Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Jon Lord: Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water

With the blog essentially on autopilot for a couple of weeks while on holiday, I'm behind eveyone else in posting about the death of Jon Lord. As keyboard player with both Deep Purple and Whitesnake, he was one of the biggest figures in the generation that established rock music as a serious and enduring art form.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon in 2011 when he was in Scotland for a lecture he was giving to students, and he was a wonderful interviewee, intelligent and patient 

As a fan whose first Deep Purple album was Shades of Deep Purple, bought on vinyl while on holiday in Royan, I've been listening to deep Purple for decades. That first album of course featured a very different Deep Purple to the one that most people recognise, more 60s pop, no Ian Gillan on vocals and a more organ-dominated sound (despite a guitar featuring prominently on the cover of the 80s re-issue I bought!)

While at first inspection there might only the most tenuous connections with France or French music, it's worth remembering that their most famous song being the result of a fire in a Swiss casino, Montreaux being in the French speaking part of the country. That's certainly good enough for inclusion here. 

Of course, their earliest hit Hush was also covered in French (under the title Mal) by Johnny Halliday.

Smoke on the Water, from the band's 1972 Machine Head album, tells the story of the band's visit to Montreaux in 1971 to record an album on a mobile studio hired from the Rolling Stones at the Montreaux Casino.

However, the night before the recording was due to begin, the casino was hit by a fire. During a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on December 4, a flare gun was fired during the track King Kong, igniting the roof of the building. 

A recording of the Zappa concert was released in the Beat The Boots II collection, under the title Swiss Cheese/Fire! 

The fire completely destroyed the casino, the members of Deep Purple watching the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the hotel they were staying in.

With the venue for the recording destroyed, the band subsequently set up in the Montreux Grand Hotel, converting areas into a temporary recording studio where the mobile studio could operate. They completed the recording of the Machine Head album there, and it went on to become probably their most famous piece of work.

The album was almost entrely recorded at the hotel, some guitar parts for Smoke on the Water being recorded earlier at a local theatre before noise problems forced them to finally relocate to the hotel. 

The song lyrics refer to Funky Claude, who was Claude Nobs - founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival - who rescued some of the audience members from the fire. The song includes a solo by guitarist Richie Blackmore, as well as a solo by Lord.

The song became the band's best-known track, and certainly the most widely known guitar riff ever, beloved of pretty much anyone who has tried at some point to learn electric guitar.

A monument in Montreux on Lake Geneva commemorates the song.

With several decades of live activity, it wasn't the band's only encounter with French culture and music. The Mark III line up of the band played their final show at the Palais des Sports in Paris in 1975. The show and two others in Graz and Saarbrücken were recorded, as the management thought it possible the band would split and wanted some product if that happened. However, despite Blackmore quitting, the band continued with Tommy Bolin on guitar and the album was cancelled.

But following their final split, the Made in Europe live album was released, claiming to document the Paris gig and the other two shows, although the majority of the recording on this collection in fact comes from the German gig. 

Most of the Paris tracks surfaced on the 1996 archive collection MK III: The Final Concerts, the Paris gig eventually appearing in its entireity as a double CD entitled Live in Paris 1975 in 2001.

Other French-related releases include the Live at the Olympia '96 album which came out in '97, recorded on the Purpendicular tour and featuring the reformed line up of the band with Steve Morse on guitar. It featured a number of the band's classic tracks (Smoke on the Water, Highway Star, Fireball, Maybe I'm a Leo, Black Night, Woman from Tokyo) and other more recent post-reformation tracks like Rosa's Cantina, Perfect Strangers and Cascades: I'm Not Your Lover.

Meanwhile, the band's performances at the Montreux festivals in 1969, 1996 and 2006 and 2011 have all been released over the years, the last two not featuring Lord who had retired by this point to be replaced by former Rainbow keyboard player Don Airey.

Jon Lord had a long and successful career, a bona fide rock star and a classical composer of no small talent. Its also worth remembering that even in the years immediately after Deep Purple and before they reforemed, he was a key member of Whitesnake, at the time one of the UK's leading rock acts.

In an interview Jon Lord said his work with Whitesnake involved him "putting a halo around the band." Long may his halo shine.

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