The Montreux Casino fire is one of the most mythologised moments in the history of rock. Taking place on the shoreline of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, the fire would end up inspiring one of rock’s best-known tracks and become cemented in the genre’s history forevermore.
On December 4th, 1971, the historic Montreux Casino burned to the ground. The magnificent landmark that had been built for symphony orchestras in 1881 was now a smoking, hollowed-out shell of its former self. The age-old tale is that the fire started nearly 90 minutes into a performance by Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention. Interestingly, the outbreak of the fire and the subsequent announcement can be heard on 1992’s bootleg album Swiss Cheese/Fire.
The band were performing their classic ‘King Kong’ from 1969’s Uncle Meat, when the fire started. During keyboardist Don Preston’s solo, it is said that a flare gun was shot and that the projectile hit the wooden roof of the Casino and then the fire spread swiftly.
An attendee at the show, Pete Schneider, presented a slightly different version of events in a 2009 blog post, explaining: “The fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe (who fled the very next day back home),” he alleged. “I do not think that it was started by a flare gun as it says in the song, but by the boy throwing lighted matches in the air, and one of them got stuck on the very low ceiling… So the fire started right above where the boy was sitting on the low-lying ceiling beams”.
Either way, it doesn’t matter how the fire started, as, at the end of the evening, Montreux Casino was a smouldering wreck. At first, The Mothers of Invention met the fire with their distinctive brand of eccentric humour. Backing vocalist Howard Kaylan is quoted as shouting “Fire!” and “Arthur Brown in person”.
Luckily, frontman Zappa was perceptive enough to heed that the fire was serious and responsibly told the audience to calmly exit the building. “They were very organised,” Zappa said in an interview after the fire. “I was just lucky that many of (the fans) were able to speak English, because I didn’t know what to say to them in French”.
That day, English rockers Deep Purple were in Montreux to record their latest album, which would go on to be 1972’s Machine Head. They’d even borrowed The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio to start on their new album. However, they were also affected by the fire. The band were forced out of their hotel rooms by the smoke, and the apocalyptic scenes they saw inspired what would become their best-loved song, ‘Smoke on the Water’.
The lyrics of the song tell the story clearly: “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”.
Famously, the second verse portrays the director of the hallowed Montreux Jazz Festival, Claude Nobs, saving concertgoers from the flames. He would run in and out of the building, helping fans to safety. Ian Gillan’s lyrics read: “Uh, Funky Claude was running in and out / Pulling kids on the ground”.
It is said that Deep Purple were planning to make use of the venue to record portions of the album, and obviously, the fire put an end to those plans. The Casino was rebuilt but wouldn’t be re-opened until 1975. In the meantime, any concerts in Montreux and the jazz festival would be held at the town’s other venues. The festival would then run uninterrupted by any further disaster. It moved into the new and much larger Montreux Convention Centre in 1993.
Ever since that day in 1971, The Mothers of Invention, Deep Purple and the town of Montreux have been tied together in an inseparable triptych, creating one of rock’s most iconic tales. It’s interesting to think that no one who was there at the show as the building was burning would never have imagined that it would have inspired one of the following year’s biggest hits and one of rock’s most enduring.
Deep Purple and Montreux are so inextricably linked that there’s a memorial to the band situated near the new Casino. 50 years on, there’s no sign of this tale ever fading into the annals of history.