A Jon Lord retrospective, Part One: from Oxford Street…
When the music career of the keyboard wizard Jon Lord is discussed, it tends to begin and with Deep Purple. This is, I suppose, understandable but before, during and after that hugely significant tenure as a key (pun intended) driving force behind Purple’s sound and virtuosity, Jon released some remarkable work that somehow gets overlooked.
A quick early history:Jon Douglas Lord (as distinct from the coincidental Jon Vernon Lord who drew the cover art for Book of Taliesyn) was born in Leicester on 9th June 1941. He began playing piano aged 6 and studied classical music until leaving school at 17 to become a Solicitor’s clerk. That didn’t last as, with aspirations for the theatre, Jon moved to London in 1960 and trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, paying his fees by performing in pubs. In 1963, Jon joined Red Bludd and his Bluesicians and then the Artwoods, led by Art Wood, brother of future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood. The Artwoods didn’t hit the commercial success they sought despite releasing several singles and EPs and a now highly collectible album titled Art Gallery. He also began to do session work and appeared (allegedly in some cases) on tracks from Elton John, John Mayall, David Bowie, Jeff Beck and The Kinks.
In ’1967 he joined the short-lived St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and then Santa Barbara Machine Head, three of their impossibly rare tracks were unearthed by Simon Robinson and appeared on the CD ‘Pre-Purple People’ in 2001. (Check out Hammond loveliness on ‘Rubber Monkey’ and ‘Porcupine Juice’, It also featured Jon’s sessions with male vocal duo Sundragon (listen to Blackmore, Lord and Paice putting their stamp on ‘I Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ or on the Dylan reworked ‘Love Minus Zero’) and other rarities from Deep Purple members Gillan, Blackmore, Paice, Glover and a very young David Coverdale with a band called The Government, including a surprisingly effective version of Sonny and Cher’s ‘Bang Bang’!
Back to Jon, and his next job was to provide the keyboards for the tour to support the hit single, ‘Let’s Go to San Francisco’ by The Flowerpot Men…no, he didn’t appear on the record, although this was where he met Nick Simper. Then, of course, history was made as the convoluted story of Deep Purple began with the ‘Roundabout’ concept of Chris Curtis…that is a well documented tale, already told. Instead, let’s take a closer look at his orchestral and solo works during, in between and after his groundbreaking time in Deep Purple and, rather than go chronologically, I will look first at his non-orchestral forays. By the way, Jon also made a brief appearance in the totally forgettable comedy film ‘Water’ as a member of the on screen band, The Singing Rebels, alongside Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Mike Moran, Chris Stainton and Ringo Starr!
The Artwoods released numerous singles and the Art Gallery album, but they can all be found on compilation albums, the most complete being ‘Steady Gettin’ It’ which pulls The Art Wood Combo and lots of live sessions together. The alternative is the selected highlights to be found on ‘100 Oxford Street’ that concentrates on the studio work. Lord compositions such as ‘Big City’ is Hammond driven r’n’b showing how even at a young age he had an unerring touch on the keyboards and sliders. The strangely named ‘I’m Looking For A Saxophonist Doubling French Horn Wearing Size 37 Boots’ is a daft as it sounds but is an instrumental delight with great Hammond, a neat guitar solo and some silly spoken interjections.
Into the 1970s, and Jon joined with Tony Ashton (and Gardner and Dyke) on the soundtrack to ‘The Last Rebel’: a post civil war western I have seen once! Messrs Ashton and Lord joined together again in ’74 on the boisterous ‘First of the Big Bands’…a pre-PAL PAL sort of album with some stellar guests (Ian Paice, Cozy Powell, Peter Frampton) and has some great songs including a first run through the masterpiece that is ‘The Ballad of Mr Giver’. There’s also a live at the BBC album from this time that’s worth the effort to track down, if only for the raucous version of ‘The Resurrection Shuffle.’ In ’82 came the essential, eclectic and rather brilliant solo album, ’Before I Forget’ that is rock with the odd classical tinge. It has it all… with Tony Ashton on ‘Hollywood Rock and Roll’, the genius play on Bach with “Bach on to This’ as well as the tender piano and strings of the title track and Jon’s tribute to his Fortress of Solitude, ‘Burntwood.’
In 2003, while in Australia to perform his classical works, Jon damaged a hand which stopped him playing the piano, but didn’t stop him playing the Hammond. He quickly assembled a band and, as The Hootchie Coochie Men, performed and recorded the result. ‘Live at the Basement’ is two CDs full of blues-rock as they interpret some true classics as well as a couple of originals by Bob Daisley and a first go at When A Blindman Cries from vocalist Jimmy Barnes…an intimate and quality concert.
They got together again in 2007 in the studio this time and, with appearances on two tracks from Ian Gillan, they again put down some seriously high quality blues and blues-rock. More blues came along in 2011 with ‘The Jon Lord Blues Project’: another excellent live recording with Maggie Bell and Miller Anderson appearing alongside Jon, Zoot Money, Pete York and Colin Hodgkinson. Purple tracks ‘Lazy’ and “Blindman’ are a real treat and Free’s ‘Wishing Well’ is a blast along with some more great blues standards.
A worthy mention too, for the 2012 ‘Sunflower Superjam’: this fundraiser was established by Jackie Paice (Ian’s wife and Jon’s sister-in-law) and regularly saw the great and good of the rock world performing at the Royal Albert Hall…this one featured the immortal Jon Lord/Rick Wakeman duet on a specially, jointly composed piece. (There are some appalling appearances as well as stunning ones, but with most of Purple, Bruce Dickinson, Brian May, Micky Moody, Alice Cooper and Bill Bailey amongst the artists it is an essential part of the collection.)
The list of ‘guest appearances’ is manifold: highlights of Jon’s sublime keyboard skills include contributions to Bernie Marsden, Graham Bonnet, Cozy Powell, Nazareth, George Harrison and Sam Brown releases…beware, there are many more, and all have merit.
A Jon Lord retrospective, Part Two:…to Durham Cathedral
Jon Lord’s orchestral works, due to his study and love of classical music, were always going to happen at some point…the fact that he was almost pressured into the first one made it real and accessible even to many rock fans who, like me, had only heard Beethoven’s 5th, Peer Gynt and the like when forced to listen in junior school during music appreciation lessons.
However, on buying Fireball in 1971 and thus beginning my love and obsession with all things Purple, when pocket money allowed, I bought the back catalogue including 1969 ‘Concerto for Group and Orchestra’. After listening many times, admittedly at first for the superb solos from Jon, Ritchie and Ian, it suddenly clicked with me: orchestral music can inflame, calm and fascinate as much as ‘proper’ music. The orchestral sections are still rock music, just played on different instruments. When ‘Gemini Suite’ came out, it only convinced me further that Jon’s writing was worth paying close attention to…the way he conveys the emotion is simply stunning. I admit, despite the original version being good, I only listen to the later live release of this with his fellow Purps performing brilliantly.
I also admit that one of his orchestral collaborations leaves me cold: ‘Windows’ I’m afraid, I find unfathomable. Another that really leaves its case is ‘Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’, it’s too pastoral for me and they are in my collection for completeness.
Jon’s other works however are packed full of invention, drama, rhythms and melodies that are an unqualified delight. 1976’s ‘Sarabande’ is a great starting point as it is not all classical…it is a fascinating hybrid. Each track is a recognised musical form, interpreted by Jon with electric aspects joining the orchestral. The delightful ‘Gigue’ will remind you of the Concerto in many ways, and the title track uses bass, keys and guitar to recreate the Spanish dance in a fascinating way, and even the moog works! A truly exceptional album is the stunning ‘Pictured Within’: an album that will have you dancing, crying, laughing and falling in love as the music, lyrics and vocalists deliver a tour de force…the title track not only pulled on heartstrings I didn’t know I had, it also cost me a fortune as I sought out all of Miller Anderson’s work, based on this one track. Sam Brown had me falling in love and then in tears with ‘Evening Song’ and ‘Wait A While’. The non vocal tracks are equally adept at summoning emotional responses.
‘Beyond the Notes’ is another hybrid, with guitar, drums and bass sitting comfortably alongside strings and woodwind. With vocals on a few tracks (Miller Anderson and Sam Brown again plus the talents of Frida (or Anni-Frid to explain the A in Abba)) bringing new dimensions to my musical lexicon. Try the tributes to Tony Ashton (‘I’ll Send You A Postcard’), to George Harrison (‘A Smile When I Shook His Hand’) or Jon’s Mother (‘Music For Miriam’) to experience his emotions writ large in every stave. You can even hear Jon out renaissance Ritchie on ‘The Telemann Experiment.’ Next came a commissioned piece for a place very close to my heart: ‘Durham Concerto.’ I was born in a mining village not far from Durham City and most of my courting (an archaic term for dating) in that beautiful place…I also married the girl I was courting then and we are still married over forty years later.
This one is a pure orchestral piece with added Hammond that reflects a day in the life of the Cathedral and the surrounding area…’The Cathedral At Dawn’ and ‘Durham Awakes’ place you firmly on the Palace Green outside this magnificent edifice. The use of Northumbrian pipes (in the skilled hands of Kathryn Tickell) was, for a very short time a worry, but they aren’t bagpipes and the drone pipe is less apparent and that local touch is effective. If the waking up part is too gentle, then the afternoon section closes with a piece visualising the student rag and Durham Big Meeting crowds joining together on the streets…suffice it to say, a good time was had by all.
‘Boom Of The Tingling Strings’ was a more instinctive work and the title track in four movements, is a reflection on a DH Lawrence poem called simply ‘Piano’ and is the source of the title and this piano concerto is a drama to settle back and listen to when you want to put the cares of the world on hold and just lose yourself. The second work on the CD is called ‘Disguises’ and, although it revisits ‘Music For Miriam’ it is bookended by two pieces dedicated to Sir Malcolm Arnold, the man who helped make the ’69 Concerto happen and who Jon has always admired. It is, in turns, dramatic, loving, fast and funny and is another cast the world aside, relax and revel in music that rocks, but with an orchestra.
This is an album that may take a little perseverance and a couple of listens to really begin to appreciate…it did for me. Jon’s final, new work was the flute, piano and strings suite, called ‘To Notice Such Things’. This was written in memory of the novelist and playwright Sir John Mortimer (of Rumple of the Bailey fame) and is a diverse and wide ranging work…the celebratory ‘The Stick Dance’, the instrumental revise to ‘Evening Song’ and the sparse blues (yes, blues) of the piano and cello on ‘Air On A Blue String’ provide yet another chance to rest, reflect and rejoice in music in all its forms. There’s also a reading of a Thomas Hardy poem by Jeremy Irons at the end, although I only listened to it the once!
Jon’s final release in 2012, saw the rerecording and update to the magnificent ‘Concerto For Group And Orchestra.’ No Deep Purple this time, apart from Steve morse but with the addition of Joe Bonamassa and Bruce Dickinson amongst others, it does bring some new nuances to the piece…I must admit however, that the worn out vinyl copy of the ’69 recording is still the one I turn to most often as it was this that made me realise that orchestras can rock as well.
If you haven’t explored Jon’s extra curricular work, there are treats aplenty waiting for you and, if you give the complex orchestral pieces time, I guarantee that you will be won over as Jon’s ability to write music that tell a story, that conjure pictures with every note and wipe away, for a time at least, the challenges and harsh realities that seem to occupy every news bulletin…it is a beautiful salve for the soul and mind.
Jon was a highly intelligent, articulate and warm human being, who touched everyone he came into contact with.
I was fortunate enough to see him many, many times with Deep Purple…I was at the 1999 Royal Albert Hall Concerto anniversary concert too and yet it is his appearance (with Ian Paice, Bernie Marsden, Miller Anderson and others) at the Tony Ashton Memorial Concert at The Opera House in Buxton in 2001, that will stay with me most. His smiles, even as he had to use the borrowed Hammond, his touching words about Tony and his marvellous performance on that special night.
(The picture only includes a selection of releases in my possession…the box sets, Deep Purple family compilations and sessions would make it overcrowded.)
Tom Dixon | Now Spinning Magazine