Who knows why we were going to Switzerland in 2018 for a holiday as this country was not on my bucket list? I suppose it was because my wife was a travel consultant and she thought it would be a good destination to sell to her clients. Given that I was always invited along as the bag carrier, taxi finder and train ticket purchaser, my role wasn’t to choose the destination but to be a useful support act. To be honest I didn’t know a lot about Switzerland apart from names like William Tell, the Matterhorn, Albert Einstein and Toblerones. However, when the itinerary was being discussed, I immediately suggested that Montreux had to be on the list, if not the whole of Lake Geneva. I not only knew that any world music star of any credibility always tried to get a gig at the Montreux Festival, but more importantly, it was the inspiration for one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. Deep Purple’s biggest hit, ‘Smoke on the Water’.
One of the attractions of this famous rock & roll recording is that it tells a real disaster story about a fire that broke out in the Montreux casino in 1971 and its impact on Deep Purple’s plans to record an LP which was the purpose for their being at Montreux in the first place. The riff for the song was written by Richie Blackmore as a four-note, blues scale melody. Years later Blackmore claimed that the riff was an inversion of part of Beethoven’s Symphony #5, which has resulted in music buffs over the last few generations trying to prove or disprove this exalted claim.
So in doing my research to justify my choice of visiting Montreux, I found online a couple of photos of a memorial to, not so much Deep Purple, but to the four chord riff of the chorus, situated somewhere in Montreux. When discussing with my travelling companions the idea of including Montreux in the itinerary, my enthusiasm took over and so I said, “Not only will we visit this memorial, we will take cigars with us and blow smoke on the water to honour the occasion!” Only one other member of the group (the male!) thought this was a good idea but the tolerant ladies were sure there would be plenty of other sights to see on the shores of Lake Geneva.
As the planning of the trip continued, I recalled another reason that would assist in my justification for visiting Montreux, given that it would involve a long train trip with 3 or 4 train changes on the way from Zermatt down in southern Switzerland. I explained to the group that two other famous literary gentlemen (like ourselves!) had travelled with their ‘partners’ to Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 and had passed through Montreux on the way to visit the castle of Chillon, just a ferry ride down the shores of the Lake. This was an infamous event in London social circles of the time as both of the ‘unmarried’ partners returned home pregnant to their fellow tourists, the famous Romantic poets, Lord George Byron and Percy Byssshe Shelley.
So we travelled from our home for the week in Zermatt, making four changes of train on the way to Montreux. One member of the party was so tense with expectation that he struggled not to light his ceremonial cigar in the train.
I had read in Wikipedia the following details of our specific destination in the town. “The song is honoured in Montreux by a sculpture along the lake shore (right next to the statue of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury) with the band’s name, the song title, and the riff in musical notes.” So this is where we were headed when the train dropped us off at Montreux Station and we strolled down to the foreshore of the lake. Of course the beauty of the lake is enough to distract anybody, as is the need for coffee and Swiss pastries so it took us a while to make it down to the foreshore park.
The first sign that we were getting close to our target destination was finding the statue of Freddy Mercury. Freddy had spent considerable time in the town as the plaque on his statue indicates. “…Queen acquired the Lakeside Mountain Recording Studios in 1978 and Freddie’s strong links with the town continued until his death. He appreciated the kindness and discretion of the townspeople and Montreux became a haven for him, his second home and the setting for his final work.” The above photo on the right of Freddy in action was taken in 2013 and if we had seen this image before our 2018 visit, our destination problem would have been solved. In the garden area of the building in the background can be seen the large musical notes signifying the four-chord riff of ‘Smoke on the Water’. They weren’t there when we arrived to do homage.
On the day of our visit, we could not locate any reference to Deep Purple or a memorial to ‘Smoke on the Water’ in the gardens or in the vicinity of Freddy Mercury’s statue. There was a conveniently located Tourist information Centre on the foreshore of the lake nearby so I visited and inquired of the very busy lady behind the counter where the memorial to Deep Purple might be located. She gave me the Gallic look of contempt that I presumed she used on all confused tourists and said, “Freddy Mercury’s statue is just over there, there are no Deep Purple statues!” With that she rushed off somewhere to the back office leaving me bitter and disappointed that our pilgrimage to commune with the spirit of Deep Purple had been a waste of our time.
It was only a little later in the morning that I decided there was something suspicious in the contemptuous way the Tourist info madame brushed off my innocent inquiry. I suspect she could have said something like, “There has never been a statue(s) of Deep Purple in Montreux…perhaps you are looking for the small memorial to the song, ‘Smoke on the Water’; there used to be a small memorial over there in front of Marche Couvert (Covered market) but unfortunately it became very rusty and was removed.” Alas she didn’t feel in the mood to let me down sensitively.
When I broke the news to my cigar wielding colleague, he was very depressed and we both looked out over the waters of Lac Leman, concerned at yet another failure in our life dreams. It was then we noticed what looked like a red phone box a little further along the lake side; perhaps it would give us more clues to continue our journey. It was a red metal and glass box containing all sorts of wheels, cogs and other devices whose entire function was to continually send a ball rolling around the inside of the box. It was a ‘sculpture’ that was dedicated to one Claude Nobs! Realising that this was the heroic Funky Claude from the tale of ‘Smoke on the Water,’ our spirits returned, realising that ‘the chase was on’ again!
Apart from rescuing people from the burning casino on the night of the Zappa concert, Claude went on to directing the Montreux Jazz festival for many years as well as being involved in many other efforts to promote Montreux. He died in 2013. Why he got a memorial phone box for his services whose inside looked like a Quantum science experiment is anyone’s guess…perhaps it spoke to his inner complexity.
If Deep Purple come across in the lyrics of ‘Smoke on the Water’ as the martyrs of the situation, they do make a clear reference in the lyrics to the band who were actually playing in the Casino Hall that night, Frank Zappa and the Mothers. This is a shortened version of the band’s name; I think the full name has got to be one of the greatest names for a pop group ever… “the Mothers of Invention”. On a Facebook webpage dedicated to the Mothers of Invention in 2020, the 1971 event was remembered as follows.
“…The band was performing “King Kong” – about 80 minutes into the show – when, during Don Preston’s synthesizer solo, someone shot off a flare gun. The flare hit the wooden roof and quickly spread, completely engulfing the casino in flames. All of the band’s equipment was destroyed, with the exception of a cowbell. Though there were some injuries, thankfully the event did not result in any casualties…” The record of no casualties speaks much for the behaviour of the band that night and the effective organisation led by Claude Nobs.
Frank Zappa died at the age of 53 with cancer in 1993.
After we had inspected Claude Nobs memorial, we decided that we were as close to the spirit of Deep Purple as we could get. We determined that it was time to break out the cigar and blow smoke on the waters of Lake Geneva in memory of that tragic day that burnt the old Casino down but proved inspirational for Richie Blackmore. Our partners in life and travel were not that interested in this process so they decided to sit away from us on the steps of the Covered Market and let us get on with our curious ceremony. The Marche Couvert at Montreux, seen in the image below right, was built in 1891-92 and was a beautiful site for watching the other tourists (and the eccentrics) pass by.
At all great moments, there are always small details that interfere with the solemnity of the occasion, such as when the wind off the water decided to make it difficult to get our cigar alight. Once it was alight, keeping it burning was a problem and my colleague’s lung capacity struggled in providing the puff to ensure the cigar reached its full potential. But like all determined acolytes, our persistence paid off and smoke was duly blown out over the rippling waters of lake Leman as we thanked the Gods of Rock and Roll for the gift of Deep Purple and the sacred riff that was the soundtrack of our disturbed psyches.
After we blew enough cigar smoke out over the ripples on the lake, we decided we had done enough to complete our journey’s task that appeared to have been doomed from the start. Confused and bemused, we headed for the train and our long journey back to Zermatt by the ‘Golden Pass Line’, a little down-hearted that we hadn’t found the right spot to commune with the spirit of Deep Purple’s premier work
This sense of being let down by both Deep Purple and Montreux might have stayed with us to darken the rest of our dreary days except for the results of some follow up research that I completed not long after we arrived home from our ill-fated journey. I found the original photo (on the left) that had sparked my interest in travelling to Montreux in the first place. Looking back at the photo of our partners sitting on the steps of the Marche Couvert (see above), I realised that they were sitting on the steps next to the gardens where the original memorial to ‘Smoke on the Water’ had been built. If only we had sat down with them to do our ‘smoking ceremony’! Looking back, we probably wouldn’t have been welcome to join them given their negative views about the health impact of smoking.
I have to confess the whole journey to Montreux made me feel like one of the disciples who went looking for signs of Jesus after Easter Sunday, only to find an empty grave. We went looking to find a memorial to our youthful rock Gods, only to find an empty garden. Like the Romans running Jerusalem two millennia before us, the good burghers of Montreux had decided that a monument to long haired, loud, pop stars and their lackeys and groupies who triggered riots and fires in key urban facilities, should be removed to further discourage poor behaviour in public. Those in search of Deep Purple were to be left, confused and bewildered, wandering dejectedly along their own road to Emmaus.
APPENDIX 1: Empress Elizabeth (Sisi) of Austro Hungary.
If we had have continued to explore the foreshore of Montreux, we would have eventually come across this statue of Sissi, the late 19th century Empress of Austro Hungary. Hers was a difficult reign and spent much of the last ten years of her life away from her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph. She was assassinated by a crazed Italian anarchist who stabbed her on the waterfront at Geneva in September of 1898 as she was about to board a ferry for Montreux. It was a tragic end for a much-loved royal figure of the time. More info on her life can be found here…https://fogtravel.blog/hapsburg-tragedies/