How Deep Purple created their best hit 'Smoke on the Water'

After a fire burned down a casino, the band were forced to hole up in a near derelict hotel to record a song inspired by the incident that became one of their best hits. Ahead of their return to where it all happened at the Montreux Jazz Festival, William Cook finds out how it acquired legendary status

William Cook
Thursday 28 June 2018 15:10 BST
How did a fool with roman candles help inspire one of the most recognised rock and roll songs?
How did a fool with roman candles help inspire one of the most recognised rock and roll songs? (Getty)

For 50 weeks of every year, Montreux is a sleepy place. The setting is spectacular, at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, on the edge of the Swiss Alps. Palm trees line the promenade, there are snowcapped peaks above. You can sit and look at it all day, but when the sun goes down the town shuts down. The vistas here are heavenly, but there’s not a lot to do.

Yet for a fortnight each summer, this torpid paradise is transformed. Lighting rigs and big amp stacks spring up along the lakeside. Grizzled musos replace prosperous OAPs. A tax haven for wealthy pensioners becomes the centre of the world music scene, as the Montreux Jazz Festival comes to town.

The Montreux Jazz Festival has always been a bit of a misnomer. It started as a jazz festival in 1967, the brainchild of Swiss impresario Claude Nobs. Keith Jarrett played the first festival, Nina Simone played the second, but it’s always doubled as a rock fest, ever since Ten Years After played here in 1969.

Since then, Montreux Jazz Festival has become increasingly eclectic. During the 1970s, there were shows by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. James Brown came here in the 1980s. Miles Davis played here 11 times between 1973 and 1991. In the Noughties, Montreux hosted Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Run-DMC and Radiohead.

This year’s line-up is similarly diverse: Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Nine Inch Nails, Jamiroquai, Massive Attack, Jamie Cullum, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison… and the band that put Montreux on the hard-rock roadmap, heavy metal veterans Deep Purple.

Even at their headbanging peak, Deep Purple were never really fashionable. They lacked the mystique of other hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin or The Doors. However, in Ritchie Blackmore they had a lead guitarist to rival Led Zep’s Jimmy Page, and in Jon Lord they boasted a keyboard virtuoso the equal of The Doors’ Ray Manzarek.

Montreux started as a jazz festival in 1967, but has doubled as a rock event since 1969 (Claude Nobs Archives)
Montreux started as a jazz festival in 1967, but has doubled as a rock event since 1969 (Claude Nobs Archives) (1971 Claude Nobs Archives)

Blackmore left the band long ago, and Lord died in 2012, but the three other core members are still going strong: vocalist Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice (the only ever-present since the band started out, 50 years ago). Along with Lord and Blackmore, this trio recorded Deep Purple’s most famous track, in Montreux in 1971, with one of the most familiar riffs in rock history – “Smoke on the Water”.

Blackmore’s immortal riff would have been enough to ensure the song’s longevity, but like all the best rock songs it also tells a story. Thankfully, unlike a lot of heavy metal anthems, there’s nothing mystical about it. Instead, it’s a straightforward account, almost journalistic in its brevity, of how Deep Purple recorded their finest album, Machine Head, in Montreux.

Formed in 1968 in Hertford, Deep Purple enjoyed some success with their first two albums, but it was when founder members Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord and Ian Paice brought in Ian Gillan and Roger Glover that the band took off. Their Concerto for Group and Orchestra (recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall) attracted heaps of publicity, and their fourth LP, Deep Purple in Rock (with its iconic Mount Rushmore cover, featuring the anthemic “Child in Time”) made their name.

This year’s line-up includes Nine Inch Nails, John Cale and Nick Cave
This year’s line-up includes Nine Inch Nails, John Cale and Nick Cave (Emilien Itim)

Yet for Deep Purple, like so many bands before and since, this breakthrough album brought a different set of problems. Recording sessions for their fifth album, Fireball, had to be fitted in around a busy schedule of live dates, from the autumn of 1970 until the summer of 1971. The album wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, and was widely regarded as a sideways step.

Consequently, the band resolved to record their sixth album without any interruptions or distractions. Montreux Casino would be empty for three weeks that winter, and Nobs had offered them the use of it. All the recording equipment they needed they could take with them, in a mobile recording studio (borrowed from The Rolling Stones).

With Swiss punctuality, Deep Purple arrived in Montreux, ready to start recording. Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention, were playing the Casino that afternoon, and then the venue would be theirs. It couldn’t have been any simpler. What could possibly go wrong?

Ian Gillan went to see the show with his girlfriend. He saw a man in the crowd behind him wielding a couple of roman candles. Gillan wasn’t too perturbed – compared to most fireworks, roman candles are usually fairly harmless – but then the bloke chucked them into the air, and they lodged in the rafters. In no time at all, the building was ablaze. “There’s a fire, please stay calm and make your way out,” announced Zappa from the stage.

The band retreated to their hotel, and watched the fire from the bar. At first, it looked like the blaze might spread to the surrounding buildings, and set the entire town alight, but thankfully the wind blew the flames towards the lake, sending smoke billowing out across the water. It was like a special effects scene from a movie. They sat up late, watching the Casino burn to the ground.

The title came to Glover the next morning, as he woke up in his hotel bedroom, but the other band members laughed it down – they said it sounded too druggy. But then Blackmore came up with a riff, that riff, on the spur of the moment, and they had the beginnings of a song.

English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (third left) conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra alongside Deep Purple (Getty)
English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (third left) conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra alongside Deep Purple (Getty) (Getty Images)

However, right now, their most pressing problem was finding somewhere – anywhere – to record. Mercifully, no one had been hurt, but the Casino was a smoking ruin. Nobs found a vacant theatre called The Pavillon, which seemed fine, but the sound-proofing was useless. They’d just started playing “Smoke on the Water” when the police arrived to shut them down. Luckily, the roadies kept them out, as the policemen hammered on the doors.

Clearly, The Pavillon wouldn’t do so Nobs got them into the Grand Hotel, a huge fin de siècle pile that was closed for the winter – a bit like a Swiss version of The Shining. As the song says, “it was empty, cold and bare”. They set up their equipment in a vacant corridor, and “with a few red lights [for atmosphere] and a few old beds [for sound insulation] they made a place to sweat”. In stark contrast to Fireball, which was recorded off and on over nine months, Machine Head was finished within a few weeks. By common consent it was (and still is) Deep Purple’s finest album.

There was only one thing wrong. There wasn’t quite enough material. They’d recorded six classic tracks, including “Lazy”, “Highway Star”, “Pictures of Home” and “Space Truckin’”, but it still came up a bit short for a full LP. Then they remembered the demo they’d recorded at The Pavillon, just before the Swiss police threw them out. And so belatedly, “Smoke on the Water” ended up on the LP, almost by accident. Today, it’s not only the most celebrated song on the album, but the most celebrated song they’ve ever played.

Swiss double bass player Léon Francioli played Montreux in 1971 (Claude Nobs Archives)
Swiss double bass player Léon Francioli played Montreux in 1971 (Claude Nobs Archives) (1971 Claude Nobs Archives)

Yet even after it scraped onto the LP, “Smoke on the Water” still took a while to become a classic. The main single from the album was “Never Before”, which only reached number 35 in the UK singles chart and never became a live staple. Only in 1973, when “Smoke on the Water” was released as a single in the US and started getting airplay on American radio stations, did it finally begin to break through.

But although “Smoke on the Water” has now acquired legendary stand-alone status, it still sits best amid the album for which it was intended, as track five (if you’re listening to it on a CD or some other rubbish modern format) or – far better – as the first track on side two, if you’re listening to the proper vinyl LP. It tells the story of the album, and that’s where it ought to stay.

Deep Purple made some fine LPs before and some fine LPs thereafter, but they never made anything quite as good as Machine Head. So what made it click? The tight timeframe was one factor – adversity was another. Far from home in the dead of winter, in a quiet resort in low season, there was an element of “all hands to the pump” as everyone mucked in together.

This no-nonsense attitude was reflected in the production. Sound engineer Martin Birch did a brilliant job. The sound he created was clean and sparse, never overly ornate or fussy. He gave each instrument room to breathe. There was very little overdubbing. It was such a palaver getting out of the hotel and into the mobile studio that they often didn’t bother listening to the playback. By modern standards, this was virtually a live album.

Nobs died in 2013, after a skiing accident, aged 76. The Jazz Festival is his enduring testament (he also gets a shout-out as “Funky Claude” in “Smoke on the Water”). The Casino was rebuilt on the same spot, but sadly they didn’t recreate the Belle Époque splendour of the original structure. The modern replacement is a Seventies eyesore. Just think: if it hadn’t been for that idiot with the roman candles, that beautiful building would still be there. But, then again, we’d have never heard “Smoke on the Water”.

Montreux Jazz Festival runs until 14 July and Deep Purple play on 4 July (

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