bookbanner
CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, July 02, 2012

SONGS I LIKE - Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)

You know, they burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound


One of the most recognized, duplicated, and powerful riffs in rock music by Ritchie Blackmore in the song "Smoke on the Water." Most people play it wrong, interestingly enough. When you get a guitar and pluck this tune out, it never sounds quite right, and that's for two important reasons. First, you don't have Jon Lord running a Hammond Organ through a Marshall Amp to back you up note for note, and second the song is played by plucking two strings at a time.

This gives that riff its powerful, deep sound with the growl behind it that works so incredibly well. That sound was Deep Purple's signature and it made them superstars. And the album Machine Head was their biggest - and many say best - work. Smoke on the Water is kind of a typical metal song with a big guitar solo, grinding music, and wailing singing. But behind all that long hair and pyrotechnics is a pretty interesting story.

The year was 1971. Deep Purple wanted to record their followup album to Fireball with a more ambient sound, to give the music depth. So they looked around for an arena or theater they could record in and found the Montreux Casino in Montreux Switzerland, just on the shores of Lake Geneva. they rented a mobile studio from the Rolling Stones so they could set the trucks up outside and record inside the empty building. It was winter, and the casino was not active, so owner Claude Nobs would rent the place out, especially to a jazz festival each year.

And here's where the song begins to tell a story. You can tell from the first lines:

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing the casino on the last day, and Deep Purple's band members came to see the show. The next day the festival would be over and they could begin recording. At the show, a Zappa fan fired a flare gun and the flare got stuck in the old, dusty rafters.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground, now

A fire rapidly broke out, spreading through the 19th century building. Swiftly the entire structure was engulfed in flames, and Claude Nobs himself among others ran in and out of the casino pulling young people to safety.

You know, they burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
He was pulling kids out the ground

The song goes on to tell the story. The casino was wiped out (and subsequently rebuilt), destroying all of Zappa's equipment and the entire building, save for a charred skeleton of the structure. Now the band had nowhere to record at, and they were fast approaching a deadline given them by the record company; "it seemed that we would lose the race, now."

When it all was over
We had to find another place
Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race, now

After a week of searching, they found the Montreux Grand Hotel, an old, nearly abandoned hotel built in the late 1880s. The building was cold, empty, and had no power to most of the structure ("empty, cold and bare"). Since it was winter, the place was practically shut down.

You know now, we ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty cold and bare
With the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there

So the band found a T shaped hallway, threw up some lights for ambience (a few red lights) and mattresses to cut down the echo (a few old beds). They parked the mobile studio trucks outside, ran wires to the hall, and cranked out the entire Machine Head album in a matter of days.

Few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we'll never forget, now

The set up was so awkward that they had to run this Mario Brothers course through windows and over balconies to get to the truck and listen to check their sound, and eventually they stopped checking so closely and got a really raw, powerful sound as a result. And the song "Smoke on the Water" tells the entire adventure. Its not just a fun song, its a story of an amazing series of events that culminated in one of the best hard rock albums of all time.

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time

Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground, now

Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

But burning down

You know, they burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
He was pulling kids out the ground

When it all was over
We had to find another place
Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race, now

Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky, burning, burning
Smoke on the water

Down to the ground
Hear you play

You know now, we ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty cold and bare
With the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there

Few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we'll never forget, now

Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

Everywhere, everywhere

See me burn, alright now
It was tumblin' down
Burn, burn, burn, yeah
It's burning down, oh baby
It's burning down

It's burning down
Burning down


This is part of the Songs I Like series.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Eric said...

Crazy... I never knew all that information about this song, in spite of the fact that all the information you provide is actually contained WITHIN the song!

My main association with this song is high school football games. It seems like every small town marching band does a version of this song. James McMurty (son of author Larry McMurtry, and leftist boob, even if he does write some awesome songs) even gives a nod to this phenomenon in one of my favorite songs he penned about a small town on Texas's Llano Estacado... Levelland:

Flatter than a tabletop
Makes you wonder why they stopped here
Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one
On the great migration west
Separated from the rest
Though they might have tried their best
They never caught the sun
So they sunk some roots down in the dirt
To keep from blowin' off the earth
Built a town around here
And when the dust had all but cleared
They called it Levelland, the pride of man
In Levelland

Granddad grew dryland wheat
Stood on his own two feet
His mind got incomplete and they put in the home
Daddy's cotton grows so high
Sucks the water table dry
Rolling sprinklers circle round
Bleedin' it to the bone
And I won't be here when it comes a day
It all dries up and blows away
I'd hang around just to see
But they never had much use for me in Levelland
They don't understand me out in Levelland

And I watch those jet trails carving up that big blue sky
Coast-to-coasters, watch 'em go
And I never would blame 'em one damn bit
If they never looked down on this
Not much here they'd wanna know
Just Levelland
Far as you can point your hand
Nothin' but Levelland

Mama used to roll her hair
Back before the central air
We'd sit outside and watch the stars at night
She'd tell me to make a wish
I'd wish we both could fly
I don't think she's seen the sky
Since we got the satellite dish
And I can hear the marching band
Doin' the best they can
They're playing "Smoke on the Water", "Joy to the World"
I've paid off all my debts
Got some change left over yet and I'm
Gettin' on a whisper jet
I'm gonna fly as far as I can get from
Levelland, doin' the best I can
Out in Levelland - imagine that

9:31 AM, July 02, 2012  
Anonymous Jonathan Cook said...

Thanks for this post. When I was a teen I didn't care much for the song (or Deep Purple) since I was heavily into prog and fusion - and pretentious about it to boot. Since then I've come to appreciate it and them, along with Black Sabbath, as more sophisticated than I ever gave them credit for.

I was familiar with the basic facts of the story but not all the details ("a few red lights", "a few old beds", "Swiss time was running out"). Thanks for filling in the gaps. It's a great song for a hot summer day too. Now if I can just find my son's old CD...

10:21 AM, July 03, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home