Thursday, April 12, 2007

Deep Purple's 'Smoke' lingers

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You may have seen the Dodge Avenger television commercial, which like a lot of others, utilizes a classic baby boomer oldie to make its point.

In it, a technician is evaluating the cars using a row of auto stick gear shifters. Eventually, he realizes he can manipulate the shifters to make the engines play the opening riff from "Smoke on the Water," by Deep Purple.

If you've listened to the radio at any point since 1972, you know the song. Millions have played air guitar to it. "Dom dom dom, dom dom da dom, dom dom dom da dom."

Inspired by the burning of the Montreux Casino on Dec. 3, 1971 during a Frank Zappa concert, the song is indelibly etched into the skulls of countless fans and is Deep Purple's most famous recording.

For me, "Smoke on the Water" perfectly encapsulates my senior year at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.

The song was omnipresent and served as a one-song soundtrack to the news topics of the era including the Vietnam War, Nixon, the Soviet Union, feminism, radical politics and human rights. Ironically, the song also served as an escape from those realities.

Like many other people, I first heard "Smoke on the Water," in the spring of 1972. It was broadcast on WCHP-AM, CMU's carrier current radio station operated at 650 kilocycles. As I recall, I bought "Machine Head," the LP which contained the hit, at Downtown Drugs, 110 E. Broadway, although I also patronized Log Cabin Record Shop, 3980 S. Mission, and Boogie Records.

Deep Purple's record label, Warner Brothers, did not expect the song to be a hit and amazingly delayed releasing it as a single until 1973. That delay, however, allowed it to gain steam on college and FM radio, becoming an underground hit at first, then remaining on play lists for well over a year.

"Machine Head" features Deep Purple's most recognized line-up, including guitarist Richie Blackmore, keyboardist Jon Lord, bassist Roger Glover, drummer Ian Paice and Ian Gillian, who handled vocal duties.

Besides "Smoke on the Water," written by Blackmore, Gillian and Glover, the album contained just six tracks: "Highway Star," "Maybe I'm a Leo," "Pictures of Home," "Never Before," "Lazy" and "Space Truckin'."

The album, which spent an amazing 118 weeks on the Billboard chart, also spent considerable time on my stereo along with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Some folks contend that heavy metal was invented with the release of "Machine Head," actually Deep Purple's eight album. While you may get some disagreement from Zeppelin and Sabbath fans, Deep Purple certainly contributed their fair share of heavy sounds to the genre. Rainbow, Whitesnake and Trapeze are direct descendants of "Machine Head" era Deep Purple.

"Smoke on the Water" became a durable hard-rock anthem for the 1970s while we were busy having fun or trying to right the wrongs of the world.

Although Deep Purple performed the definitive version of their signature song, it was not my favorite one.

As our college careers were coming to an end, my suite-mate Bill Heydenberk and I decided to finish our final semester in style by going out for 30 nights in a row. Of course, we enjoyed numerous nightspots in Mount Pleasant including the Bird, 223 S. Main., which featured Happy Hour every Thursday and Friday afternnon. We also spent time and money at the Wayside, the Blackstone, the Side Door Saloon, the Pub and the Cabin, located at 930 W. Broomfield Road, less than a mile from campus.

The Cabin, serving students' refreshment requirements since 1934, was nothing special, but they did have cheap drink prices and featured live bands. One of those groups was called Stillwater.

Stillwater hailed from Mount Pleasant and is not to be confused with the group of the same name from Georgia which had a late 1970s hit with "Mind Bender," or the fictional band in the movie "Almost Famous." Started casually in 1969, the northern Stillwater was comprised of vocalist Howard Reihl, lead guitarist Mike Hendershot, guitarist Keith Schafer, bassist Al Cain and drummer Andy Spence.

Sure they played the Beatles, Michigan favorite Bob Seger, and contemporary hits, but the centerpiece of a Stillwater show was "Smoke on the Water."

The patrons at the Cabin didn't need much prompting to the dance floor when those distinctive guitar parts started, followed by Reihl's vocals,"We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline...."

Stillwater took Deep Purple's song where it had never gone before. Their version was heavier, more engulfing, considerably longer, more imaginative, and just plain mind-blowing. Quite simply, they mesmerized the audience.

Maybe you had to be there, but I can't hear Deep Purple today, even in a 30-second TV advertisement, without thinking of Stillwater and my last days of college.


Anonymous said...

This message is for Steve Seymour.

My name is Keith Schafer the guitarest from the 70's band Stillwater that you talked about in your April 12, Deep Purple Segment.
A friend happened to show me this Blog about the band.
Those were the days and I sure do remember playing Smoke on the Water. In fact I went to see Deep Purple this Summer at the Rock Fest in Farwell.
Talk about bringing back memories when they started to play that....

Anyway, Thanks for the great comment and reminding me of the ole Cabin and all the great times we had

Keith Schafer

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

My name is Andy, and, well... I am a recovering drummer! I just read your blog from 4/12/07 about "Smoke on the Water" and your recollection of the band Stillwater playing at the Cabin back in the early 70's.

Stillwater and the Cabin, among other places and the 70's in general, was a fun time for us. I was still in high school when you saw us there, though I was pretty careful not to let the Cabin management know that!

I share your interest in rock/popular music and writing and thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I have bookmarked it so I can read more when time permits.

I have stayed involved in music, playing acoustic pop music in this area and in the Traverse City area during the summer season - most often as a solo performer. Keith and I keep in touch and played together acoustically for a while a few years back (One of our venues was, yes... the "Cabin"). My drumming these days is primarily in church on Sundays.

I will forward this on to some folks I think will enjoy your blog. Howard Reihl lives in the Central Michigan area, Al Cain is in Utah, and unfortunately Mike Hendershot passed away several years ago.

I wish I could say your name rings a bell, but alas, I can't at this point. If you recall, did you or any of your friends know any members of the band? I'd be interested in knowing.

Thanks for your kind words, it's nice to know that some people do remember some things about those days!

Please keep in touch.

Andy Spence
(former Stillwater drummer)