50 Years of Smoke on the Water
by Bob Smith


There are a handful of Classic Rock guitar riffs that every budding garage rocker learns almost as soon as they plug in their Stratocaster for the first time. Anyone who has set foot in a music store over the past 50 years has heard them, ringing dissonantly from the far corner of the guitar room.

Les Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is probably the best known example of these. This is thanks in large part to the 1992 movie “Wayne’s World” in which a music store employee famously shuts Mike Myers down as soon as begins the pick the song’s opening arpeggio.

Other examples of these ubiquitous riffs include Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and the Knack’s “My Sharona.” However, the legendary Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” stands above them all. For many, the song’s four power chord crunch defines 70’s Rock & Roll. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the bizarre true story that gave birth to the classic.

In December 1971, the members of Deep Purple had convened in Montreaux, Switzerland to record tracks for what would be the album “Machine Head.” During a break in the recording session the guys went to a Frank Zappa & The Mother of Invention concert in a casino on the shores of Lake Geneva.

As the song’s lyric tells in remarkably specific detail, “Some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground.” Fortunately no one was killed, but the venue was destroyed. The band’s recording space was affected by the fire and they had to relocate. The first song they wrote in their temporary new digs was “Smoke on the Water.” The group disliked the song at first and almost excluded it from the album. 50 years later, guitar store clerks everywhere wish they had. Ultimately “Machine Head”came to be known as the definitive album from one of the biggest bands history, and “Smoke on the Water” their most popular song. With its infectious hook and storied history it is destined to live on as a Rock & Roll time capsule for generations to come.

Bob Smith is a musician and blogger, best known professionally as The Static Dive

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