The True Meaning Behind Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water'

The lakeside casino in the Swiss town of Montreux has been cemented in rock history as a landmark of a concert miracle, as well as the inspiration for one of the most iconic guitar riffs in history. That's right: English rock band Deep Purple's classic "Smoke on the Water" was fully inspired by a casino fire that decimated the building — and almost cost concertgoers their lives.

It was Dec. 4,  1971 when Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a show at the casino. 80 minutes into the set, as Don Preston was firing up his synthesizer solo during "King Kong" that someone in the crowd fired a flare gun, which quickly spread across the wooden ceiling, according to Ultimate Classic Rock.

The black smoke rising from the nearby Lake Geneva inspired the song's title, per NPR. 

If the legend sounds too crazy to be true, just take a look at the lyrics for "Smoke on the Water": "Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around/But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground/They burned down the gambling house/It died with an awful sound."

They were singing about real smoke

At the time of the concert, Deep Purple was staying in Montreux using a sound truck rented from the Rolling Stones to record songs, According to NPR. The band escaped their rooms without incident, but were not spared in witnessing the horrific scene around them: 

"There was a large door on the right hand side as you face the stage but I do not know if it was open or closed," later wrote attendee Peter Schneider in a 2009 blog post about the incident. "I stood behind the crowd who were trying to get out through the large glass windows which covered the whole of the front of the building from one side to the other .. The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump."

It was only after the fire spread to the building's heating system that the fire caused an explosion. Although nobody was killed in the blaze, the casino was completely destroyed, as well as all of the band's equipment except for — wait for it — a cowbell, per Ultimate Classic Rock.

The details are cloudy

However, Schneider disputes several details of the events, which he detailed years later: "The fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe (who fled the very next day back home)," he wrote. "I do not think that it was started by a flare gun as it says in the song, but by the boy throwing lighted matches in the air, and one of them got stuck on the very low ceiling. ... So the fire started right above where the boy was sitting on the low-lying ceiling beams."

Before long, the lyrical story of smoke rising from Lake Geneva hit radio waves internationally, and Ritchie Blackmore's guitar riff was being copied by every teenager who could pick up a guitar. The resulting tune, "Smoke on the Water" charted at number 4 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1973 and went on to be included in the 2004 version of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."