Deep Purple – Who Do We Think We Are? (1973): Shadows in Stereo

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Deep Purple’s unfathomably long wait between their eligibility and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may one day be as famous as their Top 10 charting single “Smoke on the Water” and Machine Head, the album from which it was taken.

Though the group survived a long history, garnered critical praise and reached significant commercial benchmarks, the passage of time and failure of collective memory skews the long view of them. What remains is clouded by their one moment of runaway success, a moment so big as to cause casual fans (and awards adjudicators) to forget about anything else they ever did. Too bad; even in the wake of the challenges that inevitably result from any sudden boost in fortune, the record shows (no pun intended) that Deep Purple were still able to create some fine music.

It’s often accepted without reservation that Deep Purple’s 1972 release Machine Head is one of the essential entries in the hard-rock canon of the early 1970s. From the tightly arranged opener “Highway Star” to the mutant blues of “Lazy” and the intergalactic jam out finale of “Space Truckin’,” the album’s seven tracks were well recorded, well played, and fit the profile promoted on album-oriented rock music stations that seemed to be multiplying exponentially along the FM radio dial. As well, “Smoke on the Water” appealed to consumers with AM radio pop sensibilities. The song’s popularity was based primarily on the crushing, immediately identifiable guitar intro that sent amateur musicians everywhere to their instruments of choice to cop that simple riff in the hopes of copping some coolness points as well.

It’s also just as easily believed these days that the next studio album was weak and disappointing, and didn’t expand the band’s fan base or critical acclaim. Released in early 1973, Who Do We Think We Are? is often reported to have been made under poor conditions caused by the strains of fatigue due to constant touring and animosity among some of the band members. The finished tracks that made it to the resulting album are not considered in most quarters to be among Deep Purple’s best, as further evidenced by the fact that soon afterwards vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover parted ways with the others.

But there are always other factors to consider. First, by all accounts Who Do We Think We Are? sold very well, helping Deep Purple to be the top selling rock artist in the U.S. in 1973. Second, comparison with Machine Head is somewhat colored by the fact that four out of seven of that album’s songs were featured on the live Made in Japan as well. Perhaps more importantly, Made in Japan was released Stateside about three months after Who Do We Think We Are?, which might have drawn attention away from the new release and refocused it back on to the earlier Machine Head. As well, the live performances presented the Machine Head tunes infused with levels of energy and wildness not immediately apparent in the sanitized studio versions, whereas the material on Who Do We Think We Are? never really got heard in a similar context.

As for the stress level under which Who Do We Think We Are? was recorded? Well, by comparison, during the recording of Machine Head, the studio sessions were threatened by a major fire. How much more stress do you want? Actually, most available information suggests much of Deep Purple’s recording activity during this time period consisted of assorted sessions based on availability and locations while on the road. Furthermore, the typical process was to assemble songs piecemeal from riffs and bits and scraps of lyrics and ideas. And in almost every group of highly talented, successful musicians, there are always bound to be tensions. So, in most respects, Who Do We Think We Are? was recorded under no different conditions that the ones they were used to working under anyway.

In that light, free of any sentimentality associated with the break up of Deep Purple’s Mark II lineup and the previous success of Machine Head, it becomes easier to appreciate Who Do We Think We Are? as a decent enough album based on its own merits. True, it doesn’t have as many songs that can match Machine Head’s aforementioned highlights, but it also avoids the padding — or in other words, the material on Machine Head that usually goes unmentioned.

“Woman from Tokyo,” the opening number on Who Do We Think We Are?, is a strong lead off track. The bonus version found on the reissue supports that fact: Deep Purple knew when to leave the unnecessary parts on the cutting room floor where they belonged. The rest of side one plays out well enough, with “Smooth Dancer” in particular rockin’ quite hard. Side two opens with “Rat Bat Blue,” a great little piece that anticipates perhaps some of the funkier elements found on later Deep Purple albums like Burn. “Place in Line” is the mandatory long blues work out, and “Our Lady” attempts a psychedelic tone with some slightly overused phase shifter effects.

Overall, “Woman from Tokyo” is of a piece with the other three albums by the Deep Purple Mark II configuration: not as perfect as In Rock and not as successful as Machine Head, but more focused than Fireball and gifted with its own particular version of grace under pressure. And if grace under pressure doesn’t make one eligible for some kind of award, I don’t know what does.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at
JC Mosquito
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