Ian Gillan of Deep Purple

by Greg Prato

The Deep Purple frontman explains the "few red lights" in "Smoke On The Water" and talks about songs from their 2020 album Whoosh!

There are select few bands you can honestly credit with the creation of heavy metal – and Deep Purple is certainly part of that short list. Although they've had quite a few members come and go over the years (more than once in some cases!), it is the "Mark II" lineup that gave us such all-time classics as "Smoke On The Water," "Highway Star," "Space Truckin'" and "Strange Kind of Woman."

The singer during this golden era was Mr. Ian Gillan. On the eve of the release of Deep Purple's 21st studio album, Whoosh!, he talked about working with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, revealed the lyrical inspirations behind several new tracks, and shared insights into a few Purple classics.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Whoosh! is the third record in a row that Bob Ezrin produced for the band. How large of a role did he play in it?

Ian Gillan: Massive. Absolutely very important.

It's been an evolutionary process. I'll give you an idea. When we first spoke to Bob before making the album Now What?! [2013], he said, "Look guys, you don't need me just to make another record. What I want to hear is what you do on stage. Because you play the songs people know, but when you start improvising, that's when everyone gets drawn in, and that's when the excitement starts. That's what you used to do back in the '70s, so let's go that way. I don't care how long the music is - I'll just take the reins and we'll see how it goes."

Well, it turns out Bob is the best technical producer we ever had – in terms of sound. He's an accomplished musician, so we speak the same language. He's been around the world a few times, and he's about the same age as us, so there's a kind of "welcome to the party" atmosphere.

He let us get on with it. He let us develop this idea of encouraging us to meander, to explore the textures and dynamics of an idea. And if he didn't like it, he had a famous phrase: "I'm not liking it! I'm not liking it!"

He would encourage us if we were going in the right way, and everyone had trust in him. So, it's evolved. This one seems to have a youthful energy about it as well as being more cohesive. It really has come together. It's like the third movement of a concerto.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for the song "Throw My Bones"?

Gillan: "Throw My Bones" is something that people did in prehistoric times to see if it was going to rain tomorrow or if they were going to be alive tomorrow. They started painting spots and they became dice – a game of chance. So, the idea of trying to find out what's going to happen tomorrow, nobody knows that.

I went through this whole Brexit thing, and people saying, "We don't have enough information and what's going to happen?" I'm thinking to myself, "I know everything I need to know. Who knows what's going to happen? But I'm prepared." That's what the song is about. It's just about being content with life as it is. It doesn't mean to say that you just sit there and don't do anything or you don't have ambition. It just means to say that you don't know what the future holds. It may be something you'd really rather not have.

Songfacts: Was it a conscious decision for the band not to appear in the song's video?

Gillan: Well, we've never been fond of videos. People use their eyes to listen to music these days. I'm not that keen on that.

We never were very good at making videos, and we don't look that good these days, either! [Laughs] We personally don't think it's important. We project live on stage and with songwriting in the studio. We're not trying to be fashionable – we never did get it, the commercial aspect. Fashion comes and fashion goes, and that's something we never related to.

Songfacts: Some of the lyrics in "Nothing At All" seem to pertain to what's currently going on in the world, particularly, "When I hear about the doom and gloom that's around the corner and coming soon."

Gillan: Well, when I heard that musical idea in Germany when we first started the song, I fell in love with it. The interchange between the guitar and the keyboards had kind of a capricious mood to it. It was cheeky and mischievous. One night, sitting in my little cottage by the Cumberland River across from the Grand Ole Opry, where I could hear the music, it came to me: We're in a pretty precarious situation and we're not taking it seriously enough.

So, I thought of Mother Nature as an old lady in the song, and I thought of the line, "And she blew all the leaves off my tree," which I thought was a nice pictorial description of the situation that potentially could happen. Then I wanted to reflect on the nonchalance of society. It's a juxtaposition of me and the nonchalance and the severity of the situation. It's just a little angle on a big issue.

Songfacts: What's the story behind the album title and cover image?

Gillan: It came about with the title. We had a couple of submissions by the design department in Germany. The idea of Whoosh! came to me as a very good onomatopoeic word that describes the transient nature of humanity on the planet. And in a more humorous sense, it describes Deep Purple's career. Like, Whoosh! – it seems like just yesterday it was 1970. It seemed to fit.

And then I think some of the guys looked at the lyrics and saw the apocalyptic nature of some of these scenarios and came up with the dissolving spaceman, which I kind of like. It's quite powerful.

Songfacts: What song from the Deep Purple Mark II era do you most connect with?

Gillan: I don't connect with any of them! We still do quite a few on stage and they're intensely important. At the moment, "Pictures Of Home" I'm enjoying because of the orchestral melodies and the orchestral dynamics in the song. We don't think of things like that. We're thinking about new stuff, and I have no emotional relationship with any of my songs.

Deep Purple came to Montreux, Switzerland, in 1971 to record their Machine Head album at the city's famous casino. Before they got the chance, the place burned to the ground; the result of someone in the crowd shooting off a flare gun during a Frank Zappa concert.

The "Smoke On The Water" lyric tells the story of that night and what happened next:

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there


But the next lines always puzzled us:

With a few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
Songfacts: What are the "few red lights and a few old beds" you sing about in "Smoke On The Water"?

Gillan: That's the hotel we moved into – the Grand Hotel – after the casino burned down during the Frank Zappa concert we were at. And that's what the song is all about. We ended up at the Grand Hotel, and it was very bright, so we changed the light bulbs. We got some red light bulbs, and we used the bed mattresses as sound baffles.

We set the gear up in the hallways and the corridors of the hotel, and the Rolling Stones' mobile truck was out back with very long cables coming up through the windows. We tried to re-create an atmosphere in a technical sense the best we could. And when we went to write the lyrics, because we were short on material, we thought it was an "add-on track." It was just a last-minute panic.

So, the riff and backing track had been recorded on the first day as a kind of soundcheck. There were no lyrics. The engineer told us on the last day, "Man, we're several minutes short for an album." So, we dug it out, and Roger [Glover] and I wrote a biographical account of the making of the record: "We all came out to Montreux..." etcetera, etcetera.

That's how it ended up on the album. It never got played on the radio for a year because it was too long. It was only when a guy from Warner Bros. came to see a show and saw the reaction of the crowd. He ran back to the studio and did an edit of three-and-a-half minutes, and it got played for the first time on the radio. That was a year after the album release. It would never have gotten played if we hadn't done the edit.

Songfacts: How do you feel about that song today?

Gillan: Like all the narrative songs, you can place yourself there. It's fantastic – I love singing it. It's such a groove. And the important thing is everyone in the audience is so involved in the song, and of course, they know every word and the groove.

It's a shared experience. It's like a congregational euphoria. It's amazing. It's fantastic. I love it. When you asked earlier about what songs do I feel for, in a way, I love them all. I have no trouble getting up for it just about every day.

Songfacts: What is the song "Perfect Strangers" about?

Gillan: We had been apart for a while, so "Perfect Strangers" is a contradiction in terms, like an oxymoron. That was pretty much how we described it – there was a lot of suspicion and worry and nervousness about getting together again and having a reunion, and when we all sat around in the basement of this old house in Vermont, there was a log fire and three feet of snow outside.

We had a couple of beers, and nobody started playing. Then, Paicey [Ian Paice] started tapping away and people started grooving, and a little shuffle came along. In five minutes everyone had a smile on their face.

So, "Perfect Strangers" was how we were before, and "Perfect Strangers" are how we are afterwards – with two opposite meanings to the phrase.

Songfacts: What's the best Deep Purple deep cut?

Gillan: I never had a sense of entitlement, so I don't know. I have no idea how to answer that question because we don't look at things that way. They're all like our children, you know? Some are good and some are bad, but we love them all. I can't answer it honestly. You have to ask people who have an objective opinion about that sort of thing.

Songfacts: Who or what is the "pony trekker" in "Space Truckin'"?

Gillan: It's not literal – nothing in that song is literal. It's all a play on words, like, "We'd move to the Canaveral moonstop" and "pony trekker" and "Borealice." It's all nonsense.

August 3, 2020
For news and tour information, visit deeppurple.com.

More Interviews:
Steve Morse
Paul Di'Anno (ex-Iron Maiden)
Lou Gramm
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Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult

photos: Ben Wolf

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Comments: 1

  • Shawn from MarylandWe all know "Smoke on the Water" and Hush and Space Truckin'. But my first real experience with Deep Purple was the Perfect Strangers cassette I bought back in 1985. I still have it. :)
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