Although the 1975 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records listed heavy metal pioneers Deep Purple as the world’s “loudest band,” they’ve gone through quite a number of different phases during their long career, including doing Neil Diamond and Beatles covers and a prog-rock phase as a sort of heavier Moody Blues. Even so, Concerto for Group and Orchestra composed by Jon Lord with lyrics by Ian Gillan still stands out in their catalog.
The Concerto was first performed by Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Arnold on September 24, 1969 at the Royal Albert Hall. It is perhaps the most elaborate thing ever to have been mounted by a rock group at that time and one of the first collaborations between a rock band and an orchestra—The Nice’s heavily orchestral Five Bridges and Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed are the only similar things from the era that come easily to mind. It was also the first outing of Deep Purple’s “Mark II” lineup (Ritchie Blackmore – guitar; Jon Lord – keyboards; Ian Paice – drums; Ian Gillan – lead vocals, harmonica; Roger Glover – bass).
One minute they were paling around with the classical players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the next they were recording the mighty Deep Purple In Rock? Go figure.
The set that evening began with a nearly half-hour composition by conductor Malcolm Arnold followed by Deep Purple playing their hit cover of Joe South’s “Hush,” plus “Wring That Neck” (with a fine extended display of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar pyrotechnics) and “Child in Time” before the Concerto began.
The concert was videotaped and part of it—the actual Concerto part—was telecast by the BBC as Best of Both Worlds: Concerto for Group and Orchestra and released on LP in December of 1969 as simply Concerto for Group and Orchestra. In the video you can see some of the priggish classical musicians deliberately making sniffy expressions. It’s kind of funny. They may have thought it was shit when it was being performed, but looking at it from today’s vantage point, it ain’t too bad. In fact, it’s pretty great. (I admit to having a fondness for this album.)
Gillan and Blackmore were apparently not happy with being thought of as “the group with the orchestra.” Their next outing, Deep Purple In Rock, which came out just half a year later, would feature heavy metal ravers like “Speed King” and “Child in Time” with nary an oboe, clarinet or string section to be heard.