Some posts you never want to have to write. Some posts you never think you ever will have to write. There are some people who – even though the only contact you ever had with them was through their work – are so deeply ingrained in your psyche that you think they’re not subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us. You live with their music, their art – whatever it is that they do – almost every day of your life. They’re just… there. Then one day, suddenly… they’re not. Suddenly reality comes in and you realise that a huge part of your life, one freighted with love, affection and associations you didn’t realise you’d made… is suddenly not there anymore. It jolts you. You feel… well, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Can you truly, honestly grieve for someone who you never really met? Are you upset for the passing of the person, or the loss of everything that person gave you?
I can’t answer that. What I do know is that when the news that Jon Lord had died broke today I went cold inside. Just for a second, because that man gave me – I think – more wonderful music, more great companionable times with like-minded people – than almost any other musician I can think of. The man was a giant in my eyes. It’s awful to think that he’s not there any more.
I remember the first time he and I crossed paths. I’d just moved from darkest Wales to Edinburgh, and was a wet-behind-the-ears teenager with some very questionable musical taste. That at least hasn’t changed much over the years. As always happens in a new place you start to forge friendships, begin to move forward in your new life. A colleague at the job I’d just started – soon to become one of my oldest and dearest friends – was talking about his lifelong affair with Deep Purple. “It’s an obsession”, he said, grinning like a maniac. “Who are they, then?”, I said, little realising that obsession would soon expand outward and swallow me up as well.
A few days later my new friend bounded up to me with a couple of tapes. “Here you go, try to convert you…” he said. I wandered off home and listened to Deep Purple’s “Fireball” and “Stormbringer” for the first time. Looking back now they’re deeply odd selections. If you were trying to introduce someone to Deep Purple you’d probably hit them with “In Rock” or “Machine Head”, wouldn’t you? They were inspired choices, though. For all that they’re both patchy, eccentric albums, full of strange little side-alleys and bizarre musical diversions – they show that for all the bluster and shouting there was always a little something more to Purple. Something different. I fell for them, and I fell for them hard. Despite the numerous disappointments – I can’t think of any other band who have ever tested my devotion quite to the limits as Deep Purple have – the high points were frequent enough – and magnificent enough – to keep me coming back. Year after year.
From their inception through to 2002 there were only two constants in Deep Purple. Band members would arrive, fight, drift away, come back, leave again. Ian Paice and Jon Lord were always there. The first breakup in 1976 was precipitated entirely – after a shambolic show at the Liverpool Empire – by both musicians deciding that they just couldn’t take it any more. Post-reformation in 1984 Deep Purple weren’t always a band who were synonymous with dignity. The ongoing battles between Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore pulled the band so far out of skew and in so many directions that there were occasions when I would look on in despair and think that it was all up for them. Somehow, they would swing themselves back round again, pull something out of the hat that would be so utterly uniquely them that you’d breathe a sigh of relief, then start counting the seconds until the next crisis.
Usually those moments would have Jon Lord at the back of them. That massive Hammond sound, pushed through Leslie’d speakers. Those moments when he’d virtually stand on the keyboards, or rock the setup backwards and forwards to make this massive controlled blast of white noise. The delicate, classically inspired lines. Jon always knew when to hold back, when to hammer it to best effect. The consumate musician, he listened to what his bandmates were doing. Although always one of Purple’s principal soloists he was never a grandstander. Always a team player.
He could turn a bum note into something special. Listen to the intro of “Speed King”. After that remarkable noise that kicks everything off, Jon comes in with a little keyboard solo that instantly goes wrong when he hits the wrong note in a descending scale. Instead of demanding another take he plays with it, makes it sound deliberate and it becomes an integral part of the intro. I can’t imagine hearing that song without it. Nobody sounded like him. Until he gifted his rig to Don Airey on retirement, nobody else ever could.
Goodness, so many memories tonight. His work with DP Mark 1 on the likes of “Chasing Shadows”, “April” and especially “Shield”. Working sympathetically with Nick Simper (rarely mentioned as a remarkably melodic and musical bassist, unfairly dismissed in the Purple legend by association with Rod Evans), the two created a unique sound. You don’t get too many bands defined by what the keyboard player and bassist are doing together but that’s what Mark 1 were for me. Blackmore’s style is still developing and he does fantastic work but it’s those two who always provide the standout moments.
So many great songs after that, so many standout performances. “Highway Star”. “Burn”. “Woman From Tokyo”. “Perfect Strangers”. All of those, sure. Also “Bloodsucker”, “Rat Bat Blue”, “Sail Away”, “Son of Alerik”, “Ramshackle Man”, “The Battle Rages On”, “Jack Ruby”. Outside of Purple – and goodness knows I’m straying into dangerous territory here – there was the likes of that buzzing intro to “Fool For Your Lovin'”, or the delicate little strand of Hammond that starts “Here I Go Again”. He always did know how to offset Coverdale’s more bright eyed and bushy tailed tendencies, which is presumably why David head-hunted him at the first possible opportunity.
After the first Purple breakup he grabbed Ian Paice, met up with Tony Ashton, Paul Martinez and Bernie Marsden and as Paice Ashton Lord knocked out “Malice in Wonderland”. By several miles my favourite solo work by a member of Deep Purple. By several miles, one of my favourite albums, full stop. If only Tony could have kept it together a little longer we might have had something even more special. As it was, the one album they did do is hugely precious to me. Almost something to be treasured even more because its all we’ve got.
There’s much to be loved in Lord’s other solo excursions too. “Sarabande” gets some flak but I’ve always rather admired the overblown silliness of it all. Radio Caroline in the early seventies loved “Gemini Suite” and plugged the hell out of it, and although it’s quite heavy going, when it works it really works. Sometimes the best music is the stuff you have to live with.
I can’t really find too much to say about “Before I Forget”, but “Pictured Within” is a beautiful, haunting, elegaic work. Hushed, gentle, delicate in all the right ways, it says goodbye to loved ones but keeps them close. It can break your heart and mend it in the course of the same song. It’s exactly the sort of album I’d always hoped Jon would produce. I’m so glad that he did, and it almost stands as the perfect eulogy. He was the keyboard player in a loud, rambunctious rock band. Absolutely, but he was also capable of this.
I was there at Birmingham NEC in 1993. Blackmore playing the silliest of buggers, we watched as four band members instead of five convened on stage and started to play the intro to “Highway Star”. Eventually realising that they’d have to do something, Gillan/Lord/Paice/Glover started performing as a four-piece. They almost managed to cover for the missing banjo player. Paice had his head thrown back, almost as if in pain as his beloved band fell apart again before his eyes. Glover continued to play, shaking his head sadly. Gillan at the front, the battle between him and Blackmore finally resolved but surely he never wanted it to be like this. I was behind Jon, a fair way off so I couldn’t really see what he was doing. The video footage shot that night reveals his head to be bent over the Hammond, sadness in his face as he desperately tries to drive a juggernaut with half the gears missing. Deep Purple unravelled that night. A lot of us thought they’d never come back from that.
Yet… they did. I was there again – on several occasions – when they stormed back in 1995. Like the song says, “The Banjo Player took a hike, now what’s that song I used to like?”
Blackmore gone, Joe Satriani in temporarily and the bootlegs tell the story. Jon sounds liberated, joyous, suddenly enjoying the simple act of playing rock music again. When Steve Morse joins, they all sound liberated. It’s like a bunch of teenagers, realising that this is actually working, they’ve got a real chance to make something special. They did, repeatedly. “Purpendicular” is a wonderful work and I strongly urge you to seek it out. “Abandon” is patchier but still worth your time. Jon’s in there, right at the heart of the band, working to make every song the best it can be. Suddenly, Deep Purple are a band again instead of a bunch of egos trying to outdo each other.
The shows on the “Purpendicular” tour were mesmeric. It’s traditional at a Purple show – at least, any Purple show that I’ve ever been at – for the rest of the band members to leave the stage when any one performer is doing their solo spot. Not this time. Everyone stayed exactly where they were, watching their friends getting their moment in the spotlight. The number of times when the lights went back up and Gillan, Glover or Paice would be caught – just for a moment – smiling proudly over at Jon as without a beat he brought the band back into whatever song they’d digressed off from – you can’t bottle that sort of happiness.
Deep Purple were a volatile band. Evans and Simper were “let go”. Gillan resigned, taking a disaffected Roger Glover with him. Hughes and Bolin more or less destroyed the band between them, with a heartbroken Coverdale as collateral damage. Gillan got fired again, then reinstated just in time for Blackmore to effectively fire himself. Jon Lord – he retired. With dignity and grace, he eventually decided that enough was enough and stepped back from the life of a touring musician in a rock and roll band.
2002, I was there at the Glasgow leg of Purple’s last tour with him as a band member. Don Airey was playing keyboards for the first half of the show. Funnily enough, I don’t think a single person there resented him. We all knew change was coming. If this band has taught us anything it’s that nothing stays static for long. So much Purple history is surrounded in a welter of bad-feeling and ill-grace. Jon – well, he was different. We all loved him and we were there to say goodbye, to give him a good send-off.
The first forty minutes or so was a standard, decent Purple show. Then Don went into his solo slot. The usual mix of classical riffs, movie themes, excerpts from other songs. Then he pretty much slammed every key at once, creating a howling, roaring scream of noise that seemed to go on forever. The lights went off. When they came back up and the noise stopped, Don was gone and Jon was standing in his place. The roof came off. You could barely hear “Perfect Strangers”, but for that moment there was nowhere else that I wanted to be. How often do you get to stand with a thousand other people and shout “thanks” at someone who means the world to you? Moments to cherish. And still – in Don’s stepping gracefully back to let Jon take the limelight – one of the single most generous and kind acts I’ve ever seen a professional musician perform. No wonder we took him to our hearts. No wonder Purple are still out there touring the world with Don ably filling Jon’s shoes. There’s nobody else we’d rather have doing the job.
Jon Lord’s gone now, and it’s traditional to say at this stage that his legacy will live on. In his case, I think it’s particularly true. Back in the late 60s as Purple were still struggling to establish where they were headed after the departure of Evans and Simper, Jon drove the rest of the band towards a very special piece of work. “The Concerto For Group and Orchestra” was performed live at the Albert Hall in London and while it’s fair to say that not every musician in the band took it as seriously as Jon did – Gillan apparently bished up some of his lyrics in a taxi on the way to the performance, although that sounds like urban myth to me – there were plenty of people in the audience who were held spellbound by this remarkable blend of pomp, spectacle and bloody loud noise. A certain John Deacon was one of them. You might know what happened to him.
Doubtless he wasn’t alone. Jon Lord made fantastic music, was gentlemanly in a profession not reknowned for good manners, and seemed to make friends wherever he went. Some musicians are adored. Some are respected. Jon Lord was loved. That’s a damn good epitaph.
Right now, I’m off to listen to “Pictured Within”. Miller Anderson’s soft rendition of the words to the title song have extra poignancy tonight, but somehow… it feels right. Jon lived his life well, and he produced a body of work which I’ve treasured for decades. I expect to do so for the rest of my life.
“Kith and Kin – Pictured Within”.