The Casino Fire That Inspired the Meaning Behind the 1972 Deep Purple Classic “Smoke on the Water”

On Dec. 4, 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a gig at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland. When the band was nearly 90 minutes into their set, and playing “King Kong,” an audience member fired a flare gun up at the wooden roof of the venue, which caused it to go up in flames.

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In the audience was Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, who saw the two flares shot by someone seated behind him. Deep Purple ended up looking at the fire from a nearby restaurant, and watched as a layer of smoke covered the adjacent Lake Geneva, which inspired bassist Roger Glover to come up with the title “Smoke on the Water.”

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile, yeah
We didn’t have much time now

Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
(Smoke) on the water, you guys are great

Machine Head and The Rolling Stones

At the time of the fire, Deep Purple were in the lakeside town to record their sixth album, Machine Head, at the casino, which was also the main venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival at the time.

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Laying down some initial tracks out of a mobile truck they had rented from The Rolling Stones—famously known as The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio (RSM)—that was set up on the premises of the casino when the fire broke out, the band was forced out of their rooms and could not return to the area to finish recording. All they were left with was the vision of smoke swirling over the lake near the Swiss alps.

The experience inspired the meaning, and the story, behind the entire song.

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
He was pulling kids out the ground now

When it all was over
Find another place
Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio (Photo: Brandon Wallis / Courtesy of National Music Centre)

The Grand Hotel and the RSM

Later in the lyrics, the band talks about relocating to the Grand Hotel and recording Machine Head there and in The Stones’ truck.

Conceived by The Rolling Stones tour manager Ian Stewart and built-in 1968, the RMS was the first-ever mobile recording studio. Used by The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Santana, Lou Reed, and Dire Straits, among many other artists to record, the RSM is now parked at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada and can be visited by the public and used by musicians.

“Smoke” on the Charts

Piecing together guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s iconic riff and their lyrics, “Smoke on the Water” was the last song Deep Purple recorded for Machine Head, and remains a classic today.

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“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,” said Gillan in 2020. “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.”

Machine Head was Deep Purple’s most successful album, topping the charts in several countries, including the U.K., while “Smoke on the Water” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in 1973.

Photo by John Minihan/Getty Images

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