Stories Behind the Songs – Smoke on the Water

I don’t know about you but I’m always fascinated when I find out that a song is based on a real incident. Or that maybe it’s not and yet there’s some interesting facts behind the writing and/or creation of a song.

And so I thought I would start a new series of occasional posts that would tell those stories. I typically always tell the story or stories when I do a post about a song or album. This is the first time I’ll start focusing on the stories themselves. Apologies to any bloggers that might be doing this already but I don’t think anyone’s doing it that consistently.

First up – a story you all know. But then maybe you don’t know all of it. And you young’uns why, hee-hee, maybe you don’t know nothin’ about it. So pull up a chair and I’ll get out my corncob pipe.

In December of 1971, the British band Deep Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland to record their upcoming album Machine Head. They were going to record it at the Montreux Casino, using cables snaked out to a Rolling Stones-owned mobile studio.

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time

Frank Zappa* and the Mothers of Invention were playing the night before and so the band went in to hear how the hall sounded. After the Mothers were doing their weirdness for about 1 1/2 hours, you suddenly hear ex-Turtle Howard Kaylan yell “Fire!” and then make a reference to Arthur Brown who had had a hit of the same name.

Alas it was no joke as somebody had supposedly set off a flare gun (or maybe even just lit matches) which set the place on fire:

Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

We know this level of detail because, miraculously, even though Zappa lost all his equipment in the fire, somehow the recording miraculously survived. You can hear all this starting at about 1:21 with Frank advising the crowd to “calmly head for the exits.”

From an account of the fire: “Announcements were made from stage as smoke appeared and the audience, which had been seated on the floor, began to make their way out. Many people were able to make their way out quickly but the fire then suddenly intensified and threatened to trap people who had been near the stage. Fire crews were on the scene quickly and broke large plate glass windows between the old Casino and the newer building next door.

It enabled people to jump out but also fanned the flames and the fire quickly took a proper hold, ultimately destroying the whole of the largely wooden interior, leaving just the walls. Two of the Deep Purple crew managed to break open the gear van and drive it to safety and apart from some minor injuries suffered when a boiler exploded everyone got out safely.”

The members of Deep Purple watched this conflagration from their hotel. “Funky Claude” was Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He later found the guys a place to record and I believe they dedicated Machine Head to him.

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground

When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

The band needed one more song and so when they found a theater called the Pavlion, they started working on a tune for which guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had come up with a riff. They put music to it and didn’t quite know how to finish it. And they made so much noise that the police fairly quickly came and kicked them out.

They wound up finishing the album in a near empty hotel. Stories vary as to whether someone had used the phrase “smoke on the water” as they were watching the flames or whether one of the band dreamed it. Regardless, that became the song.

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat

Not one of them thought at any point, “Wow, this will be a massive hit.” In fact, they had already picked the song “Never Before” for their next single.

And while – to these ears at least – “Lazy,” and “Highway Star” are much better instances of a band at its peak, “Smoke on the Water” just took off.

Wikipedia: [“Smoke on the Water”] was first released on their 1972 album Machine Head. In 2004, the song was ranked number 434 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time,ranked number 4 in Total Guitar magazine’s Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever, and in March 2005, Q magazineplaced “Smoke on the Water” at number 12 in its list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks.

Years ago I visited my friend Steve in Philly. He happened to have a guitar around. I played the (incredibly simple) opening lick and his 12-year-old son’s eyes widened. I returned a year later and his son not only knew that lick but he had bought a couple guitars and was learning stuff off of records. He then started studying jazz and a few years later I could no longer keep up with him. Bastard.

The Montreux Casino was, of course, rebuilt. And since that song in a way helped put Montreux on he map, as a tribute the casino now has a monument to the song. And so yes, the power of rock and roll.

No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

“Smoke on the Water,” Montreux 2006

Spotify link (to studio version)

*In addition to losing (in today’s dollars) about $300,00 worth of equipment, Zappa was almost killed when a week later at a London show (with rented equipment), some asshole shoved Frank off the stage, fucking him up badly enough that he spent a year in a wheelchair. Zappa died on December 4, 1993, exactly 22 years to the day from the fire.

Kudos to Darker than Blue online magazine for some details on the fire

27 thoughts on “Stories Behind the Songs – Smoke on the Water

  1. I knew the basics but not the meat and potatoes Doc version.

    (Tried dropping a comment about ‘Testimony” on your Band takes. It wouldnt accept comments. Anyways I’m enjoying it more that I thought I would. Nice surprise)

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    1. If you go into WordPress, you can set it so it will stop allowing comments after X number of days. I did that a while back because it seems like the spammers always find the older stuff. But you know, fuck it. I opened it back up. If the spammers find those, their comments always winds up in the spam box anyway so what’s the worry.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I knew it was about Zappa but didn’t realise the Mother’s Of Invention we’re still a thing. It’s kind of an awkward lyric right – bad on paper but works fine in the song.

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      1. Writing about this song right now – Joe Strummer’s good at lyrics:

        All over people changin’ their votes
        Along with their overcoats
        If Adolf Hitler flew in today
        They’d send a limousine anyway

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  3. Great thematic idea. As you know, I dig Deep Purple and the Machine Head album in particular.

    While perhaps being a bit of a nightmare for folks working in guitar stores, “Smoke On The Water” just is a cool and instantly recognizable riff. I knew the story behind the song in broader strokes but not as detailed.

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    1. My son once showed me a video. Some dude walked through a music store in NYC, recording on his camera he went. And it was hilarious because it was just this endless profusion of guitarists.

      And so I found this brief clip of it called “Times Square’s Guitar Center Is an Ear-Splitting Hellhole.” I think you should head down there and join in the fun! You could play ‘Stairway’ intro over and over. 🙂

      https://www.spin.com/2014/08/guitar-center-times-square-store-loud-hell-video/

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        1. Come on, Jim. Maybe we could do something evil – play so loud and horribly that they’ll pay to stop. You’d earn your money back for the trip and then we could go and see a tribute band – I might be able to come up with some ideas!

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        2. BTW, recall that I told you I was taking an online recorded Master Class from Carlos Santana. And you wondered if, for 90 bucks, it was worth it? Well, after 5 lessons I can now say pretty definitively – save your money. He gives you no lesson plan, not even “Here’s how to play Samba Pa Ti” or something. He talks in a way he thinks is inspirational and which to some extent is. But in lesson 5 he starts talking about African music (hint to what we know will be coming out) and then shows a video of his wife playing drums!

          Contrast that with the $200 jazz course I bought which has you learning how to copy Miles Davis solos, has plenty of exercises and is the real deal. Carlos is a great player, one of the greatest of all time. But as a teacher? Not so much I’m afraid.

          If you’re looking for some good lessons, pick up

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Ah, bummer! I guess it shows once again that geniuses oftentimes aren’t the best teachers – something I feel you find in academia all the time.

          I also think people underestimate what it takes to be a good teacher. It’s much more than technical abilities. You have to be able to break things down in ways that are understandable to regular folks. Plus, and that’s at least as important, you need to be engaging, so you don’t bore your students to death!😆

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        4. Yes. Carlos is very inspirational and engaging. And he does share some riffs. But unless you’re a motivational speaker or are doing a TED talk, ya gotta have a lesson plan of some sort.

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        5. They really pack it with stuff. And it comes out monthly. Better if they published it quarterly to give you a chance to digest it. I bought it two weeks ago and have barely touched it.

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  4. When Teddy Meier, at that time working for the swiss EMI, went through the ruin of the casino the day after the fire with Claude Nobs, the tables were still set for the night diner. Meier grabbed the completely molten synthesizer from Ian Underwood and bequeathed it to my friend Urban Gwerder, who ran then the “ZappArchiv”.

    Liked by 1 person

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