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Montreux musical history in 1971

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Deep Purple and the story of Smoke on the Water

"SMOKE ON THE WATER", the lyrics of this song tell the story of the recording of the Machine Head album. Deep Purple had planned to record it at the Montreux Casino, it finally went differently...

In early December 1971, Deep Purple moved to Montreux to record an album with the mobile recording studio they had rented from the Rolling Stones in one of the Casino's rooms ("The Gambling House" in the song's lyrics refers to the game rooms in the same building. The famous Mountain Studios did not exist at that time).

On December 4, 1971, during a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention attended by Deep Purple and that took place in "Le Sablier" room at the Montreux Casino, an idiot fired a rocket into the ceiling. The building ignites instantly. Outside a tight crowd, frozen by stupor and cold, watched the flames coming out of the windows and roof. Discover the full story of this evening on Frank Zappa's page dedicated to him.

A little further on, in a muddy meadow, two roadies ran towards the long 10-metre truck, locked and looking for a way to open the door. They smashed the windshield with a stone, entered the cabin and managed to drive the heavy vehicle to the edge of the lake, protecting it from the flames. The mobile recording studio was saved.

A few hours later, when the gigantic flames subsided and the crowd dispersed, the Montreux Casino was reduced to ashes.

A little later, in their nearby hotel, the group Deep Purple were wondering how they would now record their album "Machine Head.Roger Glover the bassist, Jon Lord the keyboardist, Ian Paice the drummer, Ritchie Blackmore the guitarist and singer Ian Gillan scoured the city of Montreux to find a room that they could have converted into a recording studio.

After being ejected from The Pavilion (opposite the Montreux Palace) by the police because they were making too much noise, they declined the offer of an atomic shelter, a wine cellar that contained war treasures for a time, and a castle in the mountains.

They finally found a luxurious but empty Grand Hotel located in Territet, just outside Montreux. This one not only had spacious corridors that could accommodate the whole group and their equipment, but also spiral staircases that acted as an echo chamber. Discover the history of this mythical place currently named "L'Alcazar" on the page dedicated to it.

Recording at the Grand Hotel in Territet

The recording began in December 1971 with the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, which is mentioned in the lyrics. "We had come to record at the Montreux Casino but, as you know, it burned down," Jon Lord confided.

He adds: "Our roadies had decided, that very morning, not to store our equipment at the Casino". What an incredible opportunity otherwise we would have lost everything like Frank Zappa. I think he only had one bell left, all melted down! Then we searched all over Montreux for a place to record and finally it was in an empty hotel all winter long, except for an old deaf lady, that we found refuge.

We sealed off the corridor, brought mattresses and built a small studio. It was so easy and relaxing because we could record whenever we wanted. No time issues like recording in a studio. This brought to the recording a spontaneous emotion and continuity that is not found on any of our other records. It reflects much more who we really are and our first three records were the least representative, compared to the sound on stage. The album brings together the best parts of "In Rock" and "Fireball". It is exciting and musically very valuable. The most important thing is that it was done in 3 weeks instead of the usual 6 months.

The flames that reduced the Montreux Casino to ashes are so present in the fifth track "Smoke on the Water" from the "Machine Head" album. The high-pitched rhythmic notes of Ritchie Blackmore's guitar lick like flames at the beginning of the song and then fly away, while the hoarse sound of Jon Lord's organ and the rolling bass of Ian Paice feed the already boiling fire. Then Ian Gillan's tender toasted voice softened the story of the Montreux fire in a rock'n roll brazier:

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
Some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

But while the four Deep Purple members were working in a crowded hotel corridor, surrounded by used mattresses, clothing racks acting as partitions, fire was not the primary element used to give "Machine Head" this shock effect. The rhythm - brutal, hectic, primitive - was the raw fabric they used to build each piece, whether it was in "Smoke on the Water" or the hammering of a Formula 1 engine in the song "Highway Star".

Who is "Funky Claude"?

Funky Claude described in the lyrics is Claude Nobs. He is the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux in 1968 and is a very important figure in the musical world. As specified in the lyrics, he helped several spectators out of the Casino during the fire. He was also the man who found them the Grand Hotel. One of his photos is on the cover of the original record.

"Break your leg, Frank!!"

Actually it was a bad time for Frank Zappa who first lost everything in the Montreux fire and then two days later, when he played in London, a fan pulled him off the stage and Zappa broke his leg when he fell into the orchestra pit. Ian Gillan made this brief comment: "Break a leg Frank! (break your leg Frank)". At the end of the song "Smoke on the Water" following the concert recorded for the BBC in March 1972 and available on the excellent double album on EMI "Deep Purple in Concert": The song was created more or less spontaneously: Roger Glover had the image of the smoke scattered on Lake Geneva fixed in his head and the sentence "Smoke on the Water" was perfectly fitting. He suggested to Ian Gillan that they should use this title for a song but Ian dismissed it by saying that people might understand that it is about drugs. Then Ritchie appeared with this notorious riff that became so well known.

Smoke on the Water

Deep Purple didn't seem to notice that this song had such potential because they almost never played it in public in the early 1970s and the track "Never Before" was chosen as the first single on the album.

It was not until 1973 when a single released in the USA containing two versions of "Smoke on the Water", one in studio version and the other, on the B side, of "Made in Japan", that this song became mythical and helped Deep Purple to rise to the top among the most successful selling artists.

The gold disc offered by Deep Purple's record company to the city of Montreux and commemorating the sale of more than a million copies of the single "Smoke on The Water" is now on display at the Montreux Museum. You will find more information on the dedicated page.

On July 4, 2018, the Deep Purple group returned to the Grand Hôtel de Territet (now called the Alcazar) where they created their hit "Smoke on The Water" to unveil, in the presence of only a few guests, a commemorative plaque. Information about this event HERE.

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