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Music History #2: "Smoke on the Water"

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month.

“Smoke on the Water”
Written by Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice (1972)
Originally performed by Deep Purple

The Music

It’s the riff that will not die. The heavy metal version of “Chopsticks.” Somewhere at this very moment, in a suburban garage or music store, there’s a kid with an electric guitar plonking out those opening notes – “Dun-dun-duuun . . .” The introduction to “Smoke on the Water” is so famous that we often forget there’s a song attached to it.

The British rock group Deep Purple wrote their signature tune after surviving a casino fire in Switzerland. Featured on their 1972 Machine Head album, it climbed to #4 on the charts. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. It’s heard at sporting events and on Playstation games. It’s been in TV commercials, two episodes of The Simpsons and many movies, including School of Rock. It’s also been at the center of a headbanging world’s record. In 2007, in Germany, 1,802 guitarists joined together in a metal ensemble to play the opening riff.

Here’s the classic lineup of Deep Purple performing the song in 1973:

http://youtu.be/j2hbU7na1pw

And a clip of the previous world record holders, an ensemble of 1,683 guitarists playing the riff:

http://youtu.be/5Un37CiAgC0

The History

On December 4, 1971, the five members of Deep Purple were in the audience in the ballroom of Switzerland’s Montreux Casino, watching a concert by Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention.

During the encore, in the middle of a song called “King Kong,” the trouble started. As Zappa recalled, “Somebody in the audience had a bottle rocket or a Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn.”

Deep Purple would immortalize this audience member as “some stupid with a flare gun.” Whatever the incendiary source, blobs of fire ricocheted around and a canopy hanging from the balcony ignited. Flames spread quickly. The audience of 2,000 panicked.

Zappa said, “Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organizers had cleverly chained the exit doors shut. When the fire began, the audience was left with two ways out: through the front door, which was pretty small, or through a plate-glass window off to the side of the stage.”

“It died with an awful sound”

As Zappa urged everyone to calm down, the balcony collapsed. The band’s roadies smashed the plate-glass window and started helping fans to safety. Others hurried out through the venue’s front door. The band escaped through an underground tunnel that went from behind the stage through the parking garage.

Zappa said, “A few minutes later the heating system in the building exploded, and some people were blown through the window. Fortunately, nobody was killed and there were only a few minor injuries. However, the entire building, about $13,000,000 worth, burned to the ground, and we lost all our equipment.”

The Montreux Casino was indeed an expensive, elegant structure. It was originally built in 1881, and through the first half of the 20th century, it hosted some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, with conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. In 1967, the Casino became the venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival, which featured such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans and Nina Simone. The Casino’s promoter was Claude Nobs, who was also mentioned in the Deep Purple song, as the “Funky Claude” who helped some of the fans escape the burning venue. The Montreux Casino was rebuilt, and reopened in 1975. (You can see original Super 8 video of the fire on the Montreux Music site.)

Deep Purple fled to their nearby hotel, and watched firefighters struggle with the blaze. As it waned, they looked out across Lake Geneva and saw that it was covered with a layer of smoke. And that was the inspiration for the song.

Frank Zappa’s bad luck continued. A week later, during a London concert, he was punched on stage by a drunk fan. Zappa toppled into the orchestra pit and broke his leg and a rib.

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?
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Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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#TBT
When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

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