“Why in the world would anybody bring a flare gun to a Frank Zappa concert, let alone shoot it off inside the venue?” Even after all these years, isn’t that the question that springs to mind every time “Smoke on the Water” and that swinging sledgehammer of a riff, seemingly plucked out of thin air by that six-string magician Ritchie Blackmore, comes crashing through the speakers?
Whatever the reasons for such a brain-dead decision, it certainly had far-reaching consequences for Deep Purple. As related through the oral history of “Smoke on the Water,” Blackmore and company went to Montreux, Switzerland to make a record. They’d rented the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio and were all set to head into the Montreux Casino to record their archetypal heavy-metal manifesto, Machine Head, an album with all the driving horsepower of the finest Mustangs Ford ever manufactured. Then, that infamous “stupid with a flare gun” got trigger-happy and set off a blaze that burned the entire complex to ash, forcing a rather desperate Deep Purple to find other another place to make history. Through the ice and snow, the Mark II lineup hauled that mobile to an almost completely vacant hotel, where the band, working under severe time constraints and less-than-ideal conditions, somehow managed to forge a masterpiece.
The stakes, of course, were not nearly as high, but in some ways, this was rock music’s Apollo 13 moment – a small crew a long ways from home, their master plans derailed by a fire and other acts of God, forced to scramble and improvise on the fly to accomplish what they’d set out to do. On some level, what Deep Purple did was heroic, all the more so considering the incredible results produced by their perseverance and ingenuity. And so, with the 40th anniversary of this groundbreaking accomplishment upon us, it’s hard to imagine an album more deserving of a mostly sincere, star-studded homage as Re-Machined – A Tribute to Deep Purple’s Machine Head, which has taken on greater significance with the fairly recent passing of legendary Purple keyboardist Jon Lord and news of Deep Purple’s nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Getting behind the wheel of “Highway Star,” Chickenfoot and the thrown-together combination of Glenn Hughes, Steve Vai and Chad Smith open up the throttle on differing versions of one of the greatest car songs of all-time, with Chickenfoot’s thundering, hot-wired live test-drive of the original wildly pushing into the red and Smith-Hughes-Vai’s take smoking its tires and leaving terra firma to soar into the stratosphere on Hughes’ prayerful wail. On their earthy funk workout of “Maybe I’m a Leo,” Smith and Hughes, a one-time member of Deep Purple’s Mark III crew, lock into the kind of chunky, soulful rock grooves that thicken and add organic, savory flavor to what was somewhat of a thin, starry-eyed stew cooked up by Purple so long ago, while “Lazy” gets a smoldering, bluesy makeover by guitarist Joe Bonamassa and screaming singer Jimmy Barnes.
Less inspired, Metallica’s surprisingly anemic reworking of “When a Blind Man Cries” – not included on Machine Head initially, as it was a B-side of the “Never Before” single – doesn’t gnash its teeth or exhibit the kind of dynamic energy one would expect of them. Worse yet, the Flaming Lips disappointingly choose to take the piss out of “Smoke on the Water” and robotically dance with this sacred cow, much as Devo did in deconstructing the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Arty and interesting in its own way, it also seems a waste of the Lips’ prodigious talent and even more proof that they’ve lost their way, whereas Iron Maiden simply plow through an explosive and gripping, if perhaps a bit too faithful, cover of “Space Truckin’” – recorded in 2006 as a B-side while making A Matter of Life and Death, and it’s sat on the shelf ever since.
What better time for it to find new life, and what better time for Joe Elliot, Steve Stevens, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum to come together as Kings of Chaos and vigorously shake some glam action out of “Never Before,” or for Carlos Santana and Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix to smoothly maneuver through “Smoke on the Water,” with Santana playing off Blackmore’s riffage and making the track a multi-cultural experience. And then there’s Black Label Society, these hairy metal barbarians storming the gates of “Never Before,” with Zakk Wylde’s wah-wah guitar supernovas barely shining through nests of grungy folk. Diverse, with examples of incredible musicianship, Re-Machined takes some liberties with Machine Head, and more often than not, they’re worth the gamble. Maybe everyone will forget all about that flare gun now.