Ian Gillan, one of the mightiest voices not just in heavy metal, not just in rock, but in all of music itself, has now been wailing among us mere mortals for seven loud, legendary decades.
British bombardiers Deep Purple loomed a fearsome force in hard rock and the earliest rumblings of metal prior to vocalist Ian Gillan replacing original singer Rod Evans. Still, it was only after Ian took the mic that Deep Purple at last fully felt like DEEP PURPLE!
Beginning in 1969 with the symphonic experiment Concerto for Group and Orchestra, then truly detonating at full fire with In Rock, Gillan fronted Purple through towering succession of rapid-fire classics: Fireball (1971), Machine Head (1972), and Who Do We Think We Are (1973).
As happens over and over again with bands from the biggest to the smallest, Gillan left and returned Deep Purple, and then left again, and then returned again. At present, Ian fronts the popular touring and occasionally recording version of the group.
Gillan’s work outside of Purple, somewhat understandably, has a tendency to be overlooked. Still, he’s done a lot, and much of it rocks magnificently. So let’s celebrate Ian Gillan with a playlist of his seven most sublime vocal moments, both in and out of the powerhouse for which he’s known best.
7. “Perfect Strangers” – Deep Purple (1985)
Given rock superstardom’s unavoidable penchant for ego clashes, bad blood, and judgment-sullying excess, the 1984 reunion of the classic Deep Purple lineup loomed as a big-time gamble. Gloriously, it paid off with the instant classic LP Perfect Strangers, one high point of which is the title track.
The song addresses reincarnation through evocative lyrics that are both chilling and oddly comforting. It’s a fitting topic for the second coming of Deep Purple in its brawniest, best-loved form. Ian Gillan sings those words accordingly, echoing out through time, space, and metaphysics.
By the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that guitar deity Ritchie Blackmore has called “Perfect Strangers” his single favorite Deep Purple song.
6. “Mr. Universe” – Gillan (1979)
After exhaustion and creative dust-ups with Ritchie Blackmore prompted Ian to split from Deep Purple in 1973, he took some time off, and then returned briefly with the jazz-fusion-leaning Ian Gillan Band.
Gillan, the singer’s next group, bulked up its metal and hard rock sound, and even incorporated punk by way of guitarist Bernie Torme who joined after the band’s self-titled, limited release debut (Torme also later stepped up as Ozzy Osbourne’s touring guitarist in 1982 immediately following the death of Randy Rhoads).
Mr. Universe, Gillan’s first international LP, hit big in the UK and maintains a cult following worldwide. The title track is hypnotic, noisy, and kind of scary. That also describes Ian’s vocal performance on the song.
5. “Woman From Tokyo” – Deep Purple (1973)
Deep Purple’s 1972 tour of the Land of the Rising Sun rewarded the rest of the planet first with their landmark live double album Made in Japan</em>, and then with “Woman from Tokyo.”
As anyone who’s turned on an FM radio over the past 40-plus years can attest, “Woman From Tokyo” is an absolute scorcher of love song in which Ian Gillan belts out banzai affection for the titular siren with sound and fury that would send Godzilla turning spiky tail and hot-footing it back out to bottom of the sea.
4. “Zero the Hero” – Black Sabbath (1983)
Ian Gillan’s lone effort as the frontman of Black Sabbath, 1983’s Born Again, ranks high, hard, and heavy among metal’s most criminally overlooked albums. That stated, the record does boast a not inconsiderable legion of devotees and its signature song, “Zero the Hero,” potently earns its spot in the roster of genuinely classic Sabbath tracks.
Thundering up from a damning Tony Iommi riff, the “Zero” lyrics launch flamethrower rage at an archetypal middle-class, middle-of-the-road milquetoast of the sort that rock has roasted from the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” to Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” to innumerable hardcore punk beat-downs.
Out in front of the raining noise, Ian Gillan berates the “champion in the Acme form book” who’s too deluded by workaday numbness to understand how, “your head is firmly nailed to your TV channel/But someone else’s finger’s on the control panel!”
Inherent in Gillan’s soaring voice is the truth that, even for “Zero the Hero,” life is too rich with potential greatness to just be a lame-o.
3. “Highway Star” – Deep Purple (1972)
“Nobody gonna take my car/I’m gonna race it to the ground,” Ian Gillan roars out of the gate on rock’s superlative automotive anthem. “Nobody gonna beat my car/I’m gonna break the speed of sound!”
After leaving any possible doubters in the dust in praise of his four-wheeled “killing machine,” Gillan expands his declaration of highest-possible-octane mastery in “Highway Star” to his girl and his head. We’re right in the passenger seat alongside him, backs forced against the seat, hands gripping the dashboard, and eyes wide bugged in anticipation of where this furious roadster is taking us. We’ll go anywhere.
So, too, will the band. Deep Purple, of course, is the engine, the fuel, and the fury hurling “Highway Star” forward. Ian Gillan’s pipes prove to be the vehicle’s one perfect pilot.
2. “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” – Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
Before it was a groovy, heady, acid rock Broadway show and movie, Jesus Christ Superstar began its (eternal) life as an even groovier, headier, more cosmically acid-rocking concept album.
Set in the week leading up to the crucifixion, the title character of Superstar is cryptic and conflicted before he finally chooses to believe he’s on a mission akin to the Blues Brothers. Unlike Jake and Elwood, though, J.C.’s great adventure climaxes with the hero getting nailed to a cross and hung up in public to die—and he knows it’s coming.
Under that kind of pressure, Christ uneasily comes to accept his fate in the course of “Gethsemane (I Just Wanted to Say”), a ballad that builds into a storming of heaven and ends with an angry crash back down to Earth.
J.C. begins “Gethsemane” gently asking God to remove his agonizing fate, and then furiously demanding a rationale (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die/You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why”). Ultimately, Jesus accepts his destiny, (“God, thy will is hard but you hold every card”), but even then, it’s with a spike of defiance (“Nail me to your cross and break me/Bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me now/Before I change my mind…”).
For even the most gifted vocalists, “Gethsemane” is an extraordinarily difficult song to pull off. Fortunately, JCS creators Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice knew exactly where to find the one extraordinary singer who could rise to the superhuman challenge. They reached out directly to Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, and the gospel of rock, theater, and the crossroads of religion and popular culture were forever rendered infinitely more cool.
Sonically fleshing out the Passion of the Christ on Superstar, Gillan is incendiary, inspiring, and brilliant. “Gethsemane” is his most incandescent moment on the record. To hear it is to believe in miracles—at least when it comes to the divine might of rock-and-roll.
1. “Child in Time” – Deep Purple (1970)
When Ian Gillan joined Deep Purple, he brought not only his incomparable voice, but, shortly thereafter, the words, melody, and band-expanding concept of the 10-minute-plus brain-blaster, “Child in Time.”
Musically, “Child in Time” a reworking of “Bombay Calling,” an instrumental by San Francisco psych collective It’s a Beautiful Day (who, in turn, got to convert the Purple song “Wring that Neck” into their own “Don and Dewey”).
Gillan’s deceptively sparse and simple lyrics say all that needs be laid out regarding humanity’s insane commitment to waging war. Where Ian conjured true magic was in just having Deep Purple go wild with all the possibilities inherent in “Child.”
Every Purple member shines on “Child in Time” as they never had previously on record. Way out front, declaring that, yes, indeed, he is the one truest, greatest singer of this band, Ian Gillan showcases his unparalleled vocal range and capacity as he goes from near whispers to operatic lift-offs to blazing banshee wails and then back again—and then out in a hundred other directions.
“Child in Time” is the table of contents when it comes to Ian Gillan’s voice. It’s all in there. And it’s one hell of an education.