Smoke On The Water – A Critique

Jon Lord, former keyboard player for Deep Purple, one of my favorite Brit bands back in the day, died yesterday of cancer. He was a co-writer of the band's signature song, "Smoke on the Water," so I thought it'd be a nice tribute to Lord, and the band, to critique the songs lyrics. Since I critique writing, and all that. The lyrics follow the graphic:

image via


We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky, smoke on the water

They burned down the gamblin' house,
It died with an awful sound
and Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race
Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky, smoke on the water

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights and a few old beds
We make a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we'll never forget
Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky, smoke on the water


Every pimple-faced kid with a guitar learned at least the first couple of bars of the guitar into, and that guitar break's largely how the song is remembered by its fans.  Still, there's something to be said for the lyrics.

First, the title evokes an image that's probably very personal – remember, there was a lot of free associatiative sensibility to many of that era's lyrics. But as you bore into the first verse, you get a picture of kids on a lark, the world before them. Think idealism. Think craziness. Think fun-loving freedom. Personified here by Frank Zappa.

Then amid that freedom, some kid ends up burning down some unnamed building, referred to as a "gambling palace." 

The second verse refers again to craziness in the person of Funky Claude, probably out of character (but maybe not), who is helping protect bystanders. Something's clearly been lost for the kids, but the song doesn't spell that out.

And finally in the last verse, the Grand Hotel seems a relic, a place of the past, but the kids seem determined to persist in …what?…the craziness? The idealism? The fun? 

This is, I think, a most memorable yeoman's metaphor for those times. Idealism ran into a resistant reality – and the zaniness and exhuberance of youth can only last so long. There's a lot of unspoken irony here, and not a little implied history of a turbulent era, and I like to think that's had as much to do with the song's long-standing popularity as the over-famed guitar riff.

But then, there are the memories………and the image of smoke on the water.


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