The final track on Deep Purple’s latest album, Now What?!, features a title that immediately endeared it to Cinefantastique: “Vincent Price.” That’s right: the late, great “Merchant of Menace” – the actor who portrayed Dr. Phibes, Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, the Invisible Man, and many other memorable villains – is the subject of a hard rock song by the band that brought us “Smoke on the Water,” “Perfect Strangers,” and “Hush.”
The connection between Vincent Price and rock music may not seem obvious, but back in 1975, Price appeared opposite shock-rocker Alice Cooper in a made-for-television special; Price’s voice was also prominently heard on the accompanying soundtrack album, Welcome to My Nightmare. (This was several years before Price did similar service on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”) Perhaps not coincidentally, the man who produced Welcome to My Nightmare, Bob Ezrin, also produced Now What?!, and he shares a writing credit on the song with the members of the band: Don Airey on keyboards, Ian Gillan on vocals, Roger Glover on bass, Steve Morse on guitar, and Ian Paice on drums.
There is a certain Cooper-esque tinge to the song’s tongue-in-cheek approach to old horror, but to be fair, Ezrin is not the only one with a past connection to Price. The actor narrated bassist Roger Glover’s concept album The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, a live performance of which was staged and videotaped in 1975.
Whatever threads led to the creation of this song, by a group more well known for singing about a burning recording studio, the result is a delight that evokes the horror genre without descending into Halloween novelty territory (“The Monster Mash” – this definitely is not!). The music is a clever mix of thundering tones from the organ, a dramatic chord progression for synthesized choir, and the sort of heavy rock riffs on guitar and bass that are Deep Purple’s signature. Think Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” with the underlying disco beat replaced by something that really rocks.
The lyrics are a bit confused, attributing to Price rolls and actions he never performed on screen; however, this becomes part of the song’s charm, capturing the nostalgic joy of sneaking out of bed, after mom and dad were asleep, to watch monsters movies on late-night TV – the various films mixing together in jumbled montage of childhood memory, until scenes from one film seemed to have been mentally edited into some other title.
Ian Gillan’s vocals are as strong as ever; Glover and Pace lay down the rhythm just like in the good old days – strong and steady, but with enough variation to keep it lively. Don Airey does an eerie job of evoking the keyboard work of the late John Lord (who died last year), and Steve Morse fills in perfectly for former guitarist Ritchie Blackmore; the crunch of the rhythm guitar, in particular, is a perfect match for Blackmore’s classic work, as is the synchronized guitar solo, which alternates between drawling expressiveness and virtuoso speed. In fact, if it weren’t for the credit sheet, a listener might be easily fooled into thinking this was the classic Deep Purple lineup at work.
As someone who co-wrote the Cinefantastique double issue devoted to Price’s career as a horror star, I was thrilled to see Deep Purple show an interest, and was even gladder to see the band felt strongly enough about the track to release it as the second single from the album, on June 7. (The first single, “Hell to Pay,” came out in March, a month before the full Now What?! album was released.) Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the music video.
Like the song, the video seems a bit confused about exactly what Price did and didn’t do as a monster. Most of the vid is in black-and-white, which is okay (Price did more than a few black-and-white thrillers), but the video is also presented as a silent film with subtitles. I guess we can forgive this to some extent (it allows the dialogue to be read instead of heard, which would have interfered with the singing), but it completely places the video in the wrong era.
Price’s career was solely in the sound era, and his greatest achievements in the horror genre were color films: HOUSE OF WAX, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. We get no clips from any of his films (not even the ones in the public domain); instead, we get a couple of teens wandering through a fun house, where someone wearing a tuxedo and a moustache impersonates Price – badly.
We get imagery pulled from classic 1930s horror films from Universal Pictures: creepy catacombs, a mummy, a knock-off of the Frankenstein monster, and the Price characters seems to be a vampire (he dissolves in sunlight).
At least that has something to do with the horror genre, if not with Price himself. Unfortunately, the video panders to the lowest common denominator, throwing in a pole-dancing vixen in a nun’s habit. I’m sure someone was having his private fantasy fulfilled the day that scene was shot, but couldn’t he have waited for a more appropriate venue?
What we don’t get, sadly, is much of anything to do with any of Price’s films, except for a brief bit at the end, with the band members frozen into mannequin figures, suggesting the victims from HOUSE OF WAX. Too bad they didn’t get Tim Burton to direct the whole thing in stop-motion, a la his wonderful short subject, “Vincent.” The visual potential t in combining this song with imagery from Price’s films is immense beyond imagining. It is all to easy to imagine some amateur editor – a true enthusiast for the actor’s work – putting together a far more satisfying tribute to Vincent Price.
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