Fire in the Sky: A Look Back at the Montreux Casino Fire
By: Michael Spearpoint and Jamie Clark, OFR Consultants, Manchester, UK
Anyone who is a fan of hard rock will know of the song ‘Smoke on the Water’ and its iconic guitar riff. The song was released by Deep Purple 50 years ago, inspired by real events that occurred on 4 December 1971. This article recounts the fire that was the inspiration to the song. Although accounts differ on some details there are some striking similarities to other well-known fire incidents such as The Station Nightclub, and the Dupont Plaza Casino.
The Kursaal, as it was then known as, was originally opened in 1881 as a casino and included a restaurant, winter garden and theatre . The casino was first modified around 1900-1901 (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Undated image (but c.1901 or thereafter) of the old casino (Kursaal) building. Retrieved from www.riviera-images.ch/tag/casino-de-montreux
A terrace facing the lake (Figure 2) was added between 1905 and 1918. The first dance hall, called the Lido, later replaced the old winter garden. The swimming pool was opened in 1957 at which point the casino was known as the Casino de Montreux. In 1962 a new Lido and expanded terrace were opened, with further renovations completed in spring 1964 and the Hourglass (le Sablier) dance hall opened in 1969.
Figure 2. Undated photograph of the casino likely taken after 1918, as the terrace appears to be present. Retrieved from www.udiscover-music.de/popkultur/frank-zappas-buhne-steht-flammen-und-deep-purple-kommen-auf-ihren-grosten-hit
In 2015 Schröder et al.  released a virtual representation of the Hourglass auditorium. The stage is shown at the top-left in Figure 3(a), with the circular recessed ceiling visible above, and the hourglass emblem is shown by the two pyramids. Figure 3(b) shows a visualisation towards the stage with the emblem and a distinctive ‘spiderweb’ ceiling arrangement.
The ceiling of the auditorium was reportedly made from wood “with tropical island décors” . Other reports say the ceiling also included curtains, papier-mâché Christmas decorations, and was covered with rattan. The Lido contained armchairs, curtains and a considerable amount of wood. There was apparently little plastic in the Hourglass but most of the construction was described as ‘natural’. However, Schröder et al.  maintain that the hourglass emblem was filled with “…tens of thousands of liters of paraffin”.
The Montreux Jazz Festival was originally founded in 1967 in part by Claude Nobs. In 1971 the festival included a concert by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. The Deep Purple band members were in Montreux and decided to attend the concert.
Some sources say  there were 2 000 people in the audience. Zappa said, “There were between twenty-five hundred and three thousand kids packed into the room – well over capacity” . Elsewhere  the audience was said to number as many as 4 000.
Figure 3. (a) SketchUp model of the ‘aural architecture’, taken from Schröder et al. ; (b) Visualisation of the stage and Hourglass. Retrieved from actu.epfl.ch/news/l-ancien-casino-du-montreux-jazz-comme-si-vous-y-2/
Peter Schneider  recalls that the chairs that were normally in the auditorium had been removed. Similarly, Alain Rieder says  “…there were no chairs, it was not yet the fashion of standing concerts, and so the audience sat on the floor […]”
Schneider noted that the event started around 2 pm. The venue had security staff, volunteers from the Montreux Tourist Office and four fire-fighters on hand during the concert. Figure 4 shows the band on stage in which the recessed part of the ceiling can be seen and although there are curtains across the back it is possible that are also windows in the vicinity. Figure 4 does not show any decorations on the ceiling, and other than the ceiling appearing to be of some form of timber construction, it is not obvious that any rattan / bamboo is present.
Figure 4. Frank Zappa and members of The Mothers of Invention on stage. Retrieved from www.timemanipulation.com/fr/tmblog/?post=frank-zappa-montreux-1971
The fire started somewhere between 16:15 and 16:20. A Deep Purple band member is quoted as saying that “Toward the end of the concert, someone behind us shot off a flare that soared into the rafters. The heat from the phosphorous light ignited a fire” . An eyewitness reported  that a young man near her had fired a small pistol at the start of the concert and later fired it again which started the fire in the ceiling. This version of events is disputed by Schneider who thought a boy was throwing lighted matches up towards the low-level ceiling. However, elsewhere it was reported  that “Witnesses saw the fire start in an electric canvas pendant lamp near a bamboo ceiling […] suggesting a short circuit.”
Regardless of the way in which the fire started, the consensus is that it initially involved the ceiling. Rieder  recalls “At first, the fire is very small, I think it will be extinguished quickly and the concert will continue.” Schneider  says “I remember looking behind me and seeing a large ball of flame. Because I was very stoned it looked beautiful […] I actually thought that the fire was part of the show!!”. These descriptions are reminiscent of The Station Nightclub fire, where some of the audience initially thought the flames on the stage walls were part of the act . Figure 5 shows two different photographs of the ceiling fire with what look to be some form of decoration hanging below the ceiling.
In an interview recorded for French TV, Zappa says “…this guy runs up […] with a fire extinguisher” and when he used it “ fire came out of the ceiling and this part of the roof fell down” . It also appears that attempts were made to use a hose reel. One commentator recalls “Claude [Nobs] had already handled a ‘fire hose’ […] the jet barely reached 2 m in height... the pressure had been reduced to prevent the coffee machine from exploding !!!!”. One of the on-duty firefighters also tried unsuccessfully to use a hose reel .
Figure 5. The fire inside the concert venue: (a) Photograph taken by Alain Bettex. Retrieved from www.montreuxjazzfestival.com/en/news/smoke-on-the-water-50-years/; (b) Reproduction of a grainy photograph originally published in the Nouvelle Revue de Lausanne. Retrieved from scriptorium.bcu-lausanne.ch newspaper archive.
The fire rapidly spread through the Hourglass (Figure 6) and then the rest of the building. A witness recalled “The dense smoke had filled the room and stopped at a level about three feet from the floor; below that the air was just sort of gray, but you could still see a bit.”
Figure 6. Looking towards the Hourglass with the fire now fully developed. Retrieved from www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/the-rolling-stones-mobile-recording-studio-rsm-arguably-the-most-culturally-impactful-road-going-vehicle-ever/
At its height, the fire was described by an eyewitness  as "...a gigantic torch and emits a black smoke that can be seen for dozens of kilometres around.” Pictures of the casino during the fire show extensive scaffolding due to ongoing renovations, which “burnt like torches” .
Soon after becoming aware of the fire, Zappa is heard to tell the audience “Fire! If you’d kindly move calmly toward the exit, ladies and gentlemen. Calmly.” According to Schneider  the absence of chairs and the time of day allowed the audience to easily move towards the exits. He recalls “I seem to remember somebody at the microphone saying, ‘Don’t panic’. In fact nobody did panic because nearly everybody was so stoned that fear didn’t kick in and the audience exited in a more or less orderly fashion.” A similar quote recounts “I remember there was very little panic getting out, because it didn’t seem like much of a fire at first” .
One eyewitness stated, “All the emergency exits are open, thanks to the quick action of the security staff and the younger staff members of the hotel and casino.” However, Zappa declared  “…one of the problems was they got to the exit and it was locked, they had to bang that down.” Zappa later said  “Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organizers had cleverly chained the doors shut.”
Not everyone used the exits, as Schneider  says, the rapid fire spread had trapped the people at the front. Rieder  states “…people opened the curtains that hid floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of the stage. Some grabbed chairs to break the windows.” Zappa later said  “As the room was filling with smoke, one of our roadies took an equipment case and smashed the big window.” Nobs is quoted as saying “We had big windows in the concert hall overlooking the swimming pool. Frank Zappa took his guitar […] and he smashed the big window down”. This version of events is repeated elsewhere , although it appears Zappa never made such a claim. Whether Zappa broke the windows or not, he saw that smoke was already filling the room  and was able to leave through a back exit.
Schneider recalls that he and others were saved by a firefighter breaking the windows with an axe. People were able to jump down to ground level which was around 10-15 ft . Rieder was one of those who used the window, saying  “…the ground must be about three metres away, there is a ledge from which I hang and I let myself fall into the grass…” Another witness said, “Before jumping, I retraced my steps to rescue my belongings which were exactly where I had put them." Using windows as exits again is reminiscent of The Station Nightclub fire , and also the Dupont Plaza fire  in which people reportedly had to jump 5 m.
Schneider remembers that before the glass was broken, he was beginning to struggle to breathe. Once the windows were broken then the fire accelerated, spreading across the ceiling. Zappa  said “…our roadies were the last ones coming out of there and they were blown out there by an explosion […] from the heating system”.
Outside people were seen taking photographs, and one iconic image shows Claude Nobs pulling a fire hose (Figure 7). Michel Ferla , speaking of Nobs and the team, said "We crawled through the burning building on all fours, at that time a lot of marijuana was smoked. We wanted to be sure that no one had fallen asleep."
Figure 7. Photograph by Alain Bettex of Claude Nobs (left) and Jean-Paul Marquis (right). Retrieved from www.montreuxjazzfestival.com/en/news/smoke-on-the-water-50-years/
Notwithstanding potentially locked exits, people needing to escape through broken windows, and efforts required to rescue some of the audience, the Montreux Tourist Office declared “…everyone was able to be evacuated safe and sound in three and a half minutes”. Nobs is quoted “…within about five minutes, the 2,000 kids were out.” Figure 8 shows people leaving (and possibly trying to enter) through what appears to be the main door of the old Kursaal building.
Figure 8. People at what appears to be the main door at the front of the old Kursaal building. Retrieved from www.timemanipulation.com/fr/tmblog/?post=frank-zappa-montreux-1971
Fire brigade response
The Montreux fire brigade received an alarm at 16:22  and the first fire appliances arrived after 3½ minutes at the same time the last of the audience left the building through the main door. Around 80 firefighters initially arrived (Figure 9) from surrounding areas. One of the senior firefighters later reported  that “…the water system was empty after two hours, before water was taken from the lake.” The firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to a garage adjoining the casino. Attempts were also made to prevent the fire spreading to the theatre, but these were ultimately unsuccessful .
Figure 9. Firefighters at the incident. Retrieved from www.rts.ch/info/galeries-photos/7824393-lincendie-de-casino-de-montreux-en-images.html
The incident resulted in no deaths, and Zappa said  “…there was very little injuries, there was three people who went to hospital” of which one was one of the roadies caught up in the explosion. Figure 10 shows the severe damage to the casino in which the remains of the Kursaal building that formed part of the façade (Figure 1) can be seen. Also clearly visible is the distinctive ‘spiderweb’ remains of the Hourglass. The then estimated cost of the property loss was 12 to 15 million francs , . The person supposedly identified as firing the flare gun fled the scene  and was never apprehended by the Swiss police.
A tribunal took place in 1972 to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire. It had a range of issues to examine regarding; the materials used to decorate the Hourglass, and the ‘hydraulic clock’ which would appear to be the emblem previously mentioned by Schröder et al. . One claim was that the clock contained 4 500 litres of liquid paraffin, although the casino’s lawyer stated it was 3 000 litres of mineral oil. Whether these contents contributed to the severity of the fire is unclear.
Figure 10. Photograph taken from a nearby building of the damage to the casino. Retrieved from www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/deep-purple-montreux-jazz-festival-lake-geneva-1971-a8418926.html (attributed to the Claude Nobs Archives).
The Montreux Casino fire is an iconic event in music history. Examining multiple sources published on the web leads to some conflicting statements and the promulgation of what appear to be myths. However, there appears to be sufficient evidence that there were no seats at the time of the concert and that the audience evacuated calmly with no indication of any ‘panic’. It is evident that people used broken windows to escape by jumping to ground level. It is also very clear that Claude Nobs and his associates made exceptional efforts. What is less clear is how the fire started (although the consensus is that it was due to a pyrotechnic device) and whether any of the exits were blocked.
 Journal de Montreux, Dec 1971. bcu-lausanne.ch
Schröder, D., Pelzer, S., Vetterli, M. and Vörlander, M. (2015). Through the Hourglass: A faithful audiovisual reconstruction of the old Montreux Casino
. Acoust Aust 43, 49–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40857-015-0009-4