"I don't really know why Deep Purple are so popular in the States all of a sudden," says Jon Lord, organist, backstage. "We've been around for five years playing roughly the same type of music."
With massive followings in Europe, the Far East, Scandinavia and Australia, Deep Purple have been one of the world's top groups for some time now, one of the prototype heavy-metal bands. America, where only last year their records began to turn gold and where they did six tours of mostly sold-out concerts, was the last to catch Purple Fever.
The reason may lie in the band's own erratic, feverish, hepatitis-ridden history:
Deep Purple began in the summer of 1968 with a hit single, "Hush," on Tetragammatron Records. The band, not quite yet metallic in sound, included Rod Evans on lead vocals, Nicky Simper on bass, Jon Lord, organ, Ritchie Blackmore, lead guitar, and Ian Paice, drums. Three quick albums brought them mounting recognition until late 1969, when the Hollywood-based record company suddenly folded.
Deep Purple decided then they needed maybe a year off, for some self-evaluation; in the interim they fired singer Evans and bassist Simper, hiring Ian Gillan and Roger Glover in their places.
"Rod," said Paice, "is very good when he tries," but he wasn't hot to be a raving rocker. "He's much happier on ballads and lighter sounds. Ian is a rock & roll singer." As for Nicky: "Well, I won't go into too much detail about him, but we had so many differences with him it was inevitable that he went."
By the time the group resurfaced, the label was Warner Brothers and the album was Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic, a rock-classical concerto written and scored totally by Jon. Firmly rooted in the classics since childhood, Lord had been "itching to do something like it for a long time."
Next was In Rock, the precise representation of second-generation Deep Purple and, in the eyes of many, the definitive heavy-metal masterwork. For the most part ignored in the US, the LP was a smash throughout Europe and insured the band's comeback. Deep Purple themselves still consider In Rock their best effort to date.
"The album came quite easily for us," said Paice. "The hardest thing about it was following it up. We were working so much due to the success that when we tried to do the next album, Fireball, we realized we had no ideas whatsoever. Fireball turned out to be a bit of a 'Let's hope we've got an album's worth here' type of thing."
The band finally took off for their first major American tour in 1971. But then Gillan fell ill with hepatitis, and they went back to England and eventually to France to try and cut another album, renting out the empty, acoustically perfect Montreaux ballroom.
But two days before recording was to begin, the ballroom burned down.
"We got diverted to the local theater," said Lord, "but that started shaking to pieces with the volume. The people who lived in the neighborhood kept calling the cops. Finally we found a hotel that had been shut for the season. We soundproofed all the windows, sealed off one hall and made Machine Head in the corridor."
Machine Head was the one that broke open the US market, and back came Purple again for another try at an American tour. This time they lasted four days until Blackmore came down with hepatitis and flew home. Attempting to complete the tour with Al Kooper as a temporary stand-in, things went well during a hasty pre-show rehearsal. Shortly before showtime, however, Kooper had a nervous breakdown and canceled out. Randy California was the next to step in and fill the vacant guitar spot in time for a Quebec show. Just prior to the group's boarding the plane to deliver them to the show, Air Canada went on strike.
Jon Lord squints into the dressing room lights as he remembers. "Randy was brilliant, God bless 'em, but everything had gotten to be such a bitch that we had to go home. We just couldn't take it any longer."
"Our morale was really low when we got back home," said Paice. "We had developed lots of internal problems because we had become stagnant. We had been forced to stop the momentum and of course our tempers started getting short."
As soon as Blackmore recovered, Deep Purple were back in the States making up the many, many cancellations. They somehow got out another studio LP at the same time, Who Do We Think We Are!
Paice: "Originally we were gonna do it in Rome, in June of last year. We got there, as usual, with no ideas. But, it was sunny there. Lovely moon. We'd all just spend our time in the swimming pool. Things weren't planned well either and the building we were gonna record in wasn't properly soundproofed. By the time everything was ready, we all realized that there was only three days left. So, we only got one track out of it, 'Woman From Tokyo.' We had to go all the way back home again, with all that cost. . . $24,000 I believe, and do it all again in Germany. That cost us another $24,000. We had no time planned for that second session, so we had to cancel concerts here just to find the three weeks it took to record the album."
"It's a weird album," confessed Ritchie Blackmore. "The way we did it was to put the backing tracks down and Ian would come in the following day, which the rest of the band had off, to put the vocal track down. We never got together once during the recording."
"Because we're very lazy."
The future for Deep Purple looks somewhat less than serendipitous. Those internal complications have to be resolved, and after their current world tour (to promote their latest album, Made In Japan), they'll stop for three months. Self-evaluation time again.
Asked if personnel changes are imminent, Lord asks back: "What can I say?
"There's a need to reestablish ourselves from within," he says, "because all we've done in the past three years is work. So in those three months we'll make a lot of changes. Changes that we've wanted to make for some time, but have been unable to."
As for Blackmore, who stays in a separate dressing room, he is forming a blues power-trio as an alternative to Deep Purple. While maintaining that both bands will hold him as their lead guitarist, Ritchie is already speaking about his involvement with Deep Purple in the past tense.
"I want to play the blues," he says firmly. "I know there's so many bands playing it, but Deep Purple is too 'poppy.' I've been through being a big star and all that. I've made my money that way, now I'm gonna do something which I like. With Deep Purple it was always 75% liking what you did and the rest was. . . making money."
This story is from the June 21st, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.