Answer Man

When Deep Purple wrote ‘Smoke on the Water,’ did they rip off the Catholic Church?

British rock band Deep Purple did not rip off the Catholic Church with “Smoke on the Water.”
British rock band Deep Purple did not rip off the Catholic Church with “Smoke on the Water.” AP

Q: Isn’t the musical hook from “Smoke on the Water” really a rip-off of the Eucharistic acclamation “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”? During church one time, my very young son asked me, “Why are they playing rock music?” But this is the only acknowledgment I have found anywhere that relates the Deep Purple tune to the psalm.

Bob Johnson, of Collinsville

A: Look, I don’t presume to know for certain what influenced Ritchie Blackmore to write one of the most famous guitar riffs in rock history. But if you’re asking my opinion, I’d wager the chances that the then 27-year-old composer pilfered it from the Catholic Mass are somewhere between fat and none. I offer this reasoning:

First, to my ear, you have to strain to fit it to the rhythm. Yes, the riff has 12 notes and the acclamation has 12 syllables, but if you sing it to the music, there’s just something off. “Christ has died. Christ has ri-ZZEN. Christ will come (pregnant pause) UH-gin.” I’d argue it’s a stretch — and I won’t even go into how the power guitar-organ combo would give it a satanic flavor.

More important, I’ve hunted down about a dozen interviews and bios and find no mention of any major religious influence or affiliation, so I would wonder how much he was ever even exposed to it in the first place. Being English he likely would be Anglican not Catholic (he has married three times) although I find the Church of England apparently also does use the line as one of four acclamations in its services.

Still, if my research is correct, I find Pope Paul VI first introduced it into the Catholic Mass in 1969, so if the Anglicans followed suit then, Blackmore would have had just three years to be influenced by it by the time he wrote the riff in 1972. But at that time I would imagine he and his bandmates were much more concerned about hitting the charts. So even if he had heard it, I doubt it made such a deep impression that one day it popped into his head to turn it into a rock classic (No. 434 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 list.)

Adding to that argument, Blackmore (if you didn’t know) has changed musical gears from rock to Renaissance-folk. For the past 20 years, Blackmore, who reportedly owns 2,000 Renaissance music CDs, and his talented wife, Candice Night, have turned out nearly a dozen terrific albums as Blackmore’s Night. (Check them out if you haven’t.) One of these is one of my very favorite Christmas albums, but they’ve titled it simply “Winter Carols.”

“The word ‘carol’ comes from the 1500s,” he told one interviewer. “It really means ‘dance.’ To dance in a circle. And then all the pagans and heathens — the folk people — would dance in a circle and sing these tunes. Now they’re known as Christmas songs to come out in December. But actually most of them are spring carols. They are songs that were danced to in April or May. Because people were so happy it’s sunny again.”

So again I just don’t see the religious connection, but, as I said, I could be wrong. In any case, fascinating consideration.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer