It’s not often that you find reason to post Smoke On The Water, overplayed and equally hated and loved, this old chestnut is another example of riff vs song. (Posting Smoke On The Water is rather like playing Stairway To Heaven in a guitar shop). Despite Smoke On The Water’s verse, chorus, lyric and vocal melody being in essence ‘the song’ it’s the riff that made this song the Rock classic that it has become. In this case the whole band is credited with writing the song, most likely because it came out of a jam session where all members were present and contributing to the moment. Released as a single in 1973, it reached No.4 on the US charts helping to propel the album, Machine Head into the Top Ten.
When it comes to songwriting, perhaps there’s different rules for ‘Rock’ bands, for example, a few years ago I went to see the current line up of Deep Purple – the guitarist was Steve Morse. Whenever they played a classic song, Morse pretty much played Ritchie Blackmore’s solos – he has to, they are integral to the composition. When I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall, Dave Kilminster played Dave Gilmour’s solos with Gilmour’s tone and pretty much exactly as Gilmour played them on the records. So the ‘song’ isn’t everything especially in bands with virtuoso musicians, a solo can be the high point, the riff can make the song and in the case of Smoke On The Water one can almost say, the riff is the song.
Interestingly, in this version (dominated by Jon Lord’s organ) Blackmore’s classic solo…hasn’t become classic yet so it isn’t played like the record. The current line up of Deep Purple doesn’t have this musical freedom and that is in essence why classic bands, once innovators, can be creatively stifled. The demands of the audience on the definitive version of a song restricts creative freedom and doesn’t allow the band to play the song in a fresh version, repeating the same old formula night after night, consequently removing the vital spark that made them famous in the first place.
Perhaps though for the same reason as Rock bands might be able to include solos in the ‘essence’ of the song, their virtuosity is one of the reasons why the crowd is there, and in the case of Steve Morse, he tries to be himself and showcase his skills whilst sticking to aspects of the original part. It might be hard to imagine but Smoke On The Water was once a new song that no-one had heard. One might add that in the case of Dave Kilminster, his dilemma is that Dave Gilmour’s solos are quite simple and leave little room to showcase what is obviously a talented guitar player.
I do apologise in advance for making you listen to Smoke On The Water one more time and also for writing the beginnings of a thesis on what might be better enjoyed in a more visceral sense.