'Smoke on the Water' - the song Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Smoke on the Water' - the song

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The opening four-chord riff for this song is one of the most famous in the history of rock and roll. Every beginning guitar student discovers it very early on in their lessons and drives family and friends crazy until they learn more advanced techniques1.

The song is the fifth track on the band Deep Purple's multi-platinum Machine Head album. Machine Head was the band's biggest commercial success, reaching Number 7 on the American charts and going straight to Number 1 in Europe. When 'Smoke on the Water' was released as a single it reached Number 4 on the American charts and is still the band's most recognisable song.

'Smoke on the Water' was recently named the best rock 'n' roll riff ever played in a poll conducted by the Australian Musician magazine.

Along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the band was closely associated with the 'heavy rock' sound of the early 1970s. At the time of this recording, Deep Purple's lineup2 consisted of Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord and Ian Paice.

The Story Behind the Song

The lyrics of the song tells the true story of the fire on 7 December, 1971, at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland and Deep Purple's difficulties recording their Machine Head album.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing in the casino's ballroom as part of their European tour. During the last few minutes of the band's encore - during the synthesizer solo on the song 'King Kong' - flames broke out in the balcony. Apparently someone had fired a flare pistol into the ceiling and while the band on stage saw the sparks and flames they didn't think the situation was serious.

However, the audience of 3000 panicked and people in the front row rushed the stage and ran past the band heading toward the exits. Zappa reportedly urged everyone to calmly head toward the exits, and then left the stage and watched from the wings. When a portion of the balcony collapsed into the seats below, the enormity of the situation dawned on everyone.

The band's driver led them safely to the kitchen to escape the crowd and the worst of the smoke, but there were no exits. Thinking quickly, he smashed a glass wall and Zappa and the band escaped. Remarkably, no one was killed in the fire, which burned the casino to the ground.

Among the audience were members of Deep Purple, who had rented the ballroom for the following three weeks to record an album. They escaped the flames, returned to their hotel and watched from a restaurant as flames consumed the casino. Winds from the mountains helped to feed the flames and blew smoke from the fire across Lake Geneva.

Bass player Roger Glover grabbed a napkin and jotted down the chorus of 'Smoke on the Water', thus creating one of the band's greatest hits.

The Aftermath

Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lost all of their equipment in the blaze. It was fully insured and, after a vote was taken, they continued their tour, cancelling dates in France and Belgium. On resuming the tour in London on 10 December, a crazed fan jumped onto the stage during the band's encore, and shoved Zappa into the orchestra pit. Zappa suffered several broken bones and the rest of the tour was cancelled.

Deep Purple were left to find another venue to record their album. Their first location was a local theatre, The Pavilion, but their efforts soon had the neighbours phoning the police to complain of the noise. The band returned to the lakeside and rented out the Montreux Grand Hotel, where they recorded the rest of their album. Only 'Smoke on the Water' was recorded at The Pavilion theatre, and the rest was recorded in the hotel.

'Smoke on the Water' became a staple in Deep Purple's live shows over the years. The version on the band's 1973 live record from their tour of Japan briefly charted in its own right.

1This tendency is so prevalent that some music teachers and guitar shops have signs prohibiting the playing of 'Smoke on the Water'!2The band has gone through at least nine lineup changes.

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