Friday, March 12, 2010

March 12: Deep Purple, "Smoke On The Water"

Artist: Deep Purple
Song: "Smoke On The Water"
Album: Machine Head
Year: 1972

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Throughout music history, there are memorable lyrics, hooks, and moments; all of which have the ability to cross the boundaries of generations and musical tastes.  Then of course, there is “Smoke On The Water.”  Without question one of the most instantly recognizable and iconic songs in history, it remains one of the most treasured songs ever recorded.  Filled with truth and lies, as well as some of the finest musicianship ever, the song is all on its own in terms of status, and yet, it is one of the many classic songs that almost “never was.”  By far Deep Purple’s most famous composition, one can make the case that, while it is such an important part of music history, it may not be the finest moment on the groups’ classic 1972 record, Machine Head.  However, even if there is possibly a more complex musical arrangement on the album (“Highway Star”), one simply cannot deny the lasting impact of “Smoke On The Water,” and it is similarly almost impossible to think of a world in which the song did not exist.  From the iconic guitar riff to the story within the lyrics, everything about the song is truly perfect, and it is no surprise that the single powered the record to become the bands’ most commercially successful effort.  Though nearly everyone on Earth is certainly familiar with the song itself, few are aware of the truth behind the song, and this knowledge only adds to the overall greatness of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.”

Nearly everyone who has ever picked up an electric guitar as surely spent at least a few minutes smiling as they power through the iconic central riff of “Smoke On The Water.”  A simple, four-note blues scale that is harmonized in parallel fourths, the riff has been reworked by countless artists, and even was a favorite of heavy metal loving, cartoon icons, Beavis & Butthead.  The riff, composed by Ritchie Blackmore, is played slightly distorted, and Jon Lord doubles up the sound by playing the same progression on his Hammond C3 organ.  The fact that it is so basic, yet stands as such a legendary riff further supports the idea that in most cases, simpler is better.  As the hi-hat from Ian Palce comes in, the song instantly becomes one of the most catchy compositions ever recorded.  As the song progresses, bassist Roger Glover wraps around the central riff, pounding out eighth notes, which work in perfect rhythm with the rest of the track.  The final addition of the vocals of Ian Gillan are nothing short of perfect, and his voice brings the ideal balance of gritty singing, along with an undeniably powerful voice.  All of this combined together helps to push Machine Head to a place where it is undeniably one of the most important hard rock/heavy metal records ever made, and it is largely due to the power and presence of "Smoke On The Water" that this has stayed true over the decades.

While the music is without question some of the most unmistakable ever written, one cannot overlook the lyrics, as they are equally brilliant in their composition.  The song itself is based on a true story, when Deep Purple traveled to Montreux, Switzerland in order to record their album in The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio.  As fate would have it, the evening of the bands’ arrival, Frank Zappa was playing a show at the Montreux Casino, and it was an incident at this concert that forever changed music history.  While Zappa synth-player Don Preseton was playing the song, “King Kong,” someone in the crowd shot off a flare gun and the resulting fire burned the casino to the ground, sending massive clouds of smoke across Lake Geneva.  All of this is captured within the songs’ lyrics, as the band watched the casino burn from their hotel, located on the other side of the lake.  After finally finding another place to record, Deep Purple laid down the tracks that became Machine Head, and the truth of the matter is, they were not initially impressed with “Smoke On The Water.”  In fact, the song was not released as a single until well over a year after the album came out, but when it did, it cracked the top five on the singles chart.  The song has become such a part of history that the city of Montreux has erected a monument which features the core riff in notes on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Capturing literal history within music is something that is rarely done, and more to the point, it is rarely a successful venture.  Either the music does not do the event justice, or it is simply not something that has appeal within the musical form.  However, one can make the case that the legendary fire during Frank Zappa's 1971 concert in Montreux, Switzerland would never have made many headlines had it not been turned into song in the form of Deep Purple's iconic classic, "Smoke On The Water."  Led by what is unquestionably one of the most memorable guitar riffs in music history, the song is one of the most simple, yet perfectly crafted tunes ever, and it is mind-boggling to think that the band did not think the song was good when it was first recorded.  Though it is in the presence of many other amazing songs on Deep Purple's equally impressive Machine Head record, there is little question that this song is the one for which they are best known, and it still recieves regular airplay nearly fourty years after the event.  Over the years, the song has been covered by everyone from Black Sabbath to Pat Boone to Senor Coconut, and the fact that it has been able to transcend boundaries in both age and culture serves as further testament to the overall power of the song.  While there are many songs in music history that have withstood the test of time and are truly deserving of the label "iconic," there is simply no other song that is quite like Deep Purple's 1972 classic, "Smoke On The Water."

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