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posted on 5/16/2017 at 08:04 PM
Arts Anatomy of a Song
Anatomy of a Song: ‘Smoke on the Water’
Members of Deep Purple recall the fire that inspired the 1973 heavy-metal anthem
Deep Purple in 1971, from left, Jon Lord, Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Paice (on drums) and Roger Glover Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns/Getty Images
By Marc Myers
Updated May 15, 2017 11:59 a.m. ET
Along with Blue Cheer, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple helped pioneer heavy metal in the early 1970s. The British band’s “Smoke on the Water,” with its commanding guitar-riff opener, remains one of metal’s most enduring anthems.
When “Smoke on the Water” was released as a single in May 1973, it climbed to #4 on Billboard’s pop chart while “Machine Head,” the album on which it appeared, reached #7. Earlier this year, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Deep Purple performing ‘Smoke on the Water’ live in 1973
Recently, drummer Ian Paice, lead singer Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore talked about the song’s evolution. Last month, Deep Purple released “InFinite” (earMusic), its 20th studio album, and Blackmore’s Night will release a 20th-anniversary album this summer. Edited from interviews.
Ian Paice: In late November 1971, the band flew to Geneva, Switzerland, and drove to Montreux. Our friend and Swiss concert promoter Claude Nobs had invited us to record our sixth album at Montreux’s Casino on Lake Geneva.
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Anatomy of a Song
We were fed up with traditional recording studios. Most of them were outdated for our needs. The control rooms were cutting edge, but the recording spaces were too small to capture our stage sound accurately.
We had played the Casino earlier that year, and the space was ideal. But we needed a solid control booth for our recording engineer. So for December, we rented the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio—a control booth built into a large truck. It rolled into Montreux the night of Dec. 3.
Ian Gillan, right, and Roger Glover performing in Montreux last July. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The next afternoon, we went to the Casino to hear Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention perform. We had never seen them live, and we wanted to hear how the music sounded in the hall.
The Casino was a wood building with tropical island décor and around 2,000 seats. Toward the end of the concert, someone behind us shot off a flare that soared into the rafters. The heat from the phosphorous light ignited a fire.
Frank Zappa, God bless him, went to the microphone and announced, “Fire! If you’d kindly move calmly toward the exit, ladies and gentlemen. Calmly.” Then he smashed some of the ballroom windows with his Gibson guitar so people could escape faster. There was a gentle panic, but everyone got out.
Ian Gillan: Once outside, we walked to the Hotel Eden Palace Au Lac a short distance away. In the bar-restaurant, we ordered drinks and watched the Casino burn. At some point, Roger Glover said, “Look at the smoke on the water.” There was a down draft from the mountains that shoveled the thick smoke across the lake. It looked like a film set, with the flames shooting upward.
Mr. Paice: Sitting there, two things went through my mind: I was happy we got out safely, and I began to realize that the place where we were supposed to record no longer existed.
The next morning, Claude found us space at Le Pavillon, a grand theater near the Casino that was closed for the winter. The Stones’ mobile unit parked outside, our gear was set up inside and we started jamming late that afternoon for a sound-check.
Roger Glover: Once our sound was together, Martin Birch, our engineer in the mobile unit, began recording the jam.
Ritchie Blackmore: Ian Paice and I had started the jam by trying out things. At one point, he played this driving rhythm on his drums. I responded with the riff that wound up opening the record. Then Ian and I jammed on it before everyone else joined in.
For the riff, I’m playing two notes at the same time, starting with the G on top and D below. I played that with my thumb and first finger, not with a pick. The riff then moved along using the same spread between the two notes.
I used a black Stratocaster with a maple neck. The guitar was plugged into a Hornby Skewes treble booster that ran into a Marshall amp and speaker. The Hornby gave the guitar a vibrating, throaty sound coming through the speaker.
Then I added chords to the riff for the rest of the song. My Strat was strung with bendable Clifford Essex guitar strings that Eric Clapton had recommended.
Mr. Paice: On the intro, as Ritchie played his riff, I played 16th notes on the hi-hat. For the body of the song, I played little 12-note skips on the hi-hat to give the basic beat a roll, like a wave. Without the mild swing, the beat would have lost its rhythmic interest.
Mr. Glover: With that riff set, we built out the instrumental arrangement. We left room for verses, a chorus and guitar solo. I used a black-and-white Rickenbacker 4001 electric bass that I had bought earlier that year during our American tour.
When I played it through my Marshall amp and speakers, it turned out to be raspier on the high notes and too distorted for my liking. But I had no choice. I had only the one bass and that Marshall stack.
There was no overdubbing on top of the bass. When the bass makes its entry, I’m playing E, F, F-sharp and G. It couldn’t be a simpler bass line.
By midnight, the band had the riff and basic rhythm track down and started going for an actual take. But we had a problem. The high volume awakened the town and someone had called the police.
Mr. Paice: After we finished recording a complete take of the instrumental, we learned that the roadies had been struggling to hold the doors shut with the police pushing on the other side. When the police finally came in, they told us to close down and leave. We labeled the reel we had just recorded “Title #1.” It would become the backing track for “Smoke on the Water.”
Mr. Glover: Clearly, recording at Le Pavillon was out. Claude found us sizable space at the Grand Hotel a few kilometers out of town. It was closed for the season. The front doors opened into a large foyer, which led to a long corridor with high ceilings. It was ideal, but we needed to isolate and insulate the space.
Mr. Paice: To contain the sound, a carpenter put up a wooden wall to seal off the corridor where we planned to record. Then the roadies dragged mattresses from the rooms and put them up against the corridor windows.
We also screwed in red lights to create a concert atmosphere. After we finished recording six songs for the album, we still needed one more. We pulled out “Title #1,” which just needed a lyric and guitar solo.
Mr. Glover: Ian Gillan and I wrote the words while sitting on a bench in the corridor. I borrowed Ritchie’s Stratocaster to pick out the tune as Martin played the “Title #1” tape through Ian’s and my headphones.
We called the song “Smoke on the Water” and had the lyric simply tell the story of what we had witnessed at the Casino—that we had gone to see the Mothers and the place burned down. We wrote the words in about 20 minutes.
Mr. Gillan: “Funky Claude” was Claude Nobs. “Swiss time was running out” was about finishing before we had to give up the “Rolling truck Stones thing.”
“With a few red lights / a few old beds / We made a place to sweat” refers to the red bulbs, the mattresses against the windows and the space where we recorded the album.
Then I overdubbed my vocal while listening to the “Title #1” track through my headphones. Ritchie had played the chorus in a minor key but I decided to sing it major, for the contrast.
Mr Paice: The whoosh you hear on my drums at the end was done by hand in the booth. It’s called flanging. We had two copies of the drum track playing back in sync with each other. When you applied gentle hand pressure to one of the tape reels, you momentarily slowed it down, increasing the degree of separation between them and producing that sound.
Mr. Glover: When we finished “Smoke on the Water,” we didn’t think it was that special. It was good enough for the album, but we had put most of our efforts on “Never Before,” which was going to be our first single.
That delayed our efforts for “Smoke on the Water” until a year after the album came out. I guess we just figured the song was an afterthought and that our fans would think of it the same way. Boy, were we wrong.
Appeared in the May. 16, 2017, print edition as 'behind ‘Smoke on the Water’
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