A Highway Star: Deep Purple's Roger Glover Interviewed
, January 20th, 2011 09:12
Dr Rock vs Deep Purple’s Roger Glover? What a mighty fine idea! This week the Dr will listen closely to Glover’s tales of band triumphs and tribulations and how it all came tumbling down in one fell swoop
Life's lessons can be learned from the Deep Purple story. Talking to Roger Glover reveals how, after a massive fall, one can pick oneself up to become one of the most sought after rock producers of all time. This has included, for Glover, working with Judas Priest in their infancy and helping Ronnie-James Dio establish his place in rock history. He can further teach us how to write a rock hit on the spot in two minutes flat, lets us in on the secret that he thinks hard rock is boring and reveals the ultimate key to rock & roll glory to be simple riffs, street cred and beer.
How did you get to join Deep Purple?
Roger Glover: Back in the midst of time, Ian Gillan and I were in a band together. I always wrote songs and he had a funny way with words so I convinced him to start writing with me. We became a song-writing partnership and we wrote some pretty awful tracks together. The connection to Deep Purple was our drummer. Nick Underwood was someone who’d worked with Ritchie [Blackmore] before. Unknown to us Deep Purple had formed a year before and decided they were looking for a singer and a bass player. So Ritchie called his old friend up and arranged to meet us. They came, they saw and they stole us away. That was in 1969.
What kind of music inspired you when you first started out?
RG: I’m old enough to know what music was like before rock & roll. So when rock & roll happened it changed everything. My first albums were by Presley and Little Richard, roughly when I was 13-years-old. And I wanted to emulate that. I picked up a guitar and wondered how you do it. And someone said, 'This is a chord.' That was at school. Eventually we played a gig there and the idea of being on stage felt natural, so I just carried on.
You played in what is now regarded as the classic Deep Purple line-up. In how far were the additions of you on bass and Ian Gillan on vocals responsible for the sound that was created in those years?
RG: I didn’t really know of Deep Purple before I joined the group. If they were known for anything it was for the virtuosity within the band – Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Paice were masters of their instruments. Gillan and I however came from completely different background. We were basically naïve songwriters. So I think there was a great combination there, with their musical ability and our very much street value simplicity. And it was a combination that worked, right from the get-go, I mean the first song we wrote was ‘Speed King’. All that playing they could do and yet we just took rock & roll and turned it into a song.
Were you not intimidated at first by that advanced musicianship?
RG: I was, yeah. But I don’t know, it didn’t stop us, it was a very natural thing. All the songs came out of jams, everything was made up as we went along. And as much as I couldn’t play my instrument and couldn’t play solos the way they could, it wouldn’t have resulted in the way it did without us. So right from the start we said, ‘Let’s all share the publishing.’ So all those early songs were written by the five of us. Keeping that in mind, on that first album, Deep Purple In Rock, despite the fact that Ritchie was a far better player than I was, I could still come up with riffs that he’d play. He was interested in simple riffs, he was wise enough to know that you can’t be too musical because people won’t understand it. So it’s that combination of high musical values and yet simple, strong ideas. I started ‘Speed King’, for example and ‘Maybe I’m A Leo’ is one of mine.
I’ve heard that Ritchie Blackmore was a ruthless leader who hired and fired people whenever he felt the need. What’s your view on that?
RG: In the very early days he didn’t come across like that. He came across as quite a mysterious person, yes, but he was always into other peoples’ ideas and he didn’t seem like a leader. Obviously you take any creative people and put them in a room and you’re going to get clashes, you’re going to get friction. And yeah, there was a certain amount of friction. When Jon Lord did the Concerto and all the press went ‘Jon Lord’s the main composer and leader of Deep Purple’, Ritchie didn’t like that too much. And I think that’s what resulted in Deep Purple In Rock being such an uncompromising and hard album. I think Ritchie was probably more the architect of that than anyone else because he wanted to impress his will against Jon’s. So that sort of friction can be very good for a band. On stage especially. The winner of that would be the audience because they see two people trying to outdo each other. And it was great for a while. But then success came and the world started getting smaller for us. And that healthy friction turned into a destructive friction.
Please tell me about the infamous demise of the classic Purple era. It’s been suggested that when Ian Gillan quit, you got booted out of the band by Ritchie Blackmore. Is that true?
RG: Everyone seems to focus on the friction between Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore and I think that’s the obvious point but it wasn’t just as simple as that. Ritchie began behaving as if no one else in the band existed. And that’s kind of annoying to put up with. And Ian said to himself ‘If he’s going to behave like that, so am I.' And they grew apart, that last year in the band, they weren’t really talking to each other. It’s kind of difficult to make an album under those circumstances, I felt like a go-between. And I was learning the art of production unconsciously, dealing with a situation that was uncomfortable. So in a weird way it was good for me to learn how to deal with difficult situations and personalities. And Ian wrote his letter to resign and I think he fully expected everyone to turn around and say ‘don’t be silly’, because we were pretty much the biggest band in the world at that time. But no-one did say that. And then it was widely believed that Ritchie was going to leave as well because he was unhappy and he wanted to be the leader of the band. The rest of us didn’t want him to be a leader so there was a bit of friction there. So in the end he was going to go.
But I guess the others decided that Ritchie should stay. And Ritchie’s condition in staying was that I had to go, so I became the sacrificial lamb, which didn’t go down very well with me, I might add. I’d worked very hard on the band, I’d loved the band, I’d written a lot of songs for the band, I’d been producing and mixing, unnamed and unpaid for, so I felt it was highly unfair but as the old saying goes, 'What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.' I came back from that Japanese tour a broken man to find that one of my outside productions was very high in the charts and that was Nazareth. I stepped into another career and suddenly became a well-known producer.
It must’ve been a really painful break-up since you temporarily gave up playing music altogether. Please talk me through that period.
RG: You can’t play bass in a vacuum. I did toy with the idea of getting a new band together but after the success and the experience of Deep Purple I didn’t want to be the leader of a band. It didn’t seem right. Yeah I wanted to play again but the opportunity didn’t arise. And when the opportunity did arise I was involved in being a producer. And I enjoy that too, I enjoy anything to do with music. And then six years of that and all of a sudden I’m producing Rainbow, back with Ritchie!
And on top of that he asked you to join the band too, didn’t he?
Which must’ve come as a bit of a surprise to you, I would imagine?
RG: I don’t know who was more surprised, me or Ritchie! [laughs] I don’t think he wanted me necessarily. Maybe it was just convenience, you’d have to ask him. But yeah, it was a different set up then, that was Ritchie’s band, he was actually being the leader. And I accepted that, it’s Ritchie’s band and I’m the bass player.
Please tell me more about your production work which includes the aforementioned Razzmanazz by Nazareth, classics like Sin After Sin by Judas Priest and Calling Card by Rory Gallagher, to only name a few. What’s your most memorable production work of that time?
RG: The Judas Priest one was interesting. I remember their management called me up and said, 'Would you produce this band, Judas Priest?' And I’d never really heard of them although I was aware of them being around. Anyway, I went to a rehearsal of theirs and there was not a pleasant feeling in the room. They didn’t seem to want me. After three or four hours of listening to the songs they wanted to record I suggested to go to the local pub. We had a drink and as we sat down I said to them ‘I’ve got something to say to you. I get the feeling you don’t want me to produce you, which is fine. I don’t want to produce anyone that doesn’t want to be produced by me. So what’s the story?’ And they said ‘well, we want to produce ourselves but the record company’s insisting that we have a name producer’. I said 'If that’s the way you feel you should sort it out with your record company first and if you want to produce yourselves then insist you produce yourselves.'
So we left on good terms, it was no big deal to me that I was losing out, I had other things to do anyway. I liked to be home for a change. So they went off and started and about two or three weeks later I got a phone call from Glenn Tipton. I said ‘What are you doing?' and he said ‘Well, we’re in the studio and we’re not getting very far. Could you come down and help us out?' So I went down to the studio and by that point they’d sacked their drummer and Simon Phillips stood in as a session man. So I listened to the songs that they’d recorded so far and I said, ‘Well, yeah, I think you’re right, we’ll blow these out, let’s start again from scratch.' We only had six days to do it but they worked very hard so it was actually a good experience.
Nazareth were a great bunch of lads too. I knew them because they’d toured with us many times. They were our support band on at least a couple of American tours back in the early 70s. And they asked me to produce them and we went to London and we did one record, Broken Down Angel. They were very Scottish and I felt like they were a little bit uncomfortable in London. So I said to their manager ‘Why don’t we record the band in Scotland where they feel more at home?' and he said, 'Fine.' So we went up to where they rehearsed, two concrete rooms in a paint warehouse. And they just had so much energy and such determination and in fact the album cost about half the amount of what it would have cost had we done it in London. And there it was ten times better because it was so raw and rocking. We’re still firm friends now. I’m actually just finishing a solo album and Dan (McCafferty) and Pete (Agnew) are singing on it so we do keep in touch.
What was it like to have worked with the late great Ronnie James Dio?
RG: Well, I’d done three albums with Elf. Elf were a completely unknown band out of New York State and I think in 1972 Ian Paice and I went down to America and had three weeks to produce that first album. I really believed in the band and managed to produce two more albums. They came over to England and stayed at my house. We had a fantastic time, they were a very funny band. Micky Lee Soule, who was Ronnie’s writing partner, he’s still with Deep Purple, he’s my bass tech these days. He’s still writing songs but he’s got to earn a living, that’s why he’s teching for me. I think he’s done that for the past 14-years now.
Ronnie dying was a very sad experience, of course, and he and I went out and had a meal that night. We talked for hours about the old days. But Ronnie certainly had one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I say one of the best, he’s probably THE best singer I’ve ever worked with. The gravel of his voice is timeless. In the early days he limited himself to heavy metal and hard rock but when he didn’t do that he was that much better even. When I did the Butterfly Ball album I wanted different voices for the different characters and Ronnie was the main voice and it was just a magical experience.
What music inspires you these days?
RG: I don’t listen to hard rock or heavy metal. I suppose I’ve always been influenced by folk music, I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. And I like African and avant-garde music, anything that’s vaguely interesting. Hard rock I get a bit bored with because it’s what I do. So anything outside of hard rock’s fine by me.
Talking about boredom, how do you feel about playing staple songs like ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Smoke on The Water’ these days?
RG: You’re playing the songs for the audience and they still think they’re good songs. So I tend to get excited by that, audience reaction. And let me tell you, those guys never bore of ‘Highway Star’.
How do you cope with touring life after 40 odd years in the band?
RG: Well, that’s the difficult part. No one enjoys being away from friends and family. But that’s the nature of the beast. We’ve always been a live band. Plus these days it’s really difficult to keep a band going, we used to rely on CD sales and they don’t exist anymore. So being on the road is the only way to do it. The important thing is when you’re away from home you have to be away from home 100%. And when we you’re back home, you’re home 100%. It’s not like we’re doing a day job where you get home at 7 or 8 o’clock and see the kids for half an hour before they go to bed. You’re home all day. And I prefer that.
Are you planning on recording a new album at any point soon?
RG: It would probably be a good idea if we did but we’ve been doing too much touring for the past four or five years. But yeah, we’re intending to write a new album eventually, we’re on the road for another 3-4 months and let’s see what’s going to happen then. But I’m just about to finish my solo album. I haven’t got a record company for it yet but I like to do the goods first and let the rest sort itself out after.
What kind of material do you focus on playing with Deep Purple live these days? Do you play a Best Of set?
RG: I suppose it’s difficult not to do a Best Of set because we’re known for doing that. And the strange phenomenon that started happening for the past 6 to 7 years is that the audience suddenly got very much younger so we’re playing to teenagers and 20-Somethings. And of course it’s the first time they’ve ever seen us. Maybe they know the music from their fathers or even their grandfathers and maybe it’s a novelty to see a band from so far back still performing. So there is a feeling like we’re all sharing this together. When we play ‘Highway Star’ it’s the same freshness as when we played it years ago because it’s to a new audience. And as I said you’re experiencing it through the audience, we’re not playing for ourselves. It’s invigorating. So far this tour has been one of the best we’ve ever done, we’ve had a wonderful reception everywhere, all across Australia, Asia, it’s been fantastic.
Considering there’s been so many young kids coming to your shows, do you think there’s a move back to kids picking up instruments and starting up ‘real’ bands?
RG: It would be nice to think that. I’m not actually sure that people can spot the difference between a drummer and a drum machine anymore. If you listen to what’s on the pop charts, everything is machine oriented. Not one song on the charts is being played naturally. But when you go see someone live it’s special. Even though you can fool people, I know there are people out there who still play along to tapes. But I guess we have that reputation that we’re still playing without resorting to that kind of trickery. But you know, there are good bands out there, it’s not as if I’m one of these old people who says, 'Oh, they don’t write songs like they used to.' There are some really good players out there and good songs get written all the time but the problem is how to present it to the public. There’s so much competition so the good stuff is drowned by all the bad stuff. And it was always that way to a certain extent. Whatever era you’re talking about there’s always 5% good stuff and 95% shit. So you got to wade through the shit and somehow the cream gets to the top. [laughs]
Which three albums by Deep Purple are you most proud of?
RG: Funnily enough the ones that stick out to me are the ones that are a start of a new era. So the three albums I’d choose would be Deep Purple In Rock, Perfect Strangers and Perpendicular. They’re vanguards of new phases if you like. But I should think probably the most influential album is Made In Japan. It was just one of those moments in time where everything inspired and came together to make a great live album. And that’s something I’m still very, very proud of. Totally live and totally real and it still stands out today.
I read that it was only you and Ian Paice going to the mixing sessions because no one thought it was going to be that important an album. Is that so?
RG: Yes, it’s true, it was just me and Ian Paice but I don’t think it’s because the others didn’t think it was important. By that time, any studio album we made no one showed up for except me and Paice. When we made Deep Purple In Rock all five were there, interested. By Fireball people were sort of like, ‘I’ve had enough now, I’m going home.' And by Machine Head, it was again just me and Paice. But it wasn’t because we thought the album was going to turn out bad.
Live albums at that time were budget things, fillers you did if you didn’t have anything better to do. So I suppose there was some sceptisism about whether we should do a live album or not. But it wasn’t until we got the tapes home from Japan and went into the studio and listened to them that we realized how good it was. So at that point we knew it was going to be an important album.
I’ve heard a rumour that ‘Highway Star’ got written on the spot in response to a journalist asking you guys how to write a song. Is that true?
RG: Yes, that is true. It was on a bus going down to Portsmouth and in those days to get a bit of publicity, we’d invite journalists to travel down with us. And there was a journalist called Richard Green who was known as The Beast. And I think he started talking about how songs get written. And songs were written in those days from jams. And I suppose it started out as a bit of a joke. Ritchie got a guitar and started playing and Ian started warbling about cars and I came up with the title, I was looking out of the window thinking, ‘Well, here we are on the highway... Highway Star!' You know? And it just got thrown together and in fact I think we performed it that night, a sort of embryonic version of it. Most great songs you hardly have to work on. ‘Black Night’ was another one. We were totally drunk and we’d given up. We were trying to write a single to please the management. We tried this and we tried that but finally we gave up and we went to the pub, went back and ‘Black Night’ almost appeared instantly. And we just wrote the stupidest words we could think of and it was a joke. And of course we thought it would never get used. Lo and behold it became one of our biggest hits. It’s a lesson, really. You’re at your best when you’re not looking. Forget the head, you don’t need the head. If you’re thinking about it it’s a lost cause. It’s got to come instinctively and spontaneously.
How about ‘Smoke On The Water’, was that one written spontaneously too?
RG: Yes, it was. Ritchie came out with the riff. We started jamming and it took us maybe all of two minutes to get an arrangement – ‘Verse, punch-line, riff, verse, punch-line, riff, chorus, verse, out? Yeah, let’s do that.' And then, of course, the circumstances under which that album was made were a little difficult. We had to move, it was recorded at some other place. But shortly after that we went to the Grand Hotel and started working on the other songs like ‘Pictures Of Home’. And this first song we wrote we’d almost forgotten. And then I came up with the title, I used the words ‘Smoke On The Water’ but I didn’t know what they meant at the time. And when we’d almost finished the album, we needed one more track. So we went, ‘What about that track we did at that different place, let’s have a look at that. And it’s called 'Smoke On The Water' and it’s about what happened to us here.' So it was an afterthought in a way. And the words got written very quickly. They’re almost conversational. No attempt to make them poetic or make them rhyme cleverly or anything like that. Not a lot of thought went into it. [laughs]
What current musical trends have influenced you lately?
RG: We’re influenced by each other. We don’t pay any attention to what’s current, I don’t know what a current musical trend is. What would I listen to? A singer-songwriter or hip hop? Not really. It all comes from the instruments. It’s as simple as that, really. We’re a simple band.