Montreux’s Mountain Studios: “Smoke on the Water”
Perched beside exquisite Lake Geneva inside of Casino Barriere Montreux is Queen – The Studio Experience, an “Exhibition… Dedicated to the Immortal Spirit of Freddie Mercury.”
How did this site happen to find a home, of all places, in a gambling salon located in the Swiss Riviera, at the French-speaking canton of Vaud in Switzerland?
The reason is, as Deep Purple sang:
“We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky.”
The British band’s 1972 hit memorialized an actual event that took place while the Mothers of Invention were onstage at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival, when a fan actually fired a flare gun into the roof of the then Montreux Casino on Dec. 4, 1971. This not only led to the gaming hall being burned down and to Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, but to the rebuilding of Montreux Casino.
When it was opened five years later the gambling venue included Mountain Studios, a state of the art recording studio built and designed by noted American acoustical engineer Tom Hidley, owner of the Westlake Audio company and co-founder of L.A.-based TTG Studios, where Zappa, The Doors and Linda Ronstadt recorded albums.
Mountain Studios’ then up-to-date control room featured four speakers for providing a “Quad” effect plus a British-built Neve 8048 mixing console. The at-the-time cutting edge sound equipment included two Swiss-made Studer A80 analogue 24-track recorder using 2-inch tape, which when synchronized permitted 48-track recording – a multi-track rarity back in the mid-seventies. Stone was even imported all the way from Hawaii to provide a harder, more reflective surface for the upstairs recording room (which no longer exists).
Many of the era’s top musicians recorded at Mountain Studios, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, AC/DC, Yes, Iggy Pop, jazz great Stan Getz and soul sister Nina Simone. In addition to Hidley’s high-tech knowhow, the annual Montreux Jazz Festival – which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016 – was a drawing card for musicians. But just as importantly, the allure of the lakeside facility’s spectacular, serene surroundings also attracted artistes to this recording room.
The casino’s largely glass enclosed front opens up onto unobstructed views of Lake Geneva (which Swiss call Lac Léman), stretching right outside the gambling emporium towards the French Alps across this sparkling body of water, crisscrossed by Belle Époque boats. Along the shoreline is a lovely promenade full of flowers and palm trees, with picturesque villages such as Montreux climbing up the hills behind. Queen went on to capture the Swiss Riviera’s effervescent sense of place in one of Mercury’s last song, A Winter’s Tale:
“…So quiet and peaceful
Tranquil and blissful
There’s a kind of magic in the air
What a truly magnificent view
A breathtaking scene…
“It’s all so beautiful
Like a landscape painting in the sky – yeah –
Mountains are zoomin’ higher – mm –
Little girls scream an’ cry
My world is spinnin’ and spinnin’ and spinnin’
Sends me reeling
Am I dreaming…
Am I dreaming…?
Oooh – it’s bliss.”
I can appreciate Mercury’s Montreux musings as my balcony at the lakeside, palatial Hotel des Trois Couronnes offers a similarly splendid view from nearby Vevey. This dreamy, blissful beauty drew Charlie Chaplin to settle from 1952 until his death in 1977 on a hilltop at a mansion now being transformed into a museum called Chaplin’s World, opening in 2016.
And so it was with Queen, which was formed by Freddie Mercury, bass guitarist/keyboard player John Deacon, drummer/keyboard player Roger Taylor and guitarist/keyboard player Brian May in 1970. By July 1978 the British mega-group – which had climbed to the top of the pop charts with hits subsequently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame such as Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions – came to Mountain Studios for the first time to record their seventh album, Jazz. This disk includes Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race, inspired by Mercury’s observing Tour de France bicyclists peddle through Montreux.
The following year Queen returned to Mountain Studios to complete post-production on their Live Killers album with producer David Richards. By 1979, as their name implied, Queen had literally become rock royalty and the wealthy superstars bought Mountain Studios, thereby cementing their close relationship with Montreux, which continues to this day. Queen worked on at least portions of seven albums at their very own recording room, including 1982’s Hot Space; 1986’s Kind of Magic; 1989’s The Miracle; and 1991’s Innuendo. Mercury’s 1988 solo album Barcelona, with Spanish opera soprano Montserrat Caballé, was largely recorded here (the song was performed at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic games hosted by Barcelona).
In 1981, Under Pressure – Queen’s second number one hit – grew out of a Mountain Studios jam session with David Bowie. The memorable bassline is believed to have been created by Deacon; the song is on Hot Space and heard on Queen Live and the greatest hits albums, as well on Bowie compilation disks.
The rockers’ final album, the portentously titled Made In Heaven was recorded at Mountain Studios and completed after Mercury succumbed to AIDS in 1991 (and presumably went to heaven – although he joked in interviews he’d prefer to go to hell). The band owned Mountain Studios until February 1993, when they sold it to David Richards. In 2002 the recording installation moved to Attelens, near Châtel-St.-Denis, in the Swiss canton of Fribourg.
Queen – The Studio Experience
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of Queen’s first single and album, Roger Taylor and Brian May opened Queen – The Studio Experience on Dec. 2, 2013, which was International AIDS Day. The permanent exhibition is curated by Greg Brooks, Queen’s official archivist and designed by Marmalade London (the English design company that created the February 2011 “Stormtroopers in Stilettos” exhibit in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s formation).
Queen – The Studio Experience is a classy cross between a museum, reliquary, music recording studio, charitable enterprise and shrine – above all, to Queen’s mind-boggling frontman, the one and only Mister Mercury. There is, of course, a ton of memorabilia, with so much to take in that it’s hard to know where to begin. However, the outrageous costumes (mostly worn, but of course, by Freddie!) seem as good a place to start as any. Defying gender conventions, Mercury’s outlandish outfits – which the singer wore and performed in with great panache – range from the frilly to the silly, the futuristic to the balletic.
Many are lovingly showcased on headless, muscular mannequins in life-size glass-enclosed displays that resemble the cases roadies use for transporting large pieces of musical gear. The eccentric apparel includes designer Zandra Rhodes’ white satin ensemble plus a white leather jacket with tight leggings adorned by black lightning bolts, which may be a flashback to the 1980 sci fi movie Flash Gordon. Perhaps the most outré outfit is Mercury’s barechested harlequin leotard patterned after the costume worn by the legendary ballet dancer Nijinsky.
Amidst the other handsomely displayed relics fans will find album covers, records, books, graphics galore, musical instruments (although not necessarily the originals played by the band), a gigantic replica of the “Jazz” LP on the floor, etc. The display for Made In Heaven includes an oversized version of its album cover, which features portraits of Deacon, Taylor, May and Mercury merged as if they are one indivisible individual.
The Studio Experience also features twin life-sized, multi-colored lions. These king of the jungle statues appear made out of porcelain and derived from Queen’s logo, which incorporates the musicians’ astrological signs plus a phoenix. It was designed by Mercury, who attended London’s Ealing Art College. The group’s Zodiac-influenced emblem bears a resemblance to the United Kingdom’s Royal Coat of Arms, which includes a lion (although for some reason Freddie didn’t include that insignia’s unicorn).
The London-born Brian May patriotically calls Queen a “bastion of the British Empire” in a documentary presented in a small screening room on a large flat screen at the Studio Experience. The well-made, informative film includes archival and contemporary, original footage of not only the musicians, but of other notables who played major roles in the annals of the super-band. They include Queen’s manager, Jim Beach, producer David Richards and sound engineer Justin Shirley-Smith. Perhaps most importantly, this nonfiction motion picture includes great clips of Queen in action, with the frenetic, mercurial Mercury raising the roof during bravura performances at shows, notably 1985’s Live Aid, the historic Bob Geldof- organized fundraiser for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Aficionados and initiates alike also have ample opportunities to hear and see the rockers in action throughout this extravagant extravaganza of pop culture. For example, at the exhibit for Queen’s double album Live Killers – their first work entirely mixed at Mountain Studios, including live performances of You’re My Best Friend, We Will Rock You, Don’t Stop Me Now, Bohemian Rhapsody and God Save the Queen from their 1979 European tour – one can don headphones and watch them rock out on a flat-screen TV. Wall texts throughout the exhibition space also provide much insider info about “Queen-ology”, with a plethora of material. Queen fans will find, as Hamlet says in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Losing Control in the Control Room
As its name indicates, the Studio Experience is very much an encounter with what had been a working recording room and space. The heart of this exhibit is in the Hidley-designed master control room, where Mercury recorded his last songs as he was dying of AIDS. There is a plaque in the floor marking the exact spot where Freddie stood while performing the vocals for Mother Love on the Made In Heaven album, the final number he’d ever record.
An extremely ingenious interactive vibe in the studio’s inner sanctum takes the visitor right into Queen’s creative process. Here, there is a full-scale photographic reproduction of the Mountain Studios Neve 8048 mixing console (the original is now in Sweden). However – and this part is sheer brilliance – after a video intro by Taylor – two Queen numbers are blasted and – get this! – unlike the rest of the console, the faders work and you can actually remix songs performed by the band (in the vid Taylor playfully urges mixers to play the drums the loudest). So, in a sense, during this remixing as you control the volume of and add the bass, piano, backup vocals, et al, you have a sense of performing – and being at one – with Queen.
Of course, this is true for the lead vocals, too. During a rendition of the title cut of Made In Heaven, as Mercury crooned “Yes, it was meant to be, Yeah, yeah, When stormy weather comes around, It was made in heaven…” I amped up his voice. It was an eerie feeling, as if Freddie was still among us, right there in the studio – and I was jamming with him! I was thunderstruck that this man was struck down in his prime by a ruthless disease, killing this force of nature, who as a singer/songwriter/pianist, was so full of life. In numbers such as I Was Born To Love You the passionate composer gave voice to so much love that rocked our world.
Thinking of poor Mercury, felled at only 45 years old, my emotions were momentarily out of control: I broke down and wept.
Made In Heaven
Made In Heaven is also the title cut of Queen’s fifteenth album, which they began recording in January 1991 at Mountains Studios. According to The Studio Experience Mercury soldiered on, realizing that time was running out as his deadly disease ran its course, so he wrote and sang as many songs as possible (his handwritten lyrics are on display). His bandmates – with whom the rocker sometimes had a rocky relationship with – closed ranks around and protected their vocalist, performing whenever Mercury’s fading health permitted. Alas, Freddie became another one who bit the dust on Nov. 24, 1991 – without ever hearing his last hurrah in its final version.
In 1993 surviving band members completed the Made In Heaven album. Some of the music sounds Wagnerian or like the opening strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as if the notes are knocking on fate’s destiny. The lyrics likewise ponder destiny and man’s mortality, as Queen sings tracks such as Let Me Live and My Life Has Been Saved. Co-written by May, Frank Musker and Elizabeth Lamers, Too Much Love Will Kill You sounds like a possible commentary on a mate, who – perhaps like Shakespeare’s Othello – “lov’d not wisely but too well”…
One of the most amazing things about the superb Queen – The Studio Experience is that in expensive Switzerland, admission is absolutely free of charge. However, visitors – 75,000-plus have made the pilgrimage since the doors opened less than two years ago – are urged to generously donate to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which May, Taylor and manager Jim Beach established shortly after Mercury’s demise. According to the Trust this philanthropic undertaking “has given away $16 million in his name and funded over 800 projects in the global battle against AIDS… in 57 countries.”
The Studio Experience also raises funds by selling Queen-y tchotchkes and souvenirs, such as T-shirts, tote bags, programs and mugs. The sole album sold here is, fittingly, the last one the group recorded with its lead vocalist, Made In Heaven.
As previously stated, Queen – The Studio Experience is located in an actual place of gambling. Entrance to Montreux Casino, located a flight below the Studio, is also complementary, although passports are required. Montreux Casino includes the usual games of chance, from slot machines to card games. Its bar and the Studio offer Queen-themed drinks, such as Killer Queen Vodka, Queen Bohemian Lager, etc. One can drink and dine on a terrace with an expansive view of Lake Geneva. However, since it was after dark when I supped I ate a delicious meal at the Casino’s restaurant, Le Saxo.
Outside the Casino, at what had been the artists’ entrance to Mountain Studios, is a wall covered with graffiti by thousands of fans, inscribing their names and tributes to their demigod. A short walk away, near the Lake’s glistening edge, is a larger-than-life bronze statue celebrating the all-too-mortal Mercury in a dynamic pose, right arm outstretched, fist clenched, reaching for the stars, his other hand clutching a mike as if it is a royal scepter. Czech sculptor Irena Sedlecka’s statue was unveiled here on Nov. 25, 1996 by Montserrat Caballé, Brian May, Roger Taylor and Mercury’s parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara.
How many fans know that the man who rocked the Western rock world was born Farrokh Bulsara on Sept. 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, Africa and was a Parsee of the Zoroastrian religion who spent much of his childhood in India? The turbulent life of the boy who grew up to change his name to Freddie Mercury inspired a fitting homage beside Lake Geneva at Montreux, which May said “became a kind of second home” and where Freddie found his tranquility. While his death motivated a charity to combat a devastating disease.
As for his surviving bandmates, according to Jim Beach, Queen continues to tour and “headlined the 30th anniversary of ‘Rock in Rio’ Sept. 18 in Rio de Janeiro with Adam Lambert singing.”
God Save the Queen! – which Mercury described as “the most preposterous band that ever lived.”
For more info and souvenirs visit www.queenstudioexperience.com.
The Mercury Phoenix Trust: For more info and to donate see www.mercuryphoenixtrust.com.
Montreux Casino: For more info visit www.lucienbarriere.com/fr/Casino/Montreux/accueil.html.
Hotel des Trois Couronnes: This five star palace at Vevey’s shoreline is a luxurious place to stay, located only 15 minutes from Montreux Casino by bus (guests receive complementary transit passes). For more info visit www.hoteltroiscouronnes.ch/home.php.
Ed Rampell is a repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine. He co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” and Rampell’s interview with America’s former Poet Laureate appears in 2015’s “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.