Yesterday I heard "Smoke on the Water" on the radio for the umpty-umpth millionth time (Okay, actually it was the live version, which I don't think I had ever heard before, but still...). Of course, it features one of rock's most immediately recognizable and distinctive opening riffs, one that has been parodied countless times and is heard daily in every store in the country that sells electric guitars. Ritchie Blackmore insists the actual riff is a lot more technically complex than what gets played by beginners, but it's what beginners are irresistably compelled to play when they are trying on a new guitar. I think it's the law.
It occurred to me that despite my having heard it so many times before, I had never really paid attention to it. I realized SOTW is actually a pretty decent little bit of narrative writing—a concise telling of a true story that would fit on a postcard or in a five-minute radio song.
Deep Purple went to Montreux to record an album in the Montreux Casino complex in December, 1971. During a show by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, a fan fired a flare gun into the ceiling, starting a fire that destroyed the Casino complex. Having reserved the Rolling Stone's mobile recording truck, the band was forced to improvise recording space in the nearby Grand Hotel, using empty rooms and hallways as necessary. What they recorded became the album "Machine Head," one of their biggest successes, and later SOTW was released as a single, reaching #4 on the Billboard singles chart in 1973.
An interesting and unusual story, told simply and concisely. The title comes from their view of the Casino fire from their hotel across Lake Geneva (Deep Purple did not attend the Mothers concert) as the smoke drifted. Everything you need to know about it is right there, in a way you might hear an interesting story from a friend over a beer.
PS: "Slow-motion Walter, the fire-engine guy" is a misheard lyric from the Barenaked Ladies.
PPS: Claude Nobs, Director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, a.k.a. "Funky Claude," actually did pull concertgoers from the burning building.
PPPS: The Guinness world record for the number of guitarists playing the SOTW riff simultaneously stands at 6,346 and was most recently set in Poland in May of this year. There's a joke in there somewhere.