The Reel Story Behind “Smoke on the Water”
By Frank Gryner (originally published in Premiere Guitar)
Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time…and while it’s more likely to walk into your local music store and hear it being played incorrectly, the fact that young players would even want to play this 40 year old rock relic is a testament to its timelessness.
Like many legendary recordings, conflicting accounts of their creation can be augmented by media hype, fading memories, and of course, any drugs that may have been consumed before, during and after the recording. Today, we’ll focus on what we can corroborate from the original master multi-track tapes and piece together the real story behind “Smoke on the Water”.
Location, Location, Location
Machine Head was Deep Purple’s fifth album and was recorded under the watchful eye of Martin Birch (Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and early Fleetwood Mac) on 16 track 2” tape at 15 ips with no noise reduction. They recorded it over three weeks in Montreux, Switzerland using a mobile studio truck rented from the Rolling Stones. Remember, back in those days location recording wasn’t as simple as throwing your laptop and Mbox into the back of your Prius! It’s a good reminder to keep your recordings adventurous!
Master Tapes Don’t Lie
For most of us, Ian Gillan’s lyrics on “Smoke on the Water” have already documented the back story of Machine Head very well. The fire that broke out amidst the Frank Zappa concert thwarted plans to record in that very Casino complex, forcing the band to record in the “cold and empty” Grand Hotel. But as much as the words attempt to tell the story of recording the album, the basic tracks for “Smoke” were not tracked at the Grand Hotel as the lyrics suggest. A freshly burned down casino isn’t an appropriate place to lay down tracks in the middle of winter, nor was the Pavilion local theatre either…but they tried. Apparently police were called on a noise complaint and shut the band down just moments after the final take of “Smoke” was recorded, prompting them to settle into the seasonally vacant Grand Hotel for the rest of the record.
From listening and comparing the stereo ambient room tracks of “Smoke in the Water” to the other songs on Machine Head, I can distinctly hear a larger room than what was captured in the hallway of the hotel. Soloing these tracks may be the closest thing to actually being present in the Pavilion theatre as Deep Purple tracked this historic performance. Upon further scrutiny of these tell-all room tracks, sometimes it’s what you don’t hear that can be the most interesting. Healthy amounts of bleed from Blackmore’s rhythm guitar seemed to blend organically with Lord’s overdriven organ while Paice’s drums seemed smaller and distant off to the right. Unlike all the other songs tracked at the hotel, there is no bass bleed into these ambient microphones, leading me to believe that Birch was able to sufficiently isolate Glover’s bass cabinet from the main tracking room. There is, however, enough bleed and band ambience in the bass track that confirms it was not an overdub, but in fact, played live with the others. In all cases, the direct instrument tracks absolutely match up with these ambient ones, proving that there was no punch-ins or individual fixes to any of the performances. While the story of police intervention may be true, there is no evidence on the tracks that could substantiate that this occurred immediately following the take. Even following the short vamp that happens after the fade, each instrument peels away to several seconds of dead air only to reveal a barely audible “…have a listen?” uttered by one of the band members or Birch on the talkback.
The anniversary edition of Machine Head features a remix of “Smoke on the Water” that unveiled an alternate guitar solo. In addition to that lead, there is another Blackmore solo outtake on the reel that I speculate was a precursor to both the alternate take and the album version solo. It starts several bars earlier and goes several bars beyond the length of the actual solo section. It was played entirely with the bridge pick up and seemed more like a discovery take with a not-quite finessed version of Ritchie’s famous staccato picked-bend and release figure that occurs at the end of the final solo.
Chillin’ Like Gillan
Guitar outtakes weren’t the only unused tracks residing on the multi-track tape. Ian Gillan had a scratch vocal that sounded more like a guide track than an actual contender for the final mix. There were a few places that sounded almost spoken rather than sung and the performance was definitely pitchier than the master take. Aside from several instances of different vocal phrasings, there was a variance in Ian’s reference to Claude Nobs (founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival) who saved the lives of concert goers in the casino fire. On this track he sung: “Dear Claude was running in and out pulling people out of the ground” as opposed to the familiar “Funky Claude was running in and out pulling kids out the ground” as can be heard in the final version. There was also more of Ian’s signature bluesy adlibs that past the point of where the singing stopped on the original version and kept going to where the song fades. It’s in this section where the famous “Break a leg, Frank” line was recorded which made reference to Zappa’s accident on a London stage days after the fire in Montreux.
Learning More by Listening
Well, we may not have unearthed some classic rock conspiracy here, but we now may have a better understanding of what went into Deep Purple’s biggest hit, “Smoke on the Water”. While we may never see the Gillan, Lord, Blackmore, Glover, Paice line up together again, no clash of egos or creative differences could ever diminish the spirit captured in Switzerland, December 1971 --when rock n’ roll history was made despite all kinds of adversity.