Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #11 by Stephen McClurg and John King

Deep Purple: Machine Head (1972)

In my weekly blog post, I discussed the recent circumstances that led me to hearing Deep Purple’s classic album for the first time. John won’t shut up about it.

Deep Purple Machine Head

JOHN: Turns out a “machine head” is the part of an instrument for tuning strings. Hmmm.

STEPHEN: Yeah, it is a “machine head,” but I’ve never heard a musician call it that. Everyone calls it a “peg” or a “tuner,” though “machine head” may be more common in England. I just figured it was a not-so-subtle sexual reference like their name.

Is the cover supposed to represent the title? Heads reflected in a metal machine? It freaks me out, like they’re all standing behind me in an elevator and I’m looking at their reflections on the door desperate to get to my floor. Maybe they’re all staring at a metal sex doll trying to figure out how it works and wondering who will go first.

I had written about how I happened to hear the album. What about you? When did you first hear it?

I’d also be interested in what your experience of the record is as a non-musician—or do you play guitar? The song (you know which one) is so attached to guitar playing that it’s almost impossible for me to divorce my listening experience from my musical apprenticeship. [In my original post, I discussed how “Smoke on the Water” was verboten in most musical contexts.]

JOHN: I got the LP of Machine Head around ‘87 or ‘88 if memory serves. Vinyl was cheap then, a dying format, and I got it out of a pure dumb hunger for more music. The crudeness of the cover is exactly how I felt, and I was pretty sure it couldn’t be any worse than Quiet Riot, who invited us to bang our heads in 1983.

I don’t remember if I cared about “Smoke on the Water.” What I remember is that I was wowed by the organ and the drums on this record, much more than the guitars. One of my favorite records at the time was Long Player by the Small Faces, and I also had this 45 of theirs that had an instrumental called “Skewiff (Mind the Fuse)” that was a good jam. Deep Purple felt like a hard rock version of them. Side 1 of Machine Head grooves.

STEPHEN: I like that the criteria for the purchase was “this can’t be worse than Quiet Riot.” Well, that and a “pure dumb hunger for more music.” I can still relate to that sentiment.

The drums haven’t struck me one way or another. It’s possible I haven’t listened to the record enough. Paice is a crisp, tight player, but I love Jon Lord’s organ work on it and I quite like Blackmore’s guitar playing.

I think I like “Highway Star” much more than you do.

JOHN: “Highway Star” is an okay vamp, but it never quite goes euphoric. The lyric conceits seem to be that the inamorata of the rock singer is a car, or is like a car, or he is some sort of trans-dimensional god zooming over the highway trying to keep up with a nymphomaniac’s libido. The music is good, and the lyrics weird enough to be listenable, but it doesn’t really get over.

STEPHEN: After “Highway Star,” “Maybe I’m a Leo” had some good lines, but didn’t strongly catch my ear.

JOHN: “Maybe I’m a Leo” is a funky groove that’s so desultory it’s beautiful. In 1972 when this record came out, being conversant in astrology was a prerequisite for getting laid—poor dumb bastards trying to walk in bell-bottoms—so the lyrics come off as really funny to me. Paice’s fills and the guitar and keyboard solos all seem to soar off the general sloppiness of the tune.

STEPHEN: I knew I would listen to the whole album when I got to the lines “I’m alone here/with emptiness, eagles, and snow” in “Pictures of Home.” That line works for me on multiple levels.

The first level was just how surprising it was. It caught me off guard with the connection of multiple levels of abstraction. Visually, it mentions mountains and such, too, and reminded me of Rush’s concept songs and albums—which I love. It’s a Dungeons and Dragons image.

But the lines are also interesting poetically. The repetition of the vowel sounds, especially how the “e” sounds are used, is nice. Also, that it sets up the long “o” early and comes back to it. In the full chorus, it plays off the assonance of “alone” and “snow” with “home”—a home that isn’t there. The words are connected by sound, but contrasted in terms of image. The syllables count down in an effective way: emptiness (3), eagles (2), snow (1).

This connected to my memory of Anglo-Saxon poetry with its ubi sunts, imagery, and alliteration. Making the literary connection, whether they intended it or not—really endeared me to the track. And it connects to both the outsider image, the Byronic aspect of rock’n’roll, and the warrior image of hard rock and metal.

Plus the bass solo! It’s kind of sloppy and raw, but punchy. I hear a lot of Mike Watt, or I should say that I think Roger Glover influenced Watt’s playing.

JOHN: “Pictures of Home” is bouncy like “Highway Star,” but really the song is an excuse to jam, and Ritchie Blackmore’s quivering guitars and that Jon Lord organ droning work well, and the singing is strong. I don’t listen to the lyrics too much, or else I’d probably have to stop listening to most rock music period. You’re a better listener than I am.

Perhaps it’s my tinnitus—SUPER FUCKING LOUD since seeing George Clinton earlier this month—but I can’t find the bass through the organ.

“Never Before” is a pulsing groove that sounds a lot more earnest than “Highway Star.” I am charmed by the chorus, “I’ve never felt soooooooo baaaaad … before” sung so prettily by Ian Gillan, the way no sad person could ever sing … unless one is a highway star.

Tracks 2-4 are truly great to drive through.

STEPHEN: That’s exactly what stands out to me on “Never Before.” I wish my heartbreak and sorrow sounded as sweet. Overall, it’s a groove and a chorus and not much else for me.

“Lazy” is the longest track on the album, but it’s ultimately a blues jam with vapid lyrics. It also gives them a chance, for maybe a minute, to almost play some “classical’ music. I would have liked more of that, especially the noisier possibilities, but I wonder if where the organ sounds novel to me, if it wasn’t something that people had gotten used to and were maybe tired of after the ‘60s. I’m sure a ton of psych-rock covered that territory.

JOHN: “Lazy” begins sounding like some live Doors vamp then veers into what could almost count as straightforward blues of that era, hints of Booker T and the MGs. Note: Ian Gillan is actually singing to himself, I think, as a lyric writer.

just stay in bed
You’re lazy just stay in bed
You don’t want no money
You don’t want no bread
If you’re drowning
you don’t clutch no straw, no
If you’re drowning
you don’t clutch no straw
You don’t want to live
you don’t want to cry no more
Well my trying ain’t done no good
I said my trying ain’t done no good
You don’t make no effort
no, not like you should
you just stay in bed
you just stay in bed
You don’t want no money
You don’t want no bread

That was one unmotivated cat. Good harmonica, though. They do have the good taste to wait 4 minutes into a 7 minute song to start the singing. A minute and a half later, the band returns to jamming.

Actually, “Lazy” is fucking superior to Mick Jagger’s variation on this theme, “Let’s Work,” which should count as exhibit A in why Mick isn’t cool—not primitive cool, either.

Clearly the director of this video thought, “Mick means every word of this ironically, doesn’t he? Let’s have clichés of workers trying to prance along with Mick in the middle of dangerous vehicular traffic.” My favorite part is when pallbearers drop a coffin on the highway.

STEPHEN: I know the song preceded both of these films, but I was hoping “Space Truckin’” would be more Alien than Flash Gordon. But despite that silliness, it’s a rockin’ track. I’ve always liked that kind of Motown beat with the snare on all four, and in a rock situation it often gives the drummer space to do some interesting bass work.

I love how the gnarly, weaving chorus riff is an unexpected, but really cool, transition in and out of the verse, which has the same beat. That might be my favorite riff on the record.

The verses wouldn’t be as great if the band didn’t experiment with texture. The verse as it is isn’t that special, but right before the solos, Blackmore plays a choppy, muted rhythm against the verse, while Gillan goes shrieking full-on, like a Muppet in space on fire. For a verse! Of course, he brings it back and goes even higher for the conclusion of the song.

Also, that spacy chromatic transition from the solos seems out-of-place and perfect at the same time. There’s some string-bending like the beginning of “Iron Man.”

JOHN: The rollover riff to “Space Truckin’” is okay, I guess. Angus Young would speed up the tempo to that trick with “Who Made Who” and then more with “Thunderstruck” (which I always thought was an overblown copy of “Who Made Who”).

The lyrics of “Space Truckin’” are there maybe as part of the rhythm section, just to give Ian Gillan something to do. Clearly they could have taken more drugs, lyrically speaking. Really, this whole record belongs to Jon Lord and Ian Paice. If you think that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars came out a year later, “Space Truckin’” is even more lyrically disappointing.

In 1996, there was a movie called Space Truckers starring Dennis Hopper. It didn’t use the Deep Purple song. Or special effects better than what MST3K was using at the time. Ash vs. Evil Dead used the song, though.

STEPHEN: I think part of the elevator pitch for Alien was that it was part Jaws and part truckers in space. It makes sense someone just ran with it.

How did you get into Small Faces/Faces? You mentioned them earlier, but even at the height of Rod Stewart’s fame I don’t remember hearing much about those groups. I think there was a lot of British rock that just didn’t make it over. I’m guessing anyway.

JOHN: I just had the one LP from The Faces (Small Faces), and it really came down to the randomness of what records I came across cheap in my teens. Rod Stewart confuses me in that he could be a hard rocker (“Hot Legs”) or disco trash (“Do You Think I’m Sexy?”) or treacly pop (“Forever Young”). Liberace had more musical integrity.

STEPHEN: There was a Zappa fan in our college orchestra. He was a percussionist who sat behind me and was a good-natured snob who was really into prog rock. I used to warm up every day with something like “Smoke on the Water” just to drive him crazy. “In a Gadda Da Vida” or even parts of “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”—etc. Sometimes I threw in some Police songs. I loved to see how much I could make him cringe.

Then again, he could have been cringing at my intonation on upright bass, but I like to think it was more about my skill of finding the most annoying riff at the right time.

JOHN: Yeah, out of context, the riff on “Smoke on the Water” sounds dumb. It doesn’t sound much better in context—like a satanic bowel movement. Come on cheese!—come on donuts!—get this evil—out o’ me!

I loved when the song was on season 2, episode 1 of The Sopranos. Tony is driving around in jersey and bopping awkwardly in his seat, and the CD glitches on Frank Zappa’s name, and goes Zap-Zap-Zap-Zap-Zap-Zap-Zap-Zap, and Tony blacks out crashing his goddamn SUV.

One of the reasons Deep Purple doesn’t get half the respect it deserves is because this one song is their legacy according to classic rock stations.

I fucking hate classic rock and all its two to five hundred song-lists set to replay and replay and replay and half of those were utterly fucking stupid the first time. No more “Hotel California” or “Paradise City” or anything by Bon Motherfucking Jovi. This isn’t the death of rock and roll. This is the zombie afterlife of actual rocks. It grinds my last fucking nerve, this bullshit.

STEPHEN: I think I used to know what “classic rock” is, but I don’t know anymore. It just so happens I’ve never been a fan of any of the bands you mention as “classic rock.” The Eagles just never caught my ear. I remember being a kid and being trapped in the car with my parents listening to the radio. My mom has always liked and still likes Top 40 music—-whatever happens to be Top 40. She heard Kanye before I did, though she’s never liked his stuff. When I was a kid she liked Devo, Talking Heads, and Blondie, so that’s what I heard growing up. But if I were in the car and “Hotel California” came on, I just hated how long and boring it seemed. I still don’t like the Eagles, but I’ve also never heard a whole album, which is the same situation I was in with Deep Purple which sparked this whole conversation to begin with—so I don’t know. Maybe I do like The Eagles and I just don’t know it yet.

I was already into Jane’s Addiction and Metallica when I heard Guns N’ Roses. Overall, I just wasn’t interested, I think I peaked in hard rock around White Lion and Def Leppard and just wasn’t interested anymore. It’s good that I’ve always been ready to hear something new, but bad in a sense that I think I understand something more than I do based on genre. Sometimes I’m just wrong. I’m willing to admit that. I think a lot of us do this. It’s partially survival—-otherwise the world is overwhelming, but there is something about getting into the details. They almost always subvert our shorthands.

I never liked Bon Jovi either, though “Runaway” cracks me up and that talk box effect on “Living on a Prayer” I always liked, but I always turned it off when the verse started.

But I actually like a lot of classic rock. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, etc. I still love “White Rabbit” or “Barracuda” or….Is Lou Reed classic rock? Velvet Underground? I guess sometimes.

JOHN: I saw both Aerosmith and AC/DC in 1988, and White Lion was the opening act for both of them. GNR was the opener for Aerosmith for half of their tour, but nope, not for the Hollywood Sportatorium date. Wait? Wait? Why, White Lion, will you fucking get better if I wait? How about you wait, you skinny bitches.

Everything about Bon Jovi fills my heart with hate. They make White Lion sound like Slayer.

STEPHEN: I love “Wait.” That would have been an exciting time to see GNR.

I admire your ability to be angry about these things. I think for many years I felt poisoned by music around me and felt physically affected by music I didn’t like. These days I just say “not for me” and move on. I can be moved to tears by music, but I rarely react negatively to it.

I do not like that almost every public place I go to pipes in music.

JOHN: Now I lock myself into my iPod as much as possible when in public, which keeps me saner. I mean Taylor Swift’s music is purely anti-human and Katy Perry is a triumph of cliché, but I have mostly avoided them, whereas Bon Jovi and Poison and Van Hagar and a lot of other shit got their toxic tentacles into my ears as a teenager because iPods didn’t exist and I had to rely on the radio and (shudder) MTV.

Wait, you think I’m angry? What the fuck makes you say that?

Technically, the machine head is the peg, plus the gear and housing. The back of the LP featured the whole back neck of a … bass?

Deep Purple Machine Head back
I guess they thought that out of context “machine head” sounded really cool. They were kind of right.

STEPHEN: The digital age allowed me to call this album up and listen to it, but one of the things I don’t like, and maybe this is a “get off my lawn” moment, is the lack of artwork, lyrics, and notes. I’ve never seen the back cover, even after all those years of shuffling around used copies.

I agree. It’s a cool name! It cracks me up that they put the bass headstock on the back of the album. It’s so obvious that I find it as confusing as the cover. That looks like a Fender bass, but someone more eagle-eyed would be able to tell if it’s a Precision or Jazz bass.


Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.