Here are 10 popular songs that are footnoted with unfortunate events. Some were inspired by catastrophes such as descent into madness, destruction, and death, whereas others portended misfortunes yet to come. Sometimes, it was a case of both.
10 “Smoke On The Water” By Deep Purple
In December 1971, Deep Purple arrived in Switzerland to record their groundbreaking album Machine Head at the Montreux Casino using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Having performed there earlier in the year, the band were fond of the venue and had good relations with its owner, Claude Nobs.
The night before recording commenced, the Casino hosted a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. A little more than a few hours into Zappa’s set, the concert was interrupted when a member of the audience fired a distress rocket into a rattan-covered ceiling. A fire broke out instantly, and though nobody was seriously hurt, the flames laid waste to the entire Montreux Casino complex, along with all of Frank Zappa’s equipment and Deep Purple’s recording plans.
After a false start at a nearby theater called the Pavillion, during which the sessions were undermined by locals complaining to the police about the noise, the band relocated to the out-of-season Grand Hotel. Amidst the chaos, the first track recorded was a mid-tempo rocker anchored by a simple riff consisting of four inverted power chords, inspired in part by the intro to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Bassist Roger Glover came up with the title “Smoke On The Water” after recalling the pall of smoke blown over Lake Geneva as the fire gutted the Casino. Almost instantly, he and singer Ian Gillan wasted no time putting words together that told the story of the chaos surrounding the recording sessions, thus creating one of the best-loved and most memorable songs in the history of hard rock.
“What I love about ‘Smoke On The Water,’ ” recounted organist Jon Lord, “if you want to know the story, listen to the words.”
9 “Castles Made Of Sand” By The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The second track on the second side of virtuoso guitarist and legendary songwriter Jimi Hendrix’s second album is an astute but melancholy observation of the temporary nature of existence. The first verse speaks of a romantic relationship crumbling in the wake of a drunken argument, which is no doubt a reference to the stormy love affair between Hendrix and Kathleen Mary Etchingham, who also inspired “The Wind Cries Mary.” The second verse is about an Indian brave killed in his sleep by a sneak attack on the eve of his first battle and a disabled girl who finds solace by deciding to end her ruined and embittered life.
Nonetheless, many see “Castles Made of Sand” as an allegory for Hendrix’s own inner life. He was born into a poor, itinerant family, his siblings were placed in foster care, and his mother died in 1958 after years of alcohol abuse when Hendrix was 16. Indeed, the second verse about the Indian brave whose dream of becoming a warrior was eclipsed as a “surprise attack killed him in his sleep” proved prophetic. On the morning of September 18, 1970, Hendrix—who had Cherokee ancestry—took nine sodium Seconal tablets to help himself fall asleep after partying all night. He never woke up, as a result of underestimating the potency of the pills he ingested, and died after vomiting and asphyxiating while unconscious. He was 27 years old.