Sunday, 23 November 2008

Deep Purple Sing the Blues

I’m sitting here watching a DVD of Deep Purple – “Live in Concert 1972/73”. They do those standards – “Highway Star”, “Strange Kind of Woman”, “Black Night”, “Smoke on the Water”.

Deep Purple were one of the first bands I ever got excited by, back in the mid-70s when I was at high school. I remember the end of one year (probably 1975 or 76) when instead of sitting in class reading and playing cards a group of us were detailed to dig weeds out of the cricket pitch on the school oval. It was a great assignment – no classes, not timetable, a bit of work, a lot of goofing off. And all done to a Deep Purple soundtrack. It was my first exposure to “Strange Kind of Woman” as performed live with the singer exchanging licks with the guitarist, trying to match the guitar sound with his voice. We all had a go at imitating him imitating a guitar but our voices had only recently broken so most of us were hopeless. It was a few years before I listened to Neil Young and heard music that I wanted to play for myself.

We knew Purple as a heavy metal band, before that title had the connotations it does now. I guess now they would be called hard rock. They had musical pretensions – their keyboard player, guitarist and singer all had classical training, they did long prog-rock solos (I’m listening to one now in the middle of “Space Truckin’”) and the keyboard player even wrote a “Symphony for Orchestra and Rock Band” which they recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yet like Led Zeppelin and many of the other heavy rock bands of the time the music is very close to it’s origins in the blues. A lot of the songs (like “Lazy” or “Highway Star”) are basic 12-bar, but even more ambitious numbers like “Fireball” or “Child in Time” are built around variations on the blues pattern.

M NourbeSe Philip comments that despite African peoples being actively prevented from expressing themselves in the colonies where they were taken, their underground self-expression permanently changed Anglo art forms. Nothing illustrates this better than the way the blues (as well as jazz and reggae) infiltrated Western popular music. You never hear a dancehall number on commercial radio. You never hear Gilbert and Sullivan. You have to go looking for English or American folk music. Yet on station after station if you’re not actually hearing black music (soul or hip-hop) you’re hearing white boys and girls singing the blues.

Why? We’ve all read about how Eric Clapton learned to play guitar by listening to tapes of Robert Johnson, how the white Woodstock-era American musicians appreciated the music of black people as a genuine expression of oppression. We’ve heard about how so many of the members of the big name British bands got their start in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Clapton, Jimmy Page, various members of Fleetwood Mac, and so on). But that only describes it, doesn’t explain it.

I think there are two explanations. The first is that, like me listening to Neil Young, when they first heard the blues many of these boys didn’t go “wow that’s clever” (like I did when I heard Deep Purple or Pink Floyd and they would have when they heard jazz). Instead they thought, “I could do that”. The blues sounds simple and in a way it is. If you know three chords you can play the blues. Of course to play it well takes a lot of practice and a lot of emotional maturity but by the time they discovered that they were well on the way.

The other is the power of the music. You can drive it along angry and loud like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. You can extend it with long solos like Cream. You can complicate it with rare tunings and slide parts like Jeff Lang. You can make it dark and maudlin like Mr Johnson himself or the Audreys, or light and breezy like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. You can make it the soundtrack for a party or a funeral.

Or a cricket pitch working party. I don’t think the sports master was pleased with the muddy mess we left of the cricket pitch (“but we only pulled out the weeds like you said”) but we had lots of fun, learnt how to imitate an electric guitar with our voices (or not) and had that little bit of blues infused into our bloodstreams, to stay with us the rest of our lives.