Rock Flashback: The Fire That Inspired “Smoke on the Water”
“[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Frank Zappa[/lastfm] and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground.”
The incident that inspired the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Deep Purple[/lastfm] classic “Smoke on the Water” happened 40 years ago this week.
It went down largely as described in the song. On December 4, 1971, in the middle of a Zappa show, somebody fired a Roman candle or bottle rocket at the ceiling of the Montreux Casino theater in Switzerland, where Christmas decorations caught fire. Nearly 3,000 fans were inside, and promoters had chained the main doors to keep more from getting in.
Zappa announced the fire from the stage. (“You’d be surprised how well people who speak only French can understand you when its a matter of life and death,” Zappa remembered.) Eventually, somebody smashed a plate glass window, and everybody got out. No one died, but the casino was destroyed, as was all of Zappa’s equipment.
Deep Purple had come to Switzerland intending to record at the casino using “the Rolling truck Stones thing,” the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Rolling Stones[/lastfm]‘ mobile recording setup. As the song says, they “ended up at the Grand Hotel,” where they composed and recorded lyrics for a song about the fire, setting them to an instrumental they had already recorded.
The studio version of “Smoke on the Water,” from Machine Head, is fine, but the live version from Made in Japan, recorded in 1972, is better. It puts you right in the middle of the fire and the ensuing panic by cranking up the signature riff to pure menace. Where the bass line of the studio version merely trundles along and the drums pop, the bass line of the live version moves the earth and the drums explode.