Smoke on the Water


I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and that means no thinking about music the way I usually do. I need to get my brain back into running order.

So let’s come back with the four-note guitar riff that every aspiring teenage headbanger learns on their first guitar. It’s one of the most memorable intros in music history, destined to be instantly recognizable long after there’s no one left alive to remember anything else about Deep Purple or the culture they came out of. When something has been riffed so far into the popular consciousness that it’s basically become the generic shorthand for hard-rock guitar riffs, is there any point in asking what it’s about, where it came from, or even if it’s a good song? Well, if you’re a classic rock fan, you probably know the famous story of how Deep Purple’s plans to record an album in Montreux where thwarted when their recording venue burned to the ground. Based on the riff and chorus, you would imagine the kind of hammer-of-the-gods heavy metal lyrics in which hard-rocking vikings threaten to raze your civilization, but it’s actually a pretty mundane story about the inconvenience of finding a recording space for a very loud band in a very quiet Swiss town. Which, I think, is what makes it an indelibly great song. Nobody really wants to hear another poorly-researched heavy metal song about vikings, and this, at least, tells a personal story. Of course, we’re far removed from the days when cultural relevance was measured in guitar solos, and even fans of the genre have to admit that far less of 70’s hard rock culture will endure than your dad and his drinking buddies thought in 1973. But from what’s left of that moment in time, this riff will be remembered as the height of what labradoodle-looking shirtless dudes in obscenely tight jeans could achieve whilst blackout drunk on Southern Comfort.

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