While Deep Purple’s influence on rock is undeniable, their place in the annals of rock history is a bit more curious.
Upon Deep Purple’s induction into the Rock and Hall of Fame, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich stated that, “Every hard rock band in the last 40 years, including mine, traces its lineage directly back to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.” That may be so, but while Deep Purple’s influence on rock is undeniable, their place in the annals of rock history is a bit more curious.
Perhaps it’s the looming shadow of the lethargic “Smoke on the Water,” the curio who’s caveman chord-age makes it an ideal choice for guitar newcomers. Maybe it’s, as now ex-guitar player Ritchie Blackmore put it, “Deep Purple is best on stage. On record, we’re pretty average.” Methinks it’s more that Deep Purple didn’t have the witchcraft of Sabbath, nor the misty mountain stomp of Zeppelin – their songs were more the workingmen’s version of hard rock.
In the same way that Deep Purple are frequently sandwiched between their peers, so too is their fifth album, Fireball. An album not even liked by the band (Blackmore on the album: “The next one, Fireball? I hated that one.”), its placement in between the career making In Rock and the seminal Machine Head doesn’t really help. However, there is a certain charm to the album’s chaotic flailing.
In an absolute rush, Fireball’s title track streaks across like a madman. Keyboardist Jon Lord’s deceptively speedy organ solo matches Blackmore’s wonky, nearly out of tune guitar, while the entire band is rocketing off into space on their backs. In a way, Fireball the album is really almost 40 minutes of Blackmore and Lord stretching their musicality while leaning on the muscular prowess of Deep Purple’s rhythm section, Ian Paice on drums and Roger Glover on bass.
Blackmore’s guitar playing on “No No No” is exquisite, fighting against the song’s standard bluesy riff-age with droning delays and fluid guitar runs that are so much more melodic than the stereotypical heavy rock wankery. Meanwhile, “The Mule” revels in a Californian approach to hard rock, somewhere along the lines of San Francisco’s Quicksilver Messenger Service, with Paice’s frantic drumming constantly tugging and pulling against Glover’s stationary bass. Lord and Blackmore come together in harmonic bliss, echoing and responding to each other throughout, almost in a fit of one-upmanship. However, their teamwork is evident in “Strange Kind of Woman,” as Lord’s Hammond staccato stabs provide an excellent foil to Blackmore’s bluesy solo.
With all of this in mind, it is easy to see why Fireball is so frequently put down by its own creators: there isn’t particularly a wealth of original songwriting ideas, especially coming from Ian Gillan whose lyrics frequently lean towards rote ‘70s clichés of vague “us against the man” or, even worse, “Anyone’s Daughter,” which is basically an extended joke complete with punchline. That isn’t to take the heat off the rest of the band, as there are certainly some poorly thought out and rushed tracks.
The heavy blues of “Fools” segues into a funereal atmosphere, a move that would potentially work in a more understated song. Here, it is deeply confusing and entirely out of place, interrupting an otherwise smoldering groove that smashes Lord’s Hammond organ into the red for some delightfully crunchy solos. The aforementioned “Anyone’s Daughter,” the album’s absolute nadir with its painful faux-country lollop and honky-tonk pianos, is saved by Blackmore’s silky slide guitar that echoes ‘round his Les Paul-inspired guitar solos.
“We had no ideas whatsoever,” Paice would go on to tell Cameron Crowe for the L.A. Times. “Fireball turned out to be a bit of ‘Let’s hope we’ve got an album’s worth here’ type of thing.” While that may not exactly be the case – the album’s title track and “The Mull” should be guaranteed a spot on any Deep Purple greatest hits compilation – it certainly deserves its mixed opinions. Fireball is the red-headed stepchild; neither doted upon nor given free reign. But there is a sort of confused beauty to the proceedings that makes it a fascinating, if not essential, listen.