Smoke on the water… and jazz in Montreux

I’ve always been a bit rock ‘n’ roll at heart. The golden era of Disco in the 1970s saw me spinning records for my first entrepreneurial venture, a bona fide mobile disco replete with strobe, coloured floods and liquid oil wheel lighting. Each week I bought four or five new singles (or 45s as we called them due to their RPM) of various genres and ended up seven years later with over a thousand of these vinyl treasures. They are still in my loft today and worth a pretty penny. Not.

Agincourt Roadshow 2
Hot Summer Nights – Blackpool 1976

Best of all though was the sound system. The amp and speakers were Marshall, just like Jimi Hendrix Experience, and I swear that while the volume control on the standard model went up to 10, like Spinal Tap, mine went all the way to 11.

We were the hit of the town. It started with birthday parties in church halls, progressed to weddings (even one funeral), we locked down two pub residencies and ended up with a grand finale of two summer seasons at Pontins in Blackpool. Heady days indeed.

The summer of ’76 in the UK was the hottest on record. And they weren’t just talking about the weather: Agincourt Roadshow was in town.

In the early disco days, 1972 to be precise, Deep Purple released Smoke on the Water on the album Machine Head. It was a mega hit at our Wednesday pub nights and I like to think I did my bit to contribute to their success. We didn’t have the Internet in those days of course, so often didn’t know much about the bands or their music. Any information was hearsay or gleaned from Melody Maker or Top of the Pops, so we just bopped along to the music, oblivious to its origins, while enjoying warm beer and cider.

I stopped working the disco trail when I joined Contiki Travel in 1979. Too much fun as a tour leader on the road in Europe put a halt to the DJ side of my life. My disco microphone was swapped for another on a big yellow touring coach. This was when I first travelled to Switzerland, the country that is my home today.

Like the average young Brit in those days, I thought of Switzerland as chocolate-box picturesque and probably a little bit dull. It seemed to me it was all about cheese and mountains and was populated by gnomes (Zurich), farmers (most of the rest of the country) and watch-makers (Geneva).

I knew about the Reformation, neutrality, nuclear shelters, bankers, skiers, even of famous people like Ursula Andress, Henri Dunant and Wilhelm Tell.

What I didn’t realise was that Switzerland can stake a genuine claim to be the spiritual home of jazz and rock music in Europe.

Montreux (pic TesaPhotography)

So, there I am, in Montreux, in 1979. I’m with my Contiki group of 47 people, and everyone is doing air-guitar renditions of Smoke on the Water. I was playing the song on the coach cassette player with the volume turned up max.  We were delayed at a traffic light and a local Swiss guy tapped on the window said: ‘Monsieur, did you know this song was written about the Montreux Jazz Festival?’

Wow. Enter Funky Claude.

Claude Nobs was a young tourism development official in Montreux. He was looking to bring more tourists into the area and the Montreux Jazz Festival was his brainchild. From its start in 1967, it quickly became one of the largest and most famous music festivals in the world. They started with jazz A-listers like Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Ella Fitzgerald but quickly progressed to embrace other genres. Pretty soon Led Zeppelin, Santana and Bob Dylan were topping the bill.

Chills… and Frank Zappa. Which is where this story comes full circle.

As you may know, Deep Purple were in Switzerland in 1971, recording Machine Head at the Rolling Stones mobile studio, over the same summer period that Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played their Montreux concert at the Casino concert hall. Their lyrics tell the story: ‘Some stupid with a flare gun. Burned the place to the ground.’  The smoke from the fire drifted out across the lake and, hey presto, Deep Purple had a new hit. Nobs, who was very brave and rescued many young people from the inferno, was also immortalised in their ballad: ‘Funky Claude was running in and out. Pulling kids out the ground.’


Freddie Mercury statue – Montreux

The list of names that have played at Montreux is endless. This year the series finished on Saturday 15th July, and over 250,000 people attended some 40 events of all genres, including concerts from Bryan Ferry, Macy Gray, Tom Jones and Grace Jones (some of my favourites).

You have to go – it is an astounding phenomenon. In 2018 the festival runs from 29 June – 14 July. Make sure you plan ahead and book early.

If you do attend, these days the only flares you can bring are those at the bottom of 1970s retro-trousers; like my originals, still in my loft, from the halcyon days of Agincourt Roadshow.


Switzerland is great.  How wrong can you be.  It is one of the finest places I’ve ever lived. More another day.

8 thoughts on “Smoke on the water… and jazz in Montreux

  1. OMG, I remember Agincourt ! Have lived in CH for over 40 years now, so it can’t be all bad. Montreux is a great place to visit, at any time, and the whole town has a festive air about it during the festival. Have seen some great shows there. Now today we move on to Paleo, another one to experience …


  2. As soon as I read the title on Tom’s blog, the song started going through my head. I knew part of the story of it, but not the bit about Claude, so that was lots of fun to read. As for Switzerland, in the mid-seventies, between my junior and senior years in college, I was backpacking around Europe and worked over the winter at the youth hostel in Grindelwald. What a gorgeous place! The group that played there (and other places) that we loved was Pepe Lienhard Band. We even helped sell records for them somewhere after leaving Grindelwald. I just looked them up online and holy cow! It looks as though Pepe and Pino Gasparini are still around. That brings back some memories and somewhere I have a cassette tape of their music.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.