Despite his extraordinary talent and lengthy career, Frank Zappa doesn’t have a song on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. He does, however, deserve some credit, so to speak, for the song that came in at No. 426, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.
Propelled by a rudimentary guitar riff, the song recounts events members of Deep Purple observed on Dec. 4, 1971, the night before they were going to start a new recording with a Rolling Stones mobile studio in Switzerland. Here’s the story as told by the song’s lyrics.
We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
When some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
As the song indicates, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were performing at the Casino de Montreux on the shore of Lake Geneva that night. Here’s part of Zappa’s recounting of the story in his quasi-autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book:
In the middle of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong,” the place suddenly caught fire. Somebody in the audience had a bottle rocket or Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn…. There were between twenty-five hundred and three thousand kids packed into the room — well over capacity.
Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organization had cleverly chained the exit doors shut.
Fortunately, the crowd began filing out through the front door and a roadie smashed a plate glass window off to the side of the stage for people to escape. According to Zappa, the building’s heating system exploded a few minutes later and the entire building burned to the ground. Luckily, there were only minor injuries but the band, in the midst of a sold-out tour, lost all its equipment.
There’s no doubt the episode was history making for Deep Purple. “Smoke on the Water” appeared on the band’s 1972 album, Machine Head. Not only would that be their bestselling album, the song became the band’s immediately recognizable signature piece. How popular did the song become? There are reports that a London guitar store posted a sign saying, “Absolutely, under no circumstances at all are customers allowed to play Stairway to Heaven, Sweet Child of Mine or Smoke on the Water while trying out guitars.”
Zappa makes no mention of Deep Purple or “Smoke on the Water” in his book. But then, things didn’t really go much better for him when the Mothers tour resumed. While playing the encore for the first of two London shows on December 10, a fan ran on stage and knocked Zappa into the orchestra pit. Zappa fell 15 feet and suffered cuts to his chin and head, damaged his larynx, broke a rib and a leg and had a paralyzed arm. “The band thought I was dead,” wrote Zappa, who spent a month in the hospital and a year in a cast or wheelchair.
No wonder when Zappa’s manager later reported to a newspaper that Zappa was fully conscious, he also said Zappa was “really pissed off.” But Zappa’s ’71 tour certainly paid dividends for Deep Purple.
You’d be surprised how well people who speak only French can understand you when it’s a matter of life and death.
Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book