Deep Purple: "The Word 'Classic' Hangs Around Your Neck Like a Noose"

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With all the different comings and goings of band members over the years, has it been disruptive in terms of maintaining the trajectory? Do you have to start from scratch every time someone leaves the fold and a new member comes in? How have you managed to overcome that and keep going?

That's a good question. I haven't really been asked that before. I imagine that if you take one's life over a 40-year period, there's going to be ups and downs. There's going to be peaks and valleys. We certainly have had some of those.

It hasn't always been love and peace and roses. When I left in '73, it was because Richie Blackmore didn't want me in the band anymore, and then six years later he wanted me in Rainbow. I never bear a grudge. People move on. There's a certain chemistry that a band has to have, and sometimes that chemistry goes a bit wrong. But you have a way of picking yourself up because you still want to do what you want to do because you love doing it. So you find a way of doing it. When Steve joined the band as a permanent replacement for Richie, he said, "Well, what do you want from me?" I said, "I don't want you to be Richie." Richie is brilliant, a great, great player, but if we found someone who looked like him and sounded like him, we'd be a parody.

We had to change, We had to reinvent ourselves. Steve said, "That's great. I'm nothing like Richie." And we said, "That's great. That's why we want you in the band." Same with Don Airey, who's been with us 11 years or so.

They're the new guys, then.

I joined in '69 and the band started in '68, so I'm still the new guy I suppose.

You were there for the big breakthrough with In Rock and the recognition it brought. So I think you can lay claim to that as well.

You can't ever tell what's going to be classic. In a way, the word "classic" hangs around your neck like a noose, because it sets you in the past. The refreshing thing is, in a lot of places in the world we go to, we're not viewed that way. We're viewed as a band that's still working. The classic rock isn't a tag that travels outside the States much.

Are you still the loudest band in the world? You once earned that distinction.

It's a meaningless title. I don't think we were any louder than anyone else at the time. They just happened to catch us at a small venue with a lot of gear.

For some people, that's the only thing they know about us. But we can't control what other people think. We certainly don't set out to deafen people or blind them. Rob them? Yes. But not deafen or blind them. Anyone who actually gets out from the computer or the TV and gets off the couch and has the energy to go see a live concert deserves our absolute gratitude. And that's what we live for. People doing that. It still happens. The internet has robbed us of a lot of things, but people still get up and go to a concert, and I'm very grateful. 

You've been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice and for some reason have yet to be inducted. Does that bother you at all, or could you not care less?

It doesn't matter that much. It seems to be more of an American institution rather than worldwide anyway. Since the '80s, our profile in America hasn't been that great. When we first got inducted -- I mean, nominated -- there was a ripple around the band, like should we do this or not? Half of us said no.

It should have happened a dozen years ago, when Jon Lord was alive. One of those people on the committee was supposedly heard to say, "Deep Purple, they don't belong here. They're one-hit wonders." If you're dealing with Philistines like that, who wants to be bothered with it? If we were to be nominated again or inducted, who knows? We would still be divided on it.

I think Richie would have to be there, because Richie was one of the main reasons why we'd be there in the first place. On the other hand, Steve's been in the band 20 years, so what do we say to Steve? The answer to that would be to have both guitarists.

Considering the number of alumni in past rosters, that stage could be pretty full.

No, that would never happen. I don't think anyone else should be there. If we were inducted, it would be because of what happened in the '70s, and that was the so-called MK Two lineup. Anyone else just sort of fell into place after that. But that lineup is why we still have a career and we're such a name band that still reverberates around the world today.

Did you know at that time, when In Rock and all the classic albums of that period come out, that the band had reached some kind of turning point and that the past incarnation was past and that you had successfully established yourselves in this new way?

Oh yeah, we planned it that way. [chuckles] Of course not. Back then, if you were in a band that lasted a couple of years, you were lucky.

Looking back now, you can see that something quite magical happened in the late '60s and '70s. There was something going on there. There was a huge creative explosion, if you like. The record companies were all run by people who loved music, unlike today. You could write songs about anything, in any particular style, and people took it seriously. Plus, the tastes ran across the board. Now it's become so polarized and shackled. Music isn't as important in people's lives as it was then. So I think we were part of a huge cultural revolution without even knowing it.

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Lee Zimmerman