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No. 32: Deep Purple, ‘Smoke On The Water’ – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs

While some of rock and roll’s greatest storytelling songs require you to listen at least a bit of suspended reality, Deep Purple’s entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list operates nearly completely on truth.

In the new book ‘Life Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock ‘N’ Roll America,’ authors Chris Price and Joe Harland lament that on the surface, music fans are at a competitive disadvantage.

Sports fans can visit their favorite teams and ballparks. Movie buffs can visit landmark scenery from their favorite films. But how exactly, do you get to ‘Hotel California,’ for example? As Price and Harland reveal, it’s possible to visit some (though, not all)  of the storied locations you’ve heard about in song and musical legend, but it requires a bit of digging.

For Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water,’ all you have to do is journey to the little town on the water called Montreux which for decades, has played host to the annual Montreux Jazz Festival. When Deep Purple first visited however, the festival was in its early stages, lasting only a couple of days. Purple had come to town in 1971 to record the album which would become ‘Machine Head.’

Recording in a mobile studio owned by the Rolling Stones within the Montreux Casino complex, the band was in the midst of laying down basic tracks when lead singer Ian Gillan was sidelined with hepatitis. Their progress was further delayed when a concert-goer shot off a flare at a Frank Zappa show at the Casino that set the roof on fire and destroyed the building.

Watching the fiery events inspired the immortal opening riff from guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, which would be painstakingly imitated by budding guitar players of many future generations [and also patiently taught to the younger set by Jack Black in the movie 'School of Rock']. Bassist Roger Glover came up with the title ‘Smoke On The Water,’ which provided the linchpin for Gillen to write the lyrics which would provide a scene by scene account of the Zappa-related debacle.

It was a scary vision, as Gillen remembers, telling syndicated radio host Redbeard that “it was an inferno.”

“The wind was coming down off the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke over the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show and it was hanging on the water.”

Hence the title, ‘Smoke On The Water’ and also unfortunately, the need for a new recording location. The band would relocate to a hotel to complete the album, which Glover says was recorded under “dire circumstances.”

The harried set of events — both the fire and Gillan’s illness — left the band strapped for time, and Glover says as a result, a good amount of ‘Machine Head’ was written “on the spot.” ‘Smoke On The Water’ is evidence that perhaps the spontaneity was a very good thing.

From Blackmore’s cataclysmic riffing to Gillan’s stormy vocals, seemingly pushing back against an unseen wind, the sounds of ‘Smoke’ put you in the flame-licking midst of a developing tragedy that would leave its imprint on all who were in the vicinity.

Grace under pressure and good use of clock management helped Purple to deliver both a classic album and what would become one of classic rock’s most memorable and enduring songs.

Nearly 40 years on, Deep Purple gave the familiar classic a turbo-charged update, performing it during their orchestral tour last year, which was captured on a recent live DVD release recorded at, whaddya know, Montreux. Orchestral arrangements aren’t necessarily supposed to rock, but backed by strings, Deep Purple virtually demolished the stage with their performance.

Next: A Controversial Career Change...

Skip to: No. 100 | No. 80 | No. 60 | No. 40 | No. 20

Watch Deep Purple Perform ‘Smoke On The Water’

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