I was driving one day last week, when it came on the satellite radio — one of the most recognizable opening riffs in all of rock: dat-dat-DA, dat-dat-Da-da.
No, not “Sunshine of Your Love.” That would be da-da—da-DA-da da-da. Or something like that. Good guess, though, because that’s probably played as much by beginners as the beginning of “Smoke on the Water.”
Listening to Deep Purple’s FM classic rock chestnut, I wondered about the story it tells. I remembered hearing that it was based on an actual event, but Ian Gillan’s-words-get-in-the-way vocalizing of the lyrics made the details hard to understand. So I checked it out.
As the first two lines of the song make clear enough — the clarity kind of goes downhill after that — the story takes place in Montreux, Switzerland (on Dec. 4, 1972, to be specific). Deep Purple had gone there to record an album at that resort city’s casino, using the Rollings Stones Mobile Studio — the “Rolling truck Stones thing” mentioned in a subsequent verse. (Which I thought was “Rolling drunk Stones”!)
Before that happened, though, while Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were doing a concert at the casino, the rattan-covered ceiling of the hall caught fire. For years, I thought that Gillan was singing “some stupid with a Player” — an English cigaret — started the fire. But once I heard it on sat rad, instead of vehicular FM, I caught the actual words, “flare gun.”
That some stupid “burned the place to the ground,” but another confuser comes two lines after the ensuing chorus. I thought it was “a funky clown was running in and out” rescuing concert-goers, but the funky one the lyric refers to is a Claude, last name Nobs, who was director of the Montreal Jazz Festival at the time.
Deep Purple was in their hotel across Lake Geneva, and saw the fire. The smoke spreading across the lake inspired the band’s bassist, Roger Glover, to come up with the song title, which he said came to him as he awoke from a dream a few days later.
Except the title didn’t have a song, or any lyrics beyond those four words. As the lyrics that eventually were written say, the band and the mobile studio “ended up at the Grand Hotel” in Montreux — but not without a stop in between.
Nobs found them a possible recording site, the Pavilion theatre, but complaints from neighboring residents about the loud music forced them to move. They did lay down one untitled track, based on a riff lead guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had developed, before the police shut them down.
That riff, of course, is the immediately-recognizable one that opens the song that was recorded in the hallways and stairwells of the hotel the band ended up at. Those sessions produced the album Machine Head, which was Deep Purple’s most commercially successful LP up to that time, a No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 7 on the U.S. Billboard chart, where it was in the top 200 for more than two years.
“Smoke on the Water” was a No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It made it into the bottom 100 of Rolling Stone magazine’s 2004 “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” but is No. 11 on the VH1 “100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs” list.
Blackmore’s guitar licks are No. 4 on Total Guitar magazine’s “Top 20 Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever.” It is iconic — and, me thinks, played too much; “Smoke on the Water,” like “Stairway to Heaven” and some others, has been aired on classic rock stations so many times that hearing that familiar riff may prompt me to change channels.
It was also played in concert by several other arena-rock groups besides Deep Purple. Blackmore and Gillan did it live with the groups they formed after leaving DP, and Black Sabbath performed the song when Gillan sang lead for them — supposedly one of few cover songs that band ever did in concert.
That might be interesting to hear, once, but I was never a big Sabbath fan. And Deep Purple was never one of my favorites, either; they are described as pioneers of heavy metal, a genre that I don’t like that much, and I never considered them to be lyrically very interesting.
Deep Purple did go through some stylistic changes, as well as a number of personnel changes, from its beginnings in 1968, when it started as a progressive rock band, through its temporary dissolution in 1976. In fact, there were four distinct lineups, labelled with Roman numerals by rock critics and historians, in that time period.
After an eight-year hiatus, the band reunited in 1984 and has recorded and toured since then, with some personnel changes and more than a little infighting. The lineup that recorded “Smoke on the Water,” plus others who played with the band later, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
Late in their first iteration, Deep Purple was ranked the loudest band in the world by 1975 edition of The Guiness Book of World Records. That made more sense than the British radio station poll that ranked them the fifth most-influential band ever.