Monday, March 13, 2017
Deep Purple - Slaves and Masters (1992): A Commentary
Slaves and Masters works, but sputters. There is a breathing creativity in songs like "King of Dreams", "Truth Hurts", and "Breakfast in Bed" that builds logically on Blackmore's interest in a more melodic form of hard rock. The vague European sensibilities merge with a pop slant that creates a new dynamic for Purple, but faceless rock deflects these stabs in a new direction and calculated, saccharine ballads betray the Purple sound. "Too Much Is Not Enough" and "Love Conquers All" have so little to do with Deep Purple's original impulse that their inclusion on the album jars out joint what is otherwise a honest step forward into the future.
The fans revolt. Replacing Ian Gillan with Joe Lynn Turner brings the band a younger, more consistent singer and perhaps a more compliant creative partner, but the sacrificing Gillan's swagger and effortless command over the band's classics is a heavy blow. Turner buries the vocals under a thick layer of screeches and squeals that presumably constitutes innovative rock music for an early 1990's audience. Deep Purple is trying to thread a needle. Somehow, the band thinks they can embrace the modern AOR sound, following Aerosmith's example, while retaining signature and idiosyncratic strains of the Deep Purple sound. They cannot.
It works best on stage. Perhaps realizing Turner's limitations on the classic material, the band's live performance steers towards the new material more than any other time in the band's recent history. Conscious of the fact that the faithful Deep Purple audience will resist another singer performing the classic material, the band tries to put its new lineup and direction in the spotlight by focusing the set on the album's stronger songs. Turner excels. In every flourish, every line, you hear Turner just singing and not interpreting songs he is clearly intimidated by.
Unlike other Purple tours, the set list changes during the course of the tour. The band tries "Wicked Ways" on the opening dates, but it doesn't last long. "King of Dreams" is part of the set until the band hits America where they drop the closest thing to a hit song that Slaves and Masters offers; it resurfaces during the tour's final stages. "Space Truckin'" is missing from the set list until the last night of the tour. The band rehearses "Fireball" and the insipid "Too Much Is Not Enough" for the tour. Turner wants Blackmore to add "Pictures of Home" to the set, but Blackmore refuses. The band plays a variety of medleys and covers throughout the tour. They tackle Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale", The Beatles' "Yesterday", and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe", among others.
The tour kicks off on February 4th, 1991 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. It is the story of two performances. On one hand, the band is a well-rehearsed, professional machine that plays with expert power. Blackmore is reborn. His playing is erratic during the House of the Blue Light tour; the growing tension with Ian Gillan pushes him into limp rhythm guitar work, messy and atonal solos, and refusing to play encores. He is rampaging once Paice bites into his drumming with impressive precision and red-hot aggression. Jon Lord answers every volley from Blackmore's guitar with thick sheets of organ and keyboard playing. The band is comfortable and confident.
Joe Lynn Turner is not. A film crew is present and Turner struts, preens, slaps his backside like a stripper and Ritchie later claims that, in off-stage moments, Turner is doing pushups. Ritchie openly laughs at him onstage. He cannot relax. Instead of easing through the songs and relying on his natural talent, Turner suffocates the classics with over-emphasis, useless screeches and screams, and unwieldy phrasing. His performance of "Child in Time", thankfully short, is much poorer fare. His first public performance of the MKIII classic "Burn" is promising, but he forgets some important lyrics. This remains a problem throughout the tour on this and on other songs. He wants to play the rock star and what the MKII songs require isn't a self-conscious rock star but someone with the amiable self-confidence to trust the songs and not dress them up with cheesy stage mannerisms. On the newer material, Turner is confident and singing well, particularly a hot version of "Wicked Ways".
The tour rolls through the customary European stops. Berlin, Paris, Gothenburg, Zurich, and Rotterdam, among others. The low point comes in Stockholm when a sick Turner, a sloppy Ritchie, and technical problems conspire to produce one of the tour's worst outings. The terrible performance baffles and, ultimately, enrages the audience. Many leave disgruntled and visibly upset. The disaster upsets Ritchie and he considers quitting on the spot. Only a marathon effort by manager Bruce Payne salvages the tour. The country's largest selling newspaper runs a headline that reads "Deep Purple Sink Ever Deeper".
The band recovers. Gothenburg is the next night and the show is exciting. The Purple faithful are as receptive as ever to the core MKII lineup, but the new singer tackling the classic material is not winning over any new converts. The band plays their first UK show in Manchester on March 10th. The story is the same with Turner and the MKII material, but the band plays with explosive inspiration. The new material shines. Turner and the band alike give an extended, brilliant performance of "Truth Hurts". Blackmore leads the band through whiplash versions of "The Cut Runs Deep", a powerful version of "Perfect Strangers" that Turner sings well, and one of the better performances of "Burn" from this tour. The audience is willing to listen and the band makes them sit up and take notice, but a vocal segment of the crowd makes their displeasure known. Turner tells someone in the audience to fuck off.
The UK leg of the tour is brief and brilliant. The band starts playing and, most importantly, singing as if they have something to prove. It ends with a strong performance in Birmingham and a series of shows at London's Hammersmith Odeon. Despite the shaky opening to the tour, the band does strong business during their European trek. Turner is even singing some MKII material with something approaching the confidence of his predecessor; look no further than recordings of "Perfect Strangers" from March 11th and 12th in Edinburgh and Birmingham, respectively.
The band plays their first show in the United States on April 10th in Burlington, Vermont. The unlikely venue for a major tour suggests that the band wants to start small before hitting the larger halls and theaters. Because that is what it is now. It does not matter that Ritchie Blackmore is reborn and that the band, as an unit, is playing better than they have since 1972. A lackluster 1988 North American tour in support of the equally lackluster live album Nobody's Perfect hurts the band's standing. Perhaps the big money reunion tour is an aberration, a profitable nostalgia march across a country that long ago embraces the band, but now sneers at them as dinosaurs of a bygone era. Perhaps it is the meteoric rise of modern American bands like Guns and Roses, the resurrection of American peers like Aerosmith, which helps to disable the band's creative powers. The band scores a minor hit in America with "King of Dreams", but it means nothing. There is a new sound in the air and Deep Purple cannot capture it. The world changes and Deep Purple does not. At least not enough for America.
Poor attendance forces the band to cancel shows. Turner later cites the Gulf War and a chaotic American economy as other factors for the small attendance. The tour lasts 22 days before the band gives up and brings the tour to a halt for two months. The tour resumes on June 24th in Tokyo. The band plays four Japanese dates before playing one concert each in Thailand and Singapore. No audience recordings for the latter shows are in circulation. The band takes a month and a half off before playing again. They reconvene for a series of shows in South America that are profitable and musically exceptional, but sound problems mar some shows and, once again, the band's visit is brief. There is no apparent design to any of this. The band is not launching new legs to the tour, but rather glorified residencies. The band is not promoting this album; they are fulfilling contractual obligations and satisfying an innate to perform. The album is just another record now tension swallows the band.
The final portion of the tour sees the band return to Eastern Europe for one date in Poznan, Poland. Tapers record and film this September 23rd concert and the decision is a wise one for history; the concert is one of the best performances on the tour. The band later plays two dates in Hungary. The band is playing with the same fire they bring to their earlier jaunts through the United Kingdom and the United States. The band sounds musically robust, but the band's personal relationships split into warring factions. They are talking about a new album, but debate rages about the creative direction the band takes from here. Turner and Blackmore advocate pursing the direction of Slaves and Masters even further, while other band members, to a greater or lesser extent, want the band to continue mining its decades-old formula for success. The lineup is taking its time to fall apart, but it is falling apart.
The band plays a one-off show in Athens, Greece before playing the last two dates of the tour on September 28th and 29th, 1991 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli radio records and broadcasts the September 28th show. Despite being the final recording of the tour, the first Tel Aviv show is a microcosm of all that is right and wrong alike about this tour. The entire band continues to give stellar performances of the new songs. They continue to claw and scratch for a shred of the identifiable Purple sound on the older material and the lead singer continues to confuse preening like a peacock for fronting a top shelf rock and roll band. In 2008, Deep Purple returns for the first time to the country after a seventeen-year absence. The Israeli Haaretz Daily Newspaper runs an article on August 14th, 2008 that mentions these concerts. A soundman who works the shows recalls how Turner would go backstage between songs to a girlfriend waiting with a hot hair dryer to refresh and restyle his hair. On the second night, Blackmore storms off and halts the show. It marks the last time this lineup will perform together.
However, the controversy lives on. Is this lineup Deep Rainbow and does it betray the band's legacy? Should we consider Slaves and Masters as the low point in Deep Purple's recording career? There is no simple answer. The live performances of new material are improvements on their studio counterparts, but the material is strong to begin with. Deep Purple is taking clear aim at a modern sound and songwriting aesthetic. Furthermore, a number of the songs embrace the traditional Deep Purple sound. "The Cut Runs Deep", "Truth Hurts", "Fire in the Basement" and, in spirit, "Fortuneteller" are songs worthy of the Deep Purple name. The album is no betrayal.
It is a failure, but a noble failure. Admire a band that, late in their recording careers, makes a gamble for mainstream success that requires a seismic shift in the band's artistic aims. Admire a band that, realizing their decisions are alienating a significant segment of their fan base, nonetheless dive headlong into a world tour determined to win those fans over through sheer virtuosity alone. They are worthy of your admiration and their failure is worthy of respect. They are fantastic musicians and this album and tour are worthy additions to the band's long history.