JON Lord, of Deep Purple fame, brought his classical work to Australia on a solo tour in 2003. He played a fantastic blues gig with the Hoochie Coochie Men beside the Hyatta Coolum’s swimming pool, with Jimmy Barnes on guest vocals for a couple of tunes. Here’s the Courier-Mail interview I did with Lord ahead of his tour.
DEEP Purple are almost as well known for their changing roster as they are for Smoke on the Water, but throughout their turbulent 30-year history, organist Jon Lord has remained the one constant – until now. Coincidentally, a piece of music that marked the ascension of Purple to the ranks of supergroup is the trigger for Lord’s departure.
“If I’d known it was going to give my career such a kick, I’d have taken more care with it,” says Lord, looking back at his Concerto for Group and Orchestra which has signposted major changes in his long career.
The piece, now enjoying a revival thanks to Brisbane band George, has had a history almost as tumultuous as Purple. Forged at a fevered pace on the floor of Lord’s flat, the piece debuted in September 1969 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Purple played three songs before joining with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Arnold.
The score disappeared after a 1970 performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Lord had thought of trying to resurrect the work but the task appeared too daunting, until a Dutch music student presented him with a reconstruction in 1999. Marco De Goeij had put the piece back together based on listening to the recording and watching footage of the original concert.
With Paul Mann and De Goeij, Lord revitalised the piece and had it ready for a 30th anniversary charity concert at the Royal Albert with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mann.
Last year’s performance in Brisbane by George and the Queensland Symphony, again with Mann conducting, was the first time the piece had been played by a band other than Purple. It was so well received it has been reprised for the Sydney Festival, where it was the first event to be sold out.
George member Tyrone Noonan says the performance has helped take the band’s music to a new audience; it worked for Deep Purple, too, in 1969.
Formed in 1968, Purple enjoyed some success in the US with cover versions of Hush and Kentucky Woman, but were largely ignored in their native England until a push towards a heavier sound in the manner of Led Zeppelin led to a new line-up in 1969.
This classic, mark II version – Lord, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, singer Ian Gillan, drummer Ian Paice and bassist Roger Glover – announced their arrival with Lord’s concerto, which established Purple’s profile and garnered their first impact on the English charts.
While Lord has talked since of the derision of some of the orchestra members and what he considered a lack of professionalism in their playing, it was a proud moment, nonetheless, with his parents and his brother and sister-in-law in the audience.
“I’ll never forget my mother’s eyes shining, her son on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with the Philharmonia playing music he had written.”
Purple, with compatriots Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, then set about forging the metal genre with classic rock albums like Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head.
When Purple were between incarnations, Lord found gainful employment with other projects such as Whitesnake and Paice Ashton Lord, and several classical albums, the latest being 1998’s Pictured Within.
“I’m one of those racehorses who never comes first but always finishes,” he says.
In 1999 Purple hit Australia as part of a world tour with yet another line-up – the mark II members in Lord, Paice, Gillan and Glover, and American guitarist Steve Morse playing the legendary riffs on tunes like Smoke on the Water and Black Night that are rock radio staples. It seemed the band was once again on an upswing.
Then, last year, emboldened by the success of the 1999 concerto performance, Lord quit.
“Thirty years later the piece came back and changed my life again . . . It gave me the courage to step outside and carve a career for myself outside the band,” he says. “Playing the concerto on its 30th anniversary, as it were, in ’99, gave me the courage, and the confidence to know I can write the stuff.”
Still, the decision to leave the band that had been his bread and butter for some 30 years was not easy.
“When I’m awake in the dark at 3am I still have doubts, but in the morning I know I’ve made the right decision,” he says. “I’m a little lonely out here at the moment, they were among my best friends. When I stop and count those genuine friends, the ones who you can trust with your stuff, well, a good number of them are in Deep Purple.”
Lord, who started his musical journey with classical training before succumbing to jazz and then rock in his teens, has turned full circle.
“Putting something in a box means you can’t move from one box to another. I’ve always worried about the music business with a capital B. Music should transcend barriers,” he says.
“I think Morsey answered it best. Just after he joined the band he was asked at a press conference, ‘You play jazz, bluegrass, folk, heavy rock; how do you explain that?’ And he said, in that southern drawl, ‘You know, it’s OK to be good at more than one thing’. I’ve taken that and hung it mentally over the bed.
“I’ve alway felt my talent was to be a musical butterfly, and what I do pleases me greatly.”
Such versatility is championed by George, whose debut album Polyserena defies classification.
“An orchestra album could be a concept down the track,” says Noonan, who with sister and band member Katie was taught singing by his opera-singer mother. “A live recording with the orchestra would be amazing.”
Then he adds with a laugh: “It’s a bit too early in our careers, though; it’s the sort of thing you do after you’ve put out a few greatest hits.”
Noonan says he was a little sceptical when first approached to play the concerto with the Queensland Orchestra.
“It sounded a little out there. I didn’t know about the concerto but, as we found out more about it and the pretty amazing story about how it came about, we got a little bit excited and quite nervous.
“It’s probably my most memorable musical experience to date. You just can’t beat the raw power of that many people on stage.”
He was similarly nervous about Lord’s involvement in the Sydney concert, but a meeting with him during a tour of England put any doubts to rest.
“Meeting Jon Lord was an incredible experience. He’s the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard world. He took the organ from a fairly soft instrument and gave it a ballsy, grungy sound for Deep Purple, I believe by putting his Hammond organs through the Marshall stacks just like a guitar. He’s a pioneer.”
Lord missed his chance to play with George in Brisbane due to Deep Purple commitments, but, as he says, some things are meant to be. As it turns out, Lord’s daughter kept in touch with a small group of her school friends, one of whom married an Australian, who just happens to be George’s manager, and so a meeting was scheduled when the band was on tour in England.
“George, bless them, were a little discombobulated that I was going to play with them. I think they wondered what I was going to do. They had restructured it to suit themselves, and rightly so, that’s how the piece is written,” Lord says.
“They wondered what I was going to do, and I told them, ‘I’m going to slot in and play it your way’. I’ve played it 45 times the Deep Purple way, and now I’m going to play it their way.”
Lord also will perform several solo shows during his visit to Australia, but he warns not to expect to hear the string quartet version of Smoke on the Water.
There also will be a premiere of his latest piece for piano and orchestra, to be played by Michael Kieran Harvey (QPAC, February 15). Lord laughingly calls it his revenge on concert pianists.
“I always wanted to be a concert pianist, but when I was about 12 or 13 I realised the amount of practice that involved. On one hand there was football and girls, or there was eight hours a day practising. I envy and admire people who can walk on to the stage and unveil that cascade of notes with such aplomb. It gives me pause to think. I gave it up for girls and football, but I did enjoy the girls. I was never very good at football.”