To say that Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillan and former (and founding) guitarist Ritchie Blackmore are the greatest duo in the history of rock and roll saying quite a lot, considering the other options: the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Simon and Garfunkel, and the list goes on.
But it is a statement that I wholeheartedly believe: bar none, Gillan and Blackmore are the greatest of all time.
More importantly than what I think, however, is that few rock and roll aficionados would disagree that if those two are not the absolute greatest, they are certainly somewhere near the top.
Considering, then, that in its illustrious 46-year (and counting) existence, that Deep Purple has enjoyed the talents of Gillan and Blackmore at the same time for only 10 of them is an utter shame. That is not a knock on other supremely-talented musicians who joined the band’s ranks in their stead over the years, not least of which current guitarist Steve Morse, but that Gillan and Blackmore haven’t played together in over 20 years creates a void for many of their fans.
In fact, as unbelievable as it may sound to those for whom Ritchie Blackmore and Deep Purple are synonymous, Morse has actually been in the band longer – 20 total years, compared to Blackmore’s 16. In that sense, it is fitting that if Deep Purple is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (amazingly, they have not been as yet), Morse would be the guitarist onstage when the band performs live at the induction ceremony. At least, that’s how Gillan sees it, as he recently told Rolling Stone magazine. For Gillan, though, it is not so much the total number of years Morse has been in the band as that this lineup – which includes Don Airey on keyboards, Roger Glover on bass, and Ian Paice, the band’s only original member left, on drums – encompasses the “living, breathing Deep Purple.” To play at the Hall of Fame ceremony with Blackmore on guitar would be highly insulting to Morse, Gillan told Rolling Stone, and “hugely disrespectful” to the living, breathing version of the band.
For those unfamiliar with the Deep Purple saga – the reason Blackmore is not in the band any longer to begin with – here’s the short version: when Gillan first joined the band in 1969, a year after its inception, he and Blackmore, along with Glover, Paice, and organist Jon Lord – another founding member, who retired from the band in 2002 and died in 2012 – rose to the top of the rock and roll world. At one point they had the most entries on the Billboard charts, and at the height of their success (in the early 1970s) had surpassed in popularity Black Sabbath and even Led Zeppelin – the two bands with which they are most often linked as the pioneers of hard rock or heavy metal (though the latter does not accurately reflect their music).
But just as the band sat atop the rock and roll pantheon, Gillan and Glover left. “Nobody was taught was how to deal with success, and I think that happens to everyone who makes it at a young age,” Gillan told Rolling Stone. It was difficulty in dealing with that success that contributed to the rift in that classic “Mark II” lineup, but another big part of the problem was the growing personality conflict between Gillan and Blackmore.
The band continued with two varying lineups, through 1976, and then called it quits, but reunited with the Mark II ensemble in 1984 and showed the MTV generation how it’s done, releasing the seminal and commercially successful Perfect Strangers album, followed by more albums and world tours. In 1989, Gillan was asked to leave, replaced by Joe Lynn Turner, who had sung for Blackmore’s band Rainbow a few years earlier. Hardly anyone thought that Turner and Deep Purple fit together, so Gillan was asked to return, and the classic lineup recorded one final studio album together – their seventh – titled, appropriately enough, The Battle Rages On.
This time, it was Blackmore who was persona non grata, and left the band abruptly in 1993 – apropos of his tempestuous personality – in the middle of a tour. A DVD released by Sony titled Come Hell or High Water captured the Mark II lineup in its final, angst-filled days, including a show in which Blackmore refused to take the stage with his band members, as they had to open with Highway Star – one of their classic anthems – without a guitarist. Blackmore later joined the band midway through the song. Gillan was particularly upset that Sony released that live recording, as it brought back such wretched memories. Though I can certainly appreciate what Gillan and the others must have been going through, I think the concert – even with Blackmore’s antics – was absolutely brilliant. Joe Satriani was brought in to take Blackmore’s place for the rest of the tour, and a year later, Steve Morse became the band’s permanent guitarist, and everything has been “fantastic” ever since, Gillan says.
“EVERYTHING IS COOL”
A short time after Jon Lord’s death, Gillan was asked whether 1) he had kept in touch with Lord in the years the latter retired, and 2) taking that “life’s too short” into consideration, whether he considered reaching out to Blackmore to resolve their differences. Gillan answered yes to the first question, and absolutely not to the second.
But in the recent Rolling Stone interview, Gillan made news that should have been the headline: he had been in touch with Blackmore, and now “everything is cool.” That he doesn’t want Blackmore to be the guitarist onstage if the band is inducted into the Hall of Fame “has nothing to do with Ritchie personally,” he says. “I don’t have an issue with Ritchie, nor does anyone.”
Still, one has to wonder, if Jon Lord were alive, Gillan’s respect for “the living, breathing Deep Purple” – which I believe to be sincere – notwithstanding, would the band really not have brought Lord onstage to celebrate that moment?
Gillan and Blackmore certainly agree on at least one thing: they couldn’t care less if they never made it into the Hall. Blackmore over the years has been more abrasive about this, making statements to the effect of “if I was inducted, I wouldn’t go.” Gillan, more diplomatic, says that although as a young man he railed against institutionalization, he realizes the Hall is for families and fans, and would be happy to accept induction, for their sakes.
Surely those same fans would like to see Blackmore on that same stage, too.
In fact, there is broad consensus that the reason Deep Purple has yet to be inducted is because the band would perform without Blackmore – which is a ludicrous reason, because who plays with the band today has nothing to do with what made the band induction-worthy to in the first place.
WHAT ABOUT BLACKMORE AND MORSE, TOGETHER?
In a touching moment as he departed from Deep Purple, Jon Lord in 2002 began a keyboard solo live onstage, and then gave way to his successor, Don Airey. It was a beautifully-done passing of the torch. Is it really that hard for something similar to be done in this case, with Blackmore and Morse?
“For the record, I was just as much an a**hole as Ritchie,” Gillan told Rolling Stone about their feud, “but we’re too old for that now (both are 69).” Young enough to still perform – and perform masterfully – and hopefully wise enough to put everything else aside and get back on stage together again – at least for one night, for one song. And then Airey, Glover, Morse, Paice, and Gillan, at peace with special guest Ritchie Blackmore, will be “the living, breathing, Deep Purple.”