On this day, 4th Dec 1971, The Montreux Casino in Switzerland burnt to the ground during a gig by Frank Zappa. The incident is immortalized by Deep Purple‘s 1973 hit, ‘Smoke On The Water‘ – ‘some stupid with a flare gun, burned the place to the ground..’. In 1967 the Casino became the venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was the brainchild of music promoter Claude Nobs. On the night of the blaze, Nobs saved several young people who, thinking they would be sheltered from the flames, had hidden in the casino from the blaze. A recording of the outbreak and fire announcement can be found on a Frank Zappa Bootleg album titled ‘Swiss Cheese / Fire.’
Deep Purples’ Machine Head contains the “mother of all guitar riffs” – in Smoke on the Water. Inspired by real-life events in Montreux, Switzerland, where Deep Purple were recording their lasted album Machine Head.
Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan recalled the event: “This was the final concert of the season, and we were to move in the next day when the place closed down. We all went along to see Zappa, and it was a great show until, about two hours into the concert, some guy pulled up outside in a big car. There was virtually no security at concerts in those days, so he was able to walk straight into the hall, and he pulled out one of those old distress flare guns. Nobody took any particular notice of him, because anything was likely to happen at a Frank Zappa gig, so it seemed like a Happening when he suddenly appeared in the aisle and fired this thing up towards the ceiling.
Now, there’s probably 2,000 people in this place, it was packed, and I actually saw this flare going up. It lodged in the cornice, between the wall and the ceiling, exactly where all the trunking for the electric cables was running. At this point, people were intrigued, but nobody was treating it as anything too serious.
But with the place being built of wood, the fire quickly started to take hold, and the place was filling with smoke. Zappa was brilliant. He stopped the band, and started calmly directing everybody to leave the building in an orderly fashion.”
As well as being Deep Purple’s best-known song it’s also become a bit of a bugbear. After all, its signature guitar riff (which is banned from guitar shops up and down the country), is perhaps the most recognised in rock history.
The riff, played on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar by Ritchie Blackmore, is later joined by hi-hat and distorted organ, then drums, then electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal.
“We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline to make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time…..”
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