Recording of the Concert of Frank Zappa and the Mothers after their last song 'King Kong'. Source: T.U.B.E.

Smoke on the Water

One of the greatest success stories in the history of rock music was written in Montreux (canton of Vaud) in Switzerland. On 4 December 1971, fifty years ago, at 16.20 in the afternoon, the fire alarm went off in the famous Casino.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were finishing their last song when singer Howard Kaylan called out, “Fire, ladies and gentlemen”. Initially, visitors thought it was a practical joke, related to Arthur Brown’s song Fire (1968) and Deep Purple’s song Fireball (1971).

But it was a real fire. The Casino burned to the ground in a few hours. The two thousand visitors and the band managed to get out safely, but the instruments and equipment were lost.

The Rock band Deep Purple had rented the Rolling Stones mobile studio to record their new album Machine Head in the Casino the following day. The recordings took place in the Grand Hotel in the village of Territet instead, a village near Montreux.

The band members had seen the thick clouds of smoke on the water of Lake Geneva from nearby. This event inspired them to compose Smoke on the Water on their new album. It became one of the biggest hits of rock music.

Deep Purple plays regularly in Montreux, and Smoke on the Water is the anthem in the rebuilt Casino and Montreux.

Montreux already had the reputation of a jazz city, after a successful start of the annual jazz festival five years earlier, and the world stars of rock music (among others Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Queen) were regular visitors.

Roger Glover, the bassist of Deep Purple, chose Switzerland as his new home country. He lives in Frick (Canton Aargau). Freddy Mercury of Queen has a statue in his beloved Montreux. However, the most significant monument to Montreux is Smoke on the Water.

The text is, in fact, a report of the events on 4 December 1971:

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

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

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Uh, Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids on the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

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

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold, and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We make a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
Ha, I know, I know we’ll never forget

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