After spending eight years apart occupying themselves with various musical projects, Deep Purple (the Mark II version) decided to get together again. In retrospect, it isn’t so surprising: When it comes to musicians and their music, most of them know the difference between artistic integrity and the bottom line.
In the case of Deep Purple, it seemed that this reunion might achieve the near-impossible: a perfect marriage between art and commerce.
As much as everyone wanted to like their 1984 album Perfect Strangers, the simple fact of the matter was that it was just OK. If anything, it was equal parts Rainbow’s commercial phase, some Ian Gillan elements, and even bits of Whitesnake — perhaps imported via Lord and Paice’s tenure with David Coverdale’s group. Their next offering, The House of Blue Light, was marginally better — or worse, depending on to whom you were talking.
After that, it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard. So, in no particular order (as of this writing) …
–Ritchie Blackmore quit in the middle of a tour and was replaced by guitar wizard Joe Satriani. Eventually, the open guitar spot was filled by ex-Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse, who still holds the job to this day. Blackmore and his wife Candace Night put together an acoustic folk group called (appropriately) Blackmore’s Night, which combines elements of Renaissance music, new age and folk rock.
–Ian Gillan left Deep Purple yet again and was replaced briefly by Rainbow alumnus Joe Lynn Turner for one album. He returned soon after that, and as of this writing, is still the voice and face of the modern Deep Purple.
–Roger Glover continues to be Purple’s bassist and sometimes producer.
–Ian Paice was there at the beginning and today the drummer remains the only member of the band that has played on every recording.
–Jon Lord played keyboards before he retired from the rock biz, handing his position to Don Airey, a veteran journeyman with a long resume (including a stint with Rainbow). Lord passed away in 2012 from pulmonary embolism.
Although there are likely some hardcore fans who can do this, it’s probably not necessary to label the various later versions of the group by Mark number. There are a number of decent albums, including Bananas, Abandon and the most recent, Now What?! Each of them is well produced and well played, but none of them seem to have the firepower and innovation that defined their work at its artistic and commercial peak.
And so — herein lies the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dilemma — Deep Purple as a group have undergone some very distinct phases, which should be expected of a group that has been around for more than 40 years. But the number and frequency of personnel changes becomes problematic after a while, because it becomes too hard for the public to recognize the group’s sound and its identity as well. For example: some people still refer to AC/DC’s Brain Johnson as “the new singer” more than 30 years after he replaced Bon Scott — and that’s only one change at one particular opening.
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In that light, it’s easy to understand why many people lose track of Deep Purple and other bands with a rotating cast of players and styles. It’s an image issue, but also a music issue, and sometimes the image becomes as important as the music it’s trying to sell. Kiss would be the perfect example of this: They’ve has a few personnel changes, and even had a disco-flavored hit, but their visual image and personal attitude remain so strong that one forgets their musical shortcomings and history of bad feelings between members.
In the final analysis, Deep Purple’s lack of an easily identifiable and marketable image is a two edged sword. It’s great that they seem to care more about music than publicity, but if the music isn’t out there, it’s difficult to promote the band as relevant in the modern age.
Sure, they were at one time at the top of their game, and had they quit forever back in 1974 they would have been remembered that way — forever the young guns who could outshoot most other challengers in the heavy rock battle of the bands. Since the two original comeback albums in the ’80s, however, Deep Purple has released only seven moderately successful studio albums in the last 24 years, and that’s just not enough to keep the public interested.
Of course, maybe that’s OK. There’s a lot of other great music and musicians still not in the Hall of Fame to keep them company. Or in the words of rock ‘n’ roll guitar slinger Joe Perry: “Let the music do the talking.”