Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Deep Purple - The Book of Taliesyn

Deep Purple
The Book of Taliesyn


Released 1968 on Harvest
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 02/04/2007ce


1. Listen, Learn, Read On (4:05)
2. Wring That Neck (originally titled "Hard Road" in the USA) (5:13)
3. Kentucky Woman (4:44)
4. Exposition / We Can Work It Out (7:06)
5. Shield (6:06)
6. Anthem (6:31)
7. River Deep, Mountain High (10:12)

I must admit, I'm not a great fan of Deep Purple. I mean, I'm familiar with them to an extent, and I can even play the riff from Smoke on the Water, but in all honesty, the hard rock genre, to which they're most often affiliated with, does nothing for me. Naturally, being something of a solitary loner who thinks too much, most rock music goes right over my head; I prefer something that's a bit more cerebral and tuneful; something you can get your head around, if you know what I mean. My dad had this album when I was a kid and he would play it every so often, usually on a Friday night after dinner. As a result, I've always had a fairly strong memory of it, with the crooning vocals and eerie keyboards no doubt sounding quite fun and exotic to the tiny mind of my 10 year old self. I had no idea it was by Deep Purple until I saw Hans-Christian Schmid's heartbreaking drama 'Requiem' late last year and subsequently rediscovered the song Anthem (which is used twice during the course of the film) and traced it back to the band and the album in question.

Like I said, not being THAT familiar with the band, The Book of Taliesyn was something of a bolt from the blue. Unlike the later sound of celebrated albums such as In Rock and Machine Head, the music here is proper late 60's style psychedelia, reminding me of shades of King Crimson and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and probably going some lengths towards explaining my subsequent fondness for Italian prog-rock soundtrack pioneers Goblin. Yes, quite.

Anyway, getting back to the album in question; and we have elements of jazz and blues both applied alongside psychedelic and progressive rock conventions; with the rich and wistful vocals of original singer Rod Evans almost sticking out like a sore thumb - suggesting hints of Scott Walker and Procol Harum's Gary Brooker - amidst those dark, romantic and almost Baroque-like instrumental arrangements. The song structures are a lot looser than they would eventually become, moving between elongated instrumental jams, free-form guitar wankery (courtesy of Ritchie Blackmore) and the spine-chilling funeral organ of Jon Lord. We also have a few liberal cover versions, which perhaps suggest that the album was a rush release bundled out in order to capitalise on the overnight success of debut album Shades of Deep Purple, but on the whole, these tracks are nicely integrated within the overall framework of the record itself. There's even a cover of a Beatles classic, picking up where their previous re-working of Help! left off; with a radical prog-rock re-imagining of We Can Work it Out merging seamlessly with the long Purple-penned instrumental piece Exposition (which, in true progressive rock form, has numerous nods to both classical music and jazz).

It's a wild and occasionally quite preposterous ride, and as a result, it comes as no surprise to find that many people consider this album to be incredibly flawed; moving from the up-tempo rock of Kentucky Woman to the darkness of Exposition and beyond, as if the band doesn't actually know what the hell they're doing. This might have been the case, but I think the album remains an interesting and enjoyable piece of work regardless of this; suggesting a number of interesting creative avenues that the group could have taken had they wanted to, as well as standing as pretty consistent listening experience as an album in its own right. In this respect, I'd probably draw comparisons with Jefferson Airplane's third album After Bathing at Baxter's, another "difficult" album that shows a band at something of a creative cross-roads; throwing caution to the winds and saying "fuck it" as they try as many different techniques as they possibly can, while STILL managing to turn in a bloody good rock album.

To be fair, The Book of Taliesyn isn't quite as self-indulgent as the Airplane LP, but there's certainly a similar mentality at work. It's also less stoned and lacks the laidback party-vibe that Baxter's had in spades; instead, sounding like the kind of thing you'd listen to from within the pot-smoke haze of a 1970's student bed-sit, peering out at a lava-lamp from beneath the tattered ends of your greasy, stained locks, playing Dungeons and Dragons with a biology student called Terrence who would go onto to invent some kind of pesticide. Either that, or it would make great sex music if you were into druids and candle wax.

Regardless, the music is very much of it's time, but is still interesting and well produced, with a number of moments that suggest the kind of direction that the band would eventually take before something really interesting and eccentric comes in and destroys it. Take the opening track for example; Listen, Learn, Read On rocks harder than anything Deep Purple had done up until that point, with a heavy reliance on the lead guitar, a fantastic rhythm section with those loud and propulsive drums, and the whole thing rounded off with that rich, echoing and typically 60's use of reverb to add "atmosphere" (or to smooth out the duff notes... who knows?). What changes the dynamic of this track, moving it away from the straight ahead rock that would follow, are the trippy vocals and lyrics. Here, instead of the strutting charisma and belted voice of Ian Gillan, we have Evans delivering an almost spoken-word incantation of a lyric, with his voice booming out from the wavering reverberation like some grand old wizard emerging from the lost mists of time. "In ages past when spells were cast / in a time of men in steel / when a man was taught no special thing / it was all done by feel", the vocals there erupting from beneath the distorted power chords and machine gun-like rhythm of the drums, all juxtaposing really nicely, with the odd combination of hippy philosophies and over-the-top rock cancelling out the preposterousness of the two disparate styles.

The song also gives way to the title of the album in the chorus, with Evans blankly intoning in that flat, dead-pan, hyper-serious croon of a vocal "so listen, so learn, so read on... / you gotta turn the page, read the Book of Taliesyn" before the whole thing veers off into a middle-eight that relies on a burst of organ and what sounds like a flying saucer. A brief moment of calm before the whole thing surges off again, charging through intricate bass lines, chanted harmonies and Blackmore's duelling guitars.

The template of the sound that would later come to trademark Deep Purple is taking shape here. The only elements holding it back are the production, and of course, Evans' vocals, so really, it comes as no surprise that he would eventually be forced out of the band when it was decided that Deep Purple would leave behind all this airy-fairy nonsense and go ROCK. Obviously, for me, that's not a world I really care much about... so I'm pleased to spend some time with those first few Deep Purple albums, which still have that late 60's prog-psychedelic vibe about them and the obsessions with nature, love, witches, and whatever else might have been floating around in the creative ether, circa 1968 (the kind of stuff that was inspiring some of my favourite songwriters, such as Syd Barrett, Donovan and Marc Bolan). The second track, Wring That Neck (re-titled The Hard Road for the American release) is an instrumental track; even more rock in influence than Listen, Learn, Read On and featuring a ton of Blackmore's heavily improvised guitar masturbation. The only thing that singles it out this time is the use of the funeral organ and the ascending/descending chord structure, which positively smacks of 1968.

The three cover versions are fine, though as I've probably mentioned in the past, I have a real problem with albums that rely heavily on cover versions to pad out the running time. It's just laziness to my mind, and kind of ruins the flow and momentum of an album, which really, should have every track coming from the same place, creatively speaking. With a title like The Book of Taliesyn, it would be fun to read this a concept album, but really, the cover versions get in the way of such a singular interpretation, enforcing the idea of contractual obligations and the pursuit of mainstream radio success; which pollutes the united brilliance of tracks like Listen, Learn, Read On, Anthem and The Shield. It's not a real problem, just me being pedantic, with the up-tempo (almost country influenced) Kentucky Woman, the previously discussed We Can Work it Out and the closing track, River Deep - Mountain High (which is here re-cast as a 10 minute prog-psyche jam), all contributing to the overall atmosphere and feel of the record. Yes, it is eccentric and disconcerting and the pieces don't all fit together as seamlessly as the probably should, but regardless, it's an enjoyable record; one that I've found myself listening to a lot over the last few months and feeling (almost) inspired to delve further into the Deep Purple back catalogue before I realise it's mostly boring old rock.

The Book of Taliesyn just has something about it that keeps me coming back; whether it's the odd combination of progressive rock and hard rock influences vying for attention, or whether it's the gloomy lyrics and the rich vocals of Rod Evans, or maybe it's just for the sheer fact that it comes from one of my very favourite periods of popular music? I'm not quite sure... the only thing that really matters, I suppose, is that I like it and have found myself coming back to it more and more, which obviously proves that it's doing something right.

Following the lengthy version of We Can Work it Out - with it's yearning lyrics, key-changes and experiments with odd time signatures showing it to be the perfect partner for the sound of Deep Purple mk. 1 - we come to two of the best songs on the album. Firstly, Shield, which is a proper pop song that probably wouldn't have seemed completely out of place on an album like Procol Harum or S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, especially with the wooden-block percussion, grinding guitar sound, weird noises and propulsive drums all adding to the heartfelt and interesting lyrics and the tasteful vocal delivery of Rod. It all veers off for a little while in the mid-section, taking what could have been a normal four-minute pop track into an extended six-minute jam... though that said, it doesn't seem out of place for a single minute, really working perfectly alongside the themes behind the lyrics, as well as capturing a definite mood and an atmosphere. Like I said, it's one of my favourite songs on this particular album, featuring a great performance from all five members of the band, and really, leading us seamlessly into the next track, my absolute favourite - not only from this album, but one of my favourite tracks of all time - Anthem.

This is the track that inspired me to find The Book of Taliesyn after years of having never heard it anywhere (other than in some distant memory); a beautiful pop ballad that swerves off into a number of unexpected and fascinating directions before finally pulling it all back together again. It was already a sad, reflective and melancholic song; one that probably made me cry or smile sadly whenever I heard it as a child, but having heard it now, within the context of the aforementioned film Requiem, the song has really taken on a whole new dimension of bleak despair. If I could, I would have dedicated the entire review to this one track, as I did with my earlier review of Bang Bang Machines 'Geek' EP and the song Geek Love. Like Geek Love, Anthem is a long, multi-part ballad that is always shifting and changing with every new moment. Never becoming boring - even when it's pushing the seven-minute mark - as an acoustic guitar give way to organs, drums, bass and lead... all integrated perfectly with the yearning lyrics and those rich, harmonised backing vocals.

The song makes even more sense within the context of Schmid's film, with the picture telling a bleak and upsetting story based loosely on the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a young woman from a deeply religious village in the Bavarian mountains who, during the course of her studies at the local university, claimed to have become inhabited by the vengeful spirits of several demons. Anneliese's story is also recounted in the Hollywood film The Exorcism of Emily Rose and in the Public Image Ltd. song Annalisa, standing as one of the most famous cases of science vs. religion to have occurred during the latter half of the twentieth century. The lyrics perfectly capture the lost and nocturnal feelings of Anneliese and her on-screen alter ego Michaela Klinger (brilliantly portrayed in the film by Sandra Hüller) as a combination of stress, epilepsy, medication, mental illness and religious guilt manifest themselves in the form of severe delusions and paranoid schizophrenia.

The song begins ominously enough, with that gloomy and gothic opening organ riff eventually being joined by an acoustic guitar and then finally Evans' vocals, which swoop, calm and confidently, as they breath that opening, melancholic verse.

When the night winds softly blow
Through my open window
Then I start to remember
The girl that brought me joy
Now the night winds softly blow
Sadness to tomorrow
Bringing tears to eyes so tired
Eyes I thought could cry no more

These lyrics work well enough by themselves, but keeping in mind the two scenes in the film that this song accompanies, they take on a much deeper, more emotional meaning. The song continues further, the bleak words underpinning Michaela's descent into the unknown depths and becoming both sinister and calming; the perfect inter-textual groundwork of the character's belief and need to believe in God against the counter-cultural kaleidoscope of early 70's university life, love, and sexual awakening.

In my dark and whispering room
Memories still bring me
A numbness to my feelings
Take my hand and brush my brow
In the warm and fevered dark
Heart is madly beating
My crazy thoughts are worrying
When the night winds softly blow

However, there's much more to this song than simply the lyrical interpretation within the context of Schmid's film; chiefly the intricate, evocative and continually astounding musical arrangement. As I said before, the song begins with Jon Lord's atmospheric organ, which solos for a moment before the acoustic guitar and vocals come in. We then get drums, bass and backing harmonies to create something that could almost pass for a normal pop song. As the music progresses, the organ becomes more and more skeleton, creeping around the other notes and taking control of the song... enveloping the words and instilling them with a prevailing darkness that lingers on the chorus, suggestion a myriad of meanings that could be viewed as both comforting, nostalgic, yearning and violent, almost simultaneously.

If the day would only come
Then you might just appear
Even though you'd soon be gone
When I reached out my hand
If I could see you
If only I could see you
To see if you are laughing
Or crying...
When the night winds, softly blow

Following the second appearance of the chorus all of instrumentation is pulled out from under us, leaving only that Hammer Horror organ refrain playing a faster-tempo version of the opening riff that is later joined by a militia drum (before that too is pulled out to make way for a string section!!). As the song progresses further the string section starts jamming with the organ and then BAM!!!!, Blackmore's guitar comes in and starts soloing the riff in a way that is absolutely fucking astounding. It all dies away again too soon, suggesting some sort of closure, as all members of the band light up a post-coital cigarette and reflect on the musical love making that has just occurred, before finally resurrecting the song as a full-blow rock track; with all instruments backing a final repeat of the chorus, with Evans and the band on backing duties suggesting a sense of hope in those previously hopeless words.

It's a truly fantastic song, one that reminds me of how great music really can be when you get away from all the hype and bull-shit and the "my record collection is better than yours" style posturing that a lot of people mistake for actual musical discussion. This is real music that is exciting and interesting and well performed and really, it warms my soul. The closing track is fine enough, with that previously noted prog-jam re-working of the Phil Spector associated River Deep - Mountain High, which is a fine enough performance in its own right, but really, can only pale in comparison to the one-two double punch of the fantastic Shield and Anthem; two songs that really define how great this album is and how criminally underrated this particular line up of Deep Purple really were, with people instead preferring to look only to the more iconic albums that the band released post 1970.

The first three Deep Purple albums stand out in my mind, with debut album Shades of Deep Purple and their eponymous third album both capturing a similar sound to the LP in question; with the hippie-rock-psyche-thing merging perfectly with progressive and hard rock influences in a way that doesn't really sound like anything else. I could have reviewed either of those albums, but this one simply edges it out for me. Not only because I'm more familiar with it through fond childhood memories, or because I connected to it through the use of one song in a moving German art-drama, but because it captured my imagination in a way that is very, very rare.

NOTE: The CD re-issue of The Book of Taliesyn as part of the "original Deep Purple collection" would feature different art-work in keeping with the subsequent re-issues of those first three LP's as well as five additional bonus-tracks. These include Oh No No No, It's All Over, Hey Bop a Re Bop, Wring That Neck and Playground. For reasons of authenticity, this review has maintained the original track-listing from 1968, and the original psychedelic-influenced cover art. It is perhaps also important to note that this particular review was written in one long, three hour session, with the album playing on a constant loop, and has not been re-edited or even re-read since the hour of completion (something that I hope will give you a feel of the album in terms of mood, style and atmosphere).


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