The Montreux Casino burned down on this day in 1971.
The fire was set by a fan with a flare gun during a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. According to onlookers, the flare had actually been fired once before. The second shot which caused the fire just happened to land in an electrical suspension canvas and burst into flame.
Zappa’s concert, reportedly attended by over 2,000 people, has been recorded for posterity. The bootleg was later officially released as “Swiss Cheese/Fire!” This includes Zappa’s announcement to onlookers that there was a fire, and that everyone ought calmly leave the building. This was followed, according to some onlookers, by his own smashing through a window to escape. Others claimed he himself remained calm and stayed onstage until it was necessary for him to leave.
The fire was very quick and intense, ending up burning the casino to the ground. Frank Zappa and his team lost all of their equipment in the blaze. Amazingly, however, there were no human casualties, only minor injuries from broken glass when people smashed the windows to escape. This is largely due to the prompt response of emergency services, as well as the actions of the Montreux Casino’s owner, Claude Nobs.
According to one particular onlooker who’d run into the blazing casino to retrieve his girlfriend’s coat, Nobs went in and out several times, leading many young people who’d become trapped in smoke-filled areas out to safety. This onlooker was Ian Gillan, who made sure that this tour promoter’s heroism would become a part of one of the most famous stories of rock ‘n roll.
Deep Purple were in Montreux and even attended the Zappa concert. They were planning their next album, Machine Head, which they’d even scheduled to record at the casino before it burned down. Jon Lord claimed later that their road crew removed their gear from the casino the morning of the fire, saving it the fate of Zappa’s gear. The group instead rehearsed at the Grand Hotel after being ejected from another location due to noise complaints. They recorded the album with the Rolling Stones’ studio truck.
Roger Glover was the one who came up with the title for “Smoke On The Water”; it came to him in a dream and described the event. He and Ian Gillan’s lyrics retold the story of the Montreux Casino fire in a fairly straightforward manner. This was combined with a riff by Ritchie Blackmore strongly inspired by Astrud Gilberto’s “Maria Quiet” (which can be found here). The result was one of the most famous songs in the band’s canon, indeed in all of rock ‘n roll.
The band still plays the song at every concert, ensuring the story of one loony fan at a Frank Zappa concert and the havoc he wreaked, as well as the heroic actions of those responding to it, will never be forgotten.
- Edit on 2020-12-03: Formatting update. Optimized for new site.