Choosing travel destinations is part of the fun of travel. The more links our own life has with where we are travelling to, the more interesting the experience will be. The more questions we have about our destination, the more fulfilling the journey will be. A blank canvas about where you are going is not a helpful place to start any trip of a lifetime. For example, links going back to my teenage years with the town of Montreux on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French) is probably why it was the first site added to our itinerary when I knew we would be going to Switzerland in 2018.
Montreux is in the Canton of Vaud on Lake Geneva. For me, hearing the name Montreux triggers fond memories of both music that I have loved in the past and literature and literary figures from my early education that have always intrigued me. These memories revolve around…
- LP Records of great musicians that have played at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
- The four chord riff that opened the unforgettable “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple plus the amazing story as told by the lyrics of the song.
- The English Romantic poets that I studied both at school and at university, two of whom travelled to the Montreux region at significant times in their lives. But in the end, who doesn’t want to stroll along the famous Lac Leman just for itself.
In preparing for the trip, we developed two solid purposes for visiting this Swiss lakeside ‘playground’. We wanted to blow smoke on the water in the same town that inspired Deep Purple’s big song! We also wanted to visit the Castle of Chillon that Lord George Byron and Percy Byssshe Shelley visited in the summer of 1816 on their tour along the shore of the Lake from their rented accommodation outside of Geneva.
So a reminder of the story of ‘Smoke on the Water’ is necessary. Deep Purple were in Montreux in December 1971 to record their latest album as was the infamous Frank Zappa with his group whose name is amongst the most perfect in pop history… ‘The Mothers of Invention’. During the ‘Mothers’ concert, “some stupid” fired off a flare gun into the casino ceiling resulting in it being burnt down. Deep Purple were watching the fire from their hotel windows and were highly outraged as the place was where they going to be recording their next album. This was the backstory to the creation of the number four greatest guitar riff in rock history (according to ‘Total Guitar’ magazine!)
So we travelled from our home for the week in Wengen, making four changes of train on the way to Montreux. One in the party was so tense with expectation that he struggled not to light his 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 headed 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 walk down to the foreshore towards where the shiny new Casino is.
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.” Freddy’s statue had clearly drawn many others to Montreux with vaguely similar motives to our own; they wanted to leave flowers at Freddy’s feet, we wanted to blow smoke on the water!
To our disappointment, we could not locate any reference to Deep Purple or ‘Smoke on the Water’ in the vicinity of Freddy Mercury’s statue. By this stage, in my mind we were looking for statues of long-haired, guitar playing rock stars, not simply a band name with a few musical notes beside it. 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 statues of 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 she brushed off my innocent inquiry.
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.
We decided that we were as close to the spirit of Deep Purple (the Globe’s loudest band according to the Guiness Book of Records for 1975) as we could get so we decided it was time to break out the cigar and blow smoke on the waters of Lake Geneva in memory of that tragic and wonderful day that burnt the old Casino down but inspired the four chord riff that Ritchie Blackmore compared to Beethoven’s First Movement in his Fifth Symphony! 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 alight was a problem and my colleague’s lung capacity struggled in provided the puffing to ensure the cigar reached it’s full potential. But like all determined acolytes, our persistence paid off and smoke was duly blown out over the rippling waters of lake Geneva 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 floating out over the ripples of the lake water, we began walking back to the train station. Just past the Freddy’s statue we noticed what to us looked like a large outdoor market facility. It attracted our attention because the lake side walls were distorted in curves and what looked like molten bronze was starting to drip down over the edge. I called a halt to my cigar accomplice and pointed out the curious design of the walls of this lake front public facility.
I said, “This place looks like it is melting!”
He said, “This looks like what is left over after a building has been burnt to the ground in a serious fire!”
We then pondered for a few minutes the question as to whether this public, roofed, shore-front shelter was somehow designed to remind the visitor of the story of the fire that burned down the casino so many years ago. We searched for a plaque to confirm this idea but there was nothing. Confused and bemused, we headed for the train and our long journey back to Wengen 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 some follow up research on the web. After a few attempts at finding the right combination of words to submit to Mr Google, the words “Deep Purple monument Montreux” worked and the following two photos appeared!
These were clearly the same curved walls suggesting melting corrugated iron that were the base of the structure that we took to to be an outdoor market facility. These were the same walls that we had walked past on our search for signs of Deep Purple’s presence beside this famous lake. The images attached to the wall were certainly not there on the day we strolled along, looking for signs of ‘fire in the sky’ but they were exactly as Wikipedia had described the ‘monument’ we would find at Montreux. A cryptic note under one of these net-distributed photos said, “This monument has been removed!”
It made me feel like one of the disciples who went looking for signs of Jesus after Easter Sunday, only to find an empty tomb. We went looking to find and participate in some smoke on the water, only to find an empty wall. Like the Romans running Jerusalem, 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, were not to be encouraged by public memorials. Those in search of Deep Purple were to be left, confused and bewildered, wandering dejectedly along their own road to Emmaus.
The wave of ‘fish freedom’ at Montreux.