PURPLE CONCERTO FOR gEORGE & ORCHESTRA, from Limelight, 2003
An email arrived for me a little while back, just after the program for the 2003 Sydney Festival was released. Titled THE WORST IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC, it read, “george [sic - in case you don’t know, they’re a capitally-challenged hot new band from Brisbane] with Jon Lord and the SSO performing Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra at the Opera House - has to be a joke right?”
I replied to my friend and fellow fat old pop industry pundit: “Jeez, I recently sold a mint vinyl copy of Jon Lord's Gemini Suite which I knew I'd live to regret!”
He replied to me, “I can't believe you ever bought it.”
This little exchange serves to illustrate a couple of points: One, old rock pigs never die. And two, that while ‘progressive rock’ (as it was once known) remains a reviled genre, it refuses to die. Aren’t those street posters a 30th Anniversary Australian tour by Yes I’ve seen? Certainly, the coolest T-shirt I’ve seen in ages was the Moog one I saw a guy wearing recently. And what are Radiohead, after all, if not neo-prog.rockers?
Just as the voluptuous lines of early seventies’ muscle cars and hipster flares are back in fashion again, people who weren’t even born when progressive rock was already past its peak in the mid-seventies are reviving it for a wide-eyed audience. And so now george – whose gorgeous debut album Polyserena went straight to Number One early last year, and who first resuscitated the Purple Concerto with the Queensland Orchestra last February - team up with the originator of the work, Purple’s keyboard wizard Jon Lord, to bring fully back to life this, err, 1970 masterwork.
For many people, memories - awful memories - will come flooding back: Rick Wakeman hitting a glittering new nadir for rock – music generally - when, was it the legend of King Arthur he put on ice? Phew.
Obviously this was the sort of excess, self-indulgence and pomposity that made punk necessary in the first place. But as a graduate of the school of ’77 myself, I have lately been given pause to revisit/reconsider some of these old enemies/fears. I confess to a fair nostalgia for my early adolescence and its music (glam rock and progressive rock) and I have to say that from this distance, there’s much I’ve found in progressive rock to like - if only, like most things, just as much to dislike.
It was the Beatles, of course, with Sgt. Pepper, who inculcated the idea of the rock album as concept album as a work of high art. And there’s the first misapprehension right there. When, say, Dusty Springfield could take Phil Spector’s idea of ‘little symphonies for the kids’ and turn it into epic romance on a side of a mono 7-inch - or when Bob Dylan, armed only with an acoustic guitar, a scratchy voice and songwriting genius, was able to conjure whole worlds – why would anyone even want to try a fusion of rock and classical music? To me, it all smacks of the old cultural inferiority complex. Rock is supposed to be rebellious by nature, and here it is seeking the ‘legitimacy’ of the concert hall!
Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra was, in many ways, an emulation of the Moody Blues, whose 1967 LP Days of Future Passed (of course) was a pioneer concept album right alongside Sgt. Peppers. The Moodies ‘extended the range of pop music’, as the album’s own sleevenotes put it, by grafting some string parts courtesy the London Festival Orchestra in between the band’s self-contained instrumental trippery. One of the ironies is that the signature sound of the classic single off the album – “Nights in White Satin” – is that of a mellotron, the then-newfangled string synthesizer!
Thus was a monster spawned. The Who’s Tommy was pre-empted as the first rock opera by the Kinks’ vastly superior (but less fashionable) Village Green Preservation Society (1968). In 1969, Frank Zappa did his hero Varese proud on 200 Motels, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic. In Australia in 1970, Tully collaborated with Peter Sculthorpe and the SSO on his Love 2000. Emerson, Lake & Palmer released an LP of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. These LPs all seemed to have Roger Dean cover art.
Deep Purple, you may have thought, stand alongside Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as one of the three pillars of heavy metal, and indeed they do. The thing is, the Concerto is an aberration in the Purple catalogue, and as soon as its follow-up Deep Purple in Rock was released in 1971, it was clear a whole new sound again (proto-heavy metal) had been born. Jon Lord’s classical aspirations were diverted into solo albums like Gemini Suite.
Concerto for Group and Orchestra is a disjointed extravaganza in which symphonic bits merely buffer overstated soloing by the band. No real songs. So the question is, while Jon Lord himself can supply all the phat Hammond organ parts you could want, who among george is going to be capable of emulating the pyrotechnics of legendary Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore? And does anyone really want to hear a lengthy drum solo anymore? No-one is better equipped for the task than george – whose fillial roots are in classical music – but the question still remains, Why exactly?
What’s next? Mario Milo tackling Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America? I wait in fright.