If every Rock and Roll album has a story, then Machine Head by Deep Purple is an epic novel.
Recording the Album
The Montreux Casino in Switzerland, where the band had planned to record this album, was destroyed by a fire on December 4, 1971 when a Frank Zappa fan shot a flare gun into the ceiling in the area where Zappa and his band were performing. The members of Deep Purple watched the facility burn to the ground, having arrived in Montreux in the days prior with plans to use the casino and the Rolling Stones mobile studio to record Machine Head. Though there were a few injuries, miraculously no one was killed. Claude Nobs, who had organized the concert, directed many frantic people to the exits safely. Zappa himself rescued other concert goers by using his Gibson guitar and smashing out the big bow windows where many of the fans would escape the flames. This event was immortalized on Machine Head with the rock and roll anthem, ‘Smoke on the Water’, where ‘Funky Claude’ gets a shout-out.
The band moved to an alternate location for a couple days but were forced to find another place to record because they were too loud. Eventually, they were able to finish the masterpiece album at the Grand Hotel, a place mentioned in Smoke on the Water.
Machine Head was the sixth studio album by the British rockers Deep Purple, written and recorded between December 6 and December 21, 1971. It consisted of their classic lineup of Ian Gillan on lead vocals, Ritchie Blackmore on guitars, Ian Paice as drummer, Roger Glover playing bass and Jon Lord on keyboards. ‘Deep Purple’ is listed as ‘producer’ of the record.
A few things to notice in this song: it boasts of a stellar display of Ian Gillan’s vocal range, especially the tribal scream leading into the first verse. Also, check out Jon Lord’s organ solo: consisting of harmonic minor scales rooted in Baroque and Classical influence. Lord was no slouch on the keyboard, being educated in classical piano starting at age 5. He was a musical genius, fusing rock and roll sounds with classical and baroque styles as he composed his pieces for Purple.
Ritchie Blackmore had an affinity for violin and cello sounds, and was often influenced by classical and medieval music. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach inspired the chord progressions in this song, which was the exact sound Blackmore was going for.
The combination of Gillan’s voice with the talent and musical intellect of Blackmore and Lord resulted in this modern day classic. It is indeed a rock and roll symphony. While Highway Star is infinitely more than just another song about fast cars, it could very well be to blame for many a speeding ticket.
Smoke on the Water
This classic song is a musical documentary on the tragic events in Montreux. The four-note blues scale melody at the beginning comprise one of the most recognized opening guitar riffs in all of Rock and Roll music. Everyone knows this signature musical phrase, which according to Blackmore, is his interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Numerous guitar players, music critics and rock magazines rank this among the greatest guitar riffs of all time. While there are many opinions on this, there is no question that its simple forcefulness has impacted more than one generation of music fans all over the world.
There aren’t many lyrics to this tune, but sometimes less is more. When you write, “You’re lazy you just stay in bed/You don’t want no money/You don’t want no bread”, there’s not much else to say. The irony over the minimal lyrics is lost in the length of the song. At over seven minutes, it is the longest track on the album. The instrumental interlude starts by showcasing keyboard extraordinaire, Jon Lord, and progresses into some bluesy guitar licks by the one and only Ritchie Blackmore. A back and forth banter ensues between the keys and guitar in a masterful instrumental conversation extending well past the halfway point of the song. Part way through the vocal piece, even a harmonica interjects in an odd, but perfectly timed manner. You wouldn’t expect a random harmonica by a rock and roll band under the heavy influence of classical music, but there it is. And it works really well! There’s nothing lazy going on in this song, but somehow we all understand.
If ever there was the ultimate drug song, this is it right? The problem is that too many people like to read meanings into lyrics that just aren’t there. Not every song with nonsensical words can be lumped into the stash of ‘drug songs’. But… Pony trekker? Borealice? Everynaut? Even Ian Gillan has said that nothing in the song is literal, it’s all nonsense. The idea of space travel was all relatively new in those days and to be entering into the space age was a cool thing to write songs about. It’s ok to make up words. The Space Cowboy himself, Steve Miller did it when he coined the ‘pompetus of love’ phrase in the Joker. There’s no hidden message here, nothing to interpret. Enjoy the song for what it is. A nice touch to the song: Ian Paice gets a drum solo in the mid-point of the space travel and it’s quite impressive.
When a Blind Man Cries
Wait, there’s no song on Machine Head by this name! At least it wasn’t on the original release. The song was recorded at the same time the others were recorded for this album, but it never made the final cut. Some sources claim there just wasn’t enough room on the vinyl to add another song (which is unlikely), and others claim Ritchie Blackmore hated it. Whatever the case, When a Blind Man Cries can be found on the 25th Anniversary edition which was released in CD form in 1997.
The Album Artwork
Owning a physical copy of Machine Head enhances the whole Deep Purple experience in ways that a convenient digital download could never accomplish. The text on the front of the album was stamped into a clean smooth piece of sheet metal and used as a mirror of sorts. Photographer Shepard Sherbell snapped the photo, and his form can be seen just below the text of ‘Head’. The fold out style album cover features photographs of the the band members on the inside, along with dramatic images of the burning Montreux Casino. A picture of Funky Claude Nobs also appears, which is a nice visual shout out for his heroics during the fire.
The paper album sleeve shows a vintage photo of a street in Burbank, California, containing a Burbank Boosters banner. The caption dates the photo September 23, 1911. There is no explanation given for why this photo is included, but the date corresponds with the day that the first Pacific Electric powered streetcar was to scheduled to arrive from Los Angeles. Including this image in the album art is apparently a nod to the Warner Brothers Record Company, which is located in Burbank.
As if there wasn’t enough album art to keep your eyes busy, a three-page poster sized foldout lyric sheet with purple script font was also included in the original album jacket, a super sweet addition to this vinyl package.
Machine Head spent 118 weeks on Billboard’s 200 Album chart in 1972 through 1973, with Smoke on the Water landing at #4 when it was released as a single in 1973. The album stands out as one of the greatest and most influential Rock and Roll albums to come out of the 70’s. It has stood the test of time, pleasing its listeners for almost a half century.