A ’70s Hard Rock Gem Is Turning 50

Today 50 years ago, Deep Purple released Machine Head. The British band’s sixth studio record remains my favorite hard rock album to this day, so celebrating this gem with a post was a no-brainer to me. Remarkably, Machine Head almost wasn’t meant to be.

Deep Purple had decided they wanted to record an album outside the confines of a traditional studio, hoping they could generate a sound that mirrored their live performances. After some research, the Montreux Casino on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland had been identified as a suitable venue, and the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio had been hired for the project.

The day before the recording sessions were supposed to start, Deep Purple decided to see Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for a matinée performance at the very same venue. But some stupid with a flare gun
burned the place to the ground
, as was later captured in the lyrics of one of the most epic hard rock songs I can think of, Smoke On the Water, which is safe to assume also is the nightmare for anybody working in a guitar store selling electrics!

“We were sitting in this kind of bar/restaurant, which was overlooking the lake, Lake Geneva, and about maybe a quarter of a mile from the casino, which had really taken the flames, two, three hundred feet in the air,” Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan said during an interview with In the Studio with Redbeard, recorded in 2017 on the occasion of the album’s 45th anniversary. “…And the wind was coming off down the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke across the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show, it was hanging on the water. I never forget Roger [bassist Roger GloverCMM] grabbed a napkin and wrote down on this napkin ‘smoke on the water.'”

With their original recording venue destroyed, Deep Purple had to find a new location to make the album. With the help of Claude Nobbs, founder and general manager of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who had become friends with the band, they found the Pavilion, a theatre in Montreux close to the casino. Unfortunately, there was no soundproofing, and after recording just one track, the police showed up and stopped the proceedings. Deep Purple had just lost another venue.

But Nobbs was determined to help the group and found the Grand Hotel, which was closed down for the season. It was located just outside of the sleepy resort town. With The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio parked at the main entrance, Deep Purple set up at the end of one of the corridors off the main lobby – yes, one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time was actually recorded in a hotel corridor! According to Wikipedia, An assortment of equipment and sound-insulating mattresses were installed, which meant the band had to walk through bedrooms and across balconies to get to the recording van. This proved so arduous that Deep Purple stopped listening to playbacks of their recordings, instead performing until they were satisfied.

“It [the hotel] was cold, there was no heating on,” recalled Roger Glover who joined Ian Gillan for the above interview. “But it had a ground floor corridor that was made of marble, and it was high ceilings – yeah, we could do this…We got an industrial heater in, a big kind of cylinder thing, and it was the roadies’ job to get to the place a couple of hours before we would do to start and turn this thing on to heat the room up – the room, the corridor!”

“The whole thing was recorded under dire circumstances,” Glover went on. “It was very cold and we were in this corridor. It’s beyond belief, actually, the desperation with which we were trying to finish this record.” And finish they did and, boy, what a record it tuned out to be. I’d say it’s time to revisit some of the goodies!

Opening side one is Highway Star, an outright danger if you find yourself in a car behind the wheel while listening to this tune. Like all other tracks on Machine Head, it was credited to the entire band, who in addition to Gillan and Glover also included Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards, Hammond organ) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion) – what a killer line-up! Citing Glover, Songfacts notes the band wrote “Highway Star” on their tour bus on the way to a gig at the Portsmouth Guildhall (in the UK) on September 13, 1971, where they debuted the song. They wrote it because they were getting sick of their opening number, “Speed King;” [which I love as well, BTW – CMM]. “Highway Star” became their opener from that point on. The song evolved through live performances.

Perhaps one of the tunes that may not come to mind first when thinking about Machine Head is Pictures of Home. It’s not as famous as the opener or the above-mentioned Smoke on the Water, but it’s one hell of a tune with a great guitar riff and a cool bass solo. And that drum intro by Ian Paice is pretty neat as well. The man who remains with Deep Purple to this day as their only constant member is a true force of nature.

Closing out side one is Never Before, another deeper track I love. Interestingly, it became the album’s lead single on March 21, 1972, appearing four days ahead of the record.

And we’re on to side two. I guess any review celebrating Machine Head cannot ignore one of the most famous songs in hard rock history. And it’s based on a simple, yet brilliant guitar riff. As noted above, Smoke on the Water recalls the big fire at the Montreux Casino and the making of the album. “The riff and backing track had been recorded on the first day as a kind of soundcheck,” Gillan explained during an interview with Songfacts in August 2020. “There were no lyrics. The engineer told us on the last day, ‘Man, we’re several minutes short for an album.’ So, we dug it out, and Roger and I wrote a biographical account of the making of the record: ‘We all came out to Montreux…'”

Let’s do one more: Lazy, an incredible track that starts with one of the best Hammond intros by Jon Lord I can think of. Before Ian Gillan gets to sing the first word at around 4:20 minutes, Lord and Ritchie Blackmore are taking turns playing uptempo blues-oriented riffs on the guitar and Hammond, respectively. With its improvisational nature and groove, this brilliant track crosses over to jazz. Gillan also throws in a cool harmonica solo.

Here’s a link to the entire album in Spotify:

Machine Head became Deep Purple’s most commercially successful album. Only eight months after its release, it achieved Gold status in the U.S. (100,000 sold units, as certified by RIAA). As of October 1986, that total had exceeded two million copies and as such the album was certified 2X Multi-Platinum. The record also achieved Gold status in the UK, Italy and Japan, as well as 2X Gold status in France.

The album topped the charts in the UK, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany and The Netherlands, climbed to no. 3 in Norway and reached no. 4 in Austria, Italy and Sweden. And where does this leave the U.S.? No. 7. By comparison, the album’s four singles showed a rather lackluster chart performance. According to Wikipedia, Highway Star didn’t chart at all, which I find hard to believe. The most successful single was Smoke on the Water, which reached no. 4 in the U.S. and no. 2 in Canada. However, it missed the charts in the UK!

Eduardo Rivadavia in his review for AllMusic called Machine Head “the Holy Trinity of English hard rock and heavy metal,” together with Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV and Paranoid by Black Sabbath, “serving as the fundamental blueprints followed by virtually every heavy rock & roll band since the early ’70s.” Usually, I don’t care much about critics except when I agree with them! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; In the Studio with Redbeard; Songfacts; AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify