If everyone in America who plays or has ever played rock guitar raised their hands high in unison in response to the question, “Was ‘Smoke on the Water’ the first song you ever learned?,” the armpit stench alone would be enough to wipe out a portion of the U.S. population equal to the number of souls currently living in Iowa. So why, then, has it taken so long for a boxed set to emerge honoring Deep Purple, one of the most subtly influential English hard rock bands of all time? Perhaps the delay stems from the band’s more than fair share of turmoil—members exiting and rejoining with soap opera regularity, Ritchie Blackmore’s frequent uprisings as dictator, etc. Or perhaps the reason is the inconsistency of their early records, stemming from various identity crises that saw the band flirt impatiently with the blues-rock that spawned Cream, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and early Fleetwood Mac, as well as the darker, heavier sound that gave birth to Black Sabbath. Whatever the reasons, a bona fide Purple retrospective is long overdue. Overdue, at the very least, in the sense that a rather lengthy chapter in the history of hard rock has, until now, been missing. Shades thankfully and effectively fills the gap.
As its title suggests, Shades: 1968-1998 traces in glorious detail three decades of Deep Purple, chronicling the music on four CDs and the written history in a 55-page booklet. Disc 1 kicks off with DP’s cover of Joe South’s “Hush” (from their 1968 debut, Shades of Deep Purple), which, ironically, reached No. 4 on the American pop chart, but failed to make a dent in the European charts despite having been released there twice. Disc 4 ends the set with a pair of songs, one each from 1996’s Purpendicular and 1998’s Abandon, recorded by the current lineup referred to in the boxed set’s liner notes as Deep Purple Mark VII. But for all intents and purposes, it’s what’s in between that counts—59 tracks that succeed in casting Deep Purple both as a mighty innovative force and a band whose contributions over 30 years have shaped, and continue to shape, hard rock as we know it. Their influence is quite obvious in hard rock bands who followed, from Judas Priest to Def Leppard, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen and countless others. But not so obvious is the fact that there’s even a little Deep Purple in bands as diverse as Metallica and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Although Shades by no means catalogs DP’s complete recording history—a daunting task considering the band have turned out 25-plus albums during their 30-year history—the set’s greatest strength lies in the careful choice of material, designed to offer an audio overview of the band’s evolution through various stages. And what becomes clear as a result—amazingly so—is that each lineup, each stage in the complicated Deep Purple saga, gave rise to some truly extraordinary music that has not only stood the test of time, but has found its way into the music of the two generations that have followed.
Certainly, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore ranks as one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, but Deep Purple was, and still is, far more than a vehicle for a single, gifted musician. Blackmore, who retired, returned, and retired again between 1975 and 1992, was replaced first by former James Gang guitarist Tommy Bolin, for a brief period by Joe Satriani and finally by Steve Morse (ex-Dixie Dregs, ex-Kansas). Singer Ian Gillan also left the band twice, and founding bassist Roger Glover quit once. Both would eventually return.
But through it all, the soul of Deep Purple miraculously remained intact and, somehow, virtually unscathed. Apart from a brief interlude with former Rainbow vocalist Joe Lynn Turner—a period thankfully documented by just three tracks—there have been surprisingly few low points in the band’s career. The spirit of Deep Purple, it would seem, became its own entity somewhere along the way, surviving personnel changes and shifts in the musical landscape with equal determination. The current lineup—keyboardist Jon Lord, bassist Roger Glover, singer Ian Gillan, drummer Ian Paice and guitarist Steve Morse—carry with them not just the desire to further a legacy begun three decades ago, but also that intangible quality unique to legends in their own time. Shades is simply the Rosetta Stone with which we can begin to decipher the impact of Deep Purple on the music of their time, and for time yet to come.