Deep Purple was formed in 1968 initially as a psychedelic prog-rock group. In the same year, London contemporaries Led Zeppelin were also born and it seemed that both groups, joined by Birmingham’s Black Sabbath, began to race towards a heavy rock finish line. As a heavier alternative to the prog-rock sounds of Pink Floyd and Yes, these groups focused on a louder, punchier sound that discarded slow melodic progressions in favour of power chords and headbanging.
While Led Zeppelin were on the slightly softer side of hard rock, Deep Purple came with a simpler and more pacey form of rock that appears more precursory to heavy metal music as we know it today. After a run of three studio releases in the late 1960s, Deep Purple’s John Lord, Ian Paice and Ritchie Blackmore had decided that they wanted to move the group’s sound in a heavier direction. Since they felt that vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper wouldn’t tessellate well with a heavy rock style, both were replaced in the summer of 1969. Paice later recalled, “A change had to come. If they hadn’t left, the band would have totally disintegrated”.
After the group had welcomed new vocalist Ian Gillian and bassist Roger Glover, their sound became noticeably heavier. The first album to showcase this new era of Deep Purple was Deep Purple In Rock (1970). The album showed the group finally hit their winning formula and, to this day, marks one of their most balanced, satisfying listens. Remaining at the peak of their powers through the early ’70s, they released their most commercially successful and influential album in 1972’s Machine Head.
Machine Head has gone down in rock history as one of the most iconic albums of all time and has influenced countless musicians over the past five decades. The album opens strong with ‘Highway Star’, the second most recognisable track on the album after ‘Smoke On The Water’. The single was released as the third of the four shared from the album. It sets the lively precedent for the record as its fastest-paced track, punctuated with tumbling lead guitar and organ solos.
The pace slows into the second track, ‘Maybe I’m A Leo’, which is a reference to Gillian’s birth sign. The track’s main riff was inspired by John Lennon’s ‘How Do You Sleep?’ but given an update of raw and heavy power to align with Gillian’s punchy vocals. Later on, comes ‘Never before’, the first single released from the album. Like much of the music on the LP, to listen to ‘Never Before’ now, it appears somewhat derivative as a generic hard rock composition, but this is a testament to the timeless influence of Deep Purple’s pioneering output in the early 1970s.
Thanks to its relentlessly catchy yet simple guitar riff, ‘Smoke On The Water’ remains Deep Purple’s most well-known composition. Most guitarists, myself included, will probably recall wearing their fingers to the bone, replicating the progression to impress their friends during their beginner phase. The lyrics detail the famous 1971 fire at Montreux Casino in Switzerland, where the band were initially set to record the album.
A change of tone follows ‘Smoke On The Water’ in the psychedelic single ‘Lazy’, which is kicked off by Lord’s arresting organ solo before being joined by Blackmore’s lead guitar solo, running us into the thick of the song which comes as a quieter, but welcomed anomaly for the album.
Machine Head laid out the blueprints for heavy metal music, and it’s immediately obvious which subsequent groups have derived their style from Deep Purple’s most successful phase. It is easy to see why the album became the group’s biggest commercial success, with the group having fine-tuned its formula for hard-hitting catchy riffs. But their peak, for me, was hit in 1970; Deep Purple In Rock remains the group’s most inspired work, and despite not meeting the commercial heights of Machine Head, it was no less important as a formative prog-rock masterpiece.