Purple Reign

Leicester Mercury
Wednesday, July 26, 2000
by Lee Marlow

You join us in the hallway of Jon Lord's sprawling Henley-on-Thames home. Him, Leicester born, millionaire keyboard maestro with rock legends Deep Purple and Whitesnake; and me, Leicester-born over-eager hack with a headful of daft questions he's answered a thousand times before. Holding out a hand, Mr Lord, the David Niven of rock 'n' roll, greets me like a long-lost friend. Grey stubble frames his face and a head full of slate grey hair is tied neatly in a pony tail. "Good to see you... find it all right?... blah... terrible weather again isn't it... blah... Yes, it is nice around here isn't it... George Harrison lives just down the road... blah... we're touring in August... blah... on the road in South America..." He hardly stops to draw breath as we settle in the cream lounge.

LUXURIOUS

I can't help but notice the luxurious off-white carpet is so plush that I can trace my footsteps from the oak door to the immense sofa and, in the corner, a small cinema screen masquerades as a TV. Life has been kind to Jon Lord. He's sold millions of records and, erm, "rocked" the biggest audiences the world over - from 200,000 fans at the California Jam in the mid-1970s to last year's hybrid Royal Albert Hall gig featuring Deep Purple and the London Symphony Orchestra. Purple, his mainstay band of the past four decades, are about to hit the road again. Lord admits that after all this time it's hard to resist. "I don't need to do this anymore," he says, "but it is immense fun." "I do see a time when we'll have to call it a day, of course, but when? I know I can't do it when I'm 90, but..." It's all a long way from life at 120 Averill Road, where Mr Lord senior packed socks by day and played sax by night and where the young Lord enjoyed "a perfect childhood," roaming through the nearby countryside with his grubby-faced pals. An after-school diet of piano lessons, homework and bike riding, however, left a teenage Lord facing an extra year at Wyggeston School. "I just wanted to play with my friends," he says. "But it was always homework and piano lessons. Something had to give - and it was usually homework." After being sacked from his first two jobs in Leicester, Lord left for London to study acting and played roll-out-the-barrel-style standards in smoky pubs to pay his rent. Despite ihs best intentions, Lord's hopes of becoming an actor were overtaken by his desire to play rock 'n' roll and by the mid-60s, he'd been roped in to play keyboards on The Kinks' You Really Got Me. "All I did was plink, plink, plink," he laughs. "It wasn't hard."

But from there, Lord and his trusty Hammond organ didn't look back. He had a top 10 hit with Let's Go To San Francisco with The Flowerpot Men and was pocketing the princely sum of 60 a week. Lord's future was bright. In fact, his future was Purple. The group formed in 1968 and had a smash hit in the US with Hust at the end of the year. Three decades later, Kula Shaker took the same song to No 1 in the UK charts. ("Good version as well," says Jon, "if a bit too fast.") Purple opened for Eric Clapton's Cream in the States, but after five storming gigs they were taken off the tour as the energised Purple boys blew Slowhand's shambolic drug-addled trio off stage. "We got on well with them. They had no idea we were to be taken off the tour - they were too stoned!" recalls Jon.

NEW ERA

Back home, Purple instigated the first of many line-up changes, welcoming new singer Ian Gillan and bass player Roger Glover - a switch which heralded a new era for Purple and, with it, British rock. "We knew we had something. It was just so exciting. We used to practice every afternoon and then gig every night." Gillan brought more than great vocals to the band - his jet-black long hair and charisma attracted the ladies as well. "There were plenty of groupies at that stage," smiles Lord. And? "Well, let's just say if you give a young lad a bit of money and untroubled access to nubile young women - it's not a bad life is it?" Even at the wrong side of 50, Gillan, it appears, still has a certain charm with the opposite sex. Lord and Gillan were recently interviewed by former Watchdog beauty Alice Beer for the BBC1 religious show H&E. "I might as well not have been there," smiles Lord. "She was completely taken by Gillan. And after the show they left together and went for a drink. No, I don't know what happened!" The first five years of the 1970s saw Deep Purple trapped in a perpetual album-tour-album loop. The shows were sold out and the albums - In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do We Think We Are? - all went platinum. They made a wodge of money, concedes Jon, but their managers made more. Yet despite the excess (they also had their own plane, naturally), Lord steered clear of drugs. "I can say hand-on-heart we were never really a drug band. My Dad bought me my first pint and I was still very much a lad from Leicester, you know. "I experimented with drugs, of course I did. I smoked grass, but it left me sitting in a corner, introspective and giggling to myself. "I had a brief flirtation with cocaine in the late 1970s but, to be honest, I don't really like being out of control." The drugs came later. American Tommy Bolin, drafted in to replace the increasingly moody and erratic guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, succumbed to a long-term heroin habit in 1976 and Lord still recalls the time a cocaine dealer chased bassist Glenn Hughes on to the band's private plane, demanding $3000. By 1976, the writing was on the wall for Purple and its elaborate brand of rock music. Punk was the new king. Lord retreated to the States for two years. But former Purple leader David Coverdale was looking for someone to become the new ivory tinkler in his new outfit, Whitesnake, and Lord fitted the bill. "He wouldn't take no for an answer. I harboured no ambition to be Whitesnake's keyboard player, but he was very, very insistent." Persuasive Coverdale might have been, but financially generous he certainly wasn't. "I was in Whitesnake from 1978 to 1983 and he paid me abysmally! I complained regularly and he'd say 'Ok, leave it with me', but it never changed. "It was a good laugh - that was the main reason I stayed in the band. It was ironic that in the middle of this punk revolution we were playing white R&B and selling out tours." Strangely, considering the times, Whitesnake's brand of sexist crab-paced rock was a hit.

NICKNAME

They were the biggest-grossing tour band in Europe by 1981. But Coverdale - secretly nicknamed Elsie by the band because of his louche on-stage antics and some of his cheesy lyrics - wanted success in America. At all costs. "It was all style over substance towards the end," sighs Lord. "The band lost its heart. It was just about posing." The music might have lost its soul, but Whitesnake - complete with a new band of poodle-permed hired hands in black spandex and glitter jackets - went on to sell 17 million albums in 1987. Lord, meanwhile, had answered the call to reform Deep Purple. "The critics said Purple getting back together was about money. It was never about money," says Lord. "It was exciting for us and the fans when we got back together." And that's where he's been ever since. In truth, the reformed band never quite graced the same artistic heights they reached in their heyday, but on the concert circuit they're still capable of selling out a Wembley Arena or NEC. "I don't enjoy touring in the way I used to, but those two hours on stage make up for it. "The day I can't open that door and look forward to it is the day I say, 'Thank you very much and goodnight'." And that's about it. Interview over. I've got more daft questions but, crikey, I've been here for more than three hours and he needs to finish a musical extravaganza he's writing for the local church. Phew, rock 'n' roll. "Take care driving back," he says, "and give my love to Leicester."

 

[return to frontpage / return to interviews index]