Writer’s note: This Disciplehood entry is not really about disciplehood. It should really be part of a blog called Amateurmusicologisthood, but I’m not sure I have enough material to get into that (or enough expertise to make it worthwhile). But I had some musicology musings to share about Smoke on the Water, so here’s a one-off sidebar to the Smoke blog entry.
Have you listened to Smoke on the Water lately?
I have – a lot – since it became one of my son’s favourite songs, and that inspired me to write the Smoke blog entry. And I’ve come to an important conclusion: this song, and several of the people who performed it, are decidedly under-valued.
Smoke on the Water is often seen as a significant contribution to guitarhood for reasons I refer to in Smoke. But when we listen to the song, we often focus on the lyrics and riff, and dismiss the melody, production and in general, the song overall, as monotonous and repetitive.
It is, but if you listen closely and actively, there’s an awful lot going on that really shouldn’t be missed. The simple, repetitive chord progression provides a very solid foundation for some really interesting musicianship.
Because the riff is so distinctive and recognizable, and the most noticeable portion of the song is Ritchie Blackmore’s undeniably nimble and creative solo, Smoke is generally viewed as a guitar showpiece.
It is that, but there’s a fantastic band at work in this track, and each musician’s performance is essential.
First, nobody gargles rocks like vocalist Ian Gillan, and nowhere are his distinctive pipes better used than on this track. He’s absolutely inimitable.
Second, I’m not sure whose idea it was to pair power chords on a heavily distorted guitar with a Hammond organ, but that guy deserves a pat on the back. This approach is hardly unique – Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild and Magic Carpet Ride are some of the best examples of this approach at work. But nobody plays keys in quite the way Jon Lord did on Smoke. Rather than trying to go toe-to-toe with the band’s official showboat and nutcase (Blackmore), thereby overwhelming and distracting from the overall vibe of the music (Ray Manzarek of The Doors, anyone?), Lord’s less-is-more approach actually makes an axephile like me wish there was more organ in the song.
Ian Paice’s drumming is perhaps less remarkable, but he brings a particular flavour to the song that would be missing if anyone else were playing – unless they painstakingly aped his every mis-beat.
But the Most Unsung Purpler Award has to go to bassist Roger Glover. Blackmore’s walk up and down the fretboard during the riff would be so much less interesting if Glover didn’t provide that constant ride on the bottom end throughout. Thankfully, Glover does get to show off a bit with a really inventive bass line during the verses – providing a tasty interplay with Lord’s keyboard hopping. Glover also punctuates the solo with some nifty bass acrobatics that somehow only accentuate the guitar solo, rather than distracting from it.
Machine Head is far from my favourite Deep Purple album, and Smoke on the Water is far from my favourite Deep Purple track (Perfect Strangers and Knocking at Your Back Door hold those honours respectively).
But I don’t think there is any example in rock of a band that is greater than the sum of its members than the Deep Purple Mark 2 lineup, and none of their songs better reflect this attribute than Smoke on the Water. (I hope they’re not turning purple with embarrassment at my gushing.)
If you’re ever wondering what musical generosity, synergy and interplay sound like, get out the headphones and listen to this song a few dozen times in a row.
Rock be with you!