52 years ago today, Frank Zappa set fire to the Montreux Casino… literally! And inspired Deep Purple who recorded not far away… Smoke on the lake.
It’s still very easy to find this album – a bootleg to be precise, online or in a small store that still has a few rock relics. The cover will instantly strike you: we’ve never been further from sobriety. Frank Zappa with a red scarf, wearing nothing more than leopard print briefs. He poses, surrounded by plants, staring at the camera, uncompromising. Zappa titled this album Swiss Cheese (Swiss cheese). It’s not just another live album, the pirate album of a concert by the genius from Baltimore, like the thousands of others in circulation. This is the audio testimony of this fierce concert in the history of contemporary music. And it’s not a metaphor.
Montreux, Switzerland, the evening of December 4, 1971. The city’s casino hall was transformed into a concert hall. Frank Zappa, as usual, came to envelop his European fans with a sonic magma of guitars and nonsense, solos and provocation in their purest form. Everything is going well, when suddenly, as the Mothers Of Invention begin “King Kong”, someone, obviously much too excited, takes out a flare gun and shoots. A few minutes later, the entire building was engulfed in flames. The best description is given by Zappa himself, in an interview a few years later. He said someone in the audience pulled out a Molotov cocktail or fired a flare toward the ceiling, which was completely covered in wood and fabric. In an instant, everything caught fire. Naturally, the concert is stopped and the owner of the establishment, Claude Nobs, the man behind the Montreux Jazz Festival, manages to save dozens of fans before the casino collapses. Tragedy was narrowly averted.
What should have been a concert like any other will become, through another rock group, a truly great moment in history. That evening, in that same Swiss town, Deep Purple was working on songs for their new album and recording in the mobile studio they rented from the Rolling Stones. All the members of the group cannot believe what has just happened on the banks of Lake Geneva. And this disbelief is shattered by one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time: “Smoke on the Water”, which Deep Purple will compose that very night. A song inspired by an ordinary news item but which will go down in history through the front door. The last verse tells us how well it was composed: “We found ourselves at the Grand Hotel/ It was empty, it was cold/ The Rolling Stones truck is right outside/ And we were recording our music/ With a few red lamps and some old beds/We created a place to sweat/No matter what we come out of it all/I know we’ll never forget/smoke on the water, fire in the sky.”
Frank Zappa, in addition to having indelibly marked the history of music, indirectly contributed to one of the greatest songs of the year 1970. “Smoke on the Water” would become the anthem of Deep Purple, this monumental hit which will push them to organize a world tour the following year. And this tour will lead to one of the greatest live albums of the 1970s: Made in Japan. But that’s another story.