MACHINE HEAD VERSUS MACHINE HEAD - 'THE NEWCOMER' WINS
The legendary Machine Head I've always considered one of those albums which seem intended as showcases of their makers' prowess more than as profound or shattering statements. Unlike its predecessors it seems, most of the time, intentionally and unambiguously restricted to 'worldly' subject-matter such as lovesickness and excitement. In both respects it's proved a cradle of later pop-influenced melodic metal. Still, when you come to it for the first time it's an unusual work. For one thing, this machine hardly if ever shows its aspect of unpolite untempered aggression. Only tracks 1 (Highway Star), 5 (Smoke On The Water) and 7 (Space Truckin') are obviously 'machinic'. Only 1 and 7 are cheerful; everything in between defines very real unhappiness of some kind or other and is, 5 excepted, very laid back. Yet I've always thought as well that, to be a classic, such an album should, perhaps more than any other, be a 110 excitingly performed and produced. Rather to my amusement I've now found my sentiments shared, to some degree, in the very excellent and thorough comments of Mr Simon Robinson of the DPAS, prefacing this new 25th Anniversary Edition (an 'official' with 'unrepresentative' ideas, yes!). Whilst admiring the album he correctly points out to all those rock critics who've come to think of Machine Head as the quintessential Deep Purple work, that In Rock and Fireball were far wilder and inventive albums, respectively. So, prior to pitting up one against the other the two CDs comprising the edition let's see what was on the album again and jot down some random notes.
1) Highway Star: The epitome of rock alchemy: how to turn a white guitar into a black car and invent speed metal. 2) Maybe I'm A Leo: Well-behaved funky sadness about boy forsaken by lover. 3) Pictures Of Home: Its stark, fierce pictorial lyrics might, in Gillan anno '80 or the more alternative-minded Deep Purple of Fireball, Who Do We think We Are or Purpendicular, have induced an even more prime statement on spirtual forlornness. Indeed, 2 and 3 gained bite when played live in '96. 4) See 2. The introduction of a Beatlesque chorus into (seminal) metal must have been way ahead of its time (just think of all those '90s bands...) But the idea reappears in more innovative form in Our Lady On Who Do We Think We Are. 5) Smoke On The Water: Which in the '70s became, with machine-gun-like speed, a classic metal anthem, and, after Deep Purple's reunion, a mere symbol rather than a self-reliant piece of music. All thanks to fans' 'uncompromising' devotion'. Bands like Deep Purple have to sacrifice valuable set-list time to playing, night after night, 'the classics', which people might just as well play at home. 6) Lazy: A good, mainly instrumental (Blues-UK-ish) piece with harmonica. Is it really as interesting as the earlier Mandrake Root or The Mule. 7) Space Truckin': Party invitation managing to be heavily entertaining in its relaxed, lazy-heavy, intentional nonsensicality.
In the shop, at finding a 2CD set, and at finding the extra CD not labelled 'out-takes' or 'alternative versions' but just 'remixes', I hadn't been pleasantly surprised, even suspected cynical marketing tricks. At home, I left the remixes-CD (which I then deemed quite subsidiary) and the booklet for later, concentrating on the remasters-CD.
Sound-quality and presence had indeed markedly improved. Yet compared to its two predecessors and (undervalued) successor the album still lacked that ultimate life and sparkle. Take Smoke On The Water. True, I'd probably think differently had I been a Deep Purple devotee in the '70s, instead of being first introduced to this song, a mere couple of years ago, in the form of Ritchie Blackmore's California Jam version, with its tonal grandeur and resplendent phrasing. So, to me thís original seems a trifle rigid, with the opening chords stiffly imprecise (an 'effect' precisely reconstructed by a guitarist on the Smoke On The Water Deep Purple Tribute album). An important forestudy rather than the masterpiece proper. As for Ian Gillan, it's been claimed he's at his peak here, but I could never wholeheartedly agree, although 2 to 4 move and 7 thrills. He's in about his second best Deep Purple-1st-period voice, yet as he's one of those great singers who can have great interpretative moments when in whatever voice, that's a little beside the point. As an interpreter he was, anyway, superior at the very veiled venting of his darkest hours on the subsequent Who Do We think We Are (no, I'm not simply or specifically referring to a certain 'smooth' song of long time fame among initiates), and the preceding Fireball. With one exception. Lazy stands out here as one of the unforgettable performances. It's really as if he plans to passively rot and die.
Subsequently I read Simon Robinson's booklet. Roger Glover had, apparently, used the opportunity of the upcoming new edition for, uninvitedly, remixing the entire album. My interest was at last properly aroused by Mr Robinson's acknowledgement of his own scepticism as to the results prior to actually listening to them (understandably, perhaps, since the handful of album remixes by Mr Glover on the recent In Rock and Fireball editions, are for some reason not extraordinary). But when he did, it was - he says - like looking at an old oil painting no one else has ever seen, as it was covered in layers of varnish before first leaving the studio. Notwithstanding, he fears that to other ears the changes might prove too subtle to warrant the extra CD.
I hope not. For this is more than a - worthwhile - alternative. Rather, there are now two separate albums, and the remixed one is thé classic. Machine Head is its name. With Highway Star the ears instantly prick up, as, since the 'other' album, Blackmore's taste in cars has apparently changed. Where his guitar was first a neat, lightweight cabriolet, it now tears by (as does the band) in the persona of The Car (star of the eponymous ''70s movie), a massive, lithe, sexy, twilit menace driving itself. Still, there ís someone at the wheel: an inexperienced naïve who keeps repeating the phrase 'I'm A Highway Star' to himself in a tone a bit poppy and timid, yet stampedes ever more as he finds out about the unexpected thrills of this (his) machine head which is taking hím (ánd itself) along for a (death)ride. Along the way, other surprises await. Such as a new, quite striking mid song guitar solo in Maybe I'm A Leo. Or several old guitar and keyboard solos fooling me into believing they were new solos. Or a new, portentous drum roll before Pictures Of home, which, also thanks to the new way Jon Lord's work now stands out, has grown oppressive and menacing. Or the singing in Never Before, which proves to have been an inspired mixture of poppiness and raw sorrow. But most supremely amazing of all was, to me, Smoke On The Water. Whichever words I used for this before I hereby swallow. It's a great performance. Perhaps thé performance. By some unknown magic those dubious opening phrases of Blackmore's have been transformed into big sound, not beautiful but rough and rearing. Conceivably, with him (and with Gillan) the Montreux unpleasantness which inspired the song, was then much too 'here and now' for any deliberate considerations on beauty and colour to be at all relevant. His famous solo has been replaced by an even better alternative one, some of whose (compositional) details anticipate certain later live versions. As to the vocals: hitherto the, to me, only really definitive version had, perversely, been a non-Deep Purple one by Gillan solo without a great guitarist, in a '90 concert video from Nottingham. Now I''ve found another where I'd least expected it. At Nottingham he was like a distant, magisterial commentator personally involved in his awe-inspiring report - the most obvious and logical approach, I'd say. Whereas here he's someone in a corner being sour and virulently funky at awkward fate, but whose very human-size indignation turns astoundingly anthemic in the chorus. The track is further enhanced beyond recognition by a formerly rejected super-fast closing solo by Jon Lord, in which he, too, unreins his fury, with support from a wildly ad libbing Gillan (yet another job of smoothing out rough edges well-done by the '72 mixer). Other versions have been infinitely greater in individual respects, none may be so complete as a whole. Something else: each CD contains a version of the soul-rending When A Blind Man Cries, which, in '72, didn't make it to the album (correctly, for subject- and composition-wise it's too profound for it), and, adding musical insult to judicial injury, was then misused as a B-side to Never Before. They relate like chamber music (the familiar B-side) to Grand Opera (the remixed album version). I prefer the former one although the other makes an (over)magnificant bonus. Finally: in the tail of each happy tale there should be at least one unhappy twist, and in the present one it's, alas, Lazy. Are these really the vocals and harmonica (here rather adding up to the same thing) of the original? They are impressive, but that particular passivity doesn't quite seem what it was.
Deep Purple never sounded the supergroup more than on these remixes. Instruments breathe in open space, have cast off their shutters, perform. Of course that typical Deep Purple relaxedness (as of an apparently easy-going but actually very fast machine) is still there. Gone is, obviously (as on the original album), that very early ''70s psychedelic underground effect of broadly distorted bass dominating a restricted tonal spectrum (like a low pyramid with a very wide base) of the two preceding albums. It's replaced by an agile and transparant bassline (Glover the producer happily bringing out the then buoyancy of Glover the bassist as almost equal to what it's been since Purpendicular), supported by drums no less elegantly virtuoso, but far more weightier, than customary ''70s Ian Paice. Volume has gone up on all fronts, so that this album sounds more 'heavy' and considerably more 'metal' than before. Yet subtlety hardly suffers, as the miracle of Mr Glover's achievement is in this 'big' sound's being the very opposite of beefy or impure. His guiding light, especially for the rhythm section, may well have been the sound of present-day Deep Purple. For this new album from ''72 is a classic example of '90s 'plain' production ideals. Would that record companies sanctioned Mr Glover to 'manhandle' in like fashion the 1984/1987/1993 Mark 2 reunion albums which he produced, and which, in comparison with Purpendicular and the early '70s albums, are now starting to show their age. I, for one, would prefer to have these right now rather than in 2009/2012/2018.