“We were sitting there watching Frank Zappa play and suddenly someone had one of those flare guns and decided to let it off. It set the roof on fire. Frank turned around and said, “now everybody calm down.” He then threw down his guitar and jumped out the window. It was quite funny. He wanted to be the first one out. We then had about 15 minutes before the place was gutted, which was frightening.”
-Ritchie Blackmore to guitar.com
To free themselves from recording studio confines The Rolling Stones commissioned a team of crack engineers and producers in the late ’60s to equip a truck with state of the art recording technology. A milestone in the history of how rock albums were created, “The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio” soon gained notoriety with other bands wanting to record in untraditional locations. Led Zeppelin set the trend renting it twice in 1970 to make their third and fourth LPs at Headley Grange, an 18th century manor house. Likewise in the early ’70s The Stones (Sticky Fingers and Exile on Mainstreet) and The Who (Who’s Next) recorded with the mobile unit at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s Hampshire estate. Later in the decade Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Status Quo, Santana and others followed suit.
In an era before digital recorders and laptop production programs, the mobile studio liberated the environment of the recording process more than any prior innovation. Pay-by-the-hour 9-to-5 schedules and rigid studio protocols could give way to relaxed attitudes in unique settings, when and where inspiration hit. Frank Zappa used the mobile to record orchestral music on set of his film 200 Motels; Bob Marley to record Live! at London’s Lyceum Theatre. It also allowed artists to experiment with acoustics. John Bonham’s thundering drum sound for example was partially the result of placing his kit in the large entrance at the bottom of Headley manor’s three-story stairwell.
Following Zeppelin’s lead, British baroque-blues-proto-heavy-metal-psych-rockers Deep Purple rented the mobile to record their sixth album in Switzerland. The band explained shortly after, it was “a great place to be…we used the Rolling Stone’s mobile unit and that was [prior our sessions nearby] in the south of France…and you can avoid paying some tax on your albums if you made the album out of the country…” (heard at 0:35 in the below video).
Frank Zappa and the Mothers played Montreux Casino on December 4, 1971, the night before Deep Purple’s sessions were to start there. As can be heard at 1:21:05 in the video stream of that full show at the top of this page, the concert came to an abrupt end when a fire started in the middle of Don Preston’s “King Kong” solo.
After the fire destroyed the casino, Purple’s sessions were relocated and the band had a tale for their newest ditty. Ian Gillan penned the lyrics: “We all came out to Montereax…Frank Zappa and the Mothers/ Were at the best place around/ But some stupid with a flare gun… burned down the gambling house…We had to find another place… We ended up at the Grand Hotel..with the Rolling truck Stones thing…Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky…”
“Smoke on the Water” is not just the most popular song on Machine Head, it is literally the story of how that album came to be. Though many musical moments make it memorable — Ian Paice gearing-up its start with 16th notes on the high-hat, Jon Lord’s organ comping throughout, the whole band galloping behind Ritchie Blackmore’s beautiful lead culminating with slow string bends — it’s best known, of course, for that riff. Like “Chopsticks” on the piano, even people with no other guitar skills can fumble their way through (something resembling) “Smoke on the Water’s” four-note, tritone-defining lick. Many have: since the mid-’90s large groups of guitarists have recurringly gathered to play it together and set ever-increasing Guinness Book World Records. Deep Purple themselves however weren’t initially convinced of its appeal – they thought “Never Before” was the LP’s hit.
Which raises the question: is “Smoke on the Water” a defining moment in the annals of rock history, or just a fluke smash by a talented band? Either way, it propelled Machine Head to early ’70s landmark status. Still the album’s durability is based not on that one song but on the whole record, including beloved deeper cuts like “Maybe I’m a Leo” and “Lazy.” For the hard rock faithful its usually “Space Truckin” – not “Smoke” – that is cited to have the best riff on the album. “Highway Star” is argued its most influential song and “When a Blind Man Cries” its best (though a B-side not even included on the original LP).
Deep Purple’s influence in heavy metal is legendary: the styles of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Yngwie Malmsteen, Lita Ford, Dream Theater and countless others are unimaginable without Purple’s work before them; Metallica began their 2009 induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the suggestion Purple should have already been given the same honor. The first exit en route to thrash, “Highway Star’s” signature guitar solo gains speed like a sports car on an open road, racing into shredder prototype. But Deep Purple’s impact on rock is more general than that. It’s felt today in Raconteurs’ and Black Keys’ tracks, in guitar-based jams of all stripes – Gov’t Mule for instance – and every band with a distorted Hammond C-3 organ.
In honor of Machine Head’s legacy, a 40th Anniversary Edition was released this month. This five disc package includes a 60 page hardback book, the original album remastered, the 1997 remix by bassist Roger Glover, the original quadrophonic mix remastered, a high resolution surround sound mix on DVD and a March 1972 London concert (the quintessential companion to their classic 1972 live LP Made in Japan).
In addition to receiving the deluxe treatment, Machine Head has been re-recorded by an all-star cast. Re-Machined: A Tribute To Machine Head was issued on CD and vinyl this September with six of its ten tracks streaming at ultimateclassicrock.com since August. Among the highlights: Metallica claiming “When A Blind Man Cries” as if their own, Iron Maiden “Space Truckin,” and both Joe Satriani (with Chickenfoot, live) and Steve Vai burning through their respective versions of “Highway Star,” each with Red Hot Chili Pepper Chad Smith drumming behind them. These are artists that grew up on Purple (as they recount in the above video). Satch in fact was briefly a member of Purple in 1993.
The Future Heart discussed this newest version of “Smoke on the Water” and the rest of Re-Machined with the co-producers of the album starting with how it came to be: “With the anniversary of Machine Head approaching we were keen to pull together something memorable which would really let people know how significant the album has been in rock…We set about talking to our favourite acts …and the best thing was that everyone chose their own track. I was always concerned about “Smoke On The Water,” so it was very exciting when The Lips put their hand up; a ballsy move indeed…and one they handled beautifully.”
Every new generation has its own way of discovering “Smoke on the Water” in mass. From 1980’s blockbuster compilation Deepest Purple through Jack Black in School of Rock and numerous video games (Guitar Hero, Rock Band 3, etc), it’s become ubiquitous to the point of cliché. What other song has been covered by Black Sabbath and Pat Boone? Add to that the countless local bands that have played it (plus dudes hanging at your local guitar shop) and even the idea of playing “Smoke” has become trite, almost any attempt a thankless task. So who would dare re-imagine it for Re-Machined? The Flaming Lips….of course…
With an auto-tune refrain and sloppy solo, the Lips deconstructed the axe anthem into an anti-guitar-hero revision. Enlisting Butthole Surfer’s Gibby Haynes to speak the verses, they emphasize the story-telling element of the song and — like Pat Boone’s version which featured guitar by both Blackmore and Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil — a playfulness that’s self-aware of its absurdity. Which isn’t to suggest the Lips are insincere, but rather that through casting aside preconceptions of virtuosity and power they opened the space to relay the story with humor. For those sorry its six-string style was deep-sixed Santana’s version from his 2010 album Guitar Heaven was included in addition to the Lips interpretation. The producers were delighted the “two versions of “Smoke On The Water” [were] done in completely different styles, but both acknowledging the great writing and performances of the original recordings… For me, the [Lips’] performance is one of the highlights on the album….we felt The Lips were perfect for the project and I am a huge fan.”
Not everyone was so pleased though. Some Deep Purple fans are outraged by the Lips’ unconventional approach. Though isn’t that in the spirit of what made Purple great in the first place? Listening to their 1968 debut, their eponymous ’69 LP or the following year’s classic In Rock it’s clear they were never out to play by the rules. The producers have made it blunt: “I am not concerned at the slightest if a few ‘traditionalists’ are offended by it. In fact, the very notion that the Lips attacked the track with their own flair and panache fits with what Deep Purple were always about. Not compromising and taking chances.”
Fellow Re-Machined contributors Black Label Society agree. Zakk Wylde and his bandmates explained in the above video (16:20): “‘Smoke On The Water’ ….it’s such an iconic tune. You got ‘Smoke On The Water’, ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Stairway To Heaven,’ I mean, I’m just saying these are like the first songs you learn when you start playing guitar because you could learn it on one string. It was either ‘Smoke On The Water’ and then ‘Iron Man,’ you know what I mean?”
You can’t copy Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water,’ you just can’t! Flaming Lips is the perfect choice to do that song!”
Another highlight of the project is the bringing together of several members of hard rock royalty for the one-off supergroup Kings of Chaos. The producers explain: “We wanted to get so many bands on the album, but only had so many tracks to record. I am good mates with Glenn Hughes who really helped me a lot. We asked if he could hook us up with Joe Elliot/Def Leppard and the guys from Guns n Roses…and incredibly he had been working with all of them…I feel they have taken the song [Never Before] to the next level with a sense of both pop and rock …brilliant!”
The producers wanted to honor Purple with more than just a typical tribute disc, so they teamed with Classic Rock magazine for a UK pre-release (also available in the US at stores with a large periodical stocks, Barnes and Nobles for instance). The result was a September fanpack including the CD compilation plus a 124-page magazine of exclusive photos, articles and interviews with the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Chickenfoot and the members of Deep Purple (including final thoughts from recently deceased Jon Lord).
The producers explained this big ambitious to The Future Heart: “I am a huge fan of the magazine and I wanted to do something that would combine both the story of the original recording and how the re-recording project came about. This seemed the perfect medium. We are very happy about the result …I wish it was a global thing!”
“We all wanted a new generation of fans to experience the magic of Machine Head. All the guys involved are huge Purple fans. Their performances are full of love and respect …I think that’s why the album sounds so great.”
Buy Re-Machined and the 40th anniversary Machine Head at your local record store or at amazon.com for just $9.99. Stream six of its tracks for free (including The Flaming Lips’ “Smoke on the Water”) at ultimateclassicrock.com.