Three Great Albums That Sound Like Shit

Blue Oyster Cult’s first three albums: A masterclass in 70’s hard rock songwriting and tasteful playing, equal parts nuance and bombast, delivered with both menace with considerable wit. But let’s face it: they sound like shit. Words like ‘thin’, ‘flat’, and ‘tepid’ are often used to describe the sound quality of these records. Imagine the impact this trio of albums would have had if they shared the production value of other contemporary US hard rock bands; say, Aerosmith or Montrose. Methinks BOC would have had a much better chance of achieving their initial goal of becoming ‘The American Black Sabbath’ had these records sounded like what they looked like.

The sub-par sound doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of these records at all; in fact, ‘Secret Treaties’ is one of my top three favorite albums of all time. Production value is only one element of a record’s overall success; if the songwriting’s great, and the playing’s stellar, it’s easy to overlook a record’s sonic shortcomings. Most of us grew up listening to badly-produced records before we really knew or cared about the sound quality of the music we listened to. Some of us still don’t care. I do; when I hear a record like ‘Tyranny and Mutation’, and those crazy, crafty and cryptic tunes, I hear a missed opportunity; I want it to knock me flat on my ass, but it just doesn’t have the visceral impact that it could.

Of course this is all just my opinion. In my own musical universe, there are a handful of albums that frustrate me endlessly because, to my mind, the sonics just don’t live up to the caliber of the material or the level of the performances. But I get it: inadequate budgets, inexperienced producers, bad decisions and drugs happen. Truth be told, I wouldn’t change a single second of any of these records… I love them all dearly… But it’s hard not to lament what might have been. Here are my three favorite examples:

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Kiss/Hotter Than Hell
So many things went wrong for Kiss in 1974, it’s a wonder they made it to ’75. Sales of the debut failed to live up to expectations, so a mere six months after the release of their debut, their label, Casablanca, pulled them off the road and shoved them back into the studio for a quick follow-up. The production duo of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise were again tapped to produce, but had both moved to California, so the four New Yorkers flew to sunny Los Angeles to record their all-important 2nd record. The project was regarded by Casablanca as ‘make or break’; not only for Kiss, but for the label as well. The fledgling label had just lost it’s distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records, and Warner’s promotional budget with it. A lot was riding on this record…

Several books have been written on the early days of Kiss, including biographies by all four members. Each tells the same story about how difficult the sessions for ‘Hotter than Hell’ were: the band hated LA, Kerner and Wise hated the studio, Ace wrecked his rental car and was injured, Paul Stanley’s custom-made Flying V was stolen on the day the sessions began. Wah. None of this had anything to do with why this record sounds like a garbage can filled with forks rolling down a stairwell. The real culprits were Kerner and Wise.

While the pair had done a decent job on Kiss’ debut, Wise wanted to move the band’s sound in a different direction. Hoping to better align their music with their image, Wise planned to move the band away from their rock n roll core and toward a heavier, more menacing sound. This was Stupid Idea #1. Stupid Idea #2 was to record everything ‘hot’, meaning distorted, needle-in-the-red ‘hot’. As in ‘Hotter Than Hell’. Get it? Wise stated in the book “Kiss: Behind the Mask” that ‘It’s the worst-sounding album I ever recorded. It was overly compressed and overdriven. I’ll take the blame for wanting to make it heavy and distorted… The intent was to make a Black Sabbath kind of sounding record, but it just didn’t pan out sonically.’ He also called it ‘…very harsh and just disgusting.’ Paul Stanley’s bio also acknowledges that the distortion in the recording was intended.

Several songs on ‘Hotter than Hell’ have risen from the murk and gone on to become bona fide Kiss Klassics; a testament to the strength of the material. Unfortunately this clusterfuck recording renders them almost unlistenable. Even with huge advances in recording technology, this recording simply cannot be fixed. When Kiss put out their ‘Double Platinum’ best-of in 1978, most of the songs included were remixed, but the two from HtH were not… because it wouldn’t have helped. The distorted signal that Wise was after is printed on the original tapes, and it’s there to stay. The Kiss catalog was remastered in 1997, allowing Kiss fans to hear this godawful sludgy mess with crystal clarity.

The Kiss story almost ended right there in the control room of Village Recorders in West Los Angeles, California. ‘Hotter Than Hell’ flopped hard, peaking on the charts even lower than the debut. After the failure of HtH, Kiss faced losing their recording contract, and Casablanca faced bankruptcy. Four months later, Kiss was once again forced off the road and into the studio. Dressed to Kill was Kiss’ third album in 13 months, was NOT produced by Kerner and Wise, and peaked at #32. The rest is history.

Rainbow-Rising

Rainbow/Rising
What could one say about Rainbow’s 1976 classic, ‘Rising’, that hasn’t already been said? How about this: ‘It sounds like shit.’ Some of Metal’s greatest performers deliver some of their strongest performances here, and there’s a handful of indisputably classic songs on hand (side two is flawless). However, all of the epic grandeur of Blackmore/Dio’s finest hour (34 minutes, actually) is buried in a resoundingly flat, one-dimensional mix, devoid of any discernable bottom end, and utterly lacking the clarity and depth that this material calls for. The strength of the songs and the musicianship shines through, making this record an absolute classic of the genre… But sonically, it sucks.

‘Rising’ was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany; same studio that hosted the ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ sessions a year earlier. Martin Birch helmed both records. So how come the sonics on ‘Rising’ are so… crappy? Well… Birch’s initial mix (completed in LA) was rejected by the band’s label as being ‘too bass-heavy’, and the album was remixed (in NY). It’s the NY remix of the record that was pressed onto plastic. What went wrong here? Cozy Powell sounds like he’s playing in a separate room; bassist Jimmy Bain in another zip code. Dio’s vocals sound phoned-in… literally. In the louder, busier passages (and what’s HM if not loud n’ busy), the sound dissolves into an annoying grey mess.

Things were rectified somewhat in 1986, with ‘Rising’s first appearance on CD. Birch’s original LA mix was utilized when the record was mastered, as Polydor were unable to locate the master tapes of the NY mix. This version of the album sounds pretty great, with Bain’s bass loud and clear, Dios vox are warmer and several layers of guitar and keyboard overdubs apparent that were barely audible on the NY mix. This version was available commercially for a little over a decade, until Polydor remastered the entire Rainbow catalog in 1999.

‘Rising’s ’99 remaster utilized Birch’s NY remix… But how, if the original tapes weren’t available? The mastering engineers at Polydor utilized the ‘needle-drop’ method; they used a vinyl copy of the album, plus tons of noise reduction and digital tweaking. This was done mainly so the label could market the remaster as the ‘original mix’. But the original ‘original’ mix was in fact the LA mix… Are ya confused yet? The ’99 remaster does sound decent, considering it’s source material. Thankfully, this epic saga has a happy ending.

In 2011, 35 years after the album’s original release, a Deluxe Edition of Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ was issued in a two-CD set. Both the NY and LA versions are featured, both newly mastered, providing nerds like me a great way to compare both mixes. The remaster of Birch’s original LA mix wins hands-down. On disc 2, a rough mix of the entire album is included, and even it sounds better than the NY remix ordered by the label. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with a Martin Birch Mix. Perhaps the Mystery of the New York Mix will be explained in Birch’s book…

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UFO/Obsession
Okay, this one’s probably just personal preference.

UFO’s fifth Schenker-riffic album, Obsession, contains some of the greatest lead guitar playing of the 1970’s. To capture it, producer Ron Nevison located a disused post office building just outside of Los Angeles, set up Schenker’s favorite 50-watt Marshall head on top of 2 a Marshall 4×12 cabinet and let the German genius wail away at will into the cavernous space. The sublime tone and fiery attack of Schenker’s lead work never sounded better.

Nevison’s approach to recording the rhythm guitar tracks was a bit different. The famed British producer had previously produced and/or engineered records by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and The Rolling Stones, so nobody argued when the legendary producer set up microphones around a Pignose amplifier.

The ‘Pignose’ amplifier is a small, portable, battery-operated 5-watt amp that employs a single 5-inch speaker. It was created as a practice amp that could be used in a variety of places and situations without having to plug in to a power outlet. The Pignose ‘sound’ at it’s best is a mid-to-high end processed fuzz/crunch; nasal and treble-y, but certainly decent enough for warming up backstage or practicing quietly at home without disturbing Mom and Dad. But when it comes to 70s Hard Rock, isn’t disturbing Mom and Dad mandatory?

To these ears, the rhythm guitars on ‘Obsession’ sound barely demo-worthy. The riffs written into the harder songs sound limp, fuzzy… almost comical. The Pignose was used by Nevison on UFO’s previous album ‘Lights Out’, but merely as one more guitar sound for that record’s expansive sonic palate. On ‘Obsession’, the Pignose’s signature ‘sound’ is harnessed and expressly highlighted, removing the crunch and punch from some potentially monstrous riffs and creating several infuriating moments of near-parody, subverting the very idea of riff rock itself. Perhaps Nevison was aiming to play with the contrast between the two sounds; it doesn’t work.

Where the Pignose works well is in the record’s quieter moments; the li’l champ adds some textured delicacy to the chorus of ‘Born to Lose’ and to the intro to ‘I Ain’t No Baby, as well as some brassy, trumpet-like sass to ‘Lookin’ Out for No. 1 (Reprise)’. But Oh, how I would LOVE to hear the balls-out rockers like ‘Hot n’ Ready’, ‘Pack It Up (and Go)’, or ‘One more for the Rodeo’ played through Schenker’s own equipment, or maybe (since we’re daydreaming here) through brother Rudy’s Scorps gear. Imagine if the Mad Axeman had rejected that rizzy little box with the Radio Shack speaker, and instead tore into ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ with the ‘post office’ set-up… Talk about ‘going postal’!

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Martin Birch: Engineering History

I’ve got books on my shelves about Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, Rush, and Judas Priest. About The Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. Books about classic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Master of Reality’, and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’. I have bios written by Gillan, Iommi and Lemmy. One each by Steven Tyler and by Joe Perry. By all 4 members of KISS. The rock books in my personal library range from trashy tell-alls to insightful and historically accurate journalism. The career arcs of my heroes and critical analysis of their works is something I study with great interest. The one book I don’t have, and the book I am most anxious to read, is one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been written yet.

Martin Birch: Write your bloody book already.

The name ‘Martin Birch’ appears on several of the most important hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time. At the end of this post, I’ve included a list of just some of Birch’s production credits. This gentleman has produced/engineered/mixed the soundtracks to our youths He has worked with many of our musical heroes for extensive periods of time; he could probably fill a book with his experiences with Deep Purple alone (seven studio albums), and make his work with Iron Maiden (eight) his Volume II… And still not even scratch the surface of his experience.

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You know he’s got stories to tell. Working with Ritchie Blackmore in the studio on a whopping 10 records… Witnessing the sad disintegration of legends like Bill Ward, Tommy Bolin, and Michael Schenker… And being present at the creation of new legends like Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie Dio. Dude was hand-picked to rebuild the stature of a born again Black Sabbath, and of a floundering Blue Oyster Cult. This guy was the first to record the harmonizing guitars of Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner, and the first to capture the harmonizing voices of Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale. Birch was behind the board in Munich as Ritchie Blackmore’s solo single became a solo album, and helmed the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio outside Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan in August of 1972… not just witnessing history being made, but recording it… And not merely recording history, but taking part in it; shaping it.

Birch was often credited as producer/engineer as well as for mixing, meaning he was solely responsible for the overall sound of his projects. This often meant getting workable performances from drug addicts, volatile personalities, and in some cases, people with very little talent. In other cases, it meant recording under extremely difficult circumstances, including sessions held in a barn in Steve Harris’ backyard (No Prayer for the Dying’), and in the freezing cold hallways of empty hotel in Switzerland (‘Machine Head’). Ya, this guy’s got stories.

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And nicknames! Birch appears in album/single credits with various band-bestowed nicknames sandwiched between his first and last names, such as Black Night, Sir Larry, Basher, Big Ears, Court Jester, Doc, The Farmer, The Wasp, Headmaster, Jah, Live Animal, Masa, Mummy’s Curse, Plan B, Pool Bully, The Bishop, The Juggler, The Ninja, and my two favorites: Martin ‘Phantom of the Jolly Cricketers’ Birch, as he’s credited on the Iron Maiden Single ‘Run to the Hills’ (Live)/’Phantom of the Opera’ (Live), and Martin ‘Disappearing Armchair’ Birch, as credited on Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ lp. Note: This is not a complete list. A guy with this many nicknames has some great life experiences to share.

But what is it about this man that put him in the same room with these musicians time and again? What does he bring to the table that sets him apart from his peers? I would love to read his own take on why he was the go-to guy for so many iconic bands. Clearly the man has an excellent set of ears, but also must possess an extraordinary talent for inspiring and motivating artistic people. Deep Purple MkII dedicated a song to him on ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ (‘Hard Lovin’ Man’) and called him ‘a catalyst’ in the liner notes; high praise coming from one of the more creative and progressive heavy bands of the era. There is a compelling, historically significant story here: how one man helped mold and shape an entire genre for more than 2 decades.

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Is there a ‘Martin Birch Sound’? Birch’s productions do all share a similar overall ‘presence’; it’s all about sonic space, and balance within that space; much of it happens in the mix, and (as you’re noticing as you read this), it’s very difficult to describe. To my own ears, Birch creates a space where every instrument can clearly be heard perfectly, and where every element has exactly the ‘right’ shape and presence in the mix, and works together to create an almost solid, 3-dimensional sound. I would suggest Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ as prime examples of what a Martin Birch production/mix sounds like. Three very different bands with three vastly different sounds; one consistent sonic presentation.

After Whitesnake’s ‘Slide it In’ in 1984, Birch was commandeered to work exclusively for Iron Maiden. Some have called him Iron Maiden’s ‘Fifth Member’. Wouldn’t Eddie be the fifth? That would make Birch the sixth member, unless you acknowledge Janick Gers, which I don’t… But I digress. Martin Birch retired permanently in 1992, after his umpteenth album with Maiden, ‘Fear of the Dark’. Drastic changes in recording technology led to subtle changes in Martin Birch’s signature presentation, evident in Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son…’ and ‘Somewhere in Time’ albums, and perhaps Birch knew that his era was drawing to a close. He was a mere 42 years old when he walked away from the business; today, he’s a bit past his mid-60’s… Mr. Birch, we suggest you add ‘The Author’ to your impressive collection of nicknames.

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Deep Purple: Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do we Think we Are?, Burn, Stormbringer, Made in Europe, Come Taste the Band, Last Concert in Japan

Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules

Rainbow: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, On Stage, Long Live Rock and Roll

Whitesnake: Lovehunter, Ready an’ Willing, Live in the Heart of the City, Come an’ Get it, Saints an’ Sinners, Slide it In

Blue Oyster Cult: Cultosaurus Erectus, Fire of Unknown Origin

Michael Schenker Group: Assault Attack

Iron Maiden: Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, etc etc etc.

Wishbone Ash: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, Argus

 

No Sleep ‘til Made in Japan

Merriam-Webster defines ‘completist’ as ‘one who wants to make something (as a collection) complete’. Hmmm. When I looked up the word, I was sure it would be listed as a medical term, because this affliction has been causing me great pain and suffering for most of my life.

My name is Bob Mayo, and I’m a Completist.

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Deep Purple’s landmark live lp ‘Made in Japan’ was originally released on double-vinyl in December of 1972 (April of ’73 in the US). I bought it sometime around 1979, and it’s been in my personal Top Ten ever since. It’s my sincere belief that this album contains rock music’s greatest recorded performances (my late friend Larry Boyd would disagree, and insist that the Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’ holds that title; I’ll grant it’s a strong contender). As an avid reader of liner notes and credits for all of my lps in those days, I knew that the album was culled from 3 shows: Osaka on August 15 & 16, and Tokyo on August 17, and that the best versions of the songs performed would have been chosen for the album. I never felt the need to hear the unused tracks, and never thought I would ever get the chance anyway. I was not yet fully in the grip of completism.

In 1982, I was stunned when I first saw an imported copy of a compilation album called ’24 Carat Purple’ from 1975 that contained a live version of ‘Black Night’, recorded in Tokyo on 17 August, 1972. So… ‘they’ decided to release another track from the MIJ gigs? Knowing it was out there, I had to have it. That may have been the moment where I was bitten by the completist bug. Sometime around 1991, I obtained a bootleg cassette of the entire August 16 Osaka show, which despite the terrible audio quality and increased pitch/speed due to multiple generations, at least revealed that the legendary ‘no overdubs’ claim is true (at least for the August 16 show). As the CD Age dawned, and I bought ‘MIJ’ on compact disc, I wondered, with the increased capacity of the format, why the cruel, unfeeling monsters at EMI hadn’t made it a 2-disc set and included some of the unreleased material. My completist tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves.

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While in Europe in 1993, I stumbled across a 3-disc Deep Purple set CD called ‘Live in Japan’. I was completely unaware of its existence (this was before the internet), and I snapped it up and clutched it to my chest lest another rabid MIJ fan try to pry it away from me. A feverish read of the booklet revealed that it contained almost all of the material recorded in Japan in 1972. Almost. Sure, it presented more than what was included on the original ‘MIJ’, a lot more, actually; but it still wasn’t everything. Each CD in the set contained a different show, and so 5 recordings originally released on ‘MIJ’ were included here, in an attempt to reassemble the running order of each gig. Still, 4 recordings (mainly the encores) could not be included due to time constraints. So while the set contained a total of 16 previously unheard recordings from DP’s August ’72 tour, we also get 5 ‘MIJ’ versions we’ve all known for decades, occupying the space that could have been given to the final 4 unreleased recordings. Maddening. I was at this point, a total completist. Or complete totalist. Or raving lunatic.

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In 1998, the depraved, sadistic subhuman slime at EMI Europe announced the release of a 25th anniversary edition of ‘Made in Japan’, newly remastered and featuring a second disc of…. The Missing Encores! YES!! FINALY! Hurrah! Wait, wha—?

Deep breaths…

Of the 6 encores performed over 3 nights, 2 of them were released on the 3-cd Live In Japan, and 3 were included on the remastered ‘MIJ’… leaving only ONE SONG from the three 1972 Japanese Purple gigs as yet unreleased. It was a version of ‘Black Nigh’t from the August 16 Osaka show. The wicked, degenerate cretins who control Deep Purple’s catalog were clearly plotting to see how much torture I could take before my head exploded. Soon after getting the CD in the mail, I also noticed that this 25th anniversary edition has most of Ian Gillan’s stage banter edited out. Happy Anniversary! The classic line “Can we have everything louder than everything else?” was GONE. To save 23 seconds of running time. Who was making these decisions? Names! I needed NAMES!!

I eventually remembered that I had a cassette of the August 16 Osaka show, which contained the missing ‘Black Night’. It was 1998, and not everyone had the desktop equivalent of a recording studio on their laptop just yet, so I took the cassette to a local recording studio, where the engineer transferred the song onto 4” tape, slowed the tape speed to correct the speed and pitch, and used some of his other magic electric doohickeys to clarify and otherwise improve the sound quality. He burned the resulting track onto a CD. THERE!! I DID IT! YOU BASTARDS!!

With the advent of iTunes, I was finally able to group together all of the related tracks from several disparate sources, and recreate the Japanese Purple gigs in their correct running order. Yes, one of the encores still kinda sounded like shit, but I had come as close as humanly possible to recreating the audio from those 3 nights.

And then…

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‘Listen, Learn, Read On’, a 6-cd box set, was released in 2002. It was and remains the biggest and most comprehensive set of Deep Purple material ever released at 74 tracks total, 24 of them previously unreleased at that point. One of them was the Holy Grail: ‘Black Night’, August 16, Osaka. In all its pristine, mixed and mastered glory. I replaced my cleaned-up bootleg version of ‘Black Night’ with this version. The tremors stopped; I started sleeping through the night again.

Soon after spending about one hundred bucks on the 6-disc set, it dawned on me why the depraved inbred reprobates at EMI had withheld that one final song for so long. Holding it back for the ‘L,L,RO’ box set was added incentive for folks to shell out big money for a massive 6-disc set that was 64% material that potential buyers likely already owned. But what the wicked, soulless cretins in charge didn’t understand was that we Purple fans (completists) would have had no issue spending 100 bucks on 24 unreleased Deep Purple tracks, Holy Grail of not. I’ve spent more on less.

You still can’t buy a complete version of the audio from Deep Purple’s three nights in Japan in August of 1972. You’d have to buy the Made in Japan 25th Anniversary Remaster, the 3-CD Live In Japan set, and the 6-CD Listen Learn, Read On box (ooooh, sorry; it’s now out-of-print). iTunes is currently selling a woefully incomplete version of ‘Live in Japan’, with only 14 tracks and absolutely zilch in the way of liner notes, credits or recording info. It’s listed as a ‘partial album’. WTF good is that? There has been internet chatter about the corrupt, villainous perverts at Warner Bros. releasing a 40th Anniversary set, but as we head into Autumn of 2013 with nothing confirmed, this looks doubtful.

Jon Lord R.I.P.

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?)