Figuring out just where heavy metal starts, what constitutes it, and what its true heart lies is difficult, but not impossible to figure out. The phrase ‘heavy metal’ is in “Born To Be Wild” (a fairly metal sentiment, I think) and is thus Canadian*; metal itself happened when The Beatles recorded “Ticket To Ride” (or maybe it was Jimi Hendrix or Cream or any other heavy band of the period; theories and accounts vary). However, Marshall stacks arose, volumes and eardrums were tested, and heavy metal was fully underway by 1968, when Led Zeppelin appeared, and Deep Purple began at the very same time. It’s impossible to mix up the two bands, though, as Led Zeppelin were behemoths intent on devouring the world, while Deep Purple were more intent on bringing a paradoxical heaviness and lightness to rock, as they do here.
The purpose of metal is to describe, as best can be done (in this case with lead guitar, bass, organ, drums and lead singer) the perils and pitfalls of being an outsider, alone, forever on the move lest something worse happen. There are lots of variants of course, but I think that aloneness counts; that perpetual sense of threat, whether natural or manmade. Here the narrator is alone, it’s dark, he cannot see, and desperately wants to get home – not to rest under a tree or on the beach, but home, real home, wherever that is. There is something vaguely existential hanging over all this (notice that there are no references, as I feel there would be, to women if Led Zeppelin had written this song) – and that if you mishear it, as I did, as ‘black knight’ then there is already a medieval element here, though the Purps were as modern as you like, not given to singing about fairies or may queens like Black Sabbath or Zep themselves.
Ian Gillan sings the song straight, with perhaps a smile of sympathy here or there; Blackmore hammers out the riff he picked up from Ricky Nelson’s version of “Summertime**“; classically-trained Jon Lord, leader of the group, demonically keeps up with Roger Glover on bass and Ian Paice*** on drums. This is already one tough unit who can pretty much outrock everybody (everyone involved had been playing in bands for years; Blackmore had worked with Joe Meek when he was fifteen). That they do so naturally and even swing a little doesn’t detract from their crunch, but certainly helped this song do as well as it did; a lot of people must have felt themselves to be lost in darkness a long way from home at this time, longing to get there and wary of traps and dead ends. It’s a simple, anxious and noisy song, perfect for both The Fall and Metallica to cover, unpretentious and lovable in its own way.
This was the beginning of Deep Purple’s inroads into heavy metal (and the first single they’d written themselves); Deep Purple In Rock was a hit, as were Fireball and Machine Head – their classical and psychedelic sides were put aside for hard rock, though there is always a classical aura about them, compared to other groups. (It’s not a great leap to assume that the other music metal heads love is classical, particularly the more heavy symphonic and operatic corners, where walls of tormented noise are pierced by the shrieks of one or several singers.)
There is hope and determination here, a kind of grit, that is typical of the group; not so much of the ‘woe is me’ complaining that can make some metal wearisome, if not out-and-out scary or depressing****. Deep Purple never set out to carry the world on their shoulders or confront tyrannical evil; theirs was a sleeker, more elegant version of metal that could appeal to not just self-appointed outsiders, teenagers and nerds but everybody who wanted to rock on, not mellow out, in the early 70s. For that they tend to not get the props that they deserve; which is a shame, as out of all the early bands it’s the one I find the easiest to listen to, the most surprising and likeable. The band’s sensibilities were not just in rock but in classical, soul and jazz, even; with this song they manage to get heard by everyone, not just albums-only-buying fans, to hook who-knows-how-many fresh ears to what they are doing, to a style of rock that will not just succeed but prevail over the decades, as they themselves did, changing line-ups but continuing, defying expectations as usual.
Next up: another young man lost, way out, out beyond the woods.
*As are everyone’s favourite metal band, Anvil.
**The living here is the exact opposite of 'easy.'
***To see a drummer with glasses as normal as him is pleasing in a way; he reminds me a bit of my friend Benet, though Benet isn’t a metal fan, per se.
**** Note how ultimately groovy "Smoke On The Water" is as compared to the Zep's completely insane "Achilles' Last Stand" and then reflect again on how non-mythological the Purps are in comparison. Deep Purple can make something out of nothing, can make even disaster sound attractive.