Listen to Frank Zappa read a passage from William Burroughs book 'Naked Lunch', 1978
(Credit: Jean-Luc)

The moment a Frank Zappa show turned into an inferno and inspired Deep Purple

Taking a look into the Far Out Magazine vault, we’re revisiting one of the most dangerous concerts Frank Zappa was ever involved in. The leader of The Mothers of Invention, Zappa had gained a reputation as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most potent performers when he took the stage in 1971 at the Montreux Casino. His wild and wonderful shows were known for burning the house down. Little did they know, on December 4th that year, that analogy would be an all too real occurrence.

Frank Zappa was an agitator extraordinaire. His music was deliberately provocative and emotive, he relished the idea of freaking out the neighbourhood and encouraged it wherever he moved to. As well as being in the middle of it all, Zappa 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 at the Montreux Casino, Geneva, Switzerland things took a decidedly serious turn and thought it may have gone on to inspire one of rock’s greatest songs, it nearly ended in a catastrophic inferno.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers took to the stage at Montreux and began to perform their intense, irreverent and intellectual music. Playful and poised, the set was as magical and transcendent as usual until the moment a deranged fan, seemingly for no reason, fired a flare gun at the band. It was the spark that would light the tinderbox of the old building.

It started a searing fire which would sadly leave several fans injured as they dashed to escape the flames, the band’s equipment destroyed, made their tour almost inconceivable and left the iconic venue in smouldering ruins. Initially, though, the group treated the flare gun with expected irreverence as mentions of Arthur Brown rang around the mics. However, things soon turned serious. “They were very organized,” Zappa said in an interview shortly after the blaze. “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.”

“The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped,” Peter Schneider later recounted in a blog post from 2009. “There was a large door on the right hand side as you face the stage but I do not know if it was open or closed.

“I stood behind the crowd who were trying to get out through the large glass windows which covered the whole of the front of the building from one side to the other. I owe my life to a Swiss fireman who came in with a huge axe and started to break the windows one by one, starting from the left towards the stage,” Schneider continued.

“The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump.” Shortly after the audience had made it safely away from the building, the venue’s heating system exploded and confirmed the building’s final moments would be spent in ashes.

Though the injuries suffered by fans were tragic, it could have been so much worse for the audience. There were several reasons that the fire did not cause any loss of life—the show started in the afternoon meaning nobody had quite gotten drunk enough yet to make terrible decisions, there were no chairs in the auditorium meaning that the audience could leave with more ease, and Ansley Dunbar’s drums had a malfunction during the set which caused many of the crowd to leave in dissatisfaction.

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 also saw the birth of one of the most famous songs ever written, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’. The lyrics aren’t afraid to be explicit: “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.”

It’s one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most insane tales, one that strangely coincides with Zappa’s death 22 years later and, most certainly, one we’re glad doesn’t have a more tragic end attached. Luckily, everyone made it out alive and we all got Deep Purple’s classic tune ‘Smoke on the Water’ as a memento.

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