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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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iStock
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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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iStock

English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Epic Records
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Pop Culture
How a Throwback Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts
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Epic Records

The '90s airwaves were full of catchy, confusing pop hits. What exactly is a "chica cherry cola"? Did anyone ever figure out the correct syncopation of "MMMBop"? Why was Deee-Lite grooving to Dr. Seuss books? And who were all those Rays that Jimmy was singing about?

It's been nearly two decades, yet 1998's "Are You Jimmy Ray?"—the one and only hit by gloriously coiffed British pop rocker Jimmy Ray—stands out as one of the more perplexing hits of the era. For starters, whose idea was it to mix twangy '50s rockabilly with the sunny '90s alt-rock style of Smash Mouth? The combo clearly worked, as Ray's retro-modern anomaly reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him a slot opening for the Backstreet Boys on a 1998 U.S. tour.

And then there are the questions built into the song itself. "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Slim Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" Jimmy Ray sings in the chorus, apparently echoing things he has been asked on a regular basis. The only answer he provides, of course, is another question: "Who wants to know?" Factor in the music video, wherein Ray and a bunch of hip-hop dancers cavort around outside a trailer home, and this mystery seems like something David Lynch and Carson Daly might've somehow cooked up together.

Fortunately, Jimmy Ray is on LinkedIn, and last fall, the 46-year-old London native wrote a candid and insightful article explaining how he—a guy who sounded like Sugar Ray auditioning for Sun Records—scored such a massive pop hit.

"I have been asked questions about it that surprised me," Ray says of his signature song. "Surprising considering the music press received the song as nothing more than a boneheaded piece of self-promotion."

"Are You Jimmy Ray?" might have been self-promotion, but it wasn't boneheaded. A longtime fan of '50s rock, Ray had actually gotten his start in a '90s techno group called A/V. After they split up, he landed a management deal with Simon Fuller, the guy who created the Spice Girls. Someone at Ray’s label suggested he collaborate with Conall Fitzpatrick, the pop songsmith behind the British duo Shampoo's 1994 hit "Trouble." Fitzpatrick obviously had a flair for booming drums and repetitive catchphrases, and before the two even sat down for their first writing session, he had come up with the "Are You Jimmy Ray?" hook.

Ray wonders whether Fitzpatrick might have been "subconsciously influenced" by the cryptic "Who is Christian Goldman?" graffiti seen all over London at the time. Fitzpatrick claims he got the idea from the 1988 film Midnight Run; in one scene, Charles Grodin's character asks a bartender, "Who's in charge here?" to which the fellow replies, "Who wants to know?" As for all those "Rays"—pre-Elvis teen idol Johnnie Ray, "father of the power chord" Link Wray, King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray—they were also Fitzpatrick's idea. But Jimmy Ray knew what Fitzpatrick was going for.

"Retro heroes and heroines who symbolized my own cultural interests from music, film, and … motoring haha!" Jimmy writes in summary. "I couldn't even drive a car at this time."

Portraits of Johnnie Ray, Fay Wray, and Link Wray.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Eric Frommer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY–SA 2.0

Fitzpatrick knew the kind of stuff Jimmy dug, but the two weren't 100 percent on the same page. Working with Fitzpatrick's gear, in Fitzpatrick's studio, Ray felt like his debut album was slipping out of his control. "Before then, I had always been in the pilot's seat making my music, so let's just say there was a teeny-weeny bit of tension right from the off," Ray wrote.

For instance, he had to fight to replace the original fake-sounding synth-bass with "a different, more realistic synth bass." He alludes in the LinkedIn piece to other battles, but ultimately, he might not have pushed too hard. After all, he didn't think "Are You Jimmy Ray?" was going to be a single.

Alas, the execs at Epic Records knew they had a hit on their hands, and just like that, Jimmy Ray was all over the airwaves with a song that "wasn't really my idea." While Ray insisted that he respects and admires Fitzpatrick for creatively handling the pressure of having to produce a hit record for a major label, the tone of the LinkedIn piece suggests that Ray might've gone a different route if he'd been in the driver's seat.

Ray actually may get that do-over, as the singer is prepping a new album on his own La Rocka Records tentatively titled Live to Fight Another Day, which is set for an October release. He has posted some demos online, including one Morrissey-esque cover of Elvis Presley's "Devil In Disguise." It’s a cool track that sounds as though he's moved beyond the "pop-a-billy hip-hop" that put him on the charts back in the day. And with other '90s acts making the most of nostalgia ticket sales (after all, Jimmy Ray's old pals the Backstreet Boys have a world tour planned for their 25th anniversary next year), it seems like the right time to revive the old question of just who this Jimmy Ray fellow is.

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