So of course, there’s a bit of a problem with “Space Truckin'”. The studio version on Machine Head is good, but it feels unfinished, while the version on Made in Japan is far more powerful, but goes on for over 20 minutes.
And I’ve got to be somewhere in 20 minutes!
That said, even if you have warp drive, travel in space takes a very long time, so you need a song with a lot of long guitar and organ solos to accompany you. So the live version it is!!
Where even to begin with this iconic piece of history? The fact that it was based upon a true story, and so wasn’t just another chick song or road song? The fact that writing a song about something that happened while you’re recording the album the song is on felt cool and fresh?
The fact that the studio version of this song was a #4 hit single right here in the U.S.A.? And this live version was a hit itself? And in fact, the single edit (of course) of the Made in Japan version the one I remember being played on KYNO-AM, not the studio version, which I’ve always felt was significantly weaker.
So, after the utter triumph of Deep Purple in Rock, Deep Purple followed with two pretty good records — Fireball and Machine Head — that didn’t even come close. The former showed them stretching out a bit while losing some of their edge, and the latter had some edge, but its best songs were all eclipsed by their live versions.
Because Made in Japan.
One of the first albums I ever bought, and 40 years later, still on the short list of all-time greatest live albums ever recorded, especially when its so damn easy these days to skip the drum solo that ruins “The Mule.” (Which is a pity, because “The Mule” is the best song on Fireball, and a live version minus the drum solo would have made Made in Japan somehow better.)
So, “Highway Star.” Look, objectively I realize that the car-as-girl and girl-as-car metaphor is as old as time, kinda stupid and probably terribly sexist, to boot. And every single time I hear that organ fade-in, followed by the drumbuild and Ian Gillan announcing “this song’s called ‘Highway Star'” I get the same thrill of anticipation I got when I was 12 and thought Deep Purple were just the fucking greatest.
And it was really because of Jon Lord’s organ sound: on a song like “Highway Star,” Jon Lord’s organ issued noises that Richard Riegel in Creem once called “weightlessness-inducing,” and — especially then — was unlike anything else I’d heard. And even now, how many metal bands had an organist who produced sounds that were equally as powerful as what the guitarist was coming up with? Especially when the degree of difficulty was upped by the fact that the guitarist was Ritchie Fucking Blackmore?
Yeah, OK, Uriah Heep. Fine. Whatever. As if that’s a comparison.
Anyways, “Highway Star” as captured forever in Osaka, Japan on August 16, 1972 is my favorite Deep Purple song, and pretty much always has been. For all the awesome stop-time parts. For all of the cool little guitar asides Blackmore tosses in. For how Lord is so excited to start the organ solo he comes in early. For Blackmore’s guitar solo, almost as good as Lord’s organ solo. For the sing-along chorus.
And of course, because its a song called “Highway Star” that’s fast enough to be called “Highway Star.”
It’s probably just me, but I feel like these days Deep Purple doesn’t get the same love and respect that their metal-pioneer peers Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath get.
I understand why: Zeppelin is Zeppelin, and their reputation has grown to the point where they’re in the conversation as the greatest band of all time. (Or at least my conversation.)
And Black Sabbath has always benefited by the contrast between the outsized darkness of their music and the outsized outlandishness of Ozzy Osbourne. In contrast, Deep Purple really didn’t have an overarching mythology: they were just a bunch of great musicians who happened to play hard rock.