With a few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know we'll never forget
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The Montreux Casino burning down
The place where this story happened was in Montreux, Vevey district, Vaud canton, Switzerland. At the foot of the Swiss Alps, it perches with its toes dangling in Lake Geneva. It is wine country; viticulture was introduced in the 12th century and today vineyards stretching from Lavaux to Montreux produce dry and fruity Chasselas grapes, used in several varietal wines. The city boasts several internationally-recognized festivals throughout the year, as well as a the Montreux Casino - rebuilt in 1975. The story of why it had to be rebuilt is the story told by this song.
Which makes "Smoke On The Water" the only song ever likely to be included in an insurance-claims investigator's report. Every word of the lyrics is a factual part of the account. It could stand up as court testimony.
Start with 1968, when the Rolling Stones got sick of dealing with piddly recording studios that were only open during banker's hours, so they descended on Mick Jagger's brand new country house to record there. The Jag didn't take kindly to the muddy footprints on the carpet or something, so they all said, "Let's just build a studio in a van and be done with it!" Helios Electronics came in and built just that, the first fully fitted mobile multi-track studio inside a road-worthy tour bus, and the Stones found it all so handy that they even rented it out when they weren't using it themselves. Customers included the Who, the Faces, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa and so on.
Fade out, fade in. It's 1971 and Frank Zappa has been recording the film 200 Motels
and using the Mobile Studio (which he had painted camouflage so it would blend behind trees for filming), in Montreux, so he (and the Mothers Of Invention) decides to throw a concert at the Montreux Casino while he's there. The Stones rent the truck out to Deep Purple for the night, intending to record the songs that would eventually comprise their album Machine Head
. Okay, everything's cool. Don Preston (at the Frank Zappa concert) on stage jams out his guitar solo for "King Kong," the Purples are outside rocking in the mobile van, the Stones are somewhere counting all their money. Or something.
"Some stupid with a flare gun" in the audience at the Zappa concert in the Montreux Casino raises it to point at the ceiling - which is made of rattan wicker. In a move which will stand forever as an example of what not to do
in fire safety videos around the world, said Stupid discharges said flare gun, and whoosh!
the entire audience now has flaming rattan inches above their heads. Zappa and the Mothers see it coming and drop their instruments - mid-chord! - and bail, thus losing all of their equipment. Deep Purple's band members awake from their slumber at the hotel and wander outside asking, "What the hell is all that?" Montreux Jazz Festival director Claude Nobs is pulling audience members out of a flaming casino.
Well, Deep Purple is bummed, because they paid the Stones for this expensive mobile recording studio and they can't plug the damn thing in and use it now. They have to go find someplace else. So they hit the road, the Amazing Homeless Band. Claude Nobs - still combing burnt rattan out of his hair - finds them a nearby theater called "The Pavilion," but as soon as Deep Purple tries to plug in and start playing, neighbors come out yelling "Knock off that racket, we're trying to sleep!" So, oh crap, they have to pack it up and go back on the road... This goes on for a week.
Finally they set up shop at the Montreux Grand Hotel - not where they were staying before - and record Machine Head
. Except for one song - can you guess which one? That's right, "Smoke on the Water," because, uh... well, because it tells the story that at this point hasn't even been finished yet.
Of course, if you don't care about all this history stuff, you can join the great tradition of amateur guitarists everywhere and play the main riff, which is the canonical first song every learner tries to play. Strum right along: "Dun dun DUN. Dun dun DUN NUN. Dun dun DUN. DUN dunnnnn."
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