Looking back at an underrated album from the band’s Mark II era
When Deep Purple released Who Do We Think We Are 50 years ago, they were at the finish of their second era, comfortably in the sound of what’s come to be called their Mark II lineup.
The roots of this mix of prog rock and heavy metal had been present from their earliest years, but the first few albums mixed a little prog with British psych, pop and even touches of folk. The first lineup’s final album, 1969’s self-titled record, showed a band in fine form moving deeper into prog territory while synthesizing various influences. After that recording and shortly before the excessive Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Deep Purple made a radical shift, including firing vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper has part of a move toward a heavier sound.
Keyboardist Jon Lord, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, and drummer Ian Paice brought in singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover and quickly began a run of albums that would help define the sound of metal in the early ’70s. Machine Head from 1972 remains the canonical record, with the ubiquitous “Smoke on the Water” among its memorable cuts. Preceding releases Deep Purple in Rock (1970) and Fireball (1971) deserve continued consideration, too, bringing the group well deserved commercial success and critical acclaim.
Those three albums had pushed the band to a new level of stardom. The artists continued to push themselves. The live album Made in Japan, recorded between two Who Do We Think We Are sessions showed a band full of energy and creativity. The performances disguised the actual turmoil the band was in, with Gillan and Blackmore barely on speaking terms and various band members suffering from physical illness, professional burnout, or both. Within that context, the group’s managers still pushed them to get out an album quickly, to capitalize on the success of Machine Head. Who Do We Think We Are, then, came out of troubled times. The success of the record might be a little ______, but it still contains a number of gems and stronger overall work than is sometimes acknowledged.
The group first attempted to record in their mobile studio in Rome in July 1972. Only one song from these sessions would make the record, opening track and lead single “Woman from Tokyo.” The song only found moderate success at the time but has since become a classic rock staple, from the opening cymbal to the unforgettable riff. The band sounds joyful, with lyrics looking forward to a tour of Japan. With a mix of pop hooks, a spacey bridge, assertive guitar, and a driving piano, the performance combines the best of Deep Purple’s qualities, although it may have pushed too far toward pop, at least by Blackmore’s standards.
The group, unable to get anything else of note accomplished, went on tour, capturing key performances for Made in Japan, and came back to the studio in October, this time in Germany. The band were at odds, and much of the album was recorded with the musicians playing separately. The results show the band’s strength and weaknesses at the time converging. After so much time together, they were locked in and could put together stunning tracks in their sleep. Also: after so much time together, it was easy enough just to put together tracks in their sleep.
Among the album’s mixed reviews over the years, most critiques come down to a single idea: the band performs on auto-pilot, lacking the energy of previous (or even following) releases. That complaint seems read into the album too much without listening to it. Who Do We Think We Are doesn’t match the energy of, say, “Space Truckin’” but that says more about the incredible peak of 1972 than about this release. “Mary Long” tones done the experimental forays for more of a late ’60s rock sound, fitting for its indictment of establishment hypocrisy. “Super Trouper” may be the song deserving of the by-numbers label. It’s short (under three minutes), and never really takes off. It hints at the pressures of stardom but neither musicians nor singer give it enough force and it remains oddly subdued. Between its brevity and its lack of energy, it feels more like a sketch than a completed number.
AUDIO: Deep Purple “Woman from Tokyo”
After that, the album picks up considerably. “Smooth Dancer” would have fit on Machine Head, and that’s not a knock. Lord takes advantage of his moment in the spotlight for some fine organ work. “Rat Bat Blue” lets the band play with some different ideas: scatting, experimental songs, and, of course, a big riff tying hard rock to the blues. “Place in Line” digs deeper into those blues. The adherence to that tradition moves the group away from prog and may have prompted some of the criticism, but it makes for a nice swerve in the record. Blackmore’s not at his flashiest here, but it’s a solid piece of what it is. “Our Lady” ends the album with the band’s sounding echoing its origins while overstaying its welcome just a bit (particularly given the lack of strong soloing).
As the band toured in 1973, Gillan would resign his spot in the band (by letter!), prompting the group to fire Roger Glover to embark on a new era. In its Mk III era, the group would move more into blues, funk, and even boogie with bassist Glenn Hughes and singer David Coverdale. The period would be short-lived (though outlasting the forgettable Mk IV stretch). Eventually the Who Do We Think We Are lineup would reconvene for a couple mid-’80s albums. Those releases may be solid, but never quite captured the energy of the early ’70s.
Who Do We Think We Are might not have been a triumphant capstone, but it makes a far better finale for a group’s peak than it’s often given credit for, and half a century on, it remains as vibrant as ever.
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