Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A classic riff and an old friend

Raise your hand if Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar riff on Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” inspired you to play guitar -- or to at least try. Or maybe the four-note blues scale melody launched you into a gyrating, sizzling, melt-your-face air-guitar solo.
Yeah, I thought there would be a sea of hands. 
Those of you who didn’t raise your hands are just too cowardly to admit it.

Containing possibly the most famous guitar riff of all time, the song has enjoyed widespread popularity since the release of 1972’s Machine Head album. (Appropriately, the term "machine head" refers to the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument). Deep Purple enjoyed their greatest commercial success with this album, a seminal contribution to the early development of heavy-metal music. The song recounts the travails the band underwent when their plans to record the album at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland went up in smoke (pun intended). The group had wanted to try and capture the feel of a live concert by booking exclusive use of the casino and capturing the music with mobile recording equipment. The venue burned to the ground during a show by Frank Zappa right before Deep Purple were slated to begin their sessions. Listen to a live version of the song here.

This was a go-to album for me in the early 1970s, not only for “Smoke On The Water” but also for other standout tracks such as “Lazy,” “Space Truckin’” and “Highway Star.” The other big draw for me was the astounding vocal range of frontman Ian Gillan. (Listen to Blackmore and Gillan trade guitar and vocal licks during “Strange Kind Of Woman” on the live album Made In Japan.) 

Gillan’s powerful singing voice got the notice of Tim Rice, lyricist partner of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gillan landed the title role in the original album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was released as a two-disc concept album before becoming a stage and movie production. Legend has it Gillan recorded all the vocals for the album in a mere three hours. Gillan turned down an offer to star in the subsequent stage and movie adaptations, opting to remain with Deep Purple. 

“Smoke On The Water” has a personal connection to me through Rob Crawford, a five-decade-long friend from high school. Rob was a skinny, long-haired kid with a see-through acrylic electric guitar who tore through riffs like Patton stormed across Germany. 

I love Rob like a brother, but he could also be infuriating with his guitar slinging. It was not safe to join a record-listening party at Rob’s house. New music was a challenge. Slowly, his right arm would creep out to his guitar. Then, in the blink of an eye, the instrument was in his hands and he was lost to us. A thousand-yard stare would spread across his face as he found his zen space to learn this new music. 

Let’s go grab a burger, we’d say to each other. By the time we get back, maybe Rob will be back to Planet Earth. 

Rob Crawford: Portrait of the artist as a young man

It was a blast in those young, carefree days to check out Rob and his band at various roadhouses in Southeast Missouri, joints that could have doubled for Bob’s Country Bunker from the Blues Brothers. By the strict letter of the law (a notion frowned upon by most denizens in our neck of the woods), neither of us should have been in these dives, especially Rob, two years my junior.

But my “Smoke On The Water”/Rob Crawford memory is far more benign. Atop a flatbed trailer in the Valley Plaza Shopping Center parking lot in our Poplar Bluff, MO, hometown, Rob and his bandmates tore through a three-song set in a battle of the bands. Their rendition of the Deep Purple tune helped carry them to a first-place finish. 

I had just finished a visit to the dentist when I arrived for the show. Face numb from Novacaine injections and drooling from the side of my mouth, I mumbled something that I hoped sounded like “excuse me” as I edged through the crowd, searching for an advantageous spot. A circle of space developed around me as wary concertgoers edged away from this crazy longhair, obviously under the influence of some mind-altering hippie drug. I created social distancing before it was a thing. 

Today, Rob still plays in a band, though the clear guitar is long gone, replaced by a vintage 1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop. (I’m jealous, and I don’t even play guitar.) He’s still skinny -- I’m not -- but we both have less hair. Rob lives in Columbia, MO, a mere 90 miles from me in Kansas City. Rob exists there with his beautiful and artistic wife, Peggy. On his property is a pole barn converted into an exquisite recording studio, Yonder Barn Studio. (Though I cry at the missed opportunity for an auto restoration facility). Check out Rob, his studio and the venerable road warrior Les Paul here.

Until the Trump virus locked down visiting, my wife and I enjoyed trips to hear Rob’s band, Misledd (God, was there ever a more appropriate name?), and to spend a weekend with this beautiful and secularly spiritual couple. 

“Smoke On The Water” is not in Rob’s repertoire these days. (Neither is “Freebird,” much to my consternation. Sorry, insider joke.). But when I hear my old friend play, I go back to those early days when that song was young and fresh and I had far more days ahead of me than behind me. 

“In the days of my youth
I was told what it was to be a man
Now I've reached the age
I've tried to do all those things the best I can
No matter how I try
I find my way to do the same old jam.” (“Good Times, Bad Times,” Led Zeppelin) 

Nightmare for music store employees: Imagine being a guitar salesperson and listening to pimply faced guitar god wannabes endlessly saunter into your store, pick up a demo axe and fumble through that opening riff. So, do your local guitar store a favor and skip this riff if you’re thinking about buying a new guitar. 

A Guinness World Record: Sponsored by KYYS radio (99.7 FM), 1,683 guitarists gathered at Community America Ballpark on June 3, 2007, in Kansas City, KS, to play the song’s opening riff for five minutes to set a new Guinness World Record for the most people playing the same song simultaneously. Sadly for Kansas City, the record was broken a few years later. Watch the event here.

Now a medieval balladeer: After leaving Deep Purple, Blackmore went on to helm the hard-rock band Rainbow. In 1997, Blackmore left his heavy-metal days behind and formed Blackmore’s Night, a folk-rock outfit influenced by medieval music. His girlfriend, Candice Night, is the vocalist.

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