|The Montreux Casino goes down in flames, Dec 4 1971|
In December 1971, Deep Purple were in Switzerland to record what would become their classic album Machine Head. On December 4th they attended a show at the Montreux Casino, on the shore of Lake Geneva. During the show, by Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers Of Invention, a member of the audience fired a flare into the wooden rafters of the casino roof.
There is an audio recording of the concert where Zappa can be heard calmly telling the audience to head for the exits. The evacuation was completed safely and there was no loss of life. The casino building was totally ruined by the fire.
|The Montreux Casino as it was |
As the smoke drifted across the lake, Purple's bass guitarist Roger Glover thought of the title, Smoke On 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
Fire in the sky
Zappa’s band lost most of their gear in the fire. Deep Purple,
who were scheduled to begin recording at the casino the next day, managed to
avoid losing their equipment, but had lost their recording location.
With nowhere to make their album, Montreux’s music festival promoter Claude Nobs came to the band's rescue. Glover said, “He put all his problems aside. We had no place to record, so he arranged to have us move into a small theatre near the smouldering remains of the casino.”
|The ruins of the Casino|
It died with an awful sound
And Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
Whilst at the theatre, they started messing around with a new riff. "We were doing the first take of this new song – well, it wasn’t a song yet, it was just a jam with a kind of rough arrangement to it," said Glover.
What they didn’t know was that the police were outside banging on the door trying to get in and
stop them playing. Apparently they were keeping the whole town awake. "Montreux was
then a very sleepy town, populated mostly by old ladies,” quipped Glover.
It became clear the band were not welcome in
the lakeside town, especially after the events of the fire. Rock bands meant trouble to the Swiss, but Nobs helped Purple find “a place to sweat”.
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
|Deep Purple recorded their classic album in a hotel corridor|
"We did Highway Star, Lazy and Pictures Of Home and the other tracks from those sessions. We were still short of a song, so it was suggested that we work up the song we had jammed at the theatre. It became a song about the adventure of coming to try and record, and the place burning down and ending up doing it in a hotel corridor."
| The Stones' mobile truck at the hotel|
"What Beethoven does with just very few notes, that riff does it with very few notes, too. But it’s got a hint of Eastern mysticism in it, just by the semitone lift. Instantly recognisable and yet like nothing else," said Glover.
Blackmore also pointed out that everyone plays the famous riff wrong. Blackmore plays it in fourths, plucking two strings at a time, rather than block chording it, like everyone else.
Glover and singer Ian Gillan wrote the lyrics. "We never thought for a minute it was going to have the kind of future it has had,” said Glover. “We didn’t think that much of it. We put all our efforts into another song on the album called Never Before."
|The Grand Hotel, Montreux, November 2021|
Purple"s run of hit singles in 1970 and '71 - Black Night, Fireball and Strange Kinda Woman - came to a halt with Never Before, one of the new tracks recorded in Montreux.
Nonetheless, the album sold well and Purple picked up further sales momentum when the live version of Smoke On The Water, from the album Made In Japan, was released in the US in 1973.
Given the limitations of space and comfort at the Grand Hotel, it is remarkable that Deep Purple were able to make such a great record as Machine Head. It showcases not only a consistently high quality of songwriting, but also a band that rocks (Highway Star, Space Truckin) and swings too (Lazy, Maybe I'm A Leo).
And then there is Smoke On The Water - a riff they must be sick of playing after all these years. But for better or worse, it's what most people know them for. And it's got a great story behind it.
|The rebuilt Montreux Casino, November 2021|
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 make a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we'll never forget Smoke on the water
Fire in the sky
Last month, my wife and I visited some friends in Vevey, the next big town along the lake from Montreux. We walked along the promenade, sampling the delights of the Christmas market in Montreux. We visited the rebuilt Casino, which houses the recording studio that was owned by Queen for many years.
And there, on the water, was the same view of the Lake Geneva shoreline, minus the smoke.
See also on this blog:
1970 - Deep Purple Get Heavy with 'In Rock'
There's a lot to like in the ZAPPA movie