Ian Gillan keeps ‘One Eye To Morocco’

By  Jo-Ann Greene

(Tommaso Mei)

(Tommaso Mei)
“I was in Milan doing a photo session for my European label,” Ian Gillan recalls, “and there were lots of girls in the studio. Then somebody put the album on quietly in the background. Nobody was listening to it, but you could hear it in the air.

“They were chattering away, and then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I had to smile, because all their bums were moving, they were grooving to the music and carried on through the whole record.  I thought to myself, ‘mission accomplished.’ That was exactly what I wanted to do.”

Gillan chuckles at the memory; at the moment he’s many miles from Milan, across the Atlantic, driving up the Brazilian coast on the last leg of Deep Purple’s South American tour. However, the record those Italians were grooving to was not a Purple production, but One Eye To Morocco, the singer’s first solo studio set in a dozen years.

Forced off the road for a few months last year by the terminal illness and death of Purple’s bassist Roger Glover’s mother, Gillan landed in Buffalo, and with time on his hands decided to embark on his own project.

He wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to do, but he had plenty of material to choose from, for as he explains, “I have a somewhat Calvinistic approach to my work. For me it’s just a joy to write; in fact, I’ve written another 10 songs since the album.”

And so Gillan began sorting through the 38 numbers he had on hand.

“I chose one song — which turned out to be the title track — as the pivotal tune, the criteria for the whole record, and we balanced every one of the other songs on the album against that number. If it was compatible, it made the short list; if not, it went back into the library. So once we had that compatibility with the material, then the whole thing started to take shape.”

In actuality, “One Eye To Morocco,” splattered in psychedelia and dipped in Arabesque, doesn’t sound remotely like anything else on the album. Nevertheless, Gillan’s right, because even though the songs are eclectic, they all hang together perfectly, giving the album a wonderfully cohesive feel. Together the tracks straddle the entire British-Invasion era, as well as the blues and R&B that gave the movement its impetus. 

Morocco is a decidedly pop set, but it’s infused with soul, especially on the set-closing “Always The Traveller,” a stirring soul ballad that boasts moody Hammond organ, a sublime sax solo, evocative surf guitar and a stellar vocal performance from Gillan himself. Just as good is “Better Days,” a blues showcase for both the singer and guitarist Michael Lee Jackson. In contrast, there’s “No Lotion For That,” a boisterous boogie woogie, and the pumping R&B of “Texas State Of Mind.” 

That quartet of tracks is pretty pure genre-wise, but the album also features some wonderful crossover numbers like “Change My Ways,” all wailing harmonica, barreling piano, triumphant organ, bellicose guitar and victorious horns. If Elvis Presley had joined a Brit-Invasion band and gone to Stax to record, it would sound a lot like “Ways.” And if John Lee Hooker had taken his songs to that Memphis studio, “Ultimate Groove” might have been the result. “Deal With It” is even dirtier delta blues, the mist blown away by the sax and the rock-flecked guitar. Southern rock, acid, sunny California pop-rock, all sluice round Morocco, resulting in a pop-based, ’60s-styled set that’s thoroughly modern in presentation but totally retro in sound. 

However, retro is a term that Gillan himself initially rejects. “Not in my book,” he states emphatically. “I think its something we’ve been trying to achieve for a long time, so it’s something in the future. You can call it retro if you want … trying to retrieve long-forgotten arts, I suppose that’s the truth of the matter.”

And retrieving those “lost arts” is what Morocco is really all about, as the singer elaborates.

“To have the studio breathing, to have all the musicians playing together at the same time, having them rehearsed instead of playing to click tracks and putting in their contribution individually via overdubs, that, [it] seemed to me, never was a way to make music — to make records maybe but not real music. So I see it as a long-term challenge to keep simplicity and texture there. It’s been very difficult to swim up that waterfall of digital productions; it destroyed everything in the ’80s, and I wanted to recapture that sort of thing. Yeah, retro, I won’t balk at that term, maybe not, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.”

Maybe not, but Gillan was not thinking of the album in rock terms either, even though the songs themselves initially started out in those forms.

“If you heard the demos you’d be amazed at how different they sound,” he laughs. “You’d be hearing a rock band. My co-writer [is] Steve Morris, one of the finest guitarists I’ve ever worked with. We had to take him out; we consciously took out those rock elements to just let the songs sit naturally.” Morris wasn’t even allowed to sit in on the sessions.

Instead, Gillan’s aim was “to create pure joy; the only thing we knew we didn’t want was a rock band. We just wanted to let the songs float around.” And so he  began brainstorming with producer Nick Blagona and bringing in a sextet of local Buffalo session men in to help bring his vision to light.

They played a crucial part in the set’s completion, and Gillan’s absolutely effusive when describing their role.

“These guys were absolutely fantastic. They understood exactly what it was I was trying to create. American musicians seem to have that incredible feeling that is elusive to English musicians. English musicians seem to be so urgent all the time; there’s a demonstrable fierceness about them, so everything is in your face all the time. Americans are more textured and generally speaking more professional and adept. I go back to Tamla Motown and Stax and the Beach Boys and all those incredible things that sound effortless, but are really the result of sublime musicianship.”

There’s no better term than “sublime” to describe the sessionmen’s work on Morocco. They infuse the set with heightened atmospheres and emotions, superb musicianship, and a lovely understated quality that doesn’t draw attention to their talents, but to the beauty and intensity of the songs themselves. Their input was subtle though, for Gillan and Blagona provided the musicians with a blueprint for the entire album, which was further refined during rehearsals.

Gillan elaborates, “We had a work chart on each song — ‘Now what should we put in here? Shall we have some male voices here? Let’s not forget the importance of a rhythm guitar,’ things like that. A lot of thought did go into it but without any expectations at all. It was a bit like a sculpture — a little tweak here, a little mold there. We just wanted to make it musically right.”

By the end, every note of the album was written … well, except for the saxophone  solos, which Gillan sung to Joe Menonna, who then transposed them. “What we ended up with is a sound where the texture is much more available, the dynamics are much more noticeable, and instead of a thrusting album like you’d get with Deep Purple, it’s a touch more intimate, seductive.”   

It’s also a set that seems to have taken Gillan back to his own pre-Purple roots. In his teens, the singer flit through a number of groups — The Moonshiners, The Hi-Tones, The Javelins, school bands destined to do little more than tread the stages of the local youth club. Wainswright’s Gentlemen, in contrast, certainly seemed to have more potential and [was] inspired by the soul revue groups so formidable at the time. Gillan hooked up with them in December 1964, but by May of the following year he had already moved on.

Episode Six, where Gillan would remain for the next four years, turned out to be one of the biggest “coulda been a contender” stories of the era. The band signed to Pye and debuted with a fine cover of The Hollies’ “Put Yourself in My Place.”  A Tokens’ and a Beatles’ cover followed in 1966, and by Christmas, The Six-ers had placed three singles into the Lebanese Top 10.

Unfortunately, they had yet to come anywhere close to that chart placement in the U.K. Even a superb cover of “Morning Dew” didn’t change the band’s fortunes, nor did their originals tempt the buying public, and the group was dropped by Pye in late 1967.

MGM, however, still had faith, at least enough to release 1968’s “Little One,” but when that failed to chart, the label walked away. At which point Chapter One stepped up to bat, but they had no more luck than their predecessors. In June, the following year, Gillan joined Purple. Episode Six’s bassist Roger Glover followed him soon after. 

Over the years, Episode Six has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, prompted by the release of a number of bootleg and legitimate compilations beginning in 1987 with Put Yourself In My Place, followed by 1994’s The Complete Episode Six. The latter was expanded into a double-disc by Sanctuary under the new title Love, Hate, Revenge. Out of place and out of time, too diverse for their day, too tied initially to cover tunes, Episode Six never did find a “signature sound” to sell.

“We were scrabbling around with so many influences,” Gillan agrees. “My particular sphere [of] influence was everything from Elvis to Chuck Berry to Howling Wolf, and because the other guys were into so many other things we had a mixed bag of influences.”

This was also part of Wainswright’s Gentlemens problem, but as Gillan notes, “Episode Six were into harmonies as well, and that drew in another area that diverted us. So many of the guys in West London were purely into blues, and that’s the direction they took. My field of influence was much wider, and therefore I spent a little longer at school, so to speak.” 

He laughs at that, but there’s a lot of hard truth in it as well. In truth, it wasn’t just a matter of him staying longer at school than his contemporaries. He had a certain vagabond need to keep moving musically as well.

The stream of schoolboy bands is understandable, but since then, Gillan seems to have been playing a long-term game of musical chairs. There’s all the to-ing and fro-ing with Deep Purple, the dive into Black Sabbath, the formation and dissolving of his own  bands — The Ian Gillan Band and Gillan, his marauding as Garth Rockett & The Moonshiners, plus his now eight solo albums, which suggests a man either continually unhappy with his lot or constantly searching for something even he can’t define.

Of course, the reasons for all these hoppings about have been well discussed and dissected in numerous features and interviews in the past, and this is neither the time nor the place to discuss Ritchie Blackmore, so let’s sidestep a bit and home in on his solo sets.

Both 1986’s What I Did On My Vacation and 1992’s Cherkazoo & Other Stories (recorded 1973-75) drew from pre-Purple material. The former was a whimsical psych-pop/musical hall soundtrack to a children’s story, the latter rocking solo material that led the way to the Ian Gillan Band. Together they more than illustrate Gillan’s diverse musical tastes.

1988’s Accidentally On Purpose and 1990’s Naked Thunder were explorations of pop — the former with Roger Glover in a more synthy direction; the latter, co-written by Steve Morris, more guitar-driven. In 1991, Gillan and Morris returned to a heavier rock sound on Toolbox, a set that in hindsight prophesized the singer’s reunion with Purple.

Five years later and Gillan wanted another change, resulting in the acousticbased, bluesy-folk speckled Dreamcatcher. 2006’s Gillan’s Inn really doesn’t count, a set the singer describes simply as “being an overwhelming sign of goodwill from all my mates.” The idea of revising Purple and Sabbath songs came from his manager, “ … and it just kind of snowballed from there. It was going back in a way, but there were gems on that record I will never forget. The guitar and organ solo with Jeff Healey and John Lord on “When A Blind Man Cries,” for that alone I’m grateful to have made the record.”

To my mind, Gillan is the ultimate dancer, continually moving backwards, forwards, sideways and back again. The singer himself sums up his career with this thought: “You’ve got to look over your shoulder every now and again, but it doesn’t mean to say you have to sit facing backwards.”  

Having grinningly dismissed my take on his musical progression, Gillan provides his own. “It’s taken a long time to actually figure out why you make these records. The general excuse is because I write songs and I’m a singer, but that’s not enough. I’ve just begun to realize what I’ve been searching for; it’s a transparency really.

“The young Elvis Presley made such an impact on me. I remember listening to an interview with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the famous New Zealand opera singer,  and when she was asked who was her favorite singer, she said the young Elvis Presley. The host looked at her in shock and amazement and said, ‘Really? I would have thought you might have said somebody in your own world.’ She said, ‘Oh no, there are many of us in the world of opera that think the young Elvis had the greatest voice ever.’  It’s not just because of the tone, [or] the fact he was pitch perfect and had a sense of timing second to none. It was because of the transparency. You heard the real person; it’s such a rare thing.

“You get touches of it with Ray Charles and other blues singers, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lennon, but so often they clam up again with their other material. They push you back to a distance because they’re not confident of their ideas or because they’re secretive people or whatever. And I suddenly realized I wanted to let all the barriers down and stand naked, that’s the only way I can describe it.”

But didn’t he achieve that with Dreamcatcher, an album where he also bared much of his soul?

“You know,” Gillan muses, “if I had at the time the musicians, the budget, the record label, the producer, I would have recorded Dreamcatcher exactly the same way as this. In fact, I’ve been thinking about what a dream that would be, [just] hand all the tapes over to Nick Blagona and say, ‘there you go, let’s have a go at this one,’ because it reached a very limited market, and there’s some songs on there I adore. There again maybe its not good to go backwards. But it would be fun to see what these musicians and this producer could make of it. I’d sing the songs all over again and have fun with that. I must admit it’s been flickering through my mind over the last few weeks. We shall see.”

But for the moment it will have to wait, for Purple’s South American tour continues, and Japan looms next. Yet Gillan is already looking beyond that. The title of One Eye to Morocco somehow perfectly summarizes his straddling of many projects, music and influences. The moniker is one half of an old Polish adage — “One eye to Morocco, the other to the Caucasus,” roughly referring to someone with a wandering eye … or in Gillan’s case a wandering ear.

Never one to stay still, the singer has given fans a blast of the past, and a new way of hearing what could be the future. As for his future, time will tell.

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