Montreux Casino burned down during a concert by Frank Zappa. "Smoke on the Water" is about the incident.
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On December 4, 1971, Montreux Casino burned down during a concert by Frank Zappa after a fan had set the venue on fire with a flare gun. A recording of the outbreak and fire announcement can be found on a Frank Zappa Bootleg album titled Swiss Cheese/Fire!
The lyrics of the song tell a true story: on 4 December 1971 Deep Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland, where they had set up camp to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio—referred to as the "Rolling truck Stones thing" and "a mobile" in the song lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as "the gambling house" in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session, a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino's theatre. This was to be the theatre's final concert before the casino complex closed down for its annual winter renovations, which would allow Deep Purple to record there. At the beginning of Don Preston's synthesizer solo on "King Kong", the place suddenly caught fire when somebody in the audience fired a flare gun toward the rattan covered ceiling, as mentioned in the "some stupid with a flare gun" line. The resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers' equipment. The "smoke on the water" that became the title of the song (credited to bass guitarist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he suddenly woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Deep Purple watched the fire 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 bass 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". The "Funky Claude" running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.
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 (found by Nobs) was a local theatre called The Pavilion, but soon after the band had loaded in and started working/recording, the nearby neighbours took offence at the noise, and 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 the local police shut them down.
Finally, after about a week of searching, the band rented the nearly-empty Montreux Grand Hotel and converted its hallways and stairwells into a makeshift recording studio, where they laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most commercially successful album, Machine Head (which is dedicated to Claude Nobs).
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. The lyrics of "Smoke on the Water" were composed later, primarily by Gillan and based around Glover's title, and the vocals were recorded in the Grand Hotel.
Because of the incident and the exposure Montreux received when "Smoke on the Water" became an international hit, Deep 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.
On the Classic Albums series episode about Machine Head, Ritchie Blackmore claimed that friends of the band were not fans of the classic "Smoke on the Water" riff, because they thought it was too simplistic. Blackmore retaliated by making comparisons to the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which revolves around a similar four note arrangement.
"Smoke on the Water" was included on Machine Head, which was released in early 1972, but was not released as a single until a year later, in May 1973. The band members have said that they did not expect the song to be a hit, but the single reached number 4 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the United States during the summer of 1973, number 2 on the Canadian RPM charts, and it propelled the album to the top 10. Live performance of the tune, featuring extended interplay between Blackmore's guitar and Jon Lord's Hammond organ would become a centerpiece of Deep Purple's live shows, and a version of the song from the live album Made in Japan became a minor hit on its own later on in 1973.
The principal songwriters included the song within their subsequent solo ventures after Deep Purple had split up. Ian Gillan in particular performed a jazz-influenced version in early solo concerts. The band Gillan adopted a feedback-soaked approach, courtesy of Gillan guitarist Bernie Torme. This song was also featured live by Ritchie Blackmore's post-Deep Purple band Rainbow during their tours 1981–83, and again after the Rainbow was resurrected briefly in the mid-1990s.
During Ian Gillan's stint with Black Sabbath in 1983, they performed "Smoke on the Water" as a regular repertoire number on encores during their only tour together. It remains one of the few cover songs that Black Sabbath has ever played live.
The song is popular among beginner guitarists, but Blackmore himself has demonstrated that most who attempt to play it do so improperly. Actually played using "all fourths" as specified by Blackmore (or double stops), a power chord-driven variation on the main recognizable riff is not difficult, and consequently it is played by learners.
"Smoke on the Water" has received the following rankings:
- 434 on Rolling Stone magazine's The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004)
- 37 in VH1's 40 Greatest Metal Songs
- 12 in Q magazine's 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks (March 2005)
- 11 in VH1's "100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs" (January 2009)
- 4 in Total Guitar magazine's "Top 20 Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever"
Sources: wikipedia.org, news.lv
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