Smoke on the Water

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“Smoke on the Water” is a rock song by British rock band Deep Purple. It was first released on the 1972 album Machine Head. In 2004, the song was ranked #426 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in March 2005, Q magazine placed “Smoke on the Water” at number 12 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.

This song is known for and recognizable by its central theme, a four-note “blues scale” melody harmonized in parallel fourths. The riff, played on a Gibson ES-335 electric guitar by Ritchie Blackmore, is immediately joined by hi-hat and drums and electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal. Jon Lord doubles the guitar part on a Hammond B3 organ played through a distorted Marshall amp creating a very similar tone to the guitar. Blackmore uses two fingers to pluck so the pairs of notes can be played exactly simultaneously to match the organ’s timing more closely. Smoke on the Water is the only song on Machine Head that is not played on his famous Fender Stratocaster. Blackmore cited that the reason for using the Stratocaster on the other tracks was, that it was harder to play than the Gibson. From then and on he always plays on the Fender Stratocaster.

The lyrics of the song tell a true story: on December 4, 1971, Deep Purple had set up camp in Montreux, Switzerland to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio – referred to as the “Rolling truck Stones thing” and “the mobile” in the song lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as “the gambling house” in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino’s theatre. During the gig a fire broke out: “In the middle of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong”, the place suddenly caught fire. Somebody in the audience had fired a flare gun into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn”, as mentioned in the “some stupid with a flare gun” line. The resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers’ equipment. The “smoke on the water” that became the title of the song (credited to bassist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he suddenly woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Deep Purple watched the fire from their hotel across the lake. The “Funky Claude” running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.

Left with an expensive mobile recording unit and no place to record, the band was forced to scout the town for another place to set up. One promising venue (found by Nobs) was a local theatre called The Pavilion, but soon after the band had loaded in and started working/recording, the nearby neighbors took offense at the noise, and the band was only able to lay down backing tracks for one song (based on Blackmore’s riff and temporarily named Title nº1), before the local police shut them down.

Finally, after about a week of searching, the band rented out the nearly-empty Montreux Grand Hotel and converted its hallways and stairwells into a makeshift recording studio, where they laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most commercially successful album, Machine Head.

Ironically, the only song from Machine Head not recorded in the Grand Hotel was “Smoke on the Water” itself, which had been recorded during the aborted Pavilion session; only the lyrics were composed later, and the vocals were laid down in the Grand Hotel.

After 1973, vocalist Ian Gillan and Roger Glover quit the band, and were replaced by David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes, who split the vocals amongst one another. For this song, they divided it so that Coverdale sang the first verse, Hughes sang the second verse, and they both sang the third verse and choruses in harmony. However, rather than sing the third verse with the original lyrics, they chose instead to repeat the first verse every time they sang it.

When Steve Morse joined the band, it became Deep Purple tradition to have him play a solo preceding the song in concert. This solo would consist of a medley of solos, licks, and riffs from many various classic rock songs. Rather than blend them into one another, Morse separates most of the licks by playing some one-handed tapping in between them.

“Smoke on the Water” was included on Machine Head, which was released in early 1972, but was not released as a single until nearly a year later (the band has said that they did not expect the song to be a hit); the single would reach #4 on the Billboard pop single chart in the U.S. in the summer of 1973, and propel the album to the top 10. Live performance of the tune, featuring extended interplay between Blackmore’s guitar and Jon Lord’s Hammond organ would become a centerpiece of Deep Purple‘s live shows, and a version of the song from the live album Made in Japan became a minor hit on its own later in 1973.

The principal song-writers understandably included the song within their subsequent solo endeavours after Deep Purple split up. Ian Gillan in particular performed a jazz-influenced version in early solo concerts. The band Gillan adopted a feedback-soaked approach, courtesy of Gillan guitarist Bernie Torme.The song was also featured live by Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band Rainbow during their tours 1981-83, and again after Rainbow were resurrected briefly in the mid 1990′s.

During Ian Gillan’s stint with Black Sabbath in 1983, they performed “Smoke on the Water” as a regular repertoire number on encores during their only tour together. It remains one of the few cover songs that Black Sabbath have ever played live.

The song is popular among beginner guitarists, but Blackmore himself has demonstrated that most who attempt to play it do so improperly. Actually played using “fourths” as stated by Blackmore (or double stops), a power chord-driven variation on the main recognizable riff is not difficult and consequently is constantly played by learners.

According to Dimebag Darrell Abbott’s brother, Vinnie Paul Abbott, “Smoke on the Water” was the first song Dimebag learned on the guitar and the first song they played together.

“Smoke on the Water” has received the following rankings:

* #426 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
* #37 in VH1′s 40 Greatest Metal Songs
* #12 in Q magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks (March 2005)

The song is honored in Montreux by a sculpture along the lake shore (right next to Freddie Mercury‘s statue) with the band’s name, the song title, and the riff in musical notes.

The song has been covered by heavy metal band Soulfly, Power Metal band Metalium, Korean Thrash Metal band Crash, Brazilian Progressive Power Metal Angra, and many others, and was recorded by the supergroup Rock Aid Armenia. It was performed by rock act G3 and featured on the release G3: Live in Tokyo. On his album Children of the Night, Canadian rocker Nash the Slash featured a parody entitled “Dopes on the Water”. Barenaked Ladies quoted the misheard lyric “Slow motion Walter, the fire engine guy” in the song “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” on their 2000 album Maroon. The song is also sampled in “Everybody Jump 2007″ by electronic group Anti-Funky.

In 1994, in Vancouver, Canada, 1,322 guitarists gathered to play the world-famous riff all at the same time for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. On Sunday June 3rd, 2007, Kansas City radio station, 99.7 KY beat the previous record with 1,683 guitarists.

The iconic nature of the song has led to its inclusion in several music-related video games. “Smoke on the Water” is one of the playable songs for the PlayStation 2 game Guitar Hero and is also a downloadable track in Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360. It is a playable song in the PlayStation 2 game SingStar Rocks! and in the Japan-only Nintendo DS rhythm game Daigasso! Band Brothers. It is also available on Wii’s Rayman Raving Rabbids 2 as a minigame, without Verse 3. The song also appears in Konami Guitar Freaks 4th Mix.

In School of Rock, Dewey Finn (Jack Black) teaches “Smoke on the Water” to Zach Mooneyham (Joey Gaydos). Apple, Inc. incorporated this scene in its commercial for Apple TV.

The Simpsons character Otto Mann refers to the song when he claims that rock music is about “far off lands, deals with the devil, and smoke in relation to water”. The song is also referenced in an episode when Homer smokes medicinal marijuana and sings the song with the lyric “I am hungry for a candy bar, I think I’ll eat a Mounds.” The name of the song is also referred to in the The Simpsons episode Smoke on the Daughter.

Animated characters Beavis and Butthead often play the initial riff on air guitar whenever they are pleased with something or are just bored.

The song is also referenced extensively in an episode of Two and a Half Men.

The music to the song was used in a television commercial for the 2008 Dodge Avenger, when a Dodge scientist, testing gear shifts from three different cars, discovers that he can play the opening riff to “Smoke on the Water” with the gearshifts. It has also been used in the UK on a TV ad for Strongbow cider.

The song is also played following touchdowns at New York Jets games, and is the tune Leicester Tiger Rugby Union Team run out when playing at home at Welford road.

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