On December 4th 1971, almost exactly 50 years ago, the iconic Montreux Casino was destroyed by fire. To the younger ones amongst you, this sad event will mean nothing. And for those who are older, or reside beyond Europe, the demise of a casino in Switzerland, half a century ago, may also mean very little.
But of course, as many of you will know, there is a lot more to a story that is quite legendary. The original Montreux Casino building, on the banks of Lake Geneva, was constructed in 1881 as a venue for symphony orchestras. By the 1960s, it was operating as a casino but had also extended its musical remit to become home to the famous annual Montreux Jazz Festival. Artists that played the festival over the years included Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. As the 1960s drew to a close, rock acts began playing concerts at the Montreux Casino, and these included Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.
And then, at the end of 1971, disaster struck and one of the most celebrated tracks in the history of rock music was inadvertently inspired. The fire happened during a performance by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. The story goes that the band was performing their classic ‘King Kong’ and during keyboard player Don Preston’s solo, a fan fired a flare gun and the flare hit the wooden roof of the Casino.
Frank Zappa may have been an eccentric and even controversial individual, but he was not stupid, and he calmly asked the audience to leave the building, commenting afterwards that he felt “lucky that so many were able to speak English, because I didn’t know what to say to them in French.”
In what can only be described as a bizarre later coincidence, Frank Zappa himself actually passed away on December 4th, 22 years later in 1993, sadly aged just 53.
The original Montreux Casino was almost totally destroyed that night 50 years ago but, in another twist in this tale, this disastrous event was soon to be immortalised forever.
British rock band Deep Purple were in Montreux to record their 1972 album, Machine Head. They had borrowed a mobile studio from The Rolling Stones and wear staying in a nearby hotel. Forced out of their rooms by smoke, and shocked by the sight of the burning building, the band wrote what became their best-known song and one of the most recognisable tracks in rock music history, Smoke on the Water. Its unforgettable lyrics recount that night and are part of the soundtrack of so many of our lives: “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 & 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, a fire in the sky…”
The Montreux Casino was rebuilt and re-opened in 1975. Today it is owned by Groupe Lucien Barriere and known as Casino Barriere de Montreux, offering panoramic views of Lake Geneva and the Alps, and 10,000sqm of entertainment space, featuring 377 slots, 24 live gaming tables, electronic games, poker rooms, three restaurants, two bars, two terraces, a swimming pool and an area now exclusively dedicated to Queen, the former Mountain Studios.
The Montreux Casino has enjoyed strong musical connections for over 135 years but will probably forever be known for a song about an event that happened exactly 50 years ago this week, and an introductory riff that lead guitarist, Richie Blackmore, has always claimed to have stolen from Beethoven!