Going Bananas with Deep Purple’s Steve Morse
When most music fans hear the name Deep Purple, undoubtedly the opening riff of "Smoke on the Water" immediately pops into mind. The song was inspired by a Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert that went awry and burned down a Switzerland casino the night before Deep Purple was set to record there. It has become one of rock's greatest anthems, containing one of the most identifiable riffs in rock history. Listeners who are only familiar with "Smoke on the Water" probably do not realize that over the last 35 years Deep Purple has been among the most experimental, innovative, and jam oriented bands on the global rock scene. The band's sound combines straight ahead rock along with a myriad of influences including classical and jazz. Not only have they helped lay the foundation for hard rock and heavy metal, but were also a major influence on progressive "art rock" bands such as Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes. The band continues to influence many of today's alternative and jambands (recent Deep Purple covers include "Hush" which was a 1998 hit for Kula Shaker and "Maybe I'm a Leo" which was included on Gov't Mule's "From The Deep End, Volume 1" and featured Purple Bassist Roger Glover who has appeared with the Mule several times on stage). Deep Purple is now on their eighth line up, but continue to put out solid albums while relentlessly touring the world, delivering shows that remain wildly experimental.
Deep Purple was founded in 1968 in England by Ian Paice (drums), Jon Lord (organ), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Nick Simper (bass) and Rod Evans (vocals). The initial lineup was together a little over a year. In that short time they released three albums that blended originals with psychedelic-flavored covers of artists ranging from the Beatles (Help'), to Neil Diamond (Kentucky Women') and Ike and Tina Turner (River Deep-Mountain High'). Hush' was the band's first major hit. The Joe South cover, reached number four on the U.S. pop charts in 1968, long before they garnered success in their native land. It was an unusual pop hit as it featured a ninety second organ solo, which was unheard of at the time. It was clear from the get go that Deep Purple was not going to be your run of the mill three chord rock n' roll band.
In 1969 Roger Glover and Ian Gillan replaced Simper and Evans respectively, thus solidifying the line-up that would bring Deep Purple worldwide acclaim. Their first studio album together Deep Purple in Rock, was the catalyst for their new harder experimental sound. The song on the album that exemplifies this sound is Child in Time.’ Lord and Blackmore both had classical backgrounds, and on this song they were not afraid to show it. The track was recorded in three parts, much like an opera. The ten-minute track is propelled by Blackmore’s spiraling guitar and Lord’s swirling organ. Live on stage, the song would often expand to over half an hour. The band’s most popular album was 1972’s Machine Head. The album spawned the hits Highway Star’, Space Truckin’‘ and the legendary Smoke on the Water’. While they achieved much success in the studio, their greatest explorations came on stage. Their live shows combined the bombast of Led Zeppelin with the experimentation of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. Studio tracks that in themselves were five to ten minutes long could soar to twenty to thirty minutes in the live setting. The Guinness Book of World Records labeled them the loudest band in rock, but this distinction should not detract from the musicianship that went into their great roar.
Since hitting their commercial peak with Machine Head, Deep Purple has gone through numerous line-up changes, yet each new one found the band tackling new areas of exploration. Soul, funk, and deep-rooted blues would later join rock, classical, and jazz in marking the bands musical landscape. Needless to say, the band has made some bold choices in picking new members. One fine example of this is current guitarist Steve Morse. Morse is probably best known for founding the groundbreaking jazz-rock fusion band Dixie Dregs (which also featured future Widespread Panic and Jazz Is Dead keyboardist T. Lavitz), as well as being chosen Best Guitarist’ by the readers of Guitar Player" magazine five years in row from 1982-1986. He is the latest in an impressive lineage of Deep Purple guitarists to replace Blackmore, who come from a jazz/instrumental background, following Tommy Bolin (who played guitar on Billy Cobham’s landmark jazz fusion album Spectrum) and Joe Satriani."One of the reasons I was so intrigued to meet the guys", Morse says "was the very fact that they were considering having someone like me play with them, and Joe Satriani. That was very interesting to me."
Morse, who has been in Deep Purple since 1994, is quick to point out that, "A lot of the history of them improvising comes from Ritchie Blackmore. He was always pushing them to change what was expected, and to change the arrangement of songs on the spot. He definitely kept that idea alive with them". Though Blackmore may have been the catalyst behind their initial improv fancy style, Morse credits drummer Paice for creating the jazz oriented lineage that followed Blackmore. "Ian Paice plays rock n' roll with a bit of swing, that I could always hear in his playing, and it turns out he comes from a swing jazz background. I think that is why he is so comfortable playing with guitarists that are different than straight ahead rock and blues roots." As with any good jam oriented band, all members of Deep Purple have the ear and heart for improvisation. "Roger is an extremely eclectic listener, but I can say that about every one of them". Morse continues; "I mean Ian Gillan. That was the first thing he told me. He said I want you to PLAY! I want you to go up front and be in the spotlight.' He told me, I always wanted to be in a band, I want to be inside the stereo of music." Gillan, Morse further explains is a musician's lead singer. "He loves listening to the musicians having a good time. He's always been that way, when someone plays a great solo, you see him (Gillan) smiling. Even if he's behind on the ledge, he's smiling. So you know it is not for shtick and not for the audience or anything. He just loves it".
In discussing the different approach to their studio work to that of their live performances, Morse says; "What we do in the studio is like our warm up. What we do on stage, well it brings me closer to the whole jazz type setting that I was used to coming from the jazz-rock area I did with the Dregs." Morse admits today, that even he was not totally aware of Deep Purple's current jam capabilities. "Actually, the first time I played with them I had only met Roger before I walked in the door. So, I was worried that there was a real chance that these guys were a band living off their name, and that it would be just no fun. I was supremely concerned about that," continues Morse, "I'd only agreed to do four shows. Yet, after the first few hours of rehearsing, I was blown away, and we all thought this was going to work. The bottom line is that everybody was totally comfortable with not saying a word and just playing."
While most Deep Purple songs expand to complicated territory, what Morse likes is, "that in some ways the music is simple enough where you can easily throw a section in and go from there. The guys are aware enough of the audience factor to say lets put a section here where we jam, and when you have had enough let us know!" Morse explains that is the arrangement in the band, "When you had enough, let us know. In other words, you got to pull it together musically in some sort of way that you're telling the guys you're bringing it back structurally." So, I asked does this mean there is no leader or musical director' in the band (a role that Blackmore always claimed he held). "No, everything we do is mostly collaborative. That goes for in the studio as well as our approach to song writing. We tend to build off each other's ideas. Everyone's free to disagree, and throw in ideas or change things. There is no incentive for credit or anything"
After Morse joined in 1994, Deep Purple enjoyed their longest run without a lineup change. That came to end in late 2001, when original member (and along with Paice the only one to be included in every incarnation) Jon Lord announced that he would be retiring. Paice, Gillan, Glover, and Morse could have packed it in, but in the tradition of Deep Purple they soldiered on, naming Don Airey as the bands second organist and keyboardist. Airey had formerly played with Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Brian May, Ozzy Osbourne as well as Deep Purple offshoots Rainbow and Whitesnake. Though Morse admits Lord's departure was not easy. "I was really hurt because that was something special to me. The way Jon could hear what I was trying to do and come up with something. Every time we did improvise together, he had such a confidence, and experienced way of phrasing it so that there was no way of doing anything wrong. Morse continues, "And I just didn't think there was another keyboardist like that. Don walked in, and he has perfect pitch. He's played every type of music there is. His favorite keyboardists are Jon Lord, Keith Emerson and Steve Winwood, just like me. So I can't believe we were lucky enough to get Don."
The latest incarnation of Deep Purple toured heavily with Airey developing a sound that would lead them in to the future. This begs asking, what is different about this incarnation of Deep Purple? Morse answered, "Don is incredibly talented and ready for anything. He is such a natural player. The thing is, he really liked Jon and understands how to play organ with and alongside the guitar. But he's into other things as well. He loves to play piano, and brings a new energy to the band, and what's exciting is that we are barely scratching the surface." I asked if he felt that lineup changes are something that is good for a band in terms of freshness and originality, and how does the spirit of a band survive those changes? "It's funny Roger said something interesting in an interview yesterday, that the original name for the band was Roundabout'. It's like in England you stay on the roundabout as long as you need to get where you're going and then you jump off. He thought the original idea was to have people coming and going. Have the best musicians do an album and tour, then go on and do their own thing." As for as the spirit of the band Morse reasons; "Now, the one person you can point to is Ian Paice. The constant spirit of the band lives even outside of it. Ian Paice is one of those people who doesn't speak many words, but what he does say is funny and true and funny. He has this way of summing things up and he expects people to get it and get it right and get it good, and he never has to tell anybody. He's never berated somebody. Never, he just looks and says I'm not feeling it. That is the worst he'll ever say about a piece of music. Believe me it makes everyone partial to making it a lot better. Morse concludes; "Maybe there is an unspoken level that is expected of performance, or that's just Ian's spirit."
After touring extensively for over a year galvanizing their cohesivness, the band went into the studio to record their latest album, Bananas. The time on the road seems to have paid its dividends as the band delivers a hard rocking effort that is sure to please their fans. The band wastes no time showing off their newest member. "House of Pain", the opening track is a showcase for both Airey and Morse. "That's Don. He starts with a G and sharp together on the very first note of the album. He's definitely not afraid." For the song's first two minutes the instruments are tightly woven behind Gillan's vocals. However, after the second chorus Morse and Airey exchange fiery solos before locking together to propel the rest of the track. Morse says of House of Pain'; "There were three people who were originally behind the track; Me, Don, and Michael Bradford, our producer, who actually came up with the core idea for the song even though the guitar riffs were totally different." Morse further explains that, "The band said why don't you make the guitar sound like you Steve. Like the intro to the Dregs' tune Take it off the Top."
As for the album's title, Morse explains, "Everyone has a different story about who started it. Ian (Gillan) was looking at Don and I working on an odd time signature on an instrumental part (on what would become the song Bananas'), and saying you guys have gone bananas." Morse continues that later when "on tour, Roger and Ian (Gillan) were looking at a picture of a guy on some sort of bike full of green bananas going up a hill." The picture which appears on the back of the album was "poignant, it was like that was his burden. His gig was to get these bananas over that hill. We thought it might be a funny title." There is a double meaning to the title, the second one is more of an inside joke. "I think the real thing is everyone having a backlash against this I'm the toughest guy in town' vibe that some bands feel the need to put forth. It's like not only am I a gangster, a street fighter and a murderer, but I got a gang and we're all tattooed.' C'Mon, so it's like a lighten up thing."
While most of the songs are hard rockers, many of them also contain a certain reflective quality to them that the album's title hidden meaning suggests. Songs like Razzle Dazzle', Silver Tongue', Picture of Innocence' Sun Goes Down' and Bananas' in different ways all seem to observe the band's peers and contemporaries with both a judgmental eye and a sly grin. The message to peers who either take themselves too seriously or have become some sort of joke or parody, seems to be lighten up and have some fun.
The other aspect of the album that I find interesting is the inclusion of several beautifully written songs including the melancholy Haunted' and the lovely melodic Never a Word,' which can best be described as ballads, which is something that Deep Purple has never been known for. I asked Morse if the inclusion of ballads was something of a conscious effort by the band. "No not at all. Things just happen, or grow from our process. Usually things start with me jamming with Ian Paice, which is funny because that is what I'm used to. My brother is a drummer, and that is how I started playing, alongside him, coming up with rhythmic ideas and conjuring riffs. Ian and I will get the music going and everyone else will jump in. Roger will usually record it and remember phrases. So with Never a Word,' I was sitting there noodling around, working on an idea. The producer or maybe it was Roger heard it and said that's really nice. When they first heard it, it was just an instrumental and I couldn't picture it as anything then this little piece or interlude. The producer said, let's get Ian to sing over it." It is truly a beautiful piece, after opening with a gentle organ, Morse kicks in leading the band through a lyrical renaissance sounding instrumental bridge that reminds me of something Phish might do (think Eliza' or the beginning of Guyute'). An unrecognizable sounding Gillan comes in for the last third to sing a longing love poem completing the gorgeous tune.
The longing yet ballsy Haunted' was Roger Glover's brainchild. "Roger writes a lot of stuff in almost a Bob Dylan style of guitar strumming, and chords and painting a picture. He had the idea of the song, and played for the producer, who liked it. It was easy to identify the hooks and even though there were no words yet, he could tell it was a song people could sing along to. We all knew it was a good piece, but the trick was how to make it sound like Deep Purple." Morse goes on to explain how Haunted' is a prime example of how the band comes together to write a song. "With Haunted' we did change it, turning it into a band thing. It was a little bit weird for me because Roger is someone everyone admires. He's so steady. I call him the glue that holds the band together,' so when you make a suggestion with a song and say lets make a change here, and lift this part and put an instrumental part in here.' It says a lot about him, that you can have your song chopped up and rearranged."
Morse explained to me that nobody brings ideas for songs with them when entering the studio. The songs develop organically in the studio with everyone's input. The beauty of that process according to Morse is, "Things happen that you don't plan on. Things happen like Haunted,' Never a Word,' or Contact Lost,' that made it seem like they were a bunch of ballads that were supposed to happen, but these things just happen. According to Morse, another song that just happened was Doing It Tonight'. "That also has a renaissance sounding progression. Don and I were jamming on that. Ian Paice changed it around and suddenly it appealed to Ian Gillan. But, listen to the chord progression and the melody. That's something I was jamming on guitar that was like a classical guitar piece, that progression. Don can pick up on anything and he's playing it inside and out, and everyone else was kind of playing it straight and found the rhythmic place for their parts."
Morse mentioned Contact Lost'; the instrumental that closes the album was Morse's tribute to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The band had a deep personal connection with ill-fated crew of Columbia. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla was a native of India were Deep Purple is extremely popular and she was a major fan. She often corresponded with the band. The band invited the entire crew and their spouses, up on stage with them at a concert in Houston. All the members of Deep Purple were invited to the Columbia launch that was originally supposed to take place several months earlier, but it was delayed because of technical problems. When Columbia was ready for launching, the band was in the studio in California working on Bananas. Chawla brought Machinehead, 1996’s Perpendicular, as well as Rainbow’s 1978 album Down To Earth (both Glover and Airey appear on that album), with her into space. She would play Space Truckin'' first thing every morning. She e-mailed the band several times from space.
Morse who is also an aviator explains the experience of writing the song. "I got to the studio early that morning and was watching the TV while warming up. They were giving a minute-by-minute update, and then I saw the flash and knew. Then they said Nine a.m. contact lost.' As I was watching it, I was playing a descending chord progression and just played out my emotions. I said maybe I should remember that. The original was kind of corny, but I just recorded it to remember what I was feeling. I certainly never intended for it to go on the album. In fact, the producer said he just wanted a copy so he could remember the moment. He asked if it had a name, and I wrote down contact lost." The albums Chawla brought with her were found amongst the wreckage, which NASA used as part of the special commemorative plaques honoring the crew. Jean-Pierre Harrison, Chawla's widower presented the band with the three plaques on September 23rd, 2003, while onstage in Mexico City. The band plans on donating the Machinehead and Down To Earth plaques to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; the Perpendicular (which was Morse's first album with Deep Purple) is being kept privately.
As for the future of Deep Purple, Morse says "The thing with Deep Purple in the last ten years is we have never stopped touring for more then a couple of months." The band just wrapped up a North American tour which sold out theatres across the country. While they have a devoted fan base here in the States, it is nowhere near the level it is elsewhere in the world. They remain amongst the most popular concert draws in Asia, India, South America and Europe, especially in their home land of England. The band is about to embark on a tour throughout Asia, playing Japan, China and Thailand among others, then heads to Australia, and New Zealand, and should return to North America this summer. Morse says the band is also planning to record another album with producer Michael Bradford. It is hard to believe the band has been going strong for 35 years, and more amazingly they have no plans to slow down. What the future holds for Deep Purple nobody knows. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be intriguing and innovative, which after 35 years is pretty impressive.