A loose salute to the true debut of the band’s Mark II era
While the arguments over which Deep Purple lineup was the best will stretch on into eternity, what’s not in dispute is that Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra was an odd way for the Mark II lineup of Lord, Ian Paice, Roger Glover, Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore to introduce themselves to the world.
With lyrics by then new vocalist Gillan and recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Malcolm Arnold, it was easily one of the strangest rock releases of 1969, overall a watershed year in popular music. To no one’s surprise, chronically unhappy guitarist Ritchie Blackmore hated it, while Arnold had good things to say about both the band and the process. Listening today, it remains a curio, albeit an interesting dead end, one that led to both unwieldy classical-rock abominations like Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth as well as more worthwhile cross-genre meshings like Metallica’s S&M.
Immediately after the Concerto’s September 1969 release, the band—whose members were by all reports getting along famously—began work on its first proper studio album whose creative direction was made crystal clear by the title, In Rock. And in case anyone wondered about the scale of this quintet’s ambitions, there was the Mount Rushmore cover. While I occasionally engage in futile Internet battles with foes of Deep Purple Mark II’s final effort, Who Do We Think We Are—they think it’s rubbish, I don’t—when it comes to Mark II’s first rock album, the place where it all started you might say, everyone is on the same page. This is the first step, Fireball was the second, on the way to Machine Head. As with all things DP, there are those deluded souls who would choose In Rock over everything else in their catalog. The flame was purer then they argue, before pop influences, not to mention the legendary band dissension (exacerbated by endless touring), crept in and turned DP into a series of contentious, ever-changing lineups. Again, the Purple wars are eternal. And let’s not even mention Burn!
From the opening squall of guitar, organ and drums on the album’s first track “Speed King,” which eventually evaporates into just Lord playing churchy chords, before launching into a ferocious keyboard riff supported by drummer Ian Paice’s driving tempo, it was clear that Blackmore’s dream of going “heavy” had come true. Although it only clocks in at 5:55, “Speed King,” the first of the album’s mini-epics, traverses a lot of rock history in its lyrics, mentioning the “house of blue light,” “tutti frutti” and “gonna rock and roll down to New Orleans.” The guitar-organ riffs and solos by both continue in “Bloodsucker,” where Gillan’s lyrics wander into “gee-what-rhymes-with” territory—“Gotta black breast Chinese eyes/Got an English brain that’s gonna make me wise.”
Next up is the track that In Rock is best known for, the band’s most famous rock epic, the over 10-minute long, “Child in Time.” Once heard accompanying stormchasers in the film Twister, this dire ode to the cold war also became the band’s first genuine anthem. With Gillan’s unearthly cries, it also established beyond all doubt that the high range of his vocal instrument was truly a thing of wonder and one of the band’s greatest assets. While there inevitably came a time where the proggy tune was dropped from the live set list because he could no longer sing it, it firmly established that this was a band with a future. Based on “Bombay Calling” a tune by the band It’s a Beautiful Day, “Child in Time”’s stop time middle section, with the snare and guitar breaking into a triumphal march, is one of DP’s signature moments on record.
Returning for just a moment to the inspirations behind Lord’s classical-rock concerto, the album’s B side opens with an experiment with one of classical music’s most famous hit tunes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” eventually transmogrified into “Flight of the Rat.” This was also the first mention in song of a mammal that would return in Who Do We Think We Are’s, “Rat Bat Blue.”
The balance of the album are lesser tunes that fine-tuned the band’s organ-guitar attack and were overshadowed by their heavier-hitting neighbors. A plodding tempo weakens “In the Fire,” while “Living Wreck” features Lord repeatedly making his organ growl like a big cat. Though In Rock is generally a leap forward for the band in terms of being well-recorded, excessive knob-twisting mars the closer “Hard Lovin’ Man.” Emerging from the same crash of instruments that opened “Speed King,” it smoothly slides into the kind of galloping hard rock that would mark many of the best songs on later records (think “Highway Star”). Near the song’s midpoint, a gong that is panned back and forth is a sign of what’s to come. The fade out-fade in as the song ends, followed by hard pans of Blackmore’s guitar left and right are then novel studio nonsense that adds nothing and comes off as more annoying than Avant or ingenious. The track is dedicated to distinguished engineer Martin Birch, one of three who worked on In Rock, and who went on to engineer virtually all the DP albums (live and studio) along with early records by Fleetwood Mac, most the Iron Maiden catalog and a number of seminal one-offs like Jeff Beck’s Beck-Ola and the Faces’ Long Player.
With In Rock’s success, the band’s future die was cast. All the elements were there—Blackmore’s guitar heft, Glover’s solid bass underpinning, classicist Lord’s inventiveness and schizoid solos on organ and Ian Paice’s brawny drumming. This was a band that had transcended mere English boogie with chops enough to take them anywhere they wanted to go. Best of all, it was a band album, made by mates who were gelling and genuinely collaborating on music whose quality was clearly rising. All they needed now were hooks. “Strange Kind of Woman” and “Space Truckin’” were just ahead.