December 4 marks the anniversary of both Frank Zappa’s death and an infamous event in the life of the prolific composer and virtuoso guitarist.
It was on this day in 1971 that a fire broke out during a Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert at the Montreux Casino in Montreux, Switzerland, an incident that inspired Deep Purple’s classic hit “Smoke on the Water.”
As can be heard in a recording of the concert included below, at 1:21:00, the fire began about 80 minutes into the show when a young man in the audience fired what was widely reported to be a flare gun. The flare embedded itself in the casino’s ceiling, which caught on fire.
At first, the band thought it was a harmless prank. “Fire!” shouted backing singer Howard Kaylan. “Arthur Brown in person!” he added, referring to the singer of the 1968 hit “Fire.”
But as the flames quickly spread, it became clear that everyone in the hall was in danger.
Zappa maintained his composure and instructed everyone to head calmly for the exits.
“If you’ll just, uh, calmly go toward the exit, ladies and gentlemen,” Zappa can be heard saying on the recording. “Go toward the exit—calmly.”
“The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped,” he recalled “There was a large door on the right hand side as you face the stage but I do not know if it was open or closed…
“I stood behind the crowd who were trying to get out through the large glass windows which covered the whole of the front of the building from one side to the other. I owe my life to a Swiss fireman who came in with a huge axe and started to break the windows one by one, starting from the left towards the stage … The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump.”
Soon after the building was evacuated, the fire reached the building’s heating system, which blew up, engulfing the casino in flames and destroying all of the band’s equipment.
Zappa was interviewed in the aftermath of the catastrophe, a recording of which can be viewed below. “They were very organized,” Zappa said of the crowd. “I was just lucky that many of [the fans] were able to speak English, because I didn’t know what to say to them in French.”
Sadly, Zappa died 22 years later on the same day, in 1993, after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 52. In one of his last interviews, shown at the bottom, he remains as calm facing death as he did that day in Montreux.
Smoking a cigarette, he declared, “It’s not important to even be remembered. I mean, the people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush—these people want to be remembered, and they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is ‘just terrific.’ I don’t care.”