What's "Smoke on the Water" about?

There is indeed a story behind this, undoubtedly Deep Purple's most well known song.

The lyrics actually tell the story of the recording of Machine Head . Deep Purple were originally all set to record the album at the Casino in Montreux, Switzerland. They were just awaiting a Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert to be held before the recording could begin. But the Casino burnt down during the concert, after some stupid had fired a flare gun into the Casino's ceiling. (Purple were in the audience. The actual Zappa concert has turned up on one of the Beat the Boots discs, I think.)

They ended up at the Grand Hotel, closed for the winter season, where the recording eventually commenced during December 1971. They recorded the album with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, also mentioned in the lyrics.

Who's "Funky Claude" ?
Funky Claude in the lyrics is Claude Nobs, who helped them out. He's still involved in the Montreux Jazz Festival, and seems to be a very important man in the music business in the Swiss town.

As stated in the lyrics, he helped saving some kids during the fire at the Casino. He was also the man who found the Grand Hotel for them. There's a picture on him on the gatefold sleeve on the original LP release of the album.

"Break a leg , Frank!"
Actually, these were troubled times for Frank Zappa, who first lost all of his gear in the fire in Montreux. A couple of days later, when he played in London, a fan tore him off stage, and Zappa broke his leg as he fell into the orchestra pit.

This, again, led to Ian Gillan dropping the comment "Break a leg, Frank!" near the ending of Smoke on the Water at a March 1972 concert recorded for the BBC, available on the excellent EMI 2CD set Deep Purple in Concert.

The song itself was created more or less spontaneously; Roger Glover had the picture of the smoke spreading over the Lake Geneva in his head, and the line Smoke on the Water eventually stuck. He suggested to Ian Gillan that they should use it as a song title, but Ian shrugged it off, saying people would believe it was a drug song. Then Ritchie suddenly came up with the later hierostratically famous (and notorious!) riff, and things fell into place.

Here's the story about the lyrics and the title, in Roger Glover's own words:

"The only deviation to the story that IG has sometimes claimed is that it was written on a napkin as the fire burned. Actually it came to me in a sort of dream 1 or 2 mornings after the fire: I was alone in my bed (in the Eurotel, not the Eden Au Lac as IG insists although it's a better sounding name for the story) in that mystical time between deep sleep and awakening, when I heard my own voice say those words out loud. I woke up then and asked myself if I actually did say them out loud, and I came to the conclusion that I did. I pondered upon it and realised that it was a potential song title.

"This is how I characterized it later to IG but we both came to the conclusion that it sounded like a drug song and it was promptly filed away under "drug songs - not to be used." (what clean living boys we were!)

"Only later did it suggest itself as the vehicle by which we could tell the story of the fire. Even now, I've no idea where it came from but it's difficult not to start believing in some divine providence when one considers the subsequent history of the song.

"All I know is that I have always listened to my random thoughts ever since."

Roger Glover, Tue, 20 Aug 1996 21:35:12 -0400

Deep Purple themselves didn't seem to notice that the song had any potential, they hardly played it live early in 1972, and Never Before was chosen as the first single from the album. (An edited version of Lazy was chosen in the US.) It wasn't until 1973, when a single consisting of two edits of Smoke on the Water, studio version one side and Made in Japan version on the b-side, was released in the USA, that the song became the rock anthem that it later has become, and helped Deep Purple sail up as on of the world's biggest selling artists.

The events behind Smoke on the Water are also detailed in Ian Gillan's autobiography; "Child in Time : The Life of the Singer of Deep Purple".

Last updated on August 21, 1996

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