Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ is one of rock’s finest jams. The track, built out of a heavy metal riff that refuses to lay down, is one song that provides not only an incredible story but a tune that is as ubiquitous as the very ground we walk on. The song’s narrative was based on true events, but it is the musicianship of the band that cemented the song in the collective consciousness.
‘Smoke on the Water’ has one of the most famous riffs of all time, but the track also provides a scintillating drum beat from Ian Paice. As a celebration of his talent and one of the finest rock songs ever created, we’re looking at the isolated drum track of the song and marvelling in Paice’s brilliance.
The song was written about the time Deep Purple escaped a performance at Montreux that turned into a riot and a death trap. The group decided to go and watch one of the music world’s serial agitators — Frank Zappa. When Zappa and The Mothers took to the stage, they performed 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 that 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 that saw the loss of an incredible building, the loss of equipment, and the injury to some crowd members. It burnt the complex to the ground on the final night of its 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 onto 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.”
However, though all band members can enjoy a moment in the sun thanks to the track, Paice’s contribution to the song is often undermined or overlooked. Below, if you peel away the tracks from the rest of the band, one gets a sense of Paice’s sheer and subtle talent.
Providing the backbeat for a riff as anthemic as Glover’s is a difficult task. More often than not, drummers will have to sit back and render the background for the major players at centre stage can get a little extra spotlight.