The Czech Man Behind ‘Smoke on the Water’

You’ve heard the hit Deep Purple song, but did you know it was inspired by an immigrant from Czechoslovakia?

Dave Park

Written by Dave Park Published on 08.12.2016 11:29:25 (updated on 08.12.2016) Reading time: 2 minutes

You’ve heard Deep Purple’s definitive 1970s hit Smoke on the Water, but have you ever really listened to the lyrics?

And did you know song refers to a real-life event?

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline

To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

On December 4, 1971, the band was in Switzerland’s Montreaux Casino to record their new album with gear from the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio.

That same night, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were having a concert in the same casino. It was a concert that ended in flames after someone fired a flare gun inside the venue, causing a near-total destruction of the original building and an estimated 12-15 million francs in damages.

Thankfully, roughly 2000 audience members, along with others in the building including Deep Purple, made it safely outside. The incident resulted in no deaths.

The imagery of smoke billowing over Lake Geneva became inspiration for the band’s iconic song, released the following year.

And that “stupid with a flare gun” in the lyrics, who started the blaze? A Czech immigrant who had likely fled communist Czechoslovkia after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.

His name was Zdeněk Špička, and although he was identified in Swiss newspaper reports at time, he fled once again, the night of the incident.

Clipping: Cult Stories
Clipping: Cult Stories

(Swiss newspaper clipping from the Italian blog Cult Stories.)

What happened to Špička next is a mystery; he was never apprehended by Swiss authorities, apparently, his current whereabouts unknown.

The Montreaux Casino was later rebuilt and reopened in 1975; today, a monument to Deep Purple and their iconic hit stands outside the building in front of Lake Geneva.

It isn’t the only Lake Geneva monument to feature a Czech connection: the band Queen also resided and recorded in Montreaux throughout the 1980s, and a famous statue of frontman Freddie Mercury overlooking the Lake was built by Czech sculptor Irena Sedlecká.

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