It’s a fact of life that few four-note riffs are as legendary as Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. Heck, hardly any riff full-stop has had anywhere near the same cultural and musical impact the iconic 1972 track has had over the past five decades.
Give a guitar to somebody who has never even held the instrument before, and – such is the power of Smoke on the Water – their fingers will probably start haphazardly see-sawing between the third, fifth and sixth frets without prompt.
Of course, we’re exaggerating slightly, but there’s no denying the riff’s ingenious simplicity. Usually the first riff a budding guitarist gets taught in their first lesson and a firm fan-favorite for informal noodles, Smoke on the Water is seemingly sewn into the fabric of the music universe itself.
How, then, did Ritchie Blackmore manage to craft such a monumental melody? Well, contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t from divine intervention – if anything, the real story might be even harder to believe.
According to Blackmore, he wrote the riff based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Specifically, he supposedly reversed the classical track’s main hook and landed on something vaguely reminiscent of what would later become Smoke on the Water.
Speaking to CNN in 2007, Blackmore said he conceived Smoke on the Water after listening to the foreboding chimes of Beethoven’s track: “I thought [I’d] play [Beethoven’s fifth symphony] backwards, put something to it… that’s how I came up with it.”
When asked to clarify if Smoke on the Water really was just Beethoven’s fifth backwards, Blackmore explained, “It’s an interpretation of inversion. You turn it back, and play it back and forth, it’s actually Beethoven’s fifth.”
For those of you currently opening a new tab to look up “Beethoven’s fifth reversed”, don’t bother – it sounds nothing like Smoke on the Water. So, was Blackmore being serious, or is this just a classic example of his well-documented tongue-in-cheek humor?
Well, we can’t say for sure. In Stephen Tow’s 2020 book London: Reign Over Me - How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock – an excerpt from which can be found on Classic Rock – Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover admitted the whole anecdote “may have been a joke given Blackmore’s sense of humor”.
That – coupled with the fact Blackmore somewhat sarcastically said later in the same interview, “It’s a great riff. It’s a riff we should all have in our heads. I got to sleep with it at night, thinking, ‘I am so glad I wrote bah bah baahh…’” – suggests Blackmore might have just been playing games with the interviewer.
Still, Blackmore insists that Smoke on the Water is “an interpretation of inversion” of Beethoven’s symphony, so the fact it sounds nothing like the fifth reversed might not actually account for anything. One YouTuber took Blackmore’s comment to heart, and even attempted to break down whether the infamous riff really could have come from Beethoven’s song. We'll leave you to decide whether Blackmore's words are at all convincing.
Despite the debate, the interview clip does clear one thing up: how to actually play the riff properly. After demonstrating how not to play it, Blackmore confirms the real Smoke on the Water was written in fourths – a sound that pays homage to medieval songwriting.
No matter how mysterious the origin of the riff really is, though, the rest of the song’s story is set in stone. On December 4, 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were in the midst performing at the Montreux casino, when the wooden roof caught fire after a spectator fired a flare gun.
At the same time, Deep Purple were getting ready to record their seminal album Machine Head in the building, but were forced to vacate and abandon their plans because of the fire. To adapt, the band set up shop in Rolling Stones’ mobile studio and an old theater, and swiftly began work on eternalizing the Montreux incident in song form.