Friday Song: “Smoke on the Water”

A classic song recorded in a panic, conveying a true story the band experienced firsthand

Friday Song: “Smoke on the Water”

If you want a song that tells a dramatic, true story, Deep Purple’s 1972 classic “Smoke on the Water” may be your best bet. Written in the aftermath a fire on a lake, the song features one of the most iconic guitar riffs in rock music.

Deep Purple was in Montreux, Switzerland, to do a show at the Montreux Jazz Festival’s main venue, the Montreux Casino. They were then scheduled to record their new album at a nearby mobile studio.

Even though they were under scheduling pressures, when they learned that Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing at the casino, the band decided to attend.

For some reason, an audience member fired a flare gun at the show, starting a devastating fire that burned the casino down (the photo above is of the actual fire).

Claude Nobs, a founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival and a former volunteer fireman, was in attendance, as well. He rescued a number of concertgoers who believed lying down in the casino would provide adequate shelter. He dragged a number of people to safety.

Retreating to a nearby restaurant, the band watched the smoke roll over Lake Geneva, giving bassist Roger Glover the idea for a song title. Singer Ian Gillan wrote the lyrics, and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore developed the song’s signature riff. But these elements didn’t come together right away.

After the fire, the band was relocated to the Grand Hotel. With “Funky Claude” helping to arrange things, they used a mobile studio the Rolling Stones had in the area to record their album Machine Head. “Smoke on the Water” was the last song added to the album, “in a panic,” as the album was short by some minutes. The lyrics were written in haste, and the song was recorded as what the band thought was “an add-on track.”

In the lyrics, the story is clearly and cleverly told:

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
But Frank Zappa and 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
And fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

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

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, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

The “few red lights . . . few old beds” refers to the band’s use of red bulbs to tamp down the garish hotel lights and spare mattresses to dampen the acoustics for recording. “Swiss time was running out” refers to the nation’s renown for watchmaking as well as the fact that the band’s visas were set to expire a few days after arrival.

Zappa’s fans continued to cause trouble — not only did he lose all his equipment in the Montreux fire, but a few days later at a show in London, Zappa broke his leg when a fan pulled him into the crowd.

After the fire, the jazz festival used nearby venues while the casino was rebuilt. It hosted the Montreux Jazz Festival again from 1975 to 1993, when the festival moved to a larger venue. The casino still hosts some special events associated with the festival.

The version of “Smoke on the Water” featured below was recorded in 2006 at the Montreux Jazz Festival — the scene of the crime, so to speak, including the band’s original singer, bassist, and drummer. There is also an excellent live version from 1972 you might want to watch.