The fact that Deep Purple had no idea Smoke on the Water would be a hit proves you can never know whether your ideas will be a hit, until you act on them.
Why do you need to not just have, but act on, a number of ideas? Why do you need, as Seth Godin says, to ship more often?
Because here’s the thing: You never know.
Case in point? Deep Purple.
In 1971, the band recorded their sixth album, Machine Head. Sales of their previous album, Fireball, were disappointing.
So as guitarist Ritchie Blackmore says in the Classic Albums documentary series:
The management said, “What we need is a hit.”
(Management always say ‘we’ when it’s positive, and it’s ‘you’ if it’s negative, i.e. “We are going up the charts.” vs “You are going down the charts.”)
We were more excited about Never Before than anything on the record.
This must be it
Others in the band agreed. In the same documentary, singer Ian Gillian said, “This is the one we were convinced was the single.”
Keyboard player Jon Lord said, “This sounds like it could be a single. If they’re going to ask us for a single, then this would surely be the one.”
Good song, but as drummer Ian Paice says, “We released it… and it went nowhere.”
Why didn’t the band consider another song on the album, Highway Star, to be a potential hit single from the album?
Good question. Clearly they liked the song; it leads side one of the album. Today it’s a staple on classic rock radio.
But no. They didn’t.
Or what about Space Truckin’, another nearly 50-year-old song that even my kids are familiar with?
Nope. They thought Never Before was their best shot at a hit.
And then something else happened that the band didn’t see coming.
Here’s the bass player, Roger Glover:
Smoke on the Water was just a track, and it really wasn’t until we started touring… some DJ [disc jockey] in America, a whole bunch of DJs started playing it, it was a groundswell, really. It grew from public demand rather than from any kind of design on our part.
Which is of course the best way it could have been. And it elevated what was really a fairly simple track into mythic status.
If you aren’t familiar with the opening riff of Smoke on the Water, that probably means you haven’t heard of, oh, Harry Potter. Or Star Wars.
And it definitely means you’ve never walked into a music store; Smoke makes every list of overplayed guitar store riffs.
Smoke on the Water is a prime example of the early 1970s, guitar-driven sound that inspired countless bands for at least the next decade.
And if you ask 10 people – whether they like rock music or not – to name a famous guitar riff, at least a few will list Smoke.
Even the band never even thought it would be a hit – much less a classic.
As Blackmore says about Machine Head, an album that was recorded in just three weeks, “Great substance, great record, it was done and out… it represented how a record should be made: Quick and to the point.”
Bringing it together
Quick, to the point, done, and out should be your goal, too. When you have an idea, work on it, refine it, and then put it out there.
No matter how obvious it may seem in hindsight, Deep Purple didn’t know they had a hit on their hands.
They couldn’t know because no one can ever know. Other people will decide whether what you created has value.
While you will never be able to predict with total certainty which of your ideas are truly worthwhile, and which are not, if you wait to ship, if you wait until something is perfect, if you never ship, one thing is absolutely certain: You will never have a hit.
Jeff Haden is a speaker, ghostwriter, and author of The Motivation Myth: How Highly Successful People Really Set Themselves Up to Win. What do you think about this article? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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