Paul H Birch is California Dreaming as he goes back in time with Deep Purple, and their iconic ’74 Stateside show that has just been re-released on DVD by Ear Music
“Time loves a hero”, sang Little Feat. Ironically with music that’s not always the case. Aged Hollywood movie stars get to play character parts, aged rock stars get to prove they can’t hit the high notes the way they used to.
In 1973 Deep Purple had ousted Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, been kept waiting on the fence by Paul Rogers, then choose an unknown with a similar vocal range and a new bass player who could chime in with the ball-crushing high notes Gillan had reached. More impressively, after the underwhelming swansong of the legendary line-up with Who Do We Think we Are, the latterly named Mark III version of the band delivered Burn, a rather nifty shot of heavy rock shaken with some brain-melting blues.
Fresh-faced, they began touring the USA ditching Made In Japan fan hits in favour of a record barely two weeks old. Flying in their own jet Zeppelin style, the original three were determined to crack America wide open like they had the rest of the world, and a headline outdoor arena gig that would be televised was a perfect window of opportunity to reache the masses in one fell swoop.
California Jam 74 has been released on video and DVD before but this high definition version proves much better quality than those I previously recall. Bonuses come in the form of grainy home movie footage courtesy of the road crew, that’s a curiosity once viewed and a slim attractive booklet outlining the events leading up to and about the event, along with photos and posters of a bill line-up showing the likes of Black Sabbath further down the pecking order. But it’s the film that counts, capturing five musicians edging towards the top of their game in a pre-MTV world, pre-booze and drug addictions, with ego-driven tantrums mostly put aside for the collective good.
A Good Year blimp floats in the air, while down on terra firma a sea of 200,000 rock fans gaze bewildered at why there’s a giant rainbow propping up the back of the stage. Deep Purple meander about plugging in and tuning up, an act that would try the patience of any crowd today but once Richie Blackmore surges into a bombastic version of ‘Burn’ your attention is caught, the band scorching. Blackmore’s facial expressions give the game away. He’s enjoying playing to the crowd; all the better it being a large one, and he plays up to it, and will later play up himself too. Cameras close in on him, and he frowns, decides they’re part of his enemy for the evening and turns walking away, but even with his back turned the way the knuckles on his left hand tighten about his Strat’s fretboard you can feel the strength in his nimble fingers squeezing those sounds out. And Glenn Hughes is playing bass like an exemplary bastard – complex and tight he acts as musical bridge between Lord and Paice, as they build the sound to drive Blackmore on further.
The enormity of the crowd cannot be ignored, and that the band is so small and timid looking by comparison. So much so it’s hard to believe this was the bad ass bikers’ heavy rock band of choice back in the day. And they look so young. All of them. You can tell it’s the 70s by the flares and platform boots – Glenn Hughes is a hippy from Cannock, a scruffy prototype for Neil from The Young Ones but in a silk white suit. Stacked on his boots he’s so tall Kiss would have to stand on each other’s shoulders to greet him. Perhaps the white suit’s worn in contrast to the man in black to his stage left, all frizzy hair and long mutton chops sideboards is our Richie. As if in some sartorial dress sense towards group stage-gear young Davey Coverdale (who was previously working in a boutique) sports a b/w star sweater (I used to have a cardigan just like it), at the back Paice is wearing everyday clobber and Lord is adorned in the denim shirt that’ll see him through to the next decade and a half.
Coverdale’s like a wide-eyed rabbit caught in the headlights. His in-between song patter not the double-entendres Whitesnake fans will grow to expect, in fact it’s Hughes who’ll be doing most of the gaffing, on the pretext that as Trapeze’s former frontman he has more experience. Either way they both sound like a couple of north Midlanders who’ve won the pools and are happy to buy a round of Watneys Ale. How the American audience could understand a word they said back then is anyone’s guess; not that either say anything remotely profound, or even coherent apart from get the song titles right. But they can sing between them.
It’s a little boisterous at first with Coverdale in ‘Burn’ and Hughes whoops and hollers like a cocker spaniel dragged through a hedge backwards at a moment’s notice but when they get it right, as when they sing in harmony for the latter part of ‘Lay Down, Stay Down’ with Lord soloing away they’re the business – In fact it’s Mr Lord as elder statesman who comes stage front and declares: “You know me, Richie and Ian Paice,” establishing pedigree and rank before introducing the new boys. That’ll change in six months.
Lord solos over the shop with flair, parrying Blackmore and giving as good as he gets… Such a joy to see him in his prime; hurling his organ like Emerson, both now gone. And as for Blackmore himself? If you know the story it’s the very end part of the film you’re waiting for, but have patience, savour several great moments beforehand. This is Richie at his peak. Or the beginning of it, while his peers would succumb to their personal vices, drugs of choice and career nosedives. Here, from Burn to the moment he said goodbye to Dio in Rainbow, he began to rule supreme the likes of Van Halen, Angus and Schenker mere whippersnappers not ready to bite at his heels.
Early on in the set the cameras career round the other four members – if you’re a drummer you’ll love this – even from 100m back they capture Paice’s right foot at work on his hi-hat acutely. Blackmore’s reason for turning away from the camera? Purple had a clause in their contract that they would go on at sunset but the festival was running ahead of schedule, threatened with lawsuits and probable mafia-style violence the band were forced on stage early. Blackmore would play, but under his own terms. Whereas, like naughty schoolboys, Coverdale and Hughes keep harping on: “Where the sunset?” A private joke lost on the crowd.
‘Might Just Take Your Life’ grinds with an old school blues funk and whereas Hughes announces ‘Lay Down, Stay Down’ as a “funky rock ‘n roller” it’s really a faster more metallic rendition of the studio version. Lord extemporising over its melody lines and Blackmore tossing out figures he’ll rework for the Stormbringer album while pulling out blues tones and Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck bovver-boy style barks and squeals during his solo.
Blackmore can’t avoid the camera during ‘Mistreated’, nor should he as the focus falls squarely on him and Coverdale. From an opening echoed wail infiltrated by eastern scales into that simple blues riff that is rendered bad-ass in Blackmore’s hands – a technical rather than emotive player – for the most part he plays alongside Coverdale’s soulful blues roar rather than challenging. They look the business. And then, as if on cue, the sky dims as the tempo increases. Blackmore’s fingers fiddle dervishly at the higher end of his neck, Coverdale improvising a vocal blues section before it comes to a thunderous conclusion, prolonging by the crowd’s roar.
I have some dim recollection of Coverdale trying out the opening lines to ‘Child In Time’ but it’s not on this version whereas his third person narrative of how “They all went out to Montreux” (the Mark II version that is) finds him delivering a rather fetching croon to ‘Smoke On the Water’, the music itself a little pedestrian until Paice takes control of the beat. As it ends Lord goes into an inspired solo that encompasses ‘Lazy’ spoilt by Hughes’ vocal gymnastics then saved by a scream and roar from Coverdale bringing it back into focus. Lord then layers into some dramatic Hollywood movie sounds before Paice joins him in a little jazz boogie-woogie. The keyboard player continues inventively, expressive and entertaining, inflecting classical motifs then entering fuzzy rock mode as Blackmore re-enters the frame.
The riff to ‘You Fool Now One’ skips out with gusto as he works in metal crescendos, blues, neo-classical and eastern scales mixed creatively rather than just being a big bag of tricks. Hear those legato hammer-ons? Lesser mortals will study and make platinum album selling careers mimicking them. How effective can a plectrum scraping up a string sound? Pretty good in Blackmore’s hands. He then moves into a gentle Peter Green style blues motif before Paice goes into his drum solo for ‘The Mule’. There’s no denying that it’s Paice who’s on the ball tonight in keeping the show inline but for me the solo’s thankfully short, whereas fans of such will again appreciate the film’s close-ups.
Following Blackmore and Lord’s extemporising Coverdale returns to the stage and we’re into the homeward strut with the heavy beatnik bop rock of ‘Space Trucking’. Coverdale’s giving it some solid rock in the verses then him and Hughes coming on like proto-punks with the brash noisy choruses sung collectively. Hughes then pumps out a Bootsie Collins effects driven bass solo that at least gives Blackmore time to change his shirt and arrange some primitive pyrotechnics with the road crew.
Thus as Lord moves from making space sounds on his new analogue synthesiser to stretching his calf across the length of his organ Blackmore himself stands legs astride stage front ready to ace the set. First volume control guitar harmonics play ‘Greensleeves’ culminating in a vibrato that the crowd roar out to appreciatively. He waits, poses, then turns back to the band as they dramatically strike out chords before he’s off playing with the fairies as his fingers jump across the strings one minute, slaying humongous giants as he unleashes a torrent of violent sound the next. The original guitar shredder is in action. The band keep it solid behind him, the tune they’re jamming on taking them back to their roots as ‘Mandrake Root’ gets a good hammering.
Again, Blackmore can’t hide his smile as he runs through a series of chords before removing his guitar to place it neck down on the side of the stage where he rubs it up and down, then grabs and tosses it into the air, catching and playing it back to front, then letting it fall to the ground and feedback. Grabbing another guitar he plays it over the length of his body, turns and smashes it into the camera that’s been annoying him throughout the show, leaving it shattered on the floor to join the other in collective feedback… A third guitar comes out to be played it with his feet. He signals for Hughes to stay back. For years I thought this was him playing the big boss. Maybe in part it is, but more so it’s a warning as Blackmore’s Marshall back-line explodes, lit by kerosene flames. But this theatrical spectacle goes too far with Paice’s glasses blown off his face and part of a speaker hitting Blackmore in the back, yet still he manhandles guitars, now also picking up (dummy) speakers and tossing them into the audience. It’s rock and roll pantomime rage but it ain’t half dead cool and Blackmore bloody knows it as he poses like some modern (for the 70s) black knight.
As the song/solo/unholy noise draws to its conclusion Blackmore waves to his crowd and moments later will be whisked off in a helicopter to avoid ABC TV’s lawyers handing him a writ. That to the end he still looks a dainty wimp and Hughes and Paice the only two among the five thuggish enough to throw anyone a punch just goes to prove you shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover. In 1974 Deep Purple stamped their authority across the globe and it cannot be denied that kids across the USA watching this on TV would’ve out and bought Purple records by the truckload. It wouldn’t last but at least we have this vintage evidence that their reputation back then was deserved.
8 out of 10
- Might Just Take Your life
- Lay Down, Stay Down
- Smoke On The Water
- You Fool No One/The Mule
- Space Truckin’