Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month.
“Smoke on the Water”
Written by Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice (1972)
Originally performed by Deep Purple
It’s the riff that will not die. The heavy metal version of “Chopsticks.” Somewhere at this very moment, in a suburban garage or music store, there’s a kid with an electric guitar plonking out those opening notes – “Dun-dun-duuun . . .” The introduction to “Smoke on the Water” is so famous that we often forget there’s a song attached to it.
The British rock group Deep Purple wrote their signature tune after surviving a casino fire in Switzerland. Featured on their 1972 Machine Head album, it climbed to #4 on the charts. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. It’s heard at sporting events and on Playstation games. It’s been in TV commercials, two episodes of The Simpsons and many movies, including School of Rock. It’s also been at the center of a headbanging world’s record. In 2007, in Germany, 1,802 guitarists joined together in a metal ensemble to play the opening riff.
Here’s the classic lineup of Deep Purple performing the song in 1973:
And a clip of the previous world record holders, an ensemble of 1,683 guitarists playing the riff:
On December 4, 1971, the five members of Deep Purple were in the audience in the ballroom of Switzerland’s Montreux Casino, watching a concert by Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention.
During the encore, in the middle of a song called “King Kong,” the trouble started. As Zappa recalled, “Somebody in the audience had a bottle rocket or a Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn.”
Deep Purple would immortalize this audience member as “some stupid with a flare gun.” Whatever the incendiary source, blobs of fire ricocheted around and a canopy hanging from the balcony ignited. Flames spread quickly. The audience of 2,000 panicked.
Zappa said, “Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organizers had cleverly chained the exit doors shut. When the fire began, the audience was left with two ways out: through the front door, which was pretty small, or through a plate-glass window off to the side of the stage.”
“It died with an awful sound”
As Zappa urged everyone to calm down, the balcony collapsed. The band’s roadies smashed the plate-glass window and started helping fans to safety. Others hurried out through the venue’s front door. The band escaped through an underground tunnel that went from behind the stage through the parking garage.
Zappa said, “A few minutes later the heating system in the building exploded, and some people were blown through the window. Fortunately, nobody was killed and there were only a few minor injuries. However, the entire building, about $13,000,000 worth, burned to the ground, and we lost all our equipment.”
The Montreux Casino was indeed an expensive, elegant structure. It was originally built in 1881, and through the first half of the 20th century, it hosted some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, with conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. In 1967, the Casino became the venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival, which featured such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans and Nina Simone. The Casino’s promoter was Claude Nobs, who was also mentioned in the Deep Purple song, as the “Funky Claude” who helped some of the fans escape the burning venue. The Montreux Casino was rebuilt, and reopened in 1975. (You can see original Super 8 video of the fire on the Montreux Music site.)
Deep Purple fled to their nearby hotel, and watched firefighters struggle with the blaze. As it waned, they looked out across Lake Geneva and saw that it was covered with a layer of smoke. And that was the inspiration for the song.
Frank Zappa’s bad luck continued. A week later, during a London concert, he was punched on stage by a drunk fan. Zappa toppled into the orchestra pit and broke his leg and a rib.
See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"