Which of the following contributions did Claude Nobs make to rock and roll?
A. Carried teenagers through broken glass to escape the Frank Zappa concert fire that inspired Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
B. Persuaded Deep Purple not to scrap “Smoke on the Water” and is the reason for its inclusion among the rest of the Machine Head tracks recorded in Montreux, Switzerland.
C. Founded the Montreux Jazz Festival.
D. All of the above.
If you answered “D,” you’re right. Five years prior to the fire that reduced the Montreux Casino to rubble in 1971 – an event described in the lyrics to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” – Nobs founded the Montreux Jazz Festival, which is still held annually deep among the snow-capped mountains of his hometown. The festival has become internationally beloved and is now, in its 44th year, running through this Saturday along the shore of Lake Geneva.
A handsome, bespectacled 74-year-old with a wide smile, Nobs remains the driving force behind the festival and a faithful music fan, enthusing about both modern artists (“Joe Bonamassa is one of the most amazing guitar players I’ve heard in a long time”) and classic rock acts like The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and his old pals Deep Purple, who alluded to Nobs with a “Smoke On The Water” lyric: “Funky Claude was running in and out / Pulling kids out the ground.”
Nobs vividly remembers the day the fire began at the Frank Zappa concert he had organized. Deep Purple had come to town to record their next album at the Montreux Casino. Staying in a hotel across the water from the venue, the band watched in horror as it caught fire and burned to the ground after a Zappa fan fired a flare gun into its opulent ceiling. Nobs not only rescued concertgoers from the blaze, but also helped Deep Purple regroup afterwards, offering them a new place to record and informing what would become their biggest hit. From the side stage of most every Montreux concert of note, he has changed the course of rock and roll. As he himself says, “I wanted to be a guitar player, but I found out very quickly I was not good enough for it. So I said, ‘Maybe I can do a festival. I can do something more interesting for the crowd than try to be a guitar player.’”
You’re halfway through this year’s festival. How involved are you these days in selecting the artists who perform there?
I am doing basically all of the special projects for the festival. Like tonight, you have a special project with German, English and Swiss artists. That’s something I like to do – not to just pick out one name and put him onstage; it’s a bit more complex. On the 9th of July we had Angelique Kidjo doing a tribute to Miriam Makeba with Baaba Maal, Asa, Vusi Mahlasela, etc. Those are the things that aren’t done by other festivals so it’s of interest to the audience to discover new artists, new arrangements, new songs, and that’s one part that makes Montreux so well known. Every year we juggle with ideas, and during the year before the festival, some new ideas come. I do a lot of travel, I meet a lot of musicians. One idea we are working on, for the 40th anniversary of the recording of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, is to recreate the record which was done 40 years ago. We’re also talking of doing a guitar summit, which would take all the top guys and put them together on one stage.
You’re known for taking a very personal approach to the artists who perform at Montreux. Do you really have many of them over to your chalet before the festival?
Yeah, there is a music room. I have a B.B. King guitar there and other guitars signed by different artists. There is a drum kit, an organ, a grand piano, so if they want to jam, it’s always a space. We can do it in the middle of the night. There are no neighbors. Nobody gets hurt. The other chalet has a big screen where we can watch some of the 4,000 hours of video that I’ve collected from Montreux – the biggest library of music theater in the world.
Is there a jam session at your chalet that stands out in your mind?
We’ve had a number of them. We had a New Orleans one with Allen Toussaint. We had a bunch of guitar players, including John McLaughlin, B.B. King and Brian May. To me, the guitar is the most amazing instrument. Contrary to the piano, which you can’t take with you, the guitar you can take with you and you can create the most amazing number of sounds and harmonies. You can take it on a plane around the world, and you have your own orchestra with you.
Tell me what you remember about the “Smoke on the Water” incident on December 4, 1971.
This was one of the concerts I was doing besides the festival in the summer. I had Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and one time I had Frank Zappa. And at the end of the concert someone threw a flare gun at the ceiling and everything started to be on fire.
You helped get people out of the burning building. There’s even a lyric about it in “Smoke On The Water.”
It was actually not that difficult because we had big bow windows in the concert hall overlooking the swimming pool. Frank Zappa took his guitar – a Gibson, a very strong one – and he smashed the big window down with his guitar. Then a lot of people could go out through there. The people went out through that exit, and within about five minutes, the 2,000 kids were out. And the people were watching the fire thinking, “Oh, you know, Frank Zappa is just doing an incredible ending to his show.”
How did the Deep Purple song evolve out of the ashes?
Deep Purple were watching the whole fire from their hotel window, and they said, “Oh my God, look what happened. Poor Claude and there’s no casino anymore!” They were supposed to do a live gig [at the casino] and record the new album there. Finally I found a place in a little abandoned hotel next to my house and we made a temporary studio for them. One day they were coming up for dinner at my house and they said, “Claude we did a little surprise for you, but it’s not going to be on the album. It’s a tune called ‘Smoke On The Water.’” So I listened to it. I said, “You’re crazy. It’s going to be a huge thing.” Now there’s no guitar player in the world who doesn’t know [he hums the riff]. They said, “Oh if you believe so we’ll put it on the album.” It’s actually the very precise description of the fire in the casino, of Frank Zappa getting the kids out of the casino, and every detail in the song is true. It’s what really happened. In the middle of the song, it says “Funky Claude was getting people out of the building,” and actually when I meet a lot of rock musicians, they still say, “Oh here comes Funky Claude.”
Montreux, Switzerland – on the Lake Geneva shoreline
The re-built Casino replacing the “Gambling House” that burned down
The “Grand Hotel” (Hotel Eden Palace Au Lac) located right next to the Casino, from where Deep Purple watched the fire
Lake Geneva photographed from the Hotel
Lake Geneva photographed from the Hotel
“Smoke On The Water” souvenirs