PURPLE REVISITED: Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969)

Deep Purple’s month-long “Smoke on the Nation” tour kicked off this weekend in Newfoundland and makes its way into Ontario this week, culminating in a sold-out performance at Massey Hall on Sunday.  After some initial trepidation over ticket prices, I ended up forking out a hundred bucks for a fourth-row seat.  What can I say, I wanna see these guys before they die!  Alas, Jon Lord has retired, and the chances of Ritchie Blackmore rejoining the band are about equal to those of the Leafs winning the Cup this year–but the other three-fifths of the Mk II lineup remains intact.  Thus, I figured I’d spend this week revisiting the recorded output they produced over that glorious five-year timeframe…

Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969)

Long before the orchestral album became a medium for rich rock stars to milk more money from their devoted followers (I’m looking at you, Gene Simmons.  You too, Lars Ulrich…), Deep Purple elevated it to an art form with this, their fourth full-length release—and first to feature the Mk II lineup, with Roger Glover on bass and Ian Gillan on vocals.  I mean, is there a bolder way to usher in a new frontman than to record a live album with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra?  I think not!

Fittingly enough, the music isn’t broken down into songs here, but rather movements, like a true orchestral performance.  For this is not a rehash of the band’s greatest hits (at which point were very few), but rather a piece of original music.  I actually own a German pressing of this, in which composer (and organ meister) Jon Lord describes his movements on the back sleeve.  I’m not sure whether this appeared on domestic versions, though I’d imagine it did, as it’s written in English, after all…

Anyways, the first movement is primarily orchestral, until the band comes in after a dramatic buildup.  As Lord puts it: “Here I have tried to present the Orchestra and Group as you would expect to hear them – as antagonists … This merges into a slightly grotesque little tune which starts to get hold of the Orchestra until violently thrown aside by the Group…  A change of tempo and a sparring match between Group and Orchestra leads to the final chords.”  Lord’s organ and the groovy, retrofied drumming of Ian Paice set the tone for the Group portion, with some tasty Blackmore licks thrown in for good measure.

Gillan makes his Deep Purple debut in the second movement, which also features a whole lotta cor anglais.  (It’s basically a bass oboe; I had to look that one up…)  In Lord’s words, “The flute tune is finally transmogrified to a “pop/blues” explosion, followed by the organ cadenza.”  And what a cadenza it is!

The third movement is played primarily in 6/8 time, though it briefly drops down to 2/4.  As per Lord, “Two ‘false’ climaxes work up to a crescendo in the full Orchestra followed by a string tremolando, over which the Group builds up to the final two-octave “whoop” by the eight horns and the last crashing chord.”  Did I mention it also includes an extended Ian Paice drum solo that’s downright bitchin’!?

Though the album was a minor success, peaking at number 26 in the UK, it seems that the concert didn’t go over too well with orchestral critics at the time, as Lord has dedicated an entire paragraph on the back sleeve to them.  “I am sure that critics are a necessary, if slightly archaic, appendage to the music business.  What puzzles me is that an evening which was intended to be, and in fact (as witnessed by a very large and glorious audience) turned out to be FUN, should be treated by some of the critics with such long-faced seriousness.”  I guess they didn’t eat the purple acid… ;)

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