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Heading backwards.

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Some random conversational thread the other day made me think of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.”

It’s a song I hear very, very rarely these days — and that’s by design, because it seems like one of those encrusted cultural relics that hasn’t worn well at all. A plodding four-note riff and a story about a band burned out of its recording studio … what was it people thought was cool about this?

I was prepared to dispatch the entire album it came from, Machine Head, with the same used-to-love-it, outgrew-it attitude. But when I went back and listened to it, Machine Head — which celebrated a big five-oh earlier this year — had a little bit more to say for itself than I thought it might. In the good moments, there’s still a spark there.

Since I took the time to listen to them all, here’s a ranking of the seven songs on Machine Head from worst to best, along with a slight tip of the cap for not being total cheese after all these years. Sixteen-year-old me wasn’t entirely wasting his time.

7. “Space Truckin’.” Lyrics were never the reason to listen to Deep Purple, but the stoned fantasia about a rock band flying around the solar system is especially absurd. The music doesn’t redeem it, either.

As a teenager I liked the descending riff behind the “chorus” — if you can call “C’mon! C’mon! C’mon! Let’s go space truckin’!” a chorus — but it doesn’t do much for me now, and that’s the only really memorable part of the song.

This would have been in the top half of the album rankings if I’d written this post in 1988. I am endlessly glad that I didn’t have a mechanism to publicly record and distribute my thoughts in 1988.

6. “Smoke On The Water.” If you persist in thinking of rock n’ roll bands as strike forces of heroic long-haired coolness, you will thrill to this story of their travail. If you think of them as working-class twits with income tax problems (I may be mangling National Lampoon‘s long-ago phrase slightly), this song will underwhelm you. Certainly there is nothing in the music — big dumb riff, big big dumb riff, big dumb riff, big-dumb-riff — to keep you occupied.

(OK, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore gets off a pretty good solo. Wiki also notes that lead singer Ian Gillan “performed a jazz-influenced version in early solo concerts;” I’m gonna have to hit YouTube to find out more on that. I bet it swang.)

5. “Never Before.” Apparently this was the album’s single — or the album’s intended single; “Smoke On The Water,” which went Top Ten, was released as a single in 1973 as something of an afterthought. This one hit No. 35 in Blighty, Wiki says, and didn’t trouble Casey Kasem in the States.

IMHO this is a competent but unremarkable album track, leaning perhaps a bit too heavily on the foundational hard-rock trope of the cold-hearted mistreatin’ woman (it’s never the guy’s fault, is it?)

It uses the same structure — hard-driving verse and chorus, interrupted by soft-focus drifty-fadey midsection — that would later recur to more brilliant effect in “Woman From Tokyo.”

4. “Highway Star.” No, nobody’s gonna take your car. It’s a mythical challenge, a strawman enemy, like the War on Christmas. Oooh, it’s a killer machine. I dunno, I remembered this tune being a little faster and a little more propulsive; instead, it sounds like the band is chopping its way through resistance, like a boat facing stiff waves.

Organist Jon Lord and Blackmore each get a chance to roll out their classical-inspired arpeggios, and Blackmore’s fancy picking at the end of the solo section makes the boat steam ahead a little faster … but then it just ends, and we’re chugging along in the verse again.

When a song called “Highway Star” makes you think of Robert Fulton, something’s missing the mark. No matter. It works better onstage, I’m sure. (Maybe I should revisit Made In Japan next. A real golden gasser, that one was.)

3. “Maybe I’m A Leo.” Literally the only thing that sets this song apart, and the only reason anyone remembers it, is the fact that the riff starts a heartbeat after beat one. And yet, that simple shifting of a moment’s time is enough to raise “Maybe I’m A Leo” above the trudging ranks of, say, “Smoke On The Water.” Au pays des aveugles, les borgnes sont rois.

I’ll give an extra couple points to any lyric that mentions a sign of the zodiac, too. Now that’s a piece of the Seventies that somehow hasn’t worn thin for me.

(Wiki informs us that singer Gillan, born August 19, is in fact a Leo. Shame he wasn’t born a month earlier; it would have been a hoot to see what he did with “Maybe I’m A Cancer.”)

2. “Pictures of Home.” A band stranded in Switzerland produces a song about being stranded alone in the mountains. Write what you know, I guess.

What could be a feast of self-pity is, instead, a driving and reasonably catchy rocker. Purple even pull off the challenge of giving each member a brief instrumental feature without seeming self-indulgent; drummer Ian Paice (Purple’s secret weapon) and bassist Roger Glover acquit themselves well.

The echoing false ending works pretty nicely too. These guys weren’t such bashers that they couldn’t make a little bit of studio technique work for them.

1. “Lazy.” I remember enough about Made In Japan to recall that this ‘un was one of those vehicles for titanic onstage bloatation — one of those songs where the lead instrumentalists take long unaccompanied solos. Lord thrills a roomful of Osakans with a crashing distorted Hammond solo that interpolates “Louie Louie.” When it’s his turn, Blackmore (with help from Paice’s bass drum and hi-hat) breaks into a jiggy little ditty that sounds like a folk song, or the theme to some cozy BBC children’s puppet show …

… and then Blackmore honks up his volume knob and slices in with the riff — the biting phrase, capped with a single bass-and-drum hit like a punch to the gut — that makes “Lazy” work.

The lyrics are nothing special (“bed” rhymes with “bread,” “straw” with “more”), and the chord structure is more or less standard blues, but it moves.

Lord’s recorded introduction stays on the right side of bloat, and the moment at about 0:42 where he kicks a pedal and his sound instantly goes from distorted to clean is a genius touch. Blackmore, a quickly recognizable stylist whose skills ranged from Bach to blues, is in fine form. Gillan on harmonica is inoffensive.

The pleasures sound modest in print, perhaps, but they are there in sufficient quantity to make “Lazy” the pick of Machine Head.

One response »

  1. Not much of a dispute about the lyrics — never the Purps’ strong suit — but as a drummer, I can tell you that there’s some amazing stickwork in “Highway Star.” Not _quite_ as amazing as “Burn”, but very fine nonetheless. And I always found the choogling middle of “Space Truckin'” kind of fun — a forerunner of what today’s metal kids call the breakdown. 🙂


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