This song took inspiration from a fire in the Casino at Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971. The band was going to start recording their Machine Head
album there right after a Frank Zappa concert, but someone fired a flare gun at the ceiling during Zappa's show, which set the place on fire.
Deep Purple was in the audience for the show, and lead singer Ian Gillan recalls two flares being shot by someone sitting behind him that landed in the top corner of the building and quickly set it ablaze. Zappa stopped the show and helped ensure an orderly exit.
Deep Purple watched the blaze from a nearby restaurant, and when the fire died down, a layer of smoke had covered Lake Geneva, which the casino overlooked. This image gave bass player Roger Glover the idea for a song title: "Smoke On The Water," and Gillan wrote the lyric about their saga recording the Machine Head
The band was relocated to the Grand Hotel in Montreux, where they recorded the album using the Rolling Stones' mobile studio. They needed one more song, so they put together "Smoke On The Water" using Gillan's lyric and the riff guitarist Ritchie Blackmore came up with. The result was a song telling the story of these strange events just days after they happened - the recording sessions took place from December 6-21.
In a Songfacts interview with Gillan
, he explained: "We set the gear up in the hallways and the corridors of the hotel, and the Rolling Stones' mobile truck was out back with very long cables coming up through the windows. We tried to re-create an atmosphere in a technical sense the best we could. And when we went to write the lyrics, because we were short on material, we thought it was an 'add-on track.' It was just a last-minute panic.
So, the riff and backing track had been recorded on the first day as a kind of soundcheck. There were no lyrics. The engineer told us on the last day, 'Man, we're several minutes short for an album.' So, we dug it out, and Roger and I wrote a biographical account of the making of the record: 'We all came out to Montreux...'"
The session where they put down the backing track took place at a dance club in Montreux called the Pavilion, where they tried to record after the casino burned down. The "Smoke On The Water" track was all they accomplished there because locals complained about the noise and police shut them down. The rest of the album, and the "Smoke On The Water" vocal, was recorded at the Grand Hotel.