As the Montreux Casino burned to the ground in 1971, this lake-edge hotel had a front-row view of smoke on the water and fire in the sky. By Chris Sheedy.
On the night of December 4, 1971, young and devoted music fans from across Europe descended on the concert hall of the opulent Montreux Casino in Switzerland to see American musician Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention. Instead, the stage was set for a far more significant moment in rock ’n’ roll history.
By the end of the night the casino would be destroyed by fire and from its ashes would rise one of the most recognisable riffs – in a single that would see another band, Britain’s Deep Purple, soar into the musical stratosphere.
The five Deep Purple musicians had travelled to the swanky Swiss town to utilise the casino’s concert hall as a recording space. During the Zappa gig, which they attended as audience members rather than performers, they saw a fan shoot a flare gun at the ceiling. The venue soon began to burn.
“The fire was unbelievable,” Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan later said. “The whole town was closed off while the bloody thing [the casino] burned to the ground... We were moved to a hotel called the Eden Palace au Lac.”
From their lakeside digs, the band members looked on as flames shot into the night sky. The next morning, smoke billowed over the still waters of Lake Geneva.
In the weeks that followed the inferno, the rockers penned an extraordinarily powerful four-note song about the blaze. It was recorded in various locations around Montreux but was never meant to be included on the 1972 album Machine Head (the band was concerned the song’s title, Smoke on the Water, would have drug connotations). The track was added only at the last minute after canny colleagues convinced the band of the song’s catchiness.
Today, visitors to Montreux can stay at the four-star Eden Palace au Lac, an imposing Victorian landmark first opened in 1896. Be sure to request a lakeside room, which has a balcony or terrace overlooking Lake Geneva and the Alps. The hotel has hosted blues king Sammy Price, pianist Charles Thompson, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and many other artists – but none have put Montreux on the musical map as indelibly as Deep Purple. ￼
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