Revinylization #54: Deep Purple's Machine Head

Ow Ow Ow, Ow Ow Whaow, Ow Ow Ow...Wha-aa-ow. That simple G-minor melody, supposedly inspired by Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (or perhaps Brazilian composer Carlos Lyra) and played with the tone of a Fender Stratocaster doubled by a Hammond B3 organ, is unquestionably the most famous rock-guitar riff. The apotheosis of 1970s hard-rock, the ubiquitous "Smoke on the Water" is also the unlikely story of the song's creation and the high-water mark of long-running UK rock band Deep Purple.

In 1969, DP's original bassist, Nick Simper, and vocalist Rod Evans, who'd sung on their first hit, "Hush," were replaced by bassist Roger Glover and singer Ian Gillan, who joined holdovers organist Jon Lord, drummer Ian Paice, and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore to form the next incarnation of Deep Purple, identified as DP Mark II. Deep Purple (Concerto for Group and Orchestra) (1969, Tetragrammaton), In Rock (1970, Harvest/Warner Brothers), and Fireball (1971, Harvest/Warner Bros.) all showed the new lineup finding its footing as songwriters and as a cohesive musical unit. On those three albums, the group honed a version of hard-edged blues-rock that is today thought of as proto-metal.

On December 4, 1971, in Montreux, Switzerland, the casino where they'd planned to record burned down during a show by Frank Zappa, the result of someone firing a flare gun indoors. Adapting on the fly, DP moved first into Montreux's Pavilion Theater and later into the empty Grand Hotel. With the Rolling Stones' Mobile Unit parked out front, the band recorded in hallways and bedrooms often soundproofed with bare mattresses.

"Smoke on the Water" is, literally, the story of the fire and subsequent travails the band went through while making 1972's Machine Head, an album that would go on to sell two million copies in the US alone. The late audio and music writer Wes Phillips, who many longtime readers of Stereophile will remember, found the lyrics of "Smoke," particularly the line "some stupid with a flare gun," a constant source of amusement. The image of smoke drifting across Lake Geneva inspired bassist Glover to think of the phrase that became the song's title.

A "machine head" is the tuning apparatus that's part of Glover's bass guitar headstock, which is pictured on the album's back cover. That title stamped into a metal sheet, which then became a distorted mirror for the band's faces, is among the most recognizable album covers in rock music.

Machine Head rose to the top of the UK charts within a week of release and stayed on the US charts for more than two years. Not the album's first single, "Smoke on the Water" was released in the US in early '73.

Machine Head has been reissued many times, notably in 2012 on the all-silver-disc (including one DVD-A) 40th-anniversary set featuring the remastered original album, 1997 mixes by bassist Roger Glover, remastered versions of the original quad mixes, and a 1972 live concert from the Paris Theater.

The album's 2022 50th Anniversary sparked Rhino Records to release Machine Head: Super Deluxe Edition; better late than never. Housed in a heavy stand-up sleeve with a 20-page booklet, this latest version has as its main attraction a 2024 stereo remix by Dweezil Zappa, pressed at 33 1/3 rpm on smoky purple-swirl vinyl at Optimal in Germany from lacquers cut by John Webber in London's Air Studios. Compared to the original UK and US vinyl pressings, 1976 and 1983 US represses, a 2012 UK reissue, and a 2019 180gm US reissue, the quality of this new pressing is very good: heavy, flat, and very quiet. "When a Blind Man Cries," the B-side to a later version of the "Smoke on the Water" single, is, oddly, included as part of the original album.

The rest of the set is silver: The 2024 stereo remix and a remaster of the original album fill CD One. The previously released 1972 Paris Theater concert fills CD Two, and a previously unreleased live set recorded in April 1971 at the Montreux casino that would burn a few months later makes up CD Three. Finally, there's a Blu-ray disc that includes a new Dolby Atmos remix of the album by Zappa plus the previously released 1974 quad mixes and three tracks ("When a Blind Man Cries," "Maybe I'm a Leo," and "Lazy") from the 2012 surround mixes.

Zappa was apparently chosen not only for this skill with immersive software but also for his familial connection to the original album. He told me that for all formats, including the new LP master, he worked from 16-track masters that had been transferred to 24/48 digital files. That particularly suited the Atmos side of his work, because Atmos can work in any sample rate Logic Pro supports (44.1–96kHz), though on export, all projects are converted (upsampled or downsampled) to 48kHz. The same sources were used to make the LP.

"The band, the musicianship, and what they focused on is unique if you compare it to Led Zeppelin and other bands of the era," Zappa said over Zoom from his recording studio in California. Blue-eyed but without the mop of curls he once famously sported as an L.A. scenester, he's clearly thrilled to have worked on such a rock masterpiece. "There's classical music, blues, and funk. All these elements really come together on Machine Head, and the way they play together made it compelling."

"Generally speaking, everything was originally recorded very well and had a good personality," he says, nevertheless citing a few tracks that needed slight sonic fixes. "On 'Smoke on the Water,' for example, the overhead mikes, if you just listen to them on their own, are slightly out of phase. So, if you tried to highlight them, it might be more detectable, especially if you added more high end for clarity."

However one judges the changes Zappa made in the full-on stereo remix, which is best heard on the LP, in our chat he said all the right things about remixing one of rock's most iconic albums. He immediately volunteered that his remix was not meant to be "over-the-top louder" than the original album. Zappa went into this remix project with a healthy respect for the late Martin Birch—the engineer behind this and other seminal rock albums, including Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast—and the original LP's sound.

"I love the original vinyl sound of Machine Head. I call it 'dusty.' It doesn't have a lot of top end. It has a decent amount of low mids and bottom, but it's carved in this mid-focused thing because of vinyl and radio, so it has the kind of sound that you immediately know what era it's from."

Deep Purple in Montreux. Photo by Didi Zill

Two tracks on the LP, "Highway Star" and "Lazy," best illustrate how Zappa worked. Overall, the LP sound is punchier and has sharper edges than earlier releases. Zappa is clearly a fan of drummer Ian Paice. Jon Lord's often-intricate keyboard parts are also more pronounced in the new mix.

In "Highway Star," Gillan's vocals reappear near the end, where they never were before. It's clearly the biggest change Zappa made to the album.

"On the actual master tapes, the vocals on "Highway Star" aren't within the range of that performance. They were recorded later," Zappa explains. "They weren't done to music at all. ... What they would have done back in the day, which I also had to do, was take those vocals and move them. Three tape machines would have been involved. One has the part you want to fly in. The next has the original track. And a third machine would capture the marriage of everything together. I replicated that process on computer. What you hear is a slightly different balance from the original because now you hear it start low and rise all the way up."

Zappa's changes to "Lazy" are more subtle. He discovered a noise issue that had to be dealt with. "If you really listen to what's happening with the rhythm track, it's a blues progression very much in the same world as the song 'Green Onions' (the 1962 instrumental hit by Booker T. & the MGs). It's a faster 'Green Onions.' When you listen to the new version, where Ritchie is playing rhythm guitar under the keyboard solo, I put a spring reverb on it to give it more of a 'Green Onions' feel, which isn't on the original. You'll also hear that the vocals in 'Lazy' are much more up front. And the harmonica solo is louder.

"The other thing about 'Lazy' is that on the master recording, the guitar tone, his main lead tone for his solos, is very different than what ended up on the record. It was much brighter, closer to what you hear in the beginning of the song. The problem was that while it was being recorded, they had some kind of technical issue where noise was introduced into the recording. You hear a lot of crackling. They had to muffle and mute the guitar tone in terms of the EQ to get rid of that. When I first got the track, I thought with modern tools I could get rid of that noise. But when I did that, it didn't have the vibe. It was brighter, but it didn't sound like the original vinyl anymore."

Not being an authority on immersive audio, I visited friend and audio engineer Jim Anderson, who has been a part of 30 Grammy-nominated albums, winning 13, five in the category once called "surround sound" but since 2019 called "immersive audio." Anderson is a professor emeritus at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. He and I listened to the Blu-ray disc from the 50th Anniversary set in the school's new surround room. Each of the system's 28 PCM speakers has its own Bryston amp, but due to technical difficulties, we only heard the Atmos mix in a 5.1 fold down—which, frankly, is how most people with surround systems will hear it.

To those who still love quadraphonic mixes from the 1970s, it will come as no surprise that among the set's immersive recordings, the quad mixes sounded best. Rhino wasn't sure who did the original quad mixes back in '74, though Birch, the engineer who recorded and mixed the original album, seems like a safe bet. "The best thing that I heard was the quad mix," Anderson said. "It killed. The Atmos mix sounded tonally different. I couldn't believe that he had worked with the same tracks. The vocal was overly compressed, and the overall impression was 'Meh.' I felt that DZ had to put his stamp on it and didn't even try to be faithful to the original. The quad mix rocked and kicked ass. He should have used that as his guide." Add to that that the original 5.1 surround mixes had a flat, unimaginative mix, with drums, for example, on the left front and back and keyboards on the right and back, as well as something that sounded like tape hiss in spots.

"My goal was to put more power and energy into certain frequency ranges," Zappa concluded. "Especially in the vinyl, it's about extending the low-end and giving some more high-end clarity. When I made changes, I always incorporated the feel of the original and respected the overall tone and shaping of how it sounded on LP, because otherwise, the nostalgic element of how it feels when you listen might be too much for a fan.

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks Robert,

The magic riff in "Smoke..." follows a minor blues scale in G, including a Db tritone (the short "Wha" in your "Whaow") not in a G-minor scale.

I know what you mean with "simple melody", but "Smoke..." is really in interchanging keys, and also has an "off" Ab chord in the chorus (on "water") as well.

The only simple thing about this fantastic, rather complex song is really how simple it feels. :-)

Thanks again