How a Frank Zappa Concert Mishap Inspired “Smoke on the Water”

American singer, songwriter and guitarist Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993) at the Oval cricket ground in London to perform in the Rock at the Oval concert, UK, 16th September 1972
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Frank Zappa wowed audiences for over three decades with his unique sound. Zappa’s eclectic style was mostly self-taught but was often controversial in the music world with some criticizing his music for lacking emotional depth. Even so, you can’t deny the influence that he has had on other musicians and composers, and even one trainwreck concert inspired a popular song by another group. On December 4, 1971, Zappa was performing at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland and was jamming out when one of the members of the crowd got a little too excited.

Years later, Zappa reflected that it was either a Molotov cocktail or fired a flare toward the ceiling that caused a fire that began to spread rapidly. The concert was quickly over and fans were herded to leave the casino before it collapsed. Meanwhile, in the same town, the group Deep Purple was working on new songs for their upcoming album. They noticed the “smoke on the water,” and it led to what would be one of their greatest hits.

Frank Zappa

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Think of the lyrics: “We all came out to Montreux/ On the Lake Geneva shoreline/ To make records with a mobile, yeah/ We didn’t have much time now/ 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, you guys are great,” and so on.

Unfortunately for Zappa and his band, not long after, they experienced another setback at a show in London. After losing their equipment in the fire, they had to rent gear for their show at the Rainbow Theatre. During the encore performances, an audience member ran up and pushed Zappa off the stage and he suffered serious injuries including a crushed larynx, which caused significant changes in his voice even after healing. He had to use a wheelchair for quite some time and had to take a break from touring.

American singer and musician Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993) during a press conference at the Royal Garden Hotel in London, UK, 5th September 1974

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After many ups and downs, ultimately Zappa passed away on December 4, 1993, from prostate cancer. The music industry paid tribute to Zappa after his death with a posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Though he has been gone for thirty years, Zappa and his music will never be forgotten. Let’s listen to some of his greatest hits in his honor and then tell us, what’s your favorite Frank Zappa song?

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March 2023

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