A small Swiss municipality, overlooking Lake Geneva from the foothills of the Alps, Montreux seems an unlikely place to have such an illustrious history in popular music. The views are as rural and majestic as you’d expect given the location, and the town’s atmosphere is similarly endearing. In the short history of rock and roll, however, Montreux has been home to a surprising number of momentous events.
Deep Purple/Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
Perhaps the most famous lyric of all referencing Montreux is the beginning of the vocal line to Deep Purple’s iconic song ‘Smoke on the Water’. The stomping, timeless riff, informed by the likes of The Kinks as well as, more directly, Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’, is to this day synonymous with the band and universally familiar (sometimes to the point of tedium) among rockers and guitarists.
‘Smoke on the Water’ tells the true story of a large fire at Montreux. Having travelled to Montreux in order to record in the Montreux Casino’s facilities, they were due to start tracking the album on the 5th of December, 1971. On the 4th, however, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a concert in the casino, and during their set an audience member fired a flare gun into the air. Being an indoor venue, the casino caught fire and the sight of the towering blaze on the shore, with smoke spilling out over the lake, inspired Roger Glover (their bassist at the time) to come up with the song’s title.
Meanwhile, the entirety of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s gear was destroyed in the fire, although the band continued gigging on rented gear after only a few days. Prog fans, as well as anyone with a particular interest in Zappa or in rock history in general, may be interested to hear that the start of the fire and the immediate reaction is audible on the bootleg entitled ‘Swiss Cheese/Fire’.
Within Montreux Casino, which was rebuilt following the fire, was Mountain Studios – the studio still exists, although it now operates in Attalens. Queen owned the studios until 1995, three years after Freddie Mercury’s death, and it was here that Queen recorded six of their albums including ‘Innuendo’, ‘A Kind of Magic’ and the poignant, posthumously released ‘Made in Heaven’.
What’s more, the studio where Queen worked has been perfectly preserved, making it almost identical to how it was when Queen recorded their last songs with Mercury on vocals. The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an HIV/AIDS charity founded by guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and manager Jim Beach, now offers the Queen Studio Experience, where visitors to the historic site can explore the studio and even take to the mixing desk to put their own stamp on some of Queen’s classic songs.
Other Bands and Musicians
Queen, Deep Purple and Zappa and the Mothers aren’t the only bands to have historic ties to Montreux. Quintessential hard rockers AC/DC recorded their renowned album ‘Fly on the Wall’ at the then Queen-owned studios. Prog fans will also note that Magnum tracked ‘Vigilante’ at the same studios, while Yes recorded ‘Going for the One’ and Rick Wakeman recorded ‘Criminal Record’. Iggy Pop’s ‘Blah Blah Blah’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Black and Blue’ complete the studio’s rock and roll pedigree, alongside numerous side projects and solo efforts of Queen’s members.
Mountain Studios’ significance within popular music doesn’t end with rock, however: David Bowie recorded five albums here, including ‘Black Tie White Noise’ and ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, making the studio also a point of interest to any Bowie fans.
How to Get to Montreux
Eager to get ready to rock out in Montreux? The town is easily reached via train from Geneva Airport – just take the IR towards Brig, and you’ll find yourself at Montreux CGN in only six stops with no changes. This journey will take you around one hour and 20 minutes. If you’re taking the car or a Geneva airport taxi, the ride takes around an hour along the A1 and the A9.
Where to Stay
Studio Falk Montreux – Speaking of studios… the Falk Montreux is perfect for romantically involved couples or a pair of close friends, and a great example of how to do quality, compact accommodation. The flat is clean, comfortable and close to the city centre, making it an excellent choice for budget travellers.
La Rouvenaz – this charming little hotel is only five minutes from the station and has a lovely, personal feel to it. Guests are advised to try La Rouvenaz’s restaurant, with a seasonal Italian menu.
Fairmont Le Montreux Palace – the Montreux Palace lives up to its name from the moment you see the façade of the building. Inside you’ll find a roomy, heated spa and pool, and you couldn’t ask for better dining options: as well as gourmet food you’ll find a world class wine list! Funky Claude’s Bar is a thriving nightspot, named after Claude Nobs, who founded the Montreux Jazz Festival and who is referenced in Smoke on the Water, where he rushes to and from the burning building, helping people evacuate.