As most rock fans know, Deep Purple’s most famous song ‘Smoke On The Water’ was based on an actual real life event. In December 1971 the band were planning to record their forthcoming album Machine Head at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland. Used for live concerts throughout the year, Frank Zappa’s performance on 4th December was to be the last of the season, after which Deep Purple would be able to have the run of the place to themselves and the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio would be parked up outside to capture everything on tape.
Unfortunately, as we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way. As the song goes:
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground
But who was the “Stupid with a flare gun” who burned the place to the ground?
Step forward one Zdenek Spicka, a Czechoslovakian national living in Switzerland at the time. According to a local newspaper article published later that month Spicka is alleged to have fired some capsules and then a small flare into the ceiling of the venue that started the fire and cause the entire place to have burnt down. Spicka fled the scene immediately afterwards and although a police ‘Wanted’ operation was mounted he was never located.
The above cutting was tracked down and posted to a Spanish Deep Purple blog back in 2009. It was subsequently translated into English by another Deep Purple fan as follows:
“Here is the release concerning the Montreux Casino fire. As previously already stated in the press, a fire completely ravaged the Montreux Casino on Saturday, 4 December, 1971, at the end of the afternoon where a pop concert had attracted some 2000 listeners. By exceptional luck, this accident did not claim a victim. On the other hand, the damage in numbers was between 12 and 15 million francs. The investigation performed by the police can identify the perpetrator of the act that caused this catastrophe. It was one Spicka Zdenek, born 4 November 1949, Czech refugee, previously of Epalinages, currently on the run (see photo). He was placed under arrest by the [local judge] in Vevey.
The matter is that Spicka fired a flare gun in the [concert] hall, first some [capsules] and then a small flare that lodged into the ceiling which set it on fire. The cause of the accident is therefore clearly established. Although his details had been widely circulated in police bulletins, no trace of Spicka has been found in Switzerland. It has been suggested that he shaved off his beard and mustache. Anyone who can give information regarding Spicka should contact the police…
It is practically certain today that Zdenek Spicka, who had elected to live in a small commune established in a villa located near Epalignes, took flight the same night of the fire. According to his Czech compatriots, he left as soon as possible because he was afraid of being lynched by the crowd–understandably afraid of the consequences of his actions–even if he had not had the intention of starting the fire. Intentional fire can bring 20 years confinement with a minimum of three years, whereas fire due to negligence can bring a maximum of three years.
Regarding the pistol, it is a firearm that one can obtain without authorization in large stores, for example. It was an Italian-made device which could be adapted to flares used to signal distress.“
Such an incredibly dangerous, foolhardy and unbelievably selfish thing to do at a packed gig, it was a miracle that no-one was killed.
However, the incident did, at least, leave the world with an unforgettable song and an immortal riff.
Discussion Thread: “Did they ever identify the “Stupid with a Flare Gun” who started the fire in the Montreux Casino, and inspired “Smoke on the Water,” a song which has probably made enough to rebuild the casino twenty times over?” on Quora
Newspaper article: Deep Purple – Curiosidad “The Stupid” of Smoke on The Water