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The Night Deep Purple Saw Smoke On The Water


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On 4 December 1971 Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention was holding a concert at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino, Switzerland. This was to be the theatre's final concert before the casino complex closed down for its annual winter renovations. It would allow for hard rock band Deep Purple to record an album there using a mobile recording studio, rented from The Rolling Stones.

The Mothers were performing "King Kong", about 80 minutes into the show, when, during Don Preston's synthesizer solo, somebody in the audience fired a flare gun toward the rattan covered ceiling.

According to another version, the fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe and it was not 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. Looks that the boy fled the very next day back home. ...

Originally, the band treated it with their customary irreverence. "Fire!" shouted background vocalist Howard Kaylan. "Arthur Brown in person." But they soon realized the danger and Zappa had the composure to tell everybody to head calmly toward the exits. As depicted in the lyrics to "Smoke on the Water," Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, ran in and out of the building to help fans escape.

"They were very organized," Zappa said in an interview shortly 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." You can listen to the interview above, even though it's difficult to understand at times due to an off-screen translator.

Attendee Peter Schneider wrote a blog post in 2009 about what it was like inside the casino. "The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped," he recounted. 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 ... 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 everyone got to safety, the fire reached the building's heating system, causing an explosion. Fortunately, miraculously, even, no one was killed in the blaze. According to Zappa, most injuries were minor cuts and burns, with only a few people going to the hospital. But the casino was completely engulfed in flames; the resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers' equipment except, oddly enough, a cowbell.

The band was forced to use rented gear for its next gig at the Rainbow Theater in London six days later. However, that also ended disastrously when, during the encore, Zappa was pushed offstage by a fan into the concrete orchestra pit. The injuries forced Zappa to spend nearly a year in a wheelchair.

The members of Purple watched the blaze from their hotel. "It was probably the biggest fire I'd ever seen up to that point and probably ever seen in my life" said guitarist Roger 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." When the fire died down, a layer of smoke had covered Lake Geneva, which the casino overlooked. 

A few days later Glover woke up after dreaming about the fire and the smoke spreading over Lake Geneva and his dream inspired him to write "Smoke in the Water":

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 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, a 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

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

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 and 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

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water


Left with an expensive mobile recording unit and no place to record, the band was forced to scout the town for another place to set up. One promising venue was a local theatre called The Pavilion, but soon after the band loaded in and started working/recording, neighbours took offence at the noise. The band was only able to lay down backing tracks for one song (based on Blackmore's riff and temporarily named "Title No.1"), before local police shut them down.

After about a week of searching, the band rented the nearly-empty Montreux Grand Hotel and converted its hallways and stairwells into a makeshift studio, where they laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most commercially successful album, Machine Head.

The only song from Machine Head not recorded entirely in the Grand Hotel was "Smoke on the Water" itself, which had been partly recorded during the abortive Pavilion session. Its lyrics were composed later, primarily by Gillan and based around Glover's title, and the vocals were recorded in the Grand Hotel.

The band did not think this would be a hit and rarely played it live. It took off when they released it as a US single over a year after the album came out. Talking about the song's merits as live material, Roger Glover said in Metal Hammer, "I think 'Smoke On The Water' is the biggest song that Purple will ever have and there's always a pressure to play it, and it's not the greatest live song, it's a good song but you sorta plod through it. The excitement comes from the audience. And there's always the apprehension that Ritchie (Blackmore) isn't gonna want to do it, 'cause he's probably fed up with doing it."

Because of the incident and the exposure Montreux received when "Smoke on the Water" became an international hit, Purple formed a lasting bond with the town. The song is honoured in Montreux by a sculpture along the lake shore (right next to the statue of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury) with the band's name, the song title, and the riff in musical notes. The new casino in Montreux displays notes from the riff as decoration on its balustrade facing the gambling hall.

In an odd coincidence, Zappa died December 4, 1993, the 22nd anniversary of the fire.

You might find interesting to listen the interpretation of "King Kong" by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.





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