of the word, and the band has always been about that – music. Real musicians tend to play like jazz players not cabaret players. So, every night, with Jon and Ritchie in particular, it would always be different. I’d come from more of a pop background and I thought they were playing it wrong every night. But, of course, I realized they were extemporizing and having a bit of fun. A lot of the skeletal structure of the songs remains the same so people can recognize what it is. In fact, that’s what keeps it alive. I find different bass parts in “Smoke” and “Highway Star” and “Lazy.” There’s something going on, I try something I’ve never tried before.
Happy accidents are great.
There’s another thing about “Smoke,” especially in Europe now. France, in particular, is a fantastic country. The past couple years we can do no wrong there. So, we’re playing to 20-year-olds and less [in Europe]. We don’t see many over 20. It’s really a teenager’s audience, and, in a sense, we live that song through their ears, their lives. So, it’s a shared, new experience every night.
What did you think of the guitar gathering in Kansas City this past June where they used “Smoke On The Water” for the largest gathering of guitarists in one place?
We don’t take it that seriously but it’s certainly an honor to be associated with a riff that famous. Ritchie did come up with a real gem there. I’ve tried to analyze what it is about that riff that makes it so good, because I think it’s the riff more than the song. The song is a very specific story about something that happened to us and didn’t happen to anyone else. Usually when you write songs they’re about love or redemption or another universal theme people can identify with. With “Smoke On The Water” who can identify with that story that happened to us? Yet, they do. But to be honest, it’s probably more the riff than the lyrics. I’ll give Ritchie his due.
The Zappa reference hasn’t hurt its cult either.
It’s brilliant because [pauses], I hesitate to use Beethoven in the same breath as Deep Purple but Beethoven’s Fifth [Symphony] took two notes – well, three notes but two of them are the same – and it’s so instantly recognizable but it couldn’t be simpler. That’s the key, to be that simple AND that recognizable and original. “Smoke” actually comes up to that. To me, “Smoke” is every bit as good as what Beethoven wrote in those notes.
That sort of inspired simplicity is right there in the band’s name, which I’ve always thought was a perfect rock & roll name. It gets right to it but it’s not a specific image. Are you still happy with that name? What does it mean to you now?
It’s become a sound. But thank God it is that [name]. One of the original suggestions before I joined was Concrete God. Can you imagine us still talking about Concrete God [laughs]. Deep Purple is a good name because it’s amorphous. Years ago in the early ’60s I heard this band with this semi-hit, which I thought was really great. I really liked it and I saw their photograph in the music papers but I thought, “They’ll never make it with a stupid name like that.” The Beatles. And I actually thought that. What I learned from that was [a group’s name] becomes a sound and you don’t think of it anymore.
Their name transcended the insect culturally. My first experience with Deep Purple was as a kid discovering Machine Head in my uncle’s record collection. In the midst of all the soft rock my family was listening to I felt this was really manly music. There’s something sort of hirsute…
…and robust (laughs)!
I think that’s something you’ve maintained over the years, too.
My memories of it actually come from not many years before that. In 1968, at the sort of end of Flower Power when Jimi Hendrix and Creem were reaching their peak, the buzzword amongst musicians and fans was “heavy.” Like, “That’s heavy, man.” It wasn’t a genre so much as it was heavy. I remember an episode where we tried to be “heavy” by buying new, bigger amplifiers and turning them up. Turns out we were playing the same posh we were playing before just louder. It was really quite an exercise, a horrible noise, really. Then a couple things happened, one of which was I heard Zeppelin for the first time and I realized that “heavy” was not loudness, it was attitude. Within a week or so of hearing Led Zeppelin I met Deep Purple and was jamming with them. Then came the offer to join them. All of the sudden I was in a “heavy” band, without masses of gear. There was a feeling that [said], “We aren’t a commercial band. The BBC don’t play the kind of music we write, so why don’t we do what we really want to do?” I picked this up from the other musicians. I was the new boy in the band going along for the ride, in a way. When we got into the studio and tried to capture what went on onstage, where things were pretty wild, we’d rehearse but nothing seemed to be anything like the concerts. People would just stop in the middle of songs and go off on a solo tangent then come thundering back in. It was chaotic and crazy and very exciting. One thing I’ll always remember about trying to capture that in the studio was the VU meters were always in the red. There was a feeling of trying to play your instrument to its utmost limits. That was my overriding impression of those first few albums – how can I push this guitar this much further. I think that’s what gives them that robust feeling.
Does it still have that feeling for you?
Yes it does. It’s a magic thing. When I was 15, I went to a talent contest and didn’t win. The people who won it were a four-piece band called The Men of Mystery. It was at a British Legion hall and the stage was small. I was by the side of the stage while they did their piece, and my overriding memory of it was that they wore Cuban heel boots and the stage was dusty. I was right next to the bass player’s boot, and I could sync up his boot to the drummer’s bass drum pedal. So, when the bass drum pedal went down his boot went down. They were together, and it was just such a wonderful sound! It was something that I would aspire to afterwards. That’s one of those little snapshots that stays in my memory, and more than occasionally onstage I’ll be playing away – and you might go to all different places when you’re playing – and I’ll think back to that. And I’ll listen to Paicey’s bass drum and I’ll listen to me and we’ll be bangin’ it the same way. That same excitement is still there. It’s definitely a passion that’s not gone away.