Revisiting Deep Purple’s Improbable Return With ‘Perfect Strangers’
The celebrated Mark II lineup of Deep Purple had long refused to get back together simply to cash checks on a reunion tour. Instead, they said there had to be something more to it, something approximating the spark that had once inspired this edition of the group to create moments like "Highway Star" and "Woman From Tokyo." By 1984, it appeared they'd found it.
Still, the arrival of the reunion project Perfect Strangers on Sept. 16 that year came nine years after Deep Purple's last release and more than a decade since the Mark II configuration had worked together on 1973's Who Do We Think We Are. In the interim, Ritchie Blackmore and Roger Glover had moved on to Rainbow, Ian Gillan to Black Sabbath, Jon Lord to Whitesnake and Ian Paice to Gary Moore's band.
More importantly, times had changed, with advent of MTV and a sleeker brand of heavy rock – and the stalwart members of Deep Purple's 1969-73 era had never quite bought into the whole music video thing. "I don't see us as actors," Paice said in 1985. "That's not us." As such, could a reformed – but utterly unreconstructed – Deep Purple find a home in this brave new world?
The only way to find out was to start fresh. Initial rehearsals, Gillan said at the time, included nothing from their best-known early '70s discography. Instead, they focused on new songs, many of them growing out of loose-knit improvisations. It was as if no time had passed.
"Well, if you’ve ever been through your closet and you find this old jacket or old pair of gloves that you haven’t looked at for a few years and you put it on and it still fits and it feels great, that was it," Glover told Ultimate Classic Rock. "It felt very natural. We’re basically a playing band; we’re a jamming band. So, we had a meeting and said 'Well, the first thing we’ve got to do is just see if the music is still there.' Because that’s the only reason for doing it, really. So, we got together and we started to jam. I remember that jam, it was up in Vermont in the basement of a house. Within a minute, there was smiles on everyone’s faces, because it just gelled like it used to. It was great."
Two weeks into their reunion practices, Paice confirmed that they still hadn't even so much as done a run through on their biggest hit together, "Smoke on the Water."
"I think nostalgia is great, as long as you don't start earning too much money off of it," Glover said in 1985 after a show at Knebworth. "That's why I prefer not to think of us as an oldies band. We're a now band. We're musicians living, breathing, working and making music right now."
In the end, that was the bed-rock aesthetic of Perfect Strangers, which sounded like nothing so much as a Deep Purple record, yet at the same time captured the group as they were in a new era. This wasn't about cashing in, it seemed, so much as reconnecting. "Let me put it this way – all I ever heard over the years, in between the final break up of Purple then and now," Lord told Whistle Test in 1984, "was offers of huge amounts of money for us to reform the band and go 'round the world touring." But Gillan, on that same program, added that Deep Purple had "resisted the temptation for lots of barrel-loads of money for many years now. The time was right, that's all. We were ready."
Even if they could find common ground musically, the question of whether internal issues remained continued to loom large. Legend says that problems between Gillan and the famously particular Blackmore had precipitated the singer's initial departure in 1973. "Ritchie’s like a terrier or pit bull," Lord told Modern Keyboard in 1989. "He gets hold of something and won’t let go. He has a vision of what he wants, and he’ll fight and fight until what he wants." Fast forward a decade, and Blackmore was often a no-show for reunion interviews, inevitably leading to questions about how everyone was getting along.
In the immediate glow of homecoming, Gillan was having none of it. "There was not that much of a bad feeling, when we split up," he said in 1984, chalking it up to the band's individual members simply wanting to "achieve what we'd already achieved with Deep Purple." Whatever had led to the 1973 breakup wasn't worth mentioning, at least for now. "Time's a great healer," Gillan added. "When the time came, none of us could actually find anything else to do. We thought, 'Well, why not now?'"
It was only later that Gillan admitted that there had, in fact, been no small amount of tentativeness when Deep Purple finally met in the run up to Perfect Strangers. "Roger had his misgivings," Gillan said. "I think we all had various wonderings in our minds about how it was going to turn out."
All of those doubts evaporated, however, when they got down to music making. The old chemistry, it turned out, remained.
"I think after 11 years apart, you can be intimidated by other people’s expectations about what it’s going to be – especially if you’ve had such success like we did in the early ‘70s," Glover told Ultimate Classic Rock. "But we were not easily intimidated and in fact, we had a very relaxed attitude towards it. We spent more time down at the pub than in the studio, I think. So whatever we do is whatever we do, that’s been our sort of credence over the years. We do what we do and if you like it, great and if you don’t like it, we don’t care. But we like it."
For some, however this familiar chemistry was just that – old. A two-star Rolling Stone review of Perfect Stranger lamented that most of "the material consists of hastily knocked-off jams." Glover, taking it all in stride, said: "True to form, critics for the most part destroyed us."
Fans were a different story. Perfect Strangers was a Top 5 hit in handful of countries, including the U.K. – and it cracked the Top 20 in the U.S., becoming Deep Purple's first platinum release since 1972's Machine Head. Meanwhile, the tour in support of Perfect Strangers was such a blockbuster hit that it had to be extended. By 1985, Lord said Deep Purple was outdrawing every other rock star, save for Bruce Springsteen.
Unfortunately, they weren't able to keep the momentum going. "Perfect Strangers pretty much wrote itself," the late Lord admitted to Modern Keyboard. "It was so glorious, because it was great to be back together after being apart for so many years. We had grins from ear to ear."
But when it came time to construct the follow up, something had changed. The just-be-yourself lessons of Perfect Strangers had been inexplicably forgotten. "The House of Blue Light [Deep Purple's 1987 follow-up] was a weird album and hard to put together," Lord added. "We made the massive mistake of trying to make our music current. We discovered that people didn’t want us to that. They wanted us to do what we do best. We’re Deep Purple – loud, proud, pure and simple."
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