Smoke on the water or walking on the water? For a young British singer named Ian Gillan, the choice was a no-brainer.
A few months after joining British psychedelic pop band Deep Purple in 1969 and helping them transition into the hard-rock giants they would become, Gillan was approached by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice who offered him the role of Jesus in their soon-to-be-monster hit rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
“I recorded all my parts in three hours one day, and that night performed with Deep Purple,” the 68-year-old vocalist said last week from his Oslo hotel room in the middle of a band tour.
The dilemma arrived when Webber/Rice and director Norman Jewison pursued Gillian to star in the film and stage versions of the blockbuster musical, which would have required considerably more than a threehour commitment.
“I didn’t think about it for more than a half hour. Here I was, in Deep Purple, the band I always dreamed of playing with. I wasn’t going to jeopardize it for a run on the West End or 12 weeks on location filming the movie,” said Gillan. “I did go to meet Norman Jewison but it didn’t go farther than that. Asking the rest of the band to stop working for three months would have been a problem.”
Instead, Gillan and the rest of Deep Purple ended up recording Machine Head, one of the iconic hard-rock albums of all time, containing their signature song “Smoke on the Water.” Ironically, after three years of rock & roll superstardom, Gillan – burnt out on excessive touring and drinking and at odds with overbearing guitarist Ritchie Blackmore – quit his dream band.
“It’s remarkable how things change,” chuckled Gillan. “When you’re young, you’re immortal, or so you think, and you never think there will be problems ahead.
You can see this with musicians, movie stars, athletes – you can be prepared with all the professional skills, but the one thing they never prepare you for is success.
“It hard to deal with the first time around and a lot of people screw it up. I messed it up badly and walked out on the band for some petty reasons I can’t even recall now. I thought that I could do without it, and I did – for three years. But it didn’t take much to get me back in again.”
After a short time away from the music business, Gillan launched a couple solo projects –the Ian Gillan Band and Gillan – before joining Black Sabbath for a stint as lead vocalist. Returning to the Purple fold with the classic lineup of Gillan, Blackmore, bassist Roger Glover, keyboardist Jon Lord and drummer Ian Paice in 1984 through 1989 before again going separate ways due to conflict with Blackmore, he rejoined the band for a second time in 1992 for their 25th anniversary.
And since recruiting uber-talented lead guitarist Steve Morse in 1994 to replace the ever-mercurial Blackmore, the lineup of Gillan, Morse, Paice, Glover and keyboardists Don Airey (who replaced Lord, who retired in 2002 and died in 2012) have represented a stable – and some say the most talented – version of Deep Purple.
“Ritchie saved the band actually. What he was doing before he left in the early 1990s was unsustainable,” said Gillan. “He’d come onstage and after 20 minutes would walk off every night.
“The audiences weren’t coming around anymore to see this shambles and embarrassment and we were coming to a brick wall when he walked out and inadvertently saved the band. He probably thought we would fold without him but we got Joe Satriani to finish that tour and then we took a deep breath and invited Steve to join. Within a year, the audiences were up higher than they had ever been and have stayed that way.
“So, what was the most traumatic time in the band’s life has evolved into what we are now. We’re very lucky to have had another phase in our career, and we’re very grateful to Ritchie for leaving. Otherwise, we might have been out of work for the past 20 years.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees have performed in Israel a handful of times since an early ‘90s show in which Blackmore lived up to his reputation by walking off mid-show. And having the energetic Morse in the guitar slot seems to have acted like the elixir of youth for the rest of the band, as they tear through their greatest hits with enthusiasm and power. According to Gillan, the key is keeping the focus on the music instead of on the trappings of success.
“I’ve tried to avoid the rock & roll highway and have taken the scenic route,” he laughed. “I think all the guys have been more concerned with the music and the band’s legacy than with the commercial aspects of life.
“Like any family, there have been ups and downs – divorces, deaths – but the house is still standing. And we’ve had a lifetime of experiences with some amazing adventures.”
He even had a few good words to say about the long-departed Blackmore.
“When I think of him, I think of the genius I met in 1969 – the amazing guitar player and tremendous writer and performer.
That kid had it all before he kind of just turned cranky and hard to live with. But you look on the bright side and remember the good things.”
Gillan wasn’t as magnanimous when discussing the continued omission of Deep Purple from the hall of fame, which denied the band entry for the second year running.
“I’ve spent my entire life trying to avoid being institutionalized,” he said. “This institution is such an American thing.
When you get an honor from any other institution they usually have the courtesy to approach you before you’re nominated to see if you’re even interested. Once it goes public and you’ve been nominated, then you’re helpless.
“In the end, it doesn’t concern me that much. It’s more important for our fans, and our families – they would like to see some kind of recognition for the band they supported all their lives. For us, it doesn’t change things one iota. We’re still going to go out there and play our best.”
Deep Purple will be holding two concerts at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv – on February 22 and 23.
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