Smoke

If I ever had any doubt that God created rock ‘n roll, it evaporated last week at my son’s bedtime.

Ian has recently rediscovered the joys of having his dad sing him a few songs before he goes to sleep. This is a great joy for me, because I remember very fondly those special times with my dad when I was a kid, and I’m very grateful for the chance to provide the same kind of memories for my kids.

My dad will be gratified to hear that I seem to be outshining him on this matter (there are plenty more where I fall short of the Hankster, though). My siblings and I stopped asking for bedtime songs before we hit kindergarten, but Ian is still going strong at Age 8.

The material has changed a bit, though.

Instead of Baby Beluga and the sheep medley (Little Boy Blue, Little Bo Peep, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Mary Had A Little Lamb), Ian likes to rock himself to sleep. ‘Dad, play Dream Police.’ Sheepishly, I have to admit I haven’t learned that yet (it’s on my to-do list.) ‘OK, how about Smoke on the Water?’

Like almost everyone who’s ever picked up a guitar in the history of the universe, I can play Smoke on the Water (the riff and the verse, anyway – I can’t seem to find the right chords for the chorus despite having the entire World Wide Web at my disposal. Perhaps I’m overthinking it; help would be welcome).

Happily, I acquiesce to Ian’s request and play this venerable Deep Purple song, much to Ian’s delight. He sings along in the chorus and plays air guitar while lying in bed. It’s really cute, and it’s father-son time I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The other night, he asked me to tell him about the lyrics. I did, and as I described the tune, a wave of Goosebumps came over me as it was revealed to me that God was at work in the creation of this classic rock song.

For those of you who are uninitiated in Smoke On the Water Lore, I’ll explain.

First, there’s Deep Purple’s somewhat atypical approach to recording. The band preferred not to use recording studios, but instead to bring portable recording equipment to acoustically interesting buildings in exotic, stimulating or peaceful locales. And rather than having each musician record his portion of the song independently, and assembling it all flawlessly and painstakingly in the musical equivalent of a laboratory, the band often recorded its studio albums with all five members playing simultaneously. Deep Purple knew the value of spontaneity and synergy. A rock writer in the ’80s described this process as ‘recording live, without an audience.’

The band chose to record its 1972 album Machine Head in an entertainment complex that was part of a casino, in Montreux, Switzerland. They rented a mobile studio unit – at considerable cost – from the Rolling Stones.

One night, early in the session stint, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were performing at another space in the complex. During the show, an unthinking fan fired a flare gun into the ceiling of the hall and the entire complex burned to the ground. Nobody was hurt, thanks in part to the heroic efforts of Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who helped some of the audience escape the fire.

Sadly (it seemed), the fire left the Purple Ones without a place to record the album. They bounced around a bit, and ended up at the abandoned Montreux Grand Hotel, where they recorded the bulk of Machine Head. At some point during the Machine Head sessions, the band wrote Smoke On the Water about their misadventure in music. Out of reverence for the track, here are its lyrics:

We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile; we didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

They burned down the gambling house; it died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out; pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over, we had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out; it seemed that we would lose the race
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

We ended up at the Grand Hotel; it was empty cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside, making our music there
With a few red lights and a few old beds; we make a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

These lyrics track absolutely, without doubt, could not have been written if it weren’t for Purple’s penchant for unusual recording spaces. And if that ‘stupid with a flare gun’ hadn’t ‘burned the place to the ground,’ the song would not exist.

Sure, they could have applied the same riff to another song, but would its impact have been as significant if it weren’t attached to a song whose lyrics are so unusual? How many rock lyrics are true stories, that don’t relate to the beginning or ending of a sexual relationship or an appalling injustice somewhere in the world?

Deep Purple’s members wrote the track mostly for themselves, to help remember the wild ride that led to the creation of the album. They didn’t see the need to load it up with tall tales of drug-, booze- or sex-fuelled exploits that probably also happened during the Machine Head sessions, they just wrote a nifty little track about a fire and a recording session. The band didn’t think much of the song – it wasn’t even released as a single until more than a year after Machine Head’s release.

But I don’t know if any piece of music in the entire 20th century had more impact on the world. It’s completely G-rated, for one thing, so it can be enjoyed by literally anyone without qualms. (That’s definitely not true of all of Deep Purple’s repertoire, but it is of this song.)

But far more importantly, its riff is one of the most recognizable pieces of music I know of. It’s also ridiculously simple to approximate on a guitar, so it’s served as an ideal entry-level song for aspiring guitarists. It’s also a sort of musical Rosetta Stone, that is ideal to help a mechanical, music-reading, left-brain guitarist to unlock the liberating, empowering possibilities of playing by ear.

How many of us axemen (of all skill levels) cut our teeth on Smoke on the Water? How far have those seeds that Ritchie Blackmore’s immortal riff planted in us taken us as musicians? How much good have we done for ourselves? For others? For God?

Given the song’s really odd origins and its absolutely unimaginable impact, I can’t see Smoke on the Water as anything less than a miracle.

And now I get to share that miracle with my son.

Thanks be to God!

Peace be with you.

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About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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