Have you heard the song “Smoke on the Water” by English rock and roll band Deep Purple? Of course you have. It’s played daily on most classic rock radio stations and has likely surpassed Stairway to Heaven as the #1 most played song in music stores nationwide (denied!). I would bet that you have the riff stuck in your head at this very moment and may even be humming it aloud. But do you know all the words? Not just the chorus, of course you know the chorus: “Smoke on the water / Fire in the sky.” But if you manage to make it past the riff and the anthemic sing-along, you find yourself faced with a very literal and very true story about an event that happened at a concert in Switzerland in the winter of 1971. And at the core of this story is a band as unlikely an inspiration for the song as could be, the inimitable Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
For starters, here’s a quick look at that riff again real quick:
Deep Purple had come to Montreaux Casino to record material for what would become their sixth studio album, Machine Head, with the help of a mobile recording studio they rented from the Rolling Stones. Zappa was playing at the casino for the Montreaux Jazz Festival, which had just broadened its programming to include rock and soul acts in addition to its jazz offerings. During the concert (more specifically during a performance of the song King Kong) a crazed fan (referred to by Deep Purple in the lyrics as “some stupid”) shot a flare gun into the ceiling which then erupted in flame. It was a massive fire and the entire casino burnt to the ground with all of the band’s gear still inside.
Deep Purple were forced to find new accommodations for their recording session, struggling with limited time and an expensive studio rental. The album was eventually finished at the Grand Hotel, a largely empty building in which they recorded in abandoned halls, ballrooms and stairwells. The lyrics to Smoke on the Water tell the story of that fateful, fiery concert, their experience finding a place to salvage their session and the haunting image of billowing smoke over Lake Geneva.
And there you have it, the bizarre tale of how Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention inexplicably inspired one of the riffiest songs in all of the rock and roll canon.
Here’s a recording of the Zappa concert that went down in flames:
And here’s Deep Purple one more time: