IAN PAICE: How DEEP PURPLE's Classic Song 'Smoke On The Water' Came Together
March 6, 2022
DEEP PURPLE members Ian Paice (drums) and Steve Morse (guitar) were guests on a recent episode of the "Hangin' & Bangin': Artists On Lockdown" online show, where they were joined by Vinny Appice (BLACK SABBATH, DIO),Carmine Appice (OZZY OSBOURNE, VANILLA FUDGE) and host Ron Onesti. During the wide-ranging chat, they discussed the musical and lyrical inspiration for the 1972 DEEP PURPLE classic "Smoke On The Water" which has served as the quintessential heavy rock guitar riff and a metal-melody primer for burgeoning rock guitarists everywhere.
Although the backing to "Smoke On The Water" was the first track laid down for the "Machine Head" album in Montreux, Switzerland (while the Swiss police hammered at the door at 2:00 a.m. to try and get the noise stopped),in the ensuing chaos of being evicted from their temporary studio and washing up in the corridors of the Grand Hotel (where they built a studio in the corridors using old mattresses and egg cartons for sound-proofing!),the tape was almost forgotten — until an engineer pointed out that they were one track short of an album. The band only roughed it out as something to play to their Montreux host and hero of the fire, Claude Nobs, who told them it was far too good to leave in the can.
Reflecting on how the song came about, Paice said (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "When we started to record the ['Machine Head'] album, the casino had already burnt down. And that was where we were gonna do the record… It was just a blackened ruin, and so we had to try and find somewhere else to record. And the guy who ran the festival said, 'Look, you can track in this ballroom.' So we set up in the ballroom. And we were just trying to get a sound together. And Ritchie [Blackmore, DEEP PURPLE guitarist] had this riff. 'Let's try the dah-dah-dah song.' 'So how are we gonna start it?' I said, 'Try the riff and I'll just do a hi-hat thing and let it build up.' And this was an echoey old ballroom. Montreux, at that time of the year, had sort of gone to sleep. It's a summer resort — no skiing there; it's too low. But it's got the lake and all the rest of it. So by 10 o'clock, the whole village is comatose. And then this rock band starts up in this echoey old ballroom. Anyway, we'd been at it for about 10 minutes and then the police… We saw these blue lights go flashing by the door. We were just finishing a take; I think we got two takes done or something like that. Anyway, [producer] Martin Birch said, 'Don't let anybody in.' The roadies were holding the door till we finished the take. The cops came in and said, 'That's it. You can't do any more.' So we had to move again. And we eventually went to the Grand Hotel which is a hotel that was shut for the winter. And we forgot about that track. We were just getting a sound. And when we finished the record, we found that we were a few minutes shy; it wasn't long enough for an album. We had a track that could have gone on; it was the ballad, 'When A Blind Man Cries'. But Ritchie wanted the slowest song on the record; he wanted it all to be up. So [we thought], 'What about that track we did in the ballroom? [Let's have a] listen to it. It sounds all right. It sounds okay.' There were no words yet, so Ian [Gillan, PURPLE singer] and Roger [Glover, PURPLE bassist] went away. And Roger looked back at his notebook and he was writing down his impressions as we saw the flames going up. The downdraft from the mountains pushed the smoke down across the lake. 'Smoke On The Water', that's where the title came from. I said, 'Why don't we write a song about the making of the record?' And so that's how 'Smoke On The Water' got completed, and that's how it ended up on the record. Otherwise it would have just been lost as a soundcheck."
In a 2020 interview with Songfacts, Gillan was asked what the "few red lights and a few old beds" are that he sings about in "Smoke On The Water". He responded: "That's the hotel we moved into — the Grand Hotel — after the casino burned down during the Frank Zappa concert we were at. And that's what the song is all about. We ended up at the Grand Hotel, and it was very bright, so we changed the light bulbs. We got some red light bulbs, and we used the bed mattresses as sound baffles. We set the gear up in the hallways and the corridors of the hotel, and THE ROLLING STONES' mobile truck was out back with very long cables coming up through the windows. We tried to re-create an atmosphere in a technical sense the best we could. And when we went to write the lyrics, because we were short on material, we thought it was an 'add-on track.' It was just a last-minute panic. So, the riff and backing track had been recorded on the first day as a kind of soundcheck. There were no lyrics. The engineer told us on the last day, 'Man, we're several minutes short for an album.' So, we dug it out, and Roger and I wrote a biographical account of the making of the record: 'We all came out to Montreux...' et cetera, et cetera.
"That's how it ended up on the album," he explained. "It never got played on the radio for a year because it was too long. It was only when a guy from Warner Bros. came to see a show and saw the reaction of the crowd. He ran back to the studio and did an edit of three and a half minutes, and it got played for the first time on the radio. That was a year after the album release. It would never have gotten played if we hadn't done the edit."
Asked how he feels about that song today, Gillan said: "Like all the narrative songs, you can place yourself there. It's fantastic — I love singing it. It's such a groove. And the important thing is everyone in the audience is so involved in the song, and of course, they know every word and the groove. It's a shared experience. It's like a congregational euphoria. It's amazing. It's fantastic. I love it."
DEEP PURPLE's latest album, "Turning To Crime", came out in November via earMUSIC. The LP contains DEEP PURPLE's versions of great rock classics and musical jewels — including songs originally recorded by Bob Dylan, FLEETWOOD MAC, Bob Seger, CREAM and THE YARDBIRDS — carefully chosen by each member of the band.
DEEP PURPLE played two gigs in Florida last month but currently has no other U.S. shows scheduled for this year.