The Meaning Behind the Witchy Woman in Deep Purple’s “Burn”

Deep Purple first achieved success with covers. Their version of “Hush” by Joe South was a big hit, and they followed that up with a surprisingly faithful rendition of “Kentucky Woman” by Neil Diamond. They even released a dramatically un-faithful version of “Help” by The Beatles, which sounds closer to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” than the Fab Four.

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Purple was always trying different arrangements and pushing the boundaries of rock music. They also changed lineups often. The second incarnation of the band was the most successful after releasing the song with the most ubiquitous riff in rock, “Smoke on the Water.” Another hit in “Woman from Tokyo” followed as Purple morphed further toward what would become known as heavy metal.

While Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath likewise continued pushing their music toward a harder domain, Deep Purple got burnt out from constant touring. Lead singer Ian Gillan quit, and Blackmore kicked out bassist Roger Glover. Future Whitesnake crooner David Coverdale was brought in, and he and Blackmore clicked. The band was re-invigorated again (although it didn’t take long for Blackmore himself to leave the group for the first of many times).   

Breaking (Melting?) the Ice with “Burn

David Coverdale wrote the lyrics to “Burn” just after he joined Deep Purple in 1973. “So, the first thing I had to do was go down to Ritchie Blackmore’s house and see if we connected,” the singer shared on an episode of Apple Music’s Rock Classics Radio with Jenn

Blackmore was already a rock legend. He had played guitar behind the scenes on many sessions by the great producer Joe Meek. He first tasted fame in The Outlaws. And with Purple, he—well, he wrote the riff to friggin’ “Smoke on the Water.” So he had that goin’ for him.

[RELATED: The Casino Fire That Inspired the Meaning Behind the 1972 Deep Purple Classic “Smoke on the Water”]

Coverdale had only just joined the band when he pitched quite a few lyrics to Blackmore, who went through and picked the ones he wanted to use. “Burn” originated from these less-than-romantic beginnings.

A Touch of Gershwin

Blackmore’s majestic but dark style was famously influenced by his love for classical music, and indeed, the guitar figure at the beginning of “Burn” derived from “Fascinating Rhythm” by George Gershwin. (On the other side of the spectrum, Paul Stanley has credited this Deep Purple cut with inspiring the riff in “I Stole Your Love,” the opening track on KISS’ Love Gun. Inspired might be an understatement…)

Images of the Middle Ages
The sky is red, I don’t understand
Past midnight I still see the land
People are sayin’ the woman is damned
She makes you burn with a wave of her hand
The city’s ablaze, the town’s on fire
The woman’s flames are reaching higher
We were fools, we called her liar
All I hear is, “Burn”

Coverdale was trying to set up the song with imagery of the Middle Ages. The first verses allude to a witch being accused of starting fires with the wave of her hand. The group that has gathered is supplying the verdict: “BURN.”

I didn’t believe she was devil’s sperm
She said, “Curse you all, you’ll never learn
When I leave there’s no return”
The people laughed till she said, “Burn”
Warning came, no one cared
Earth was shakin’, we stood and stared
When it came, no one was spared
Still I hear, “Burn”

The narrator admits he disagrees with the mob’s mentality. But it’s too late; she’s unleashed her vengeance, and the destruction is massive. No one is spared.

The argument can be made that this is not about witches at all. It could simply be symbolic of a “woman scorned,” the idea being that women are still persecuted and unfairly accused of all sorts of injustices today.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693 are the most high-profile examples of a “witch hunt” gone bad. In reality, none of the “witches” found guilty were burned. They were all hanged.

You know we had no time
We could not even try
You know we had no time

The city’s ablaze, the town’s on fire
The woman’s flames are reaching higher
We were fools, we called her liar
All I hear is, “Burn”

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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