“Smoke on the Water” is a song by the English rock band Deep Purple. It was first released on their 1972 album Machine Head. In 2004, the song was ranked number 434 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, ranked number 4 in Total Guitar magazine’s Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever, and in March 2005, Q magazine placed “Smoke on the Water” at number 12 in its list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks.
“Smoke on the Water” is known for and recognizable by its central theme, developed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. It is a four-note blues scale melody in G minor, harmonized in parallel fourths. The riff, played on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar by Blackmore, is later joined by hi-hat and distorted organ, then the rest of the drums, then electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal. The opening lyrics are:
We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time
Jon Lord doubles the guitar part on a Hammond C3 organ played through a distorted Marshall amp, creating a tone very similar to that of the guitar. Blackmore usually plays the main riff using a finger pluck or occasionally a plectrum upstroke (to accentuate the tonic).
The lyrics tell a true story: on 4 December 1971, Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland, to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio—referred to as the “Rolling truck Stones thing” and “a mobile” in the lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as “the gambling house” in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session, a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino’s theatre. This was to be the theatre’s final concert before the casino complex closed down for its annual winter renovations, which would allow Deep Purple to record there. At the beginning of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong”, the place suddenly caught fire when somebody in the audience fired a flare gun toward the rattan covered ceiling, as mentioned in the “some stupid with a flare gun” line. Although there were no major injuries, the resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers’ equipment. The “smoke on the water” that became the title of the song (credited to bass guitarist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Purple watched from their hotel. “It was probably the biggest fire I’d ever seen up to that point and probably ever seen in my life, said Glover, “It was a huge building. I remember there was very little panic getting out because it didn’t seem like much of a fire at first. But, when it caught, it went up like a fireworks display”. The “Funky Claude” running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.
Left with an expensive mobile recording unit and no place to record, the band was forced to scout the town for another place to set up. One promising venue (found by Nobs) was a local theatre called The Pavilion, but soon after the band loaded in and started working/recording, neighbors took offense at the noise. The band was only able to lay down backing tracks for one song (based on Blackmore’s riff and temporarily named “Title No.1”) before local police shut them down.
After about a week of searching, the band rented the nearly-empty Montreux Grand Hotel and converted its hallways and stairwells into a makeshift studio, where they laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most commercially successful album, Machine Head (which is dedicated to Claude Nobs).
The only song from Machine Head not recorded entirely in the Grand Hotel was “Smoke on the Water” itself, which had been partly recorded during the abortive Pavilion session. Its lyrics were composed later, primarily by Gillan and based on Glover’s title, and the vocals were recorded in the Grand Hotel.
Because of the incident and the exposure, Montreux received when “Smoke on the Water” became an international hit, Purple formed a lasting bond with the town. The song is honored in Montreux by a sculpture along the lakeshore (right next to the statue of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury) with the band’s name, the song title, and the riff in musical notes. The new casino in Montreux displays notes from the riff as decoration on its balustrade facing the gambling hall.
On the Classic Albums episode about Machine Head, Ritchie Blackmore claimed friends of the band were not fans of the “Smoke on the Water” riff, which they thought too simplistic. Blackmore retorted by making comparisons to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which revolves around a similar four note arrangement.
“The amazing thing with that song, and Ritchie’s riff in particular,” observed Ian Paice, “is that somebody hadn’t done it before, because it’s so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying.”
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