The 1972 song “Smoke on The Water” by Deep Purple is one of the cornerstones of the 20th century soundtrack. It contains arguably the most iconic guitar part in rock history. “Smoke” features a simple yet hypnotic hook and a fat chorus that is impossible not to sing along to. Where classic rock is concerned, this one tune could define the genre.
The song reached No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. In 2009, “Smoke on The Water” ranked No.4 on Total Guitar magazine’s “Top 20 Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever”. It also conjures the smell of marijuana smoke better than about any other tune of the 70s. That is rarified air indeed! But what most people don’t know is that this universally recognized rock classic was born out of the ashes of tragedy.
Like so many great songs, the inspiration for this one is almost unbelievable. According to a 2020 story from FarOut Magazine, “Roger Glover said the idea came to him in a dream some days after the fire. He imagined the smoke cascading from the Casino on to Lake Geneva.
‘It was probably the biggest fire I’d ever seen up to that point and probably ever seen in my life,’ said 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.’” Roger Glover played bass for Deep Purple from 1969 to 1973.
Written in late 1971, “Smoke on The Water” was the unfortunate residue of an actual event. Dave Park, an American Expat journalist living in the Czech Republic, sets the stage. “On December 4, 1971, [Deep Purple] was in Switzerland’s Montreaux Casino to record their new album with gear from the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio.
That same night, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were having a concert in the same casino. It was a concert that ended in flames after someone fired a flare gun inside the venue, causing a near-total destruction of the original building and an estimated 12-15 million francs in damages.” The words suddenly take on new meaning:
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
The lyrics are not just colorful narrative, they are primary source. As Park states, “Thankfully, roughly 2000 audience members, along with others in the building including Deep Purple, made it safely outside. The incident resulted in no deaths. The imagery of smoke billowing over Lake Geneva became inspiration for the band’s iconic song, released the following year”.
A Lasting Impression
The inferno left a lasting impression on The Mothers of Invention in general and Frank Zappa in particular. Author Dave Lifton states, “The Mothers were performing ‘King Kong’ – about 80 minutes into the show. 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’…Zappa died on Dec. 4, 1993, the 22nd anniversary of the fire.”
In a cruel twist, no one was ever held accountable for endangering thousands of lives. Dave Park continues, “And that ‘stupid with a flare gun’ in the lyrics, who started the blaze? A Czech immigrant who had likely fled communist Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.
His name was Zdeněk Špička, and although he was identified in Swiss newspaper reports at time, he fled again the night of the incident. What happened to Špička next is a mystery; he was never apprehended by Swiss authorities, apparently, his current whereabouts unknown. The Montreaux Casino was later rebuilt and reopened in 1975. Today, a monument to Deep Purple and their iconic hit stands outside the building in front of Lake Geneva”.
The song’s massive success still baffles the band. Roger Glover states: “We never thought for a minute it was going to have the kind of future it was gonna have. We didn’t think that much of it.” Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan tells songfacts.com, “We went to write the lyrics, because we were short on material.
We thought it was an ‘add-on track.’ Just a last-minute panic…It never got played on the radio for a year because it was too long. It was only when a guy from Warner Bros. came to see a show and saw the reaction of the crowd. He ran back to the studio and did an edit of three-and-a-half minutes, and it got played for the first time on the radio. That was a year after the album release”.
And there you have it. One of the iconic rock songs of all time was a last-minute supplemental track, written about a fire at a Frank Zappa concert in Switzerland. The story behind “Smoke on The Water” further serves as testament that behind every great rock song there is a great rock tale.
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