Recently, I rediscovered Deep Purple's 1972/1973 live album "Made In Japan", and it was a revelation. For me, it remains the band's greatest single achievement, capturing their strengths with greater clarity and purpose than even their classic studio albums of the early Seventies. Which other acts have a live record as their "magnum opus"? The one which springs to mind is The Allman Brothers Band, with "At Fillmore East".
The energy and commitment in these performances has to be heard to be believed, comfortably eclipsing that on the equivalent studio recordings. The feel is looser, more urgent and intense, and the effect is heightened by the scope for jamming and improvisation, with a healthy does of general 1970s excess and extravagance.
One of the things which one notices straight away is that Jon Lord's keyboards are allowed freer rein. The organ sounds like an organ more frequently, and it is extremely pleasing to the ear. There is less emphasis on trying to make the organ sound like a guitar.
Ian Gillan is in fine voice and in ebullient form. Those famous screams are much in evidence, adding considerably to the excitement of the set. As ever, Ian Paice is imperious, his drums almost a lead instrument alongside the guitar and keyboards. It still baffles me that he is rarely mentioned when lists of the great rock drummers are compiled. The interplay (possibly stemming from personal rivalry) between Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Paice is exhilarating here, and importantly they seem to know where and when to draw the line.
"Highway Star" is a perfect opener, as it encapsulates what would make the whole album so enthralling. This version has a rawness which is absent even from the brilliant "Machine Head" cut. Yes, it lacks a bit of "polish", but is "polish" really all that important in this context? As many have contended, this really is the ultimate Deep Purple song, outstripping the claims of more "obvious" candidates for that accolade...
Every number on "Made In Japan" positively drips with self-confidence and authority. Jon Lord once said that this record was a wonderful snapshot of the Mk II Deep Purple in all its glory, and you can see what he meant. All too often live albums capture bands who are either off-form or fatigued. This is a glorious exception. There are glimpses too of what made Ritchie Blackmore so influential to later rock guitarists; some flourishes and motifs which were seldom heard on the studio works.
"Child In Time" is probably not my favourite Purple number, but the one here is a very nice rendition. Again, the organ sound is lovely, and it substitutes for the guitar in what on record was the first part of the Blackmore solo. Roger Glover's bass-playing is more clearly audible than is sometimes the case on the group's songs. The same is the case on other tracks on this album. There is more life and zest here than on the version of the song on "In Rock". This is down to the contributions of all concerned.
It has often been remarked that the iconic status of "Smoke On The Water" owes much to the popularity and impact of the version of the song included on this live LP. Again, the interpretation contains more melody and spontaneity than the one which featured on "Machine Head". The musicians sound like they are taking the initiative, forcing the pace, rather than being carried along by it. The guitar solo is very off-the-cuff, and we hear some fine vocal ad-libbing from Gillan. The absence of a fade-out means that we get a great ending, characterized by some sparring between Messrs Blackmore and Lord.
"Strange Kind Of Woman" assumes something approaching a whole new lease of life. The "Fireball" recording is a touch dry. As on other tracks on this album, Purple sound motivated, eager and uninhibited, and Blackmore's guitar solo is quite effervescent. The "call and response" section involving Gillan and Blackmore was a regular Purple tactic. Always good fun, and intriguing when one bears in mind the antagonisms and friction which supposedly plagued this line-up of the band. One upmanship may have been a motivating factor...
In many respects the highlight of the album, "Lazy" acts as a showcase for the instrumentalists to exhibit their individual prowess and ensemble playing skills. Ritchie displays his eclecticism here too, the group members feeding off each other with considerable aplomb. An exciting ride.
The final track on the original album, "Space Truckin'" is given the full treatment, Ian Paice supplying much of the extra punch and agility, and the famous riff sounds even more menacing in this environment. Another case of a song being extended to facilitate all sorts of extras, including what sounds to these ears like an attempt at a "freak out" sequence in the middle.
"Made In Japan" is a reminder of what a formidable and potent act the Mk II Deep Purple were, and also of what happened in the days when rock bands were let off the leash and permitted to perform like this.