Table of Contents
It’s late afternoon on December 4, 1971, in the Swiss resort town of Montreux. Outside, the sunset swallows Lake Geneva in a spectacular orange glow. And inside the Montreux Casino, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention are an hour and a half into their set, cranking through the bodaciously long “King Kong” when—and there are two versions of this—a concertgoer either blasts a flare gun or throws a lit match up into the air, towards the wooden ceiling, constructed in 1881. Either way, the result is the same: Flames immediately catch hold. Initially not realizing the severity, the band was flippant. “Fire!” jokes background singer Howard Kaylan. “Arthur Brown in person.”
Reality sets in as the blaze engulfs the building. At the front of the venue, the audience is trapped. Swiss firemen use axes to hack out the windows while people leap to safety from as high as the second floor. There are a few injuries, but luckily no casualties, except for the band’s equipment (save for a lone cowbell survivor). When the fire reaches the building’s heating system, there’s an explosion. Outside, plumes of smoke billow to the sky.
If you’re familiar with this story, it’s possibly because the whole thing is recounted in the lyrics of Deep Purple’s 1972 hit “Smoke on the Water”: “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline,” and later, “But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground.” (Learning the intro riff is a rite of passage for beginner musicians to this day.) The band was in town to record their album Machine Head at the Montreux Casino, using a mobile studio they’d borrowed from the Rolling Stones (also mentioned in the song). Forced out of their rooms by the fire, they watched the whole thing go down.
They also witnessed a hero. Out of the haze rises “Funky Claude,” who risks his life running in and out of the burning casino alongside firemen, pulling people out to safety. His actual name is Claude Nobs, legendary champion of Montreux as a musical playground and founder and director of the annual two-week Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967, now one of the most famous music events in the world. This year’s iteration is back after a muted hiatus, taking place through July 16 with acts like Diana Ross—making her Montreux debut—alongside the likes of Nick Cave, Bjork, Stormzy, Mitzki, Gregory Porter, and Herbie Hancock.
After the fire turned the casino to rubble, Nobs proved himself a hero in more ways than one by helping Deep Purple find a backup recording space. They eventually ended up in the Grand Hotel in Territet, with mattresses padding the walls for soundproofing. It’s said that it was here that, recalling the events of the past few days, bassist Roger Glover woke up with the line “smoke on the water” running through his head. And also here that Nobs encouraged them to put the song on their upcoming album, envisioning great things.
The rest, as they say, is history. The casino was rebuilt and re-opened in 1975 (the festival has since spread out over venues, including the 4,000-capacity Auditorium Stravinski and the 2,000-capacity Montreux Jazz Lab, with one-offs at the new casino). “Smoke on the Water” has been covered at the festival by musicians from Santana to Jamie Cullum. And Deep Purple has now played the Montreux Jazz Festival nine times, with almost as many iterations of their hit song. On the festival’s 50th anniversary, they performed it with none other than Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil.
The festival that put a resort town on the map
At first glance the Swiss Riviera—the French-speaking region stretching from Lausanne to Montreux along Lake Geneva—would seem an unlikely destination for such gritty rock shenanigans. It’s here, along the shores of Lake Geneva, where Swiss tourism was born. Featured in Lord Byron’s poem “Prisoner of Chillon,” the 13th-century Château de Chillon, or Chillon Castle, in Montreux stands as one of Switzerland’s most famous structures.
From the lakeside towns, you just need to look up to see the extraordinary mountainside UNESCO Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, planted by monks in the 11th century and still bearing fruit for highly-prized wine. (They even have their own festival: The winegrowing Fête des Vignerons celebration was first held in 1791, and still takes place once every 20 to 25 years.) By the 18th century, travelers had found their way to the promenade of the crescent-shaped lake—also known as Lac Léman—when they needed a respite, later indulging in spa treatments at the stunning Belle Epoque hotels lining the lakefront.
Even back then, the area attracted the rich and famous. Hemingway came to Switzerland for the first time in January 1922, writing several chapters of A Farewell to Arms in Chamby. While traveling to England on vacation, Charlie Chaplin learned he had been exiled from his home in the US for being a Communist sympathizer. Rather than subject himself to interrogation, decided to move his family to Vevey, eventually retiring there. (His Neoclassical mansion is now the museum Chaplin’s World). Coco Chanel spent her own exile in the region, avoiding criminal charges after working as a Nazi agent, posting up at luxury hotels. She’s now buried in Lausanne.
However, none of this glitz and glamour has brought the Montreux area quite as much global attention and economic benefit as the Montreux Jazz Festival, which started as a germ of an idea in 1964 while Nobs was working for the tourism board producing concerts. (Incidentally, Montreux also seems to have a long history as a musical muse—Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky all spent time there, and it’s the birthplace of “The Rite of Spring”).
Nobs had an ear for talent from the beginning. As he told it, when the Rolling Stones played one of his shows in 1964, they were so unknown they had to give tickets away. That was just a hiccup. Three years later, the jazz festival began as just that–a jazz festival—taking over the Montreux Casino for three days and featuring the American group Charles Lloyd Quartet alongside European jazz artists. 1,000 people came that first year. The event now draws closer to 250,000 over its two-week span.
The following year, the festival expanded its musical scope somewhat by inviting Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin to join, eventually abandoning the jazz theme entirely and growing into one of the most well-known genre-inclusive festivals in the world, with everyone from Miles Davis to Ella Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan to Korn taking the stage. It’s also one of the most recorded: After Bill Evans won a Grammy for a set recorded at the festival in 1968, multiple musicians followed suit, a tradition that continues to this day. Just Google albums with “Live at Montreux” in the title.
Aside from the festival, Nobs himself—who passed away in 2013—has also become somewhat of a tourist attraction. His chalet, stuffed to the brim with art and music memorabilia, can be rented for events. You can stroll down Avenue Claude Nobs, past the gorgeous Hotel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace (where many a musical artist has spent the night), or pop in for a drink and a show at the onsite bar, Funky Claude’s, decorated with photos of Nobs and his famous friends. Cross the street to the palace’s sculpture garden and there, alongside statues of Ray Charles, BB King, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov, you’ll find a bronze rendering of Nobs, head tilted back, clutching a microphone.
No Pressure—okay, maybe some pressure
Perhaps rivaling the festival in fame is the city’s most notable celebrity resident: Freddie Mercury. Even if you weren’t familiar with the Queen frontman, you’d probably run into him. Stroll along the lake promenade toward the Chillon Castle and there he is, or at least a bronze likeness by Czech sculptor Irena Sedlecka. He’s facing the water, clad in the military jacket and striped pants he wore at his legendary Wembley concert in 1986, his hips twisted, right arm up, left hand holding a microphone. It’s a dynamic rendition of a dynamic personality that called Montreux home at the end of his life. But according to his personal assistant Peter Freestone, who tended to him from 1979 until his death, on Mercury couldn’t stand Montreux when he first attended the festival in 1978,. But the band needed a place to record their album Jazz, and he was convinced by David Bowie, who lived nearby, to record at Mountain Studios in town.
“[Mercury] hated it,” reported Freestone. “Early on, in fact, he said that the best place for the studio would be at the bottom of the lake.” While the slow and quiet pace of Montreaux didn’t appeal to Mercury’s party sensibilities, that was exactly what made it an excellent place to record. That next year, they bought Mountain Studios at the top of the rebuilt Montreux Casino, where Queen subsequently recorded seven albums including their epic (and final) Made in Heaven. (The studios were also where David Bowie and Queen improvised what would become “Under Pressure”.)
After his AIDS diagnosis in 1987, sleepy Montreux became more appealing to the frontman, and he lived out his days out in a lakefront home nicknamed the “Duck House” until his death in 1991 (you can rent this one out, too). These days, fans can take a tour following in Mercury’s footsteps, as well as visit Mountain Studios (you’ll have to walk through the working—and now quite dated—casino, but that’s a bonus).
The studios are now home to Queen—The Studio Experience, a free museum tracking the band’s time in Montreux, stocked with memorabilia, handwritten lyrics, and fabulous costumes. The recording room remains unchanged, but the console has been updated, allowing visitors to remix Queen songs to their liking. Before you leave, you’re encouraged to sign one of the interior and exterior walls, and leave a tribute to Mercury if you’re so inclined.
The museum is managed by Mercury Phoenix Trust (MPT), a fund set up by Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor along with manager Jim Beach to raise money for AIDS awareness and education. Every September, they also organize Freddie Celebration Days, centered around Mercury’s birthday on September 5. This year, the festivities span September 2 through 5 and include a Queen Silent Disco surrounding the bronze Freddie Mercury statue, plus a boat party, free concerts, and the annual birthday party blowout with a raffle and live entertainment. The finale event is held—where else?— inside the Montreux Casino. Just make sure to leave the flare guns at home.