By Jack Sharkey, December 3, 2013

Casino MontreuxThe fire that inspired a million air guitarists.Today marks the 42nd anniversary of arguably the most iconic building fire in all of rock and roll history.

On December 3, 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a closing night show at the Montreux Casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when, as the song tells us, some guy shot a flare into the ceiling and burned the place to the ground. This show took place back when rock and roll was still dangerous and Fire Inspectors, security guards, and your mom, weren't allowed in.

The backstory to the little ditty known as Smoke On the Water began the day the band Deep Purple (above in front of the Mobile Studio) arrived in Montreux to record their next album at the Casino after it closed for the year. They had booked the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at the last minute, which at the time was based in France. The world's most famous mobile recording studio was parked next to the Casino and was almost lost in the fire.

But, lest you think I am going to write about something that every true hard rock fan can recite to you chapter and verse, I'm not (for the most part).

After moving to another location that drew the ire of its neighbors because of the noise the band was making, and stay off my lawn too you pesky roadies!, the band moved to the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of Montreux, which was also closed for the season. Machine Head is not only important because it has provided 14 year-old boys something to air-jam to for forty years, it also consistently ends up on every Top Something-Or-Another Album List. It has influenced musicians and rock fans alike for every one of those forty years.

Compared to modern recordings, the album sounds slightly smallish, but the beauty of the recording is its simplicity and naturalness. It's not very deep in the bass, but it's otherwise mixed and equalized masterfully – all the instruments sit right where they should sit, with nothing rubbing against anything else in the mix. You can hear proof of that in how Ian Paice's snare sits in a space all of its own allowing you to hear the subltety of his snare work. You can also easily hear the tell-tale string sound of Roger Glover's Rickenbacker bass. Great mixes only happen because of great recordings.

But this is really not about the album.

Here's what guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had to say about the recording set-up at the Grand Hotel:

"We had the Rolling Stones' mobile recording unit sitting outside in the snow, but to get there we had to run cable through two doors in the corridor into a room, through a bathroom and into another room, from which it went across a bed and out the veranda window, then ran along the balcony for about 100 feet and came back in through another bedroom window. It then went through that room's bathroom and into another corridor, then all the way down a marble staircase to the foyer reception area of the hotel, out the front door, across the courtyard and up the steps into the back of the mobile unit. I think that setup led to capturing some spontaneity, because once we got to the truck for a playback, even if we didn’t think it was a perfect take, we’d go, 'Yeah, that’s good enough.' Because we just couldn’t stand going back again."

- Blackmore in GuitarWorld, 10-21-08.

Here's the part this piece is actually about.

In 1968, the Rolling Stones wanted to begin recording at Mick Jagger's English estate in an attempt to escape the rigid (some might say stodgy), environment prevalant in recording studios at the time. A truck was purchased and some of the top producers and engineers of the day were consulted on the design. Helios Electronics constructed the mobile unit, which at first consisted of twenty inputs and eight tracks – completely state-of-the-art for the time.  

John Bonham recordingThree mics, a castle and a Mobile Studio is all Bonham needed.The idea of being able to make a high quality recording pretty much anywhere an artist wanted caught on quickly, especially in the early 1970's when there was an excess of money in the rock and roll business for such things as recording classic albums in dank and dreary English castles (Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Grafitti were all recorded with the Mobile Studio).

Within a few years the Mobile Studio, which had been conceived exclusively for use by the Stones, was an in-demand studio for album work and live recordings, so the original 8-track machine was upgraded to 16-tracks. During the Stones' 1973 European tour, the Mobile was upgraded to 24-track and an additional 12 inputs were added to bring the total to 32.

In 1971, the Stones fled a punishing 93% tax rate (and other assorted legal matters) and headed across the Channel to France. The Mobile Studio followed and the album Exile On Main Street was recorded at Keith Richard's rented French villa, which had been used by the Nazis during the War.  

That same year, Frank Zappa used the Mobile to record the instrumental soundtrack for his movie 200 Motels, and that's how a mobile recording studio, a band that is the progenitor of British metal, and a flare gun wielding rock fan all converged in a Swiss lakeside resort to make rock and roll history.  

Rolling Stones Mobile Interior

In the 1980's the Mobile, after being outfitted with a computer to synchronize video and audio, was used mainly for live television broadcasts for clients including the BBC.

In 1987, Stones bassist Bill Wyman used the Mobile for a pet project that gave unknown bands throughout Great Britan the chance to record a demo with the studio. 

In the mid-90s the Mobile was sold to an American studio based out of New York City, where it recorded the likes of Patti Smith and the Ramones. The unit presently resides in Calgary, Canada, at the National Music Centre.

So every time you see a mobile production studio at a concert or sporting event, give props to the Rolling truck Stones thing, because that's where it all started.


Jack Sharkey for Kef America