Deep Purple

California Jam 1974 [Video]

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Staged at the vast Ontario Speedway, the California Jam was the brainchild of the ABC television network, whose weekly In Concert broadcast was already one of the most highly regarded rock programs in American TV history. The California Jam would become a part of that series, two months' worth of hourlong blocks featuring performances by Earth, Wind & Fire, Rare Earth, Seals & Crofts, Black Oak Arkansas, the Eagles, Black Sabbath, and, rounding off the evening, Deep Purple and ELP. Deep Purple themselves were firmly in the grip of their Mark III incarnation, hauling the recently released Burn album around America's stadia and, no matter what history's final decision on this version of the band might be, the California Jam was a revelation, certainly one of the finest period outings to have been preserved on either video or audio. Beginning with the now traditional set opener of "Burn" itself and moving onward from there, Deep Purple are in both a buoyant and playful mood -- "We'd like to play a number from what's-its-name," announces a suddenly stage-front Jon Lord, "and my man Ritchie's gonna play it for a minute." Ritchie Blackmore then launches into a graceful, gentle improvisation before suddenly lurching into a dynamic "Smoke on the Water" that is marred only by the somewhat sheep-like bleating with which bassist Glenn Hughes disguised the loss of the long-gone Ian Gillan's leviathan shrieks. Later in the show, as "You Fool No One" extends through its marathon midriff, the guitarist comes dropping the anthemic chimes of "School's Out" into the mix, and there are moments during "Space Truckin'" when he looks positively angelic, lost in a world completely of his own as he gently fuzzes "Greensleeves."

What comes next, then, is a complete surprise. Unbeknownst to the audience, Blackmore and the festival organizers had spent much of the evening at loggerheads over one thing or another, and the battle continued on-stage, as one particular cameraman seemed set on ignoring requests that he stop weaving between the guitarist and the audience. Blackmore initially seemed determined to ignore the slight as he launched into the prelude to his ritual guitar demolition. One guitar is bodily scraped against the lip of the stage, then dangled down into the pit. When the lead pops out and the guitar tumbles to the ground, Blackmore simply scurries to the back of the stage to collect another instrument...and then all hell breaks loose. Turning on the encroaching camera, he delivered a succession of weighty blows -- there is one priceless image shot through the offending lens, Blackmore's face set in featureless fury, as the guitar neck closes in for the kill. The attack is over in seconds -- the now shattered guitar is hurled into the crowd, while Blackmore collects a third and begins grinding it with his boot heel. Then, as if the performance still demanded a spectacularly explosive close, a light is touched to the trays of petrol that had been surreptitiously placed around the speakers, two massive explosions rend the air, and even Blackmore seems momentarily knocked off balance, as his hair catches fire and he skips across the stage. But he recovers in seconds to begin hurling souvenirs off the stage -- pieces of guitar, amps, a monitor, anything he could lift. It is dramatic theater, and one of the greatest pieces of live performance ever captured on film. Certainly the legend of the California Jam owes everything to the shattering conclusion to Deep Purple's set. The band's own showing, however, is even more powerful than that.

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