I’ve listened to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” thousands of times, but I suddenly realized something for the first time while jamming to the 1972 classic last weekend:
“Smoke on the Water” could be classified as the first rock-star tweet.
I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but the lyrics go something like, “Went down to Montreux to record an album with a mobile studio. Didn’t have much time. While we were opening for Frank Zappa and The Mothers, some stupid guy with a FLARE GUN burned the place to the ground! OMG! We had to find another place to record, and time was running out. Ended up at the Grand Hotel, which sucked — empty, cold, bare. But with the Rolling Stones mobile outside, we made the thing, no sweat.”
It’s common knowledge that the song was based on a true story while Deep Purple was making the album “Machine Head.” But the lyrics sound like they’re lifted straight out of a diary. What made the song a classic is the guitar riff, that sludgy, slightly distorted masterpiece that’s just a simple blues scale.
Simple, but oh so indelible.
Because of that opening riff, “Smoke on the Water” overcame the insipid lyrics to become a bar-band staple and a mainstay on classic rock radio.
That got me thinking about other rock songs that live and die on one guitar riff, that one progression of chords or notes that elevate a song from album filler to an instantly recognizable classic.
Here are some of my favorites:
“Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry: If you can’t play this riff, you can’t play rock guitar.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones: Considered the Fifth Symphony of rock.
“You Really Got Me,” The Kinks: One of the earliest — and still best — riffs played through a blown-out speaker.
“Alive,” Pearl Jam: The perfect accompaniment to Eddie Vedder’s tortured vocals.
“Purple Haze,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience: There was rock ‘n’ roll before Hendrix, and rock ‘n’ roll after Hendrix. The demarcation point can be drawn with this song, the lead-off track to the most influential album of all time for electric guitarists.
“Iron Man,” Black Sabbath: The first true heavy metal riff.
“Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin: Led Zep made other classics that were more complex, but this one is always listed above them whenever someone does a best rock songs list.
“Frankenstein,” The Edgar Winter Group: No lyrics, just that same deliciously crunchy riff played for four minutes.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana: Another ridiculously simple riff. And another all-time classic.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2: When The Edge plays this on acoustic, it’s a plaintive plea for peace. When he plays it on electric, it’s a demand for action.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns N Roses: I can almost forget what a brat Axl Rose is when I listen to this song. Then I remember that it’s Slash’s riff, and that Slash is no longer in GNR, and then I get angry again.
“Revolution,” The Beatles: Listen to the fuzzed-out, louder-than-a-jet-engine wail on the single version, then listen to the slow, plodding version on the White Album. John Lennon once said the other Beatles made him speed up the song for the single. It’s a good thing they did, because it turned a so-so song into a monster.
Do you have a favorite rock guitar riff that you’d like to share? Comment on this column online at www.pressherald.com/life/go or send me an email at the address below.
Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or: