Saturday, 23 February 2013

Perfect Strangers

So last time we were talking about rock music, only we got a little distracted by the sensational Alex Harvey and had to leave early.

Enough of the preamble in that case. On with the show.

Deep Purple

It is no surprise to avid readers of this blog, that when Jon Lord died last summer, I was devastated. I’ve been a fan of Deep Purple for a long time. One time when Shim was bemoaning people who join bandwagons on Twitter, he used the example of people who claim to love Deep Purple yet their favourite song is always Smoke on the Water. I replied that mine was Perfect Strangers, to which his reply was “Oh you don’t count, Michael!”

Lord had come to rock music via an education in jazz, and was often to openly borrow jazz strings as riffs for his songs.

“Deep Purple is a damn good band and we've made a niche in rock 'n' roll history. Maybe not a huge one but enough to be very proud of.”
Jon Lord

Smoke on the Water is justly famous, as every bloody sod with a guitar can play it. As shown once in a particularly annoying Kerrang advert. The wacky idiot who decided a gig was the best place to set off a flare gun, destroying the entire building and some expensive instruments in the process, has gone down in lore. I, for one, hope he is as embarrassed as the guy who went on a date with Kirsty MacColl the night England took on Colombia at the 1998 World Cup. But more on him later.

Incidentally, Funky Claude Nobs of this song – the lyrics are as evergreen as the riff, you’ll hear him when you get to it in the song – died recently.

“Friends weren’t fond of [Smoke on the Water] for its simplicity, but its got the same number of notes as Beethoven’s 5th...” Ritchie Blackmore

“We’re as valid as anything by Beethoven.”
Jon Lord, NME, 1973

By the time Deep Purple covered the late Joe South’s Hush, there was five other versions of it, including one by Johnny Hallyday in French. It’s been covered since by legends such as Phil Lynott... and Kula Shaker. Yet, it is arguable that the Purple version is the definitive one. Certainly, its the version that comes to mind when I think of South’s masterpiece. (Well, it’s either this or “I beg your pardon”...let’s stick with the classic!) 

Black Night has an opening riff as catchy as Smoke on the Water. That said, it does come from Gershwin originally as Lord pointed out in the BBC documentary. (It’s a rock version of Summertime.) I know Cracked have issues with this “recycling”, shall we say, of other material by the band. Yet, call me naive if you wish, but in being very open about where they found their sources (also known as the Anti-Zep way) what they essentially were doing were citing their own music.

*Specifically, Lord cites Ricky Nelson’s rockier version of Summertime. This is why people should always check their facts.

“"When we made In Rock, the record company insisted, that we also had to do a single. We thought we were non-commercial and we must be taken seriously, so we tried to refuse: "We are an album band, we don't want any hit-single." Anyway the record company insisted we had to make something that BBC and other radio stations could play. We went to the studio without any inspiration and tried this and that, but nothing seemed to work. Finally we went to lunch in a pub. Of course it turned out to uncontrolled drinking. We were in the pub until they closed and finally we all were totally drunk. Ritchie and I were the first ones back in the studio. Ritchie took his guitar and played a riff, which sounded awfully great to me. "You did it, this is going to be our single", I was excited, but Ritchie said "Absolutely no way, it is 'Summertime' by Ricky Nelson". With drunken stubbornness I hold that idea and finally I had my way.” Roger Glover, Rumba no 12, 1993

There is a slight time difference between these songs and my favourite, Perfect Strangers. By 1984, Jon Lord had quit Deep Purple, joined Whitesnake with several other former Purplites, and then reformed Deep Purple in the 1980s. Some folk think had the band stayed together, they’d be thought of in the same line as The Kinks or Who today. And perhaps Tony Benn might have been Prime Minister if he were an entirely different person. There’s a profound comment hiding in that pretentious outburst. Possibly. 

Perfect Strangers was the song that introduced me to Deep Purple, and introduced me to them a whole year before I’d even heard of Metallica. You see, World Championship Wrestling (the New Cola alternative to WWF) had a habit of ripping off bands music for their wrestling intros. (Actually, their version of Come as You Are was better than Nirvanas, as it had a distinct lack of Kurt Cobain!) Unlike Jon Lord, however, WCW never admitted to the larceny. However, after a few weeks of humming Shane Douglas’s theme (don’t bother Googling him, this is genuinely the only positive story he will ever be involved in) I decided to look up this wacky invention called the internet, and found that it was a song called Perfect Strangers. And so began an interest with music that, lets be honest, was a few steps above the Limp Bizkit folk of my generation were listening to at the time. 

“Perfect Strangers for the Deep Purple song” Ritchie Blackmore asked his favourite DP song.

The explanations of the lyrics are numerous: its about reincarnation, its about astral projection, its about Michael Moorcock. If you ask me, it’s about a bloody ghost. 

“Perfect Strangers pretty much wrote itself. It was so glorious, because it was great to be back together after being apart for so many years. We had grins from ear to ear. Then we did the Perfect Stranger tour and we were second in ticket sales to Bruce Springsteen. Then the management and record company said, “It’s time to do the next album, guys.” We made the massive mistake of trying to make our music current. We discovered that people didn’t want us to that. They wanted us to do what we do best. We’re Deep Purple-loud, proud, pure and simple.” Jon Lord, Modern Keyboard, January 1989 

Rock will eat itself. Deep Purple shared the floor with Alice Cooper in the 2000s and Alex Harvey in the 70s, two stars of this blog’s first episode. The next man, it would be easier to list the rock connections he DIDN’T HAVE.


Get to the bloody doctors, Ronnie. Oh its too bloody late now.

Dio once got me into trouble with my wife, for waking her up. My defence, supported by Jon Arnold, was that it is nigh impossible to listen to Holy Diver without singing along. She didn’t accept it then, even though I’m sure I’ve caught her pretending not to sing along to Dio’s track since.

Certainly, Holy Diver is a must. Rainbow in the Dark has been on every “Best Rock Riffs” compilation since it was written. Straight Through the Heart is worth a listen to, as is The Last in Line, even if its opening 20 seconds reminds me so much of Let it Be by the Beatles.

Cancer robbed the world of Ronnie Dio in 2010, but be it through his rifftastic music, his connection to Black Sabbath, or his wonderful cameo in the Tenacious D film, the man will live on much longer in the hearts of rock fans. 

Foo Fighters

Would it be mean of me to claim that the success of the Foo Fighters suggests to me that the continuation of Nirvana was merely holding the musical polymath Dave Grohl back from achieving his full potential? Perhaps it is, but I’ll say it anyway. Not that Nirvana (or indeed Cobain) were bad, per say, they have their just fans. Songs to consider include Learn to Fly, Breakout and The One, all of which showcase Grohl’s talent both for humour and for riffs. Everlong is their stand out song, more so by the stripped down acoustic version released years later. With nowt but a standard guitar and voice, Grohl jumps so far out of any shadow the late Cobain might throw over his career, to the point they are standing in different continents. Some bands are a million pounds on stage with all the SFX and roadies and crowds. Then you take away all those special effects, and its a case of Emperors New Clothes. Stripped away from all those special effects, you realise just how good the Foo Fighters are. 

Stealers Wheel

“Scarcely a song that he and partner Joe Egan have written since the commencement of the ill-fated Stealers Wheel has fallen short of the highest standard, and when 'Stuck In The Middle With You' was number two in the American charts, Paul Simon said in an interview that it was the best pop song he'd heard in ages.”
Jerry Gilbert, 1975

There is a hilarious video from the Old Grey Whistle Test of Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty “performing” their hit Star. Only, as you may be aware, none of the actual instruments were played live on BBC shows, they were recordings. So what we have here is Egan producing the worlds most knowing lipsynch to the camera, while both men perform the full clockwise fake guitar strum in choreographed timing, with big cheesy grins on their face. As a snapshot of a group willing to take on the established order and have a ball while doing it, it shows what Stealers were, before the Wheels fell off.

“When you appear on the stage there's a standing ovation,
You really live out your performance, you're the biggest sensation.
You breeze through the door and when you take the floor
You expect to have it all to yourself.
After all you've been through tell me what will you do
When you find yourself back on the shelf?”

Star itself is a curious track. Written entirely by Joe Egan, yet it shares the cynicism and humour laced downtrodden agenda which would typify Gerry Rafferty’s work, and it would not be surprising to hear people have mistaken it for one of his solo songs. Even though Egan himself sings on it, the two men's voices are so similar as to harmonize beautifully. What we see is an example of how two similar musicians influence each others styles.

“So they made you a star”. It’s noteworthy that we aren’t told who “they” are. Common perception, best I can tell, is that this is a reference to the fans who buy the albums, catapulting the young musicians into the limelight where they learn how to get an ego. But I’d have to disagree here. The reference in the next verse to “They read in the press all about your success/They believe every word they've been told”... Well, “they” who read in the press and believe every word is now clearly the fans, but the suggestion they are following what the group believes suggests firmly to me the star making is on the part of the record companies. I admit with the swapping use of “they” and leaving it like that, Egan makes it ambiguous, but going by the bands track record, that seems to me to be the more likely cause of stardom.

It is also worth noting that this is an exceptionally catchy song. It’s catchy-ness belies the depressing morale at the centre of the tale, about the price of fame. Rafferty was no stranger to depressing earworms. His flop debut solo album, Can I Have My Money Back?, is full of them, and time has been kinder to that album than many of the successes of 1971, but we will return to it with Rafferty’s solo career at a later date. 

But let’s talk about Joe Egan. His music career suffers post-78 as a result of the meteoric rise of Rafferty, but to rule him out entirely as “the guy Gerry used to work with” is to do him and music a great disservice. As the heart and soul behind Stealers Wheel, and the main lyricist, he is most responsible for the continued growing reputation of this small Paisley band from the 1970s. Attempting to parody Dylan he may have been, but he also shares writing credits on Stealers Wheels biggest hit by far, and the elephant in this room...

“Well, I don't know why I came here tonight. I got a feeling that something ain't right.
I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair and I'm wondering how I'll get down those stairs.
Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right, here am I stuck in the middle with you.

Stuck in the Middle with You sold more than a million copies, possibly making it the most accidentally successful parody of all time. I’m sure Dylan was thrilled.

“A parody of Bob Dylan’s paranoia!”
Martin Chilton, 2011

“That was one of those things where I thought [the song] would work really well, and [during] auditions, I told the actors that I wanted them to do the torture scene, and I'm gonna use 'Stuck in the Middle With You,' but they could pick anything they wanted, they didn't have to use that song. And a couple people picked another one, but almost everyone came in with 'Stuck in the Middle With You,' and they were saying that they tried to come up with something else, but that's the one. The first time somebody actually did the torture scene to that song, the guy didn't even have a great audition, but it was like watching the movie. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, this is gonna be awesome!' “
Quentin Tarantino, Rolling Stone

Tarantino’s use of Stuck for a rather specific moment in Reservoir Dogs gave Stealers Wheel a boost in the 90s. It might not be the smartest or the catchiest of Wheels songs, but damned if it’s not the most popular by a country mile. It’s probably fairly typical that in the music video for this most popular of songs, Joe Egan is miming to Rafferty’s vocals, as Gerry had quit the band for a bit while they were filming the video!

Gerry Rafferty, a man for whom the song My Way might as well have been written. 

Other Stealers Wheels songs worth a listen:

 Luca Turilli

I admit not to knowing much Italian rock, so I can’t exactly place Turilli in terms of their greats. However, I do know that he is fucking awesome, and so is his band Rhapsody. I mean, the guy has even worked with Christopher Lee!

Now, I have never listened to Turilli’s songs in order, which, given they form concept art, is a bit like reading the Lord of the Rings by taking in random chapters. Its a wonderfully visual world, however, full of dark prophecies and sacrifices and demons which use human puppets to unleash destruction on the universe, against the backdrop of universal war, and how said war and demonic possessions prevent true love from being consecrated between two young people.

It’s just genuinely awesome stuff. Mandy disagrees, but does note that the chords for Turilli’s work are insane. And she’s a former guitarist herself.

So what can we recommend from these random chapters? Well, Knight of Immortal Fire is where I started. It was so entirely different from anything I had ever heard to that time. Prophet of the Last Eclipse is a tour de force of vengeance. Timeless Oceans is about 12 minutes shorter, but a nice slow melodic piece. And if you just like your music turned up to 11, Blacks Realms Majesty is always worth a listen. 

Oingo Boingo 

Danny Elfman’s band, before he became famous for film scores, are a difficult beast to categorise. Oddball is, I guess, the most apropos definition.

I can sing all the words to Dead Man’s Party. Strangely, it has never come up as an option in any karaoke I have ever been invited to. I can’t think why. 

I'm all dressed up with nowhere to go
Walkin' with a dead man over my shoulder

Waiting for an invitation to arrive
Goin' to a party where no one's still alive

I was struck by lighting
Walkin' down the street
I was hit by something last night in my sleep
It's a dead man's party
Who could ask for more
Everybody's comin', leave your body at the door
Leave your body and soul at the door . . .
(Don't run away it's only me)

Like I say, I can’t think why.

“My best friends are all dead people.” Danny Elfman, in an AOL chat, about why he is obsessed with death.

And yet that song might explain my interest in Elfman’s ex-band. He references the work of EF Benson in the song, “I hear the chauffeur coming to my door/Says there's room for maybe just one more". The second line there is the hook of one of his more famous tales, which I shall try not to spoil. The Bus Conductor should be easily found (and heck, it was adapted into part of the 1945 film Dead of Night) if curiosity peaks...