Released: June 21, 1969
- “Chasing Shadows” (5:34)
- “Blind” (5:26)
- “Lalena” (5:05)
- “Fault Line” (1:46)
- “The Painter” (3:51)
- “Why Didn’t Rosemary?” (5:04)
- “Bird Has Flown” (5:36)
- “April” (12:10)
Oddly enough, Deep Purple’s eponymous album is not the group’s debut, but rather their third effort, the last with the Mark I lineup which laid down so much for the future. By the time it was released, Rod Evans and Nick Simper were already being surreptitiously replaced with Ian Gillan and Roger Glover without their knowledge. This would be a reasonable explanation for the album’s banishment to the proverbial corner: it exists in a liminal space, out too late to be celebrated by the outgoing lineup and all but ignored by the incoming one eager to establish itself. The less romanticized side to the story is that Tetragrammaton, Purple’s record label, were experiencing financial difficulty and didn’t distribute the album much at the time of its release. Either way, in my opinion, it results in a great injustice, because this is the first truly great album Deep Purple unleashed.
Mark I finally come into their own as songwriters on this album. After two albums consisting of a great many covers mixed in with their own work, the young members of the band finally got going on creating their own music. The work they create as a whole is incredibly coherent while the individual pieces are memorable. There is still a cover included, but it is only one among eight, the lowest cover-to-original work ratio of this era of the band, and the feeling that the group is relying on others’ songwriting skills to bolster their own is therefore gone. The training wheels are off, so to speak.
This great songwriting is displayed right from the very start. The best albums start with a bang, and this was the first Deep Purple album to do so–with Ian Paice, Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore concurrently announcing themselves, to be exact. The number that follows, “Chasing Shadows” is an absolutely rollicking one, the best song on an album of strong songs. It sets the tone well for the album to come, being a song about the torture of insomnia. The excellence of the song comes down mostly to the brilliant drum line provided by Ian Paice. Paice has said that this song, like many he has come up with, relies mostly on rudiments. It also was influenced by African drumming patterns. This song established that Paice had come into his own as a musician; he remains a strong presence on the album, though this is his strongest performance.
Another quick mention must go to some of the other musicians on this song for opposite reasons, specifically the two stringed instruments. Nick Simper on this one is also a standout, giving a blistering bass line and keeping up easily with his rhythmic counterpart. He remains out of focus for the rest of the album, but in this moment he really shines.
Ritchie Blackmore, however, is surprisingly another story entirely. He remains weaker on the album, and while the solo on this song is decently memorable, it’s the only memorable work of his on this album. I will deal with him in due course, but first must mention the biggest issue he faces on this song: the very tuning on his guitar. For whatever reason, it sounds as if he decided to deliberately play on an out-of-tune instrument. It’s jarring and blends poorly with Jon Lord’s keyboards on this and other songs, at times being almost literally painful. It should be noted, in fairness to him, that this was a time of great transition in his sound as he moved into the harder-edged playing style that has defined him since. This still doesn’t make for a pleasant listening experience.
“Blind”, the second song on the album, interestingly uses the same three-note interval as the riffs from “Smoke on the Water” (albeit one a different key) and “Fools” (in the same key) to begin. It’s an interesting tidbit. Fitting well with the previous song about insomnia, this one was reportedly about a nightmare experienced by Jon Lord. He brings in a harpsichord, expanding the different keyboard sounds on the album quite elegantly and reinforcing the heavy classical influences found in Mark I. The lyrics, meanwhile, are some of the more mystical and psychedelic of the album, showing Evans the writer at his best. Once again, the worst part of the song is the guitar solo, which goes much too far in counterbalancing the harpsichord and once again is quite painful on the ears. The idea is good in theory, but poorly executed.
The third song, “Lalena”, is the only cover on the album. It’s just dripping with pathos without coming across as too much. Rod Evans is the standout here, giving one of the most emotional and tender performances of his tenure with Purple. The rest of the instruments keep a very light touch, highlighting him all the further. In the middle of the song, there’s a jazz-tinged instrumental break led by Lord. Blackmore gives his first good work of the album here as support to Lord, and the hints of their great instrumental partnership are visible throughout. The whole experience is intimate, tender, and bittersweet, making this one of the strongest covers the group has ever done.
Another one of the highlights of this strong album comes with “Fault Line”, featuring reverse-tracked drums and hammond for a rather unnerving experiences, along with hammond glisses to top the experience off. Lord and Paice work off one another smoothly. Simper briefly shines through as well, anchoring the two well. It contrasts well with the gentler “Lalena” which came before.
Warped tape sounds blend it smoothly into “The Painter”, which is reminiscent of a few of their earlier songs, specifically “Mandrake Root”. The song is sharper, however, with higher energy, hinting at their turn from psychedelia to hard rock. Evans’ lyrics are simple, fitting with the simple b-minor twelve-bar blues, but they’re still good. Neither of the two instruments who attempt solos end up with the most memorable performances, but neither are they particularly offensive. In the end, this is a solid song, less innovative than the songs preceding it but still a good entry.
The next set of songs aren’t quite as strong, but they’re by no means bad. “Why Didn’t Rosemary”, reportedly inspired by the group’s watching of Rosemary’s Baby during their previous US tour, has a twist of dark humor to it, elevating what could’ve been a typical bluesy number into something more memorable. The instrumental intro is an excellent tag-team by Blackmore and Paice, suggestive once again of the hard rock sound the two would anchor in the band’s next phase. Evans’ vocal work is alright, but lacking in emotional substance appropriate for a darkly humorous song. Ian Gillan’s wry delivery might have fit this song better; it’s a pity that this one never made it onto the stage. Neither instrumental solo is overly memorable, but the bouncy energy from the rhythm section makes the song well worth a listen.
“Bird Has Flown” was the first song recorded for the album, on the same day that the band recorded the pre-album single “Emmaretta”. Unlike the songs around it, this song looks back to the psychedelic sound the group had thus far used. It’s a bit of an anomaly, especially at this point on the album, and takes the listeners out a bit of what they were getting used to. Pity, because it’s a good song, just the one that flows the least well with the rest of the album. Evans once again must get a shout-out for a nice vocal performance and wonderfully trippy lyrics. Paice gets kudos as well for the way he provides a counterweight to everyone, keeping up with all of Lord and Blackmore’s solo work while also keeping the whole thing under control. It’s his switching between favoring hi-hats and favoring snare drums which show off the different sections of the piece, a small and seemingly obvious touch that nonetheless goes a long way for the song.
As a last observation, the opening sounds weirdly like the upcoming “No One Came” off of Mark II’s 1971 Fireball album to me. It’s bizarre but it’s there.
The closer for the album, “April”, is both an encapsulation of what has come before and a move subtly presaging what is to come later in the year. The two forces behind this, Blackmore and Lord, would soon move to rid themselves of Evans and Simper; fitting that these latter two don’t even seem to be present for anything but the coda of the song. The song also features a long orchestral portion, foreshadowing Lord’s forthcoming Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Between the Blackmore-Lord portion, the orchestral portion, and the band’s conclusion, this song clocks in at just over twelve minutes, the longest in their catalogue.
Longest, however, doesn’t always mean best. The three portions work together alright, but something is missing; it would probably have been better served keeping it as a trio of related but distinct pieces, like “Fault Line” and “The Painter” from side one. Meanwhile, within the song, there are a few glaring issues. Blackmore’s guitar is at its most annoying of the whole album, which is quite an achievement given how grating it was on some earlier songs. Once again, he sounds out of tune and blends with Lord poorly. The orchestral section following their duet seems somehow stiff and unfitting, though I still appreciate the guts the group had to include it. The best part is the full-band conclusion begun by the ever-energetic Paice assisted by Simper on D notes, which caps off the album and Mark I as a whole. The melancholy nature of this part of the song, then, is fitting, and manages to elevate the song from “not good” to “alright”. Though he had no way of knowing it was his swan song, Evans’ performance is another one of his strongest of the album, ending an overall mediocre song on a high note.
These songs as individual works range from decent but forgettable to sublime. The album’s strength, and why I consider it great, admittedly has less to do with the individual songs themselves and more with the larger picture they create. As a unit, this outporing of creativity is the most coherent album the band had created to that date (and one of the most cohesive in the band’s history period) in terms of mood and style. It’s particularly noticeable on side one, which flows together so naturally that it’s hard to believe the album was made between scattered tour dates as the group was approaching dissolution. This was something Mark I had up to this point failed to accomplish; Shades of Deep Purple is more a scattershot of well-produced songs that sound like they’re generally by the same artist, while The Book of Taliesyn is moving in this direction, but still sounds more disconnected. Not so here.
The mood of the piece is similarly strong. The whole work is lusciously brooding and melancholy, from the first song dealing with insomnia to the final stanza about the cruelty of the month of April. Occasionally there are moments of humor interjected, such as the darkly comedic “Why Didn’t Rosemary?” as mentioned above. Overall, however, the album is a dour one without being existentially overwhelming.
Is this album perfect? No, not really. Is it still a masterpiece that is ridiculously underrated? Hell yes. Even the most glaring issues on this album, namely the unremarkable closer and the grating guitar work, aren’t deal-killers. Meanwhile, the strengths, namely the brilliant ambiance, the thematic tightness, the incredible work from behind the drum kit, the generally high standard of musicianship beyond the errors I’ve stated, the opening number, and the nods to what is soon to come are well worth the price of admission. If you’re a fan of Deep Purple, you need this album. If you’re not, you need it anyway.