A song about a true event, “Smoke On The Water” went on to become not only the breakout song for Deep Purple’s career, but their best seller as well. The song illustrates the story of the recording of the Machine Head album, and the many twists and turns involved along the way.
The band recorded the album in Montreux’s Grand Hotel, which was vacant for the off-tourist season, after an aborted attempt at recording in a local theater when they was forced to find a different recording venue after the neighbors complained about the noise. The basic tracks of “Smoke” there first were recorded there first, but the vocals, as well as the rest of Machine Head, were later finished in the makeshift recording environment of the Grand Hotel.
“Smoke On The Water” is a fairly simple song consisting of the basic guitar riff that acts as an intro and interlude, along with verse and chorus sections. There is no bridge, but a twist at the end of the guitar solo acts as a bridge in that it adds tension and release to the song. The guitar solo, and later the outro organ solo, is over a verse with an altered arrangement. The song ends in a fade, although a later live version released as a single several years later has a hard ending.
As stated previously, the lyrics outline an event during the making of the recording. The lyrics seem a little forced in places, but generally sing well, while the melody is very memorable, especially the hook during the chorus. The song’s form looks like this:
intro | verse | chorus | interlude | verse | chorus | interlude | solo | tag | interlude | outro
The song begins with a fairly long intro that starts with the guitar playing the main riff by itself twice. On the third time through, a double time high hat enters, followed by the snare drum on the next. On the next two times through, both the bass and organ enter.
The verse keeps all instruments in the mix, although the parts change; first with a fairly discipled part for the guitar, and fairly free-form parts for the bass and organ. During the chorus, the drums change the part slightly, while a second harmony vocal enters. The next verse and chorus are virtually the same, except for an organ fill towards the end of the second verse.
The guitar solo is interesting in that it’s basically a verse except that the drums switch to a galloping snare drum pattern and the bass switches to a much more active pattern. The end of the section also has an 4 bar tag that acts like a bridge where the guitar solo plays across the next intro/riff section. The last verse and chorus are again identical to the previous.
During the outro, the organ takes the lead as the song fades out, as the drums change their pattern once again.
The Foundation: bass and drums
The Rhythm: high hat in the intro, bass during the verses
The Pad: organ during the chorus
The Lead: vocal, guitar and organ solo
The Fills: organ
Even though “Smoke On The Water” wasn’t recorded in a “proper” recording studio, the sound is generally excellent, especially the drums. In fact, the drum sound is closer to something that you might hear today than the norm of the day.
The record was recorded using The Rolling Stones mobile recording studio which was packaged in a large truck and responsible for quite a number of big selling albums from the 1970s, include several Led Zeppelin albums as well as albums for Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Bob Marley and many others. The truck was equipped with a 16 track tape recorder, which was more than enough for Deep Purple to record on, since the band wasn’t noted for highly embellished tracks at this time.
While you’ll hear only a single short plate reverb on the recording, the echo on the guitar solo was supplied by a Revox tape recorder that was a permanent part of Ritchie Blackmore’s stage setup. As well as adding echo when needed, it also added an additional level of overdrive that the guitarist liked.
The guitar is panned to the left, but you can hear the reverb on the right side during the intro when it plays by itself. The organ, which is run through a Marshall amplifier stack to sound more like a guitar, is panned to the right.
- To the excellent sounding drums, especially the snare
- To the tape echo on the guitar solo
- To the organ sound that emulates a guitar
- To the precision of the drum fills going from section to section
“Smoke On The Water” is a very simple song played exceedingly well but a group of superb musicians. Listen to any garage band play the song and you’ll understand that the nuances make the recording, and that’s usually what’s missing in just about any cover of the song that you’ll hear.
While the spotlight is on guitarist Blackmore and vocalist Ian Gillan in this song, it’s the drumming of Ian Paice that pushes it along. The precision of his drumming frequently goes unacknowledged, but a serious listen shows what he master he really is. Listen to any drum fill that bridges the various sections of the song and you’ll find massive technique along with unassailable taste. The fact that he makes it sound and look so easy is exactly what makes the parts work.
The other part of the song’s production that’s interesting is the disciplined guitar part that Blackmore plays during the verse of the song. While organist Jon Lord is left to improvise, Blackmore’s part stays rock-solid throughout, something that’s usually missed by your local cover band."
You can find more song deconstructions from all eras and all genres in my Deconstructed Hits series of books. You can read additional excerpts from this and my other books on the book excerpts section of my web site.