Friday, March 10, 2017
Deep Purple - Perfect Strangers (1985)
When I now think about my grandma’s living room carpet, it reminds me of a seabed floor. Years of footsteps rendered the green, purple, and white carpet strands inert and I spent much of my time watching her large tube-powered color television with my elbows driven into the floor watching the screen. I lived underwater during those years. I watched television muffling the adult world of my mother quarreling with my grandma, my dad biting his tongue, and a thousand footsteps kneading the carpet down around me. I listened and watched MTV intently. This music television predated The Real World, Remote Control, Yo! MTV Raps, and a score of other semi-coherent nonsense the network later pandered as cutting edge. I remember the live concerts. I remember the network's Closet Classics. I remember watching their broadcast of Live Aid raptly waiting for Black Sabbath’s reunion. I remember more clearly, however, the video for Deep Purple’s “Perfect Strangers”. It changed my life.
You can, in retrospect, see it coming. Purple’s 1984 reunion heralded the opening of the “reunion era” when marquee acts from the previous decade reconvened in hopes of striking commercial gold. Few, if any, experienced the same success until Aerosmith successfully reinvented themselves on the backs of their appearance with rap trio Run-DMC. No one then or now will ever confused 1985’s Perfect Strangers for the seminal releases of the band’s seventies peak. It isn’t In Rock, Fireball, or Machine Head. It isn’t, arguably, even up to the same standard as Who Do We Think We Are. Perfect Strangers is, definitely, a product of its time. There is, however, enough of the band’s halcyon magic brimming from the performances suggesting this particular configuration of musicians still stood as far from a creatively dead proposition.
We are definitely in the eighties with the introduction to the album opener “Knockin’ at Your Back Door”, but when Ian Paice’s assertive and straight-ahead drumming joins Roger Glover’s bass pulse, Purple fans are in familiar territory. The title and songwriting alike are loaded with a multitude of uniquely English sexual connotations, but vocalist Ian Gillan never fails delivering them with a deft nudge and wink that never risks cheap titillation. Guitar virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore, monumentally impressed by Yes’ 90125 release and a desire to remain relevant, adopted synth guitar with mixed results, but his playing conjures something of the youthful fire and fluency that built his reputation when he drops the pretense and simply plays. His lead work in the song’s second half deserves praise. “Under the Gun” has some romping Jon Lord organ buried a little too deeply in the mix and a predictable lyric, but there are some inventive couplets and turns of phrase and moments when Blackmore’s guitar lights the arrangement up.
“Nobody’s Home” missteps by emphasizing now regrettably dated and ornamental synth, but quickly transforms into one of the album’s purest invocations of past glories in a modern context. The song features on of Gillan’s best vocals and singes the skin with its passion and no nonsense approach. “Mean Streak” is filler unworthy of the band and only builds any heat during its chorus and instrumental breaks. Lord’s Hammond organ kicks off the album’s title song with nothing less than absolute grandeur and Gillan’s vocal turns the lyrics for “Perfect Strangers” into something much greater. The steady swing of Ian Paice’s timekeeping gives Lord and Blackmore an immense foundation to expand upon and they artfully do so. Blackmore and Lord play in lockstep during the instrumental passages of :”A Gypsy’s Kiss”, but the song is much more reflective of Blackmore’s songwriting tendencies with Rainbow and even another strong Gillan vocal fails to undercut the sense we’ve heard this before and better. 1985 stands out for a lot of reasons and the power ballad harbored increasingly commercial sway. “Wasted Sunsets” latches onto this trend while retaining enough lyric and instrumental identity to distinguish itself from the pack. This is due, in no small part, to a particularly emphatic and passionate Gillan vocal. The romping “Hungry Daze” is good fun, but it’s a little too self-referential without transforming the band’s narrative into something more universal and resonant. Instead, the song goes so far as to directly quote the band’s legendary track “Smoke on the Water” to little perceptible merit.
The album’s final song, “Not Responsible”, closes Perfect Strangers with a surprisingly hard-nosed gem full of confident swagger. The lyrics establish a voice distinctly different from anything else on the album and Gillan lives with every line. His ability to bring palpable physical presence and immense intelligence to bear on the lyric leads the way, but the band responds with an equally rugged and crisp performance. Perfect Strangers isn’t the wild-eyed artistic success Purple devotees love to say it is, but it still holds up as one of the decade’s best reunion efforts and rates respectably in the band’s discography.