Gillan’s Hat Trick

So this morning I’m setting myself up for the next week of my commute, dragging and dropping a bunch of albums into my ipod, when it strikes me that 3 of the choices I’ve made feature the one and only Ian Gillan on vocals. Not surprising, I guess. Ian Gillan features more prominently in my music collection than any other single musician. That’s not only because I think he’s one of the greatest rock singers ever. It’s also because the guy has been so damn prolific throughout his almost 50-year recording career. His discography is enormous. Thankfully, with Gillan, it’s just as much about quality as it is about quantity.

A big chunk of Gillan’s recorded output is rightly regarded as ‘Classic’. Just being a part of Deep Purple MkII seals that deal. But while his first stint in Purple surely cemented his legacy, it’s hardly the entire story. That Ian Gillan was able to create or co-create so much stellar music in so many different (and sometimes difficult) situations is nothing short of miraculous.

It could be said that Gillan’s most significant post-Purple period was a 3-year span during the early 1980s, as the Deep Purple MkII reunion slowly became a reality. Gillan knew he would have to break up his own band, and wrote and recorded their final album while keeping his fellow band members in the dark. He then found he’d have to wait a year for Ritchie Blackmore to wind up Rainbow, and decided to kill time fronting what was arguably the greatest Heavy Metal band of all time. But all of this was just the build up for DP MkII’s triumphant return. This tumultuous chain of events gave us three fantastic albums; three more stellar entries into the colorful Ian Gillan catalogue.

And now, back to my iPod…

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Gillan/’Magic’, 1982
‘Magic’ was Gillan’s (That’s Gillan-the-band, not Gillan-the-singer) sixth and final album. While it is perhaps their most commercial record, it’s also their most interesting. The frenetic, off-kilter vibe of previous albums such as ‘Glory Road’ and ‘Future Shock’ is largely absent, mainly due to the departure of Bernie Torme in 1981. By the following year, the band had apparently decided that replacing Torme with Blackmore-clone Janek Gers was a mistake, as there are few guitar solos on ‘Magic’, and the overall sound is keyboard-heavy. The record thus became a showcase for keyboard player Colin Townes’ decidedly left-field musical vision, culminating with the cinematic epic ‘Demon Driver’ (7:16). Gillan’s trademark screams do sound a bit ragged… Overall, there’s enough of the Gillan magic (sorry) here to ensure the album stands as a solid (albeit more commercial) follow-up to the previous year’s excellent ‘Double Trouble’, and a fitting farewell to a great band.

Lyrically, almost every song on ‘Magic’ is about moving on from a bad situation and toward a better one… which is exactly what Ian Gillan was about to do. ‘Magic’ was the band’s lowest-charting LP in the UK, peaking at #17. Ian must have seen this coming. The NWOBHM that had supported the band’s launch just a few years prior was over; while writing the songs for ‘Magic’, Gillan had apparently decided that the band had run it’s course as well. The lyrics to songs like ‘Long Gone’, ‘Living a Lie’, ‘Caught in a Trap’, and ‘Breaking Chains’ seemed innocuous enough when taken at face value, but took on a new clarity after Gillan broke up the band, allegedly to undergo surgery to have nodes removed from his vocal cords. There’s even a song called ‘Purple Sky’… Hmmm… Could there have been an ulterior motive for breaking up Gillan?

The vocal chord issue proved to be bogus, as Gillan’s next move created much bad blood among his ex-band members when he resurfaced the following year, screaming his ass off on…

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Black Sabbath/’Born Again’, 1983
With its garish, primary-colored cover, often-ridiculous lyrics, and dense, murky mix, ‘Born Again’ has a ‘special’ place in the Sabbath canon. Either loved or hated by the hardcore faithful, there’s no middle ground with this record. It’s not the complete disaster that its detractors claim, but neither did it live up to the potential of what initially seemed like an absolutely brilliant pairing. Bill Ward is back, so 3/4ths of the original Sabbath are on hand, and legendary Deep Purple screamer Ian Gillan is in fine larynx-abusing form (a truly miraculous recovery…?) But: the overall result just doesn’t gel into something deserving of the Black Sabbath name. Geezer has said that they had planned to put it out under a different name, but the record company did what record companies do: interfere.

There are moments when it all works beautifully: the uber-riffic drone of ‘Zero the Hero’, the super-heavy chug of ‘Digital Bitch’, and the sludgy dreamscape of the title track all impress, while ‘Trashed’, ‘Disturbing the Priest’ and the aforementioned ‘Zero…’ are all excellent Gillan/Sabbath hybrids. But Gillan’s lyrics just don’t work in this context, and the album is short on songs and long on filler. Two atmospheric instrumental pieces, ‘The Dark’ and ‘Stonehenge’, were edited considerably from much longer pieces (both originally clocking in at almost 5 minutes each); both work well as intros to the songs they precede, but giving them titles and track numbers of their own does little to hide the fact that there are only 7 songs here (and only 3 or 4 real keepers). An outtake from the sessions, ‘The Fallen’, was recently released on the Deluxe Edition of ‘Born Again’; this tune would have really rounded out the album.

Overall, ‘Born Again’ will go down in history as a flawed experiment, a missed opportunity, a ‘classic’– not only because of the music within, but also because of the controversy, baggage and backstory that came along with it. Like Motorhead’s ‘Another Perfect Day’, it exists as a separate entity completely outside of the band’s discography, an ‘asterisk album’, a creation that doesn’t quite fit but also cannot be written off entirely. It’s also worth noting that this was Bill Ward’s final album with Black Sabbath, and the only Black Sabbath album with Jesus Christ on vocals.

One comes away from the ‘Born Again’ experience with the feeling that the next one will be better… But alas, there was to be no ‘next one’. Gillan would later reveal that he joined the Sabs to kill time while Ritchie Blackmore wrapped up Rainbow’s commitments and the Double-Secret Master Plan could finally reveal itself (‘Purple Sky’ indeed!) the following year: A reunion of Deep Purple MkII and the release of…

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Deep Purple/’Perfect Strangers’, 1984
And so, the planets finally aligned, and one of the greatest heavy rock bands of all time reunited after a decade. Each of the MkII members had found varying levels of success in several different situations. Their individual writing and playing styles had all evolved. Could they come together and create that caustic MkII chemistry once again? As it turned out, the individual members weren’t all that far apart after all. Roger Glover had been beside Blackmore in Rainbow for several years. Jon Lord had been playing with Ian Paice in Whitesnake. And Ritchie Blackmore had actually invited Ian Gillan to join Rainbow in 1978 before hiring Graham Bonnet, so it wasn’t impossible to imagine the two headstrong alphas reconciling their infamous differences.

Wisely, ‘Perfect Strangers’ doesn’t attempt to continue where DP MkII left off (with 1973’s ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’); rather it sounds like a less commercial Rainbow fronted by Ian Gillan. It would have been unrealistic to expect a true follow-up to ‘WDWTWA?’ over a decade later. That record would have found an audience, but would not have earned the band a new generation of new fans, as ‘Strangers’ so effectively did. So this wasn’t a slavish return to a classic sound, but rather an updated, revamped version of that sound. Clearly Purple didn’t feel the need to remind anyone that they’d helped invent heavy rock; instead they’d re-invented themselves for a new generation.

And this approach worked. The album is rock-solid. Blackmore, Gillan, Glover, Lord & Paice had no problem transforming Purple into an 80’s hard rock powerhouse. The older, wiser DP was about tight, direct, impactful hard rock; precision riffs, catchy choruses, nimble drumming, and dynamic performances. The excesses of the 70’s were left behind in favor of a more compact, muscular, hard-hitting style, with Blackmore leading the overall sound in a slight neo-classical direction throughout. Keyboard and guitar interplay? Check. And with a confident and fully-committed Gillan singing over It, ‘Perfect Strangers’ sounded like Classic Rock from day one.

Without having to keep up the frantic histrionics and madcap pace of his band in Gillan; no longer under pressure to fit his lyrics and bluesy vocal approach into the doom-and-gloom universe of Black Sabbath, Ian Gillan sounds truly at home on ‘Perfect Strangers’. Gillan strides across the album, sounding relaxed, confident and comfortable. The Master of Ceremonies for one of rock’s greatest comebacks. Lyrically, Gillan was once again hiding secret messages in his band’s songs; a quick read of the words to ‘Gypsy’s Kiss’ (Cockney rhyming slang for ‘taking the piss’, which in turn means ‘not taking something seriously’) reveals his inner thoughts on the reunion and the biz surrounding it. Hey, this is the guy who wrote ‘Smooth Dancer’, remember.

Gillan had maneuvered his way out of his own successful solo band, maneuvered his way into one of the biggest bands of all time, then took his rightful place in one of the most successful comebacks in rock history. The fruits of these machinations? Three consecutive albums in three years for Ian Gillan. Three different bands, three different sets of writing partners. Each record a milestone in each band’s career; each historically significant. I’ve been trying to come up with another notable rocker who has accomplished this same feat, but have thus far come up empty. And this is just a 3-year slice of a creatively restless and somewhat daring career that started in the 60’s and continues to this day. This must be what the phrase ‘storied career’ means.

(Now, if only someone would explain the significance of the phrase ‘grey plastic retards’, which appears in the lyrics for both ‘Born Again’ and ‘Wasted Sunsets’…Anyone?)

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