Getting’ Tighter, the main documentary found on Phoenix Rising, recalls one of the most controversial periods in Deep Purple history: The era in which vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover, considered by some the driving creative force behind the classics In Rock/Machine Head, were sacked and replaced by newcomer David Coverdale and ex-Trapeze leader Glenn Hughes. What came next has been maligned, misunderstood, and the debate of rock critics and fans alike for something like 35 years.
It’s that period where this story begins and, as told by Hughes and former Purple keyboardist Jon Lord, it was a period in which the band still worked. Deep Purple Mark III released 1974’s Burn with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore intact and apparently happy to participate in advancing the Purple legacy. But was it, the questions persists, True Purple? Although Hughes brought in elements of soul music he did not, as he notes rather adamantly throughout Phoenix, bring elements of funk, no matter how many times that word is brought up alongside such albums as Stormbringer and Come Taste The Band. Whatever Hughes and Coverdale brought to the fold it was notoriously not to Blackmore’s liking as he bailed in ’75 not long after Stormbringer’s release. (It, by the way, is a much better album that most would have you believe. Although the question persists: What, exactly, is a stormbringer?)
The remaining Purps tapped American guitarist Tommy Bolin to replace Blackmore. Here is where the real trouble began, according to Lord and Hughes. Not only was Hughes, by his own admission, becoming increasingly consumed by his cocaine addiction, Lord and Paice weren’t necessarily into continuing the band. None, save perhaps Hughes, were aware of the scope of Bolin’s considerable drug problem, nor were they at first aware that although he was a brilliant player his abilities could vary widely, depending on his substance intake.
The Mark IV Purple released one album, 1975’s Come Taste The Band, which Lord insists is a far cry from a Purple album. In fact, listening to it today you could make the argument that it marked the debut of Whitesnake (in fact, Lord and Paice were eventually members of that outfit). By that point, Coverdale, the most inexperienced of the group when he joined, had found his footing and became a major force within the camp.
The trouble was, according to Lord and Hughes, the longer that the band stayed together the more trouble it seemed to attract. A trip to Jakarta saw one of the group’s crew murdered––according to Lord and Hughes; Coverdale, who is not interviewed for the documentary, apparently has a differing opinion. The group was also taken for a considerable amount of money and Hughes had the displeasure of being rounded up and taken to an Indonesian jail.
To make matters worse, Bolin, who would be dead by the end of 1976, had a drug-related arm injury that made the group’s December ’75 trip to Japan less than triumphant. By the following spring the group was in tatters and Purple would not exist in any form for close to another decade.
Those familiar with this era of Deep Purple might begin to feel that they’ve heard all or most of the stories before and if it’s all a little familiar for Purple scholars latecomers or those ignorant of the era will find this documentary of high interest.
If there’s any disappointment it may be that Coverdale and drummer Ian Paice don’t participate and that hearing the story from only Lord and Hughes may very well leave certain gaps in the narrative. Nevertheless, the archival footage and reflections make for an all-too-short and pleasurably passed 80 minutes. The group’s 1975 performance at Budokan Hall, Deep Purple Rises Over Japan, is included as well. It’s of historical importance given Bolin’s compromised abilities and that it was the last trek to Japan for some time; the film is a mere 30 minutes and although the performances are better than one might expect given the circumstances, it’s a far cry from peak Purple.
This deluxe edition includes a CD of tracks culled from performance in Japan and Long Beach, California. On it Hughes is in full throttle decline, more often shrieking than singing and one more symptom of a band struggling to stay together. In many ways Phoenix Rising is as frustrating as the era it documents and yet it’s not the less necessary for it.