There are few songs that have such a commanding riff as the veteran heavy rockers, Deep Purple’s iconic number, ‘Smoke On The Water’. But, equally, few songs are inspired by such rock legends.
The iconic four-note riff may ring around the speakers of homes forevermore but the song was inspired by one of the heaviest moments in rock and roll history as it reflects on the smoke billowing out from the Montreux Casino in 1971 a touching the waters that surrounded it.
Oddly enough, the story of Deep Purple’s most famous hit can be tracked back to another rocker, Frank Zappa and one frightening performance at the Casino in Montreux, Switzerland. Zappa was an agitator extraordinaire and often gained as many detractors as fans.
His music was deliberately provocative and emotive, he relished the idea of freaking out the neighbourhood and encouraged it wherever he could. He was a serial supporter of all things subversive, he was the jester in the court of rock and roll and his live shows followed suit. But on December 4th in 1971 things took a serious turn.
When Zappa and The Mothers took to the stage they began to perform their irreverent and intellectual music. Playful and poised, the set was a magical ride until the moment a deranged fan moved through the crowd and fired a flare gun at the band.
The venue’s heating system then exploded, starting a fire which would sadly leave several fans injured, the band’s equipment destroyed, and the venue in smouldering ruins. Though the injuries suffered by fans were tragic, it could have been so much worse. There were several reasons that the fire did not cause any loss of life—the show started in the afternoon, there were no chairs in the auditorium, and Ansley Dunbar’s drums had a malfunction during the set which caused many of the crowd to leave.
It was a hellish situation which saw the loss of an incredible building, the loss of equipment, and the injury to some members of the crowd. It burnt the complex to the ground on the final night of it’s activity before using its space as a rehearsal room over the winter. Yet it also saw the birth of one of the most famous songs ever written, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’. The group were in Montreux ready to record their new album at the venue when the horrific events occurred.
“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 & the Mothers were at the best place around / But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground / Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky…” sings Ian Gillan on the rock anthem. The track goes on to make note of many events that happened in real life, including “funky Claude” who features in the song rescuing children. “Funky Claude” was in fact, Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who was seen helping people escape from the fire.
While the lyrics are clearly rendered with the events of that evening, it is on the iconic riff that the song truly hangs. The riff is just the beginning of a holistic sonic thunder. Played on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar by Ritchie Blackmore, is followed by hi-hat and distorted organ, then the rest of the drums, then electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal. Blackmore would later claim that the riff is an interpretation of inversion of ‘Symphony No. 5’ by Ludwig van Beethoven, and that “I owe him a lot of money”.
“The amazing thing with that song, and Ritchie’s riff in particular,” observed Ian Paice in Classic Rock, the band’s drummer and only constant member “is that somebody hadn’t done it before, because it’s so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying.” The riff and lyrics aside, the song also owes a great deal of its success to the evocative title.
That’s a claim to fame that only bassist Roger Glover can possess. Glover said the idea came to him in a dream some days after the fire as he imagined the smoke cascading from the Casino on to Lake Geneva. “It was probably the biggest fire I’d ever seen up to that point and probably ever seen in my life” said Glover. “It was a huge building. I remember there was very little panic getting out, because it didn’t seem like much of a fire at first. But, when it caught, it went up like a fireworks display.”
It’s this vision of intensity and powerful imagery that is perfectly expressed in the 1972 track and, indeed, propelled both the single (released in 1973) and the album to challenge the top of the charts across the globe.
Deep Purple pulled together the vibrancy of their lyrics, accurate and evocative, the simplicity of feeling in the riff—bold and forboding, and titled it with one of the most legendary song titles of all time, to create a song that deserves to hang in the annals of rock history alongside the greats.