The most thrilling sight at the first gig I ever went to wasn't the flashbombs and pyro during Cozy Powell's drum solo. It wasn't David Coverdale whirling his mic stand round like some berserk javelin thrower in leg warmers. And it certainly wasn't Colin Hodgkinson's bass solo. The highlight of Whitesnake at Hammersmith Odeon in January 1983 (only 12 songs, because of all the solos) was Jon Lord, rocking his Hammond C3 organ back and forth. I was 13. We had a piano at home. I didn't think you were allowed to to do that to keyboards.
It would be fair to say that rock-crit world was always a bit sniffy about Lord, who has died aged 71. He wrote a Concerto for Group and Orchestra! Oh, how pretentious! Yes, he did. And it's not something I have a great deal of interest in. But it speaks of rather more ambition than most rock musicians ever display. And it overshadows the fact that Lord played on some of heavy rock's greatest recordings.
Lord's keyboard playing didn't have a lot in common with the widdly-woo of his prog contemporaries Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman – his best moments came when you could hear the blues of the great heroes of the Hammond, such as Jimmy McGriff, in his work. It made Deep Purple and Whitesnake instantly recognisable (and Whitesnake were, I would argue, a far lesser band after his departure, even if he'd have ruined the pretty boy line-ups of their hair metal videos).
I'm going to ask for your indulgence in my selection of five Lord classics, though: my knowledge of his later work with Deep Purple is hazy – forgive me for concentrating on Purple first time round, and on Whitesnake, and please post links to your favourite performances below.
Santa Barbara Machine Head – Rubber Monkey (1967)
Like so many of the 70s hard rock aristocracy, Lord had spent much of the 60s kicking around London's beat, blues and sessions scenes, with the result that his signature sound – aggressive, pyrotechnic – was fully formed before Deep Purple were. Santa Barbara Machine Head featured Ronnie Wood on guitar, and the two-and-a-half-minutes here are the heavy blues – often the sludgiest of genres – played with vim and attack, Lord soloing over the riff from start to finish. It's not perfect, but it's not hard to see why Ritchie Blackmore – who attacked his guitar the same way Lord attacked his organ – would see a musical partner in Lord.
Joe South's Hush is a masterpiece of southern rock'n'soul, lithe and mean and swinging. Deep Purple's version of the song is not. Nick Simper – shortly to be replaced by Roger Glover – plods through his bassline. Ian Paice on drums was great at thrashing round his kit, not so hot on playing around the beat, finding the pocket where the funk's to be found. In fact, pretty much everything that's good about Purple's breakthrough hit comes from Lord, tapping at his keys to find the swing (you can see how on this clip of the band at the Playboy mansion) and taking the main solo, which must have given Blackmore palpitations.
Deep Purple – Highway Star (1972)
Let's pretend Smoke on the Water doesn't exist for a moment while we consider Deep Purple Mk II (it was Blackmore's song anyway). And let's leave aside Child in Time, with Lord's best known organ melody. And let's leave aside the guitar-organ duels. Because I want to hear Highway Star, again and again and again. Here's where you can hear Lord's distorted organ pushed through Marshall amps to offer the band something as heavy as another rhythm guitarist. Not only that, but a blistering, raging solo, too. And those sharp, hard stabs as we race to the chorus – they make your heart race. Here's where you can hear the Deep Purple who were among the forefathers of modern heavy metal.
Deep Purple – Might Just Take Your Life (1974)
Ian Gillan and Roger Glover had departed Deep Purple, to be replaced by David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes, and the band became more soulful and funkier. On Might Just Take Your Life – seen here at the enormous California Jam festival – Hughes's nimble playing underpins Lord's preposterously massive riff. And when he's not riffing, he's got the freedom to bring in the funkiness we'd heard in Hush. To get an idea of how important Lord was to Deep Purple, try to imagine this song without his organ.
Whitesnake – Here I Go Again (1982)
No, not the awful 1987 hair metal version, the one that became a worldwide hit (and which rock fans of a certain age disdain), but the original, bluesy version, in this case recorded live at 1983's Monsters of Rock festival. The Whitesnake years weren't easy for Lord, largely because of David Coverdale's highly developed case of Lead Singer Syndrome, in which other band members were disposable session men, no matter their own pedigree. It didn't help Lord, either, that with two lead guitarists his opportunities to take the spotlight were much reduced. He was, instead, Whitesnake's colourist – until he finally had enough of being a hired hand and returned to the reformed Deep Purple.