The now-classic opening chords of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” came to life in 1971. “Smoke on the Water,” tells the story of when the Montreux Gambling Casino in Switzerland burned to the ground. The song appears on British heavy metal band Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” album which was released early 1972. “Smoke on the Water” was not released as a single until the spring of 1973.
Deep Purple and the art of real-life narratives
With both “Smoke on the Water” and the story behind it enduring for almost 50 years, it is interesting to figure out why. One of the reasons is the actual sound of the song. Deep Purple’s use of heavy metal to tell a harrowing story was relatively or completely novel – – another example does not come to mind as readily. At any rate, the sound and the lyrical content worked together to provide the soundtrack for a near-tragedy.
In the early 1970s, heavy metal and other forms of popular music were not exactly known for true stories. The occasional real-life love story in pop music might be an exception. But, largely, the “story” in rock music could be hypothetical, nonsensical, or worse. Maybe it was the inclusion of famous names: Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, and (previously unknown to the world-at-large) “Funky Claude.” These performers and individuals were either present or played a role in the events on Dec. 4, 1971.
Also, the lyrics were not only realistic, but they were also clever at times. ” But Swiss time was running out /it seemed that we would lose the race…” is one example. Deep Purple had come to Montreux to play a show at the casino and record. From their vantage point at a hotel the band watched the famed structure go up in flames.
According to Gibson.com, “Funky Claude” is music festival organizer, Claude Nobs. He helped to get concertgoers out of harm’s way. A line of “Smoke on the Water” immortalizes him: “Funky Claude was running in and out/pulling the kids out the ground.”
In an interview at Gibson.com, Nobs explains that Zappa had a large guitar with which the musician broke a window and allowed attendees to escape the growing flames. Some who observed the chaos assumed that the activity was part of a stunt associated with Zappa’s show.
As the song relates, a Zappa fan with a flare gun started the fire. The person shot the flare gun inside in the casino’s lobby.
Deep Purple’s sound of success
“Smoke on the Water” was not Deep Purple’s first hit. The band had charted fairly regularly since 1968. In the United States, “Smoke on the Water” reached as high as No. 4. That chart placing was the band’s highest since 1968’s “Hush,” which also reached No. 4.
“Smoke on the Water,” like “Hush,” and other Deep Purple songs would sear themselves into the history of popular music. The classic blues-based sound would inspire generations of musicians.
Today, websites exist that strive to teach striving musicians how to play the chords of “Smoke on the Water.” And there are reasons why the song is so intriguing. The song begins with those classic, chugging chords played alone. Even without keyboards or drums, the soundscape is not sparse. After the opening, singer Ian Gillan’s rough baritone announces in a half-shout (or so it sounds) “We all came out to Montreux/on the Lake Geneva shoreline…”
The lineup of Deep Purple at the time is considered one of the band’s best. It included Gillan on lead vocals, Ian Paice on drums, Jon Lord on keyboards, Roger Glover on bass and Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. For a band that experienced several lineup changes in its almost 50 year-history, this lineup remains a favorite because of the success of “Machine Head.”
“Smoke on the Water” endures because of the event it portrays, the way it was written, and the way it sounds. The heavy chords, the baritone-voiced singer and the lyrical content make the song classic.