frank zappa incendie_casino

My story of the Montreux casino fire started way back in 1968 when a young enthusiastic RICHARD BRANSON (of Virgin fame) came into our makeshift dormitory in the sanitarium of STOWE Public School (we were waiting for our new house LYTTLETON to be completed) with a copy of FRANK ZAPPA & THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION’S first album: FREAK OUT. He put it onto the record player and we all heard the amazing sounds of Zappa and his band for the very first time. I must say that Richard had a good ear for new bands and good music!
Many years later I jumped at the chance of seeing Frank Zappa playing a live show at the famous Montreux casino on the edge of the lake of Geneva in the French speaking part of Switzerland. There were a set of incredible coincidences that made that day so infamous and saved the lives of hundreds of people whom otherwise would have been burnt to death in the fierce flames. One of them was that the concert was held MID AFTERNOON and NOT at nighttime! Usually all concerts at the casino, before and since are held at night, maybe at 8pm or 9 pm but this one started at 2 pm (?) So when the fire started IT WAS STILL DAYLIGHT and the audience could see where they were going when they exited the building. It was a beautiful Swiss winter day, cold but no rain. Another amazing coincidence is that on the day of the concert THERE WERE NO CHAIRS INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM. All the chairs had been removed. I had been to the auditorium several times before, and usually there were chairs with numbered seating. Seeing as there were NO CHAIRS, when the fire started each and every person could head straight for the nearest exit without having to stumble over hundreds of chairs and thus causing valuable loss of time. In a fire, every second counts. As if that was not enough, another event happened that also saved precious lives: The drummer Ansley Dunbar’s drum set BROKE DOWN and Frank Zappa stopped the concert for several minutes whilst the drums where being fixed. Seeing as this happened well into the show, a good hour at least, many people at the back of the auditorium took this as a chance to HAVE A BREAK and EXITED THE BUILDING, so they were outside or just coming back in when the fire started. People pushing to get out pushed the people back who were trying to get in!!
I was sitting very close to the front, on a cushion on the floor, around the 4th or 5th row with my English girlfriend Cecily and a Swiss friend. Although there were no seats all the Swiss sat in nice rows starting in front of the stage. The fire started WITHIN THE AUDORORIUM. It was December 4th 1971 and the Swiss were preparing for Christmas. There were Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling and lots of colorful paper mache. The fire was started by a young man from Eastern Europe (who fled the very next day back home). I do NOT think that it was started by a flare gun as it says in the song, but by the boy throwing lighted matches in the air, and one of them got stuck on the very low ceiling. Remember that it was a very old building first built in 1881 and practically all made of timber and thus highly inflammable. So the fire started right above where the boy was sitting on the low lying ceiling beams. It spread very quickly…
I was heavily engrossed in the concert. Frank Zappa was playing again as the drum set had been fixed, and he had written a song about Switzerland, Swiss cheese and all that. Also, he had a large head of a bunny rabbit near the front of the stage (made of plastic or something similar) which in my mind kept on changing into a scary monster. I had taken a strong dose of an illicit drug and was totally engrossed by the show. A few seconds after the fire started my girlfriend said to me ´Peter, there’s a fire’ and I remember looking behind me and seeing a large ball of flame. Because I was very stoned it LOOKED BEAUTIFUL, perfectly circular and with flames and sparks flying in all directions. I could only see the beauty and not feel the danger! I actually thought that the fire was part of the show!! (Because Frank had such a crazy reputation, I and many other fans too, thought that anything could happen at one of his shows!). Frank Zappa continued playing for a few more seconds and then changed to the song ‘FIRE’ by Arthur Brown, which had been a big hit in the late 60’s. They just played a few bars from that song, and then dropped their instruments and quickly made their way off the stage down a small staircase without having to go into the audience. I seem to remember somebody at the microphone saying ‘Don’t panic’. In fact nobody did panic because nearly everybody was so stoned that fear didn’t kick in and the audience exited in a more or less orderly fashion (like sheep, one following the other)!
When the music stopped people got up in a daze and started to make their way out of the building. After the fire was over hundreds of coats were NOT collected from the cloakroom where you leave your winter coats (it gets very cold in Switzerland in December), and a few days later, when they were looking for name tags inside the coat pockets to see who the owners were, they found drugs in all the garments! Obviously the owners never went to collect them! By the way the security people managed to get all the coats out of the building before the fire consumed them.
The fire spread so quickly that all the people in the front were trapped. There was a large door on the right hand side as you face the stage but I do not know if it was open or cIosed. I stood up and my girlfriend said to me ‘We are going to die’ and at that moment something deep inside me clicked and I felt and saw the fear in her eyes, and I too became frightened. She ran off and left me standing there, so I stood behind the crowd who were trying to get out through the LARGE GLASS WINDOWS which covered the whole of the front of the building from one side to the other. I owe my life to a SWISS FIREMAN who came in with a huge axe and started to break the windows one by one, starting from the left towards the stage. People were trying to break them with their fists and their shoes but the glass was thick and would not break so easily. The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump. Before the glass was broken it was getting difficult to breathe, the oxygen in the room was rapidly being consumed by the flames. Once the windows were broken the air came in and the flames jumped up and headed straight towards us. I WAS THE LAST PERSON OUT. Everybody else had already jumped, and I looked around one more time: The centre beam holding the roof up had already crashed to the floor and was engulfed in flames. The fire was consuming the whole of the ceiling first, before spreading to other parts of the building. As I jumped the flames came SHOOTING OUT OF THE WINDOW right above my head, and we all had to run like hell to get as far away as possible. People outside were taking photos of the building instead of helping us poor souls who had just escaped in the nick of time…
Later, from our hotel room on the side of the mountain, the whole city was lit up with a giant wall of fire. The casino burnt down, the concert hall, the discotheque, the offices, EVERYTHING. A national emergency was announced and police, firemen, medical staff, came from all over the area. Besides a few broken bones, and small injuries it was a MIRACLE that nobody had been burnt alive. We all knew the famous organizer CLAUDE NOBS as he always introduced the bands at Montreux. I heard later that he had helped saved many lives. God bless him! Deep Purple members were all in the audience and were shocked enough to write their world wide hit: SMOKE ON THE WATER and recorded the album MACHINE HEAD in a building close to where the fire started. The rest is history.
Many years later I met Eddie (the big guy of Flo & Eddie from The Turtles) after a concert in Florida. He was the co-lead singer the night of the fire. He told me that when the fire started, right in front of the band, that they all stopped playing and climbed down a small staircase in the stage area, and fled to safety. They lost ALL THEIR EQUIPMENT and very very upset, and shocked as was everybody else).

Peter E. Schneider, Lima, Peru, May 17, 2009
Ps: if you have anything to add to my story, or any comments, please write to me at:

(Please feel free to edit my article as you see fit, thank you)


  1. Celine says:

    I thank God that there were no fatalities too. You remember so many details of the concert & fire 38 years ago which I do not, so it was really informing and interesting to read your article. We were also accompanied by an English au-pair girl from the North of England one of a group of friends all working in Zurich.

    All best wishes

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks for your story.Just curious how you know that the fire was started by a young man from eastern Europe and that he fled back home the next day?

  3. Candace says:

    Mr. Peter Schneider
    My name is Candace, through an image search of the Montreux Casino fire, I have stumbled across your page & have found it very enlightening. I have an experience, a dream that has led me to your site, which I’d like to share with you, but not publically through blog. If you are interested in hearing my story, please feel free to email me (through the email provided in the required “mail” portion), I would greatly appreciate your expertise on the matter.
    Thank you for your time,

  4. […] Promoter Claude Nobs (immortalized as “Funky Claude” by Deep Purple) remembers the fire here; a fan who was there tells his story here. […]

  5. […] Promoter Claude Nobs (immortalized as “Funky Claude” by Deep Purple) remembers the fire here; a fan who was there tells his story here. […]

  6. Eric Polson says:

    I too was there. In 1971, I was going to school at Ecole Des Roches, in Bluche above Sierre. A small handful of us were selected to go to the concert along with a counselor, Mr Richard. When the fire broke out, I was in one of the small bars just outside the hall entrance drinking a beer I got with the “free drink” coupon that came with the ticket. I remember the song about the Swiss cheese, and chockolate. I remember someone saying “hay, there’s a fire over there!” and we all filed out of the bar, through the lobby and out into the street.
    The first thing that we all wanted to see was where the smoke was billowing out from the building, so we moved around to get a vantage point of the stage area behind the building. Eventually, we all collected back at the big parking area just to the north of the casino. By that time, the whole building was engulfed, and there were large pieces of what I think were paper, on fire and floating up into the air with the smoke and fire from the building. I was later told that there was construction occuring on the roof, and that the paper was cardboard packaging from some of the materials being used.
    Eventually we all loaded back into the buses, and went back to school. As we were headed out of town, the fire was pretty enormous, and could be seen from quite a distance as we left. When we got back, we watched the whole fire again on TV.

  7. Ross says:


    I was there as well… An amazing experience. I was a few rows behind you, and was hanging out so when the fire was put out I could move up. (I’m older and smarter now).

    Great reporting which brings great memories!

    I am also a Zappa fan; I understand that their next concert Zappa broke his leg. Could be urban legend…

  8. diane says:

    Thank you for sharing your account of what happened that day. Very interesting!

    You might like to listen to this audio of the show right up until and moments after the band left the stage availiable on youtube:

    What you remember as the band playing bars of Arthur Brown’s Fire was actually Howard Kaylan making reference to the song. He tells of it in his book Shell Shocked

  9. John Raines says:

    I was at the The Station nightclub in Rhode Island (USA)watching Great White on February 20, 2003 when the fire started. As a firefighter-paramedic, after I made sure my wife and friends were out and safe, I did everything I could to help fight the fire and treat the injured. It took almost 3 days for the shock and reality to set in. We were lucky, we were right near the main entrance and were some of the first people to get out. To this day, I still have nightmares and panic attacks. From one concert fire surviver to another: We are lucky!

  10. Duncan says:

    This is a great read. I drove up from Switzerland with a handful of friends to attend. I don’t recall the band playing “Fire”, but recall them come haltingly to a stop, a moment of silence, and Zappa speaking into his mic with that real-life-radio-announcer-voice he used to use, saying “Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Brown, the King of Fire, has arrived. Please exit the building calmly,” or something to that effect. Others may have said something, but I’m very clear on Zappa at that mic. The band was then gone in moments.

    I ended up exiting the building through the front doors, right onto the street where we entered. The only time I felt fear was when there was a swell of panic, and the pressure of the surging crowd pressing towards the distant doors lifted me slightly off the ground. I couldn’t really touch the floor, and was carried forward by the crowd. I had no concern for the fire at that point, but was terrified the moment I was no longer in control of my actions. It is so odd.. I was very concerned that I would suddenly slip and be trampled to death, but when the force of the crowd carried me right by the coat check place, I recall thinking “hang on, don’t fall, oh wait, my coat!” Very amused to read that all the checked coats were saved.

    Over by the windows, it was as you describe, a very bad scene. Where we were it was pretty quiet. We milled about in the streets for a bit, until the fire really kicked in and the emergency vehicles began piling up. A brief exchange with Zappa, of all things, which was no more than “Holy crap!” and “I know, holy crap..”

    We drove back to Switzerland right then, and I still recall, so vividly, the sight of the fire and smoke reflected in the lake as we drove southeast along the shore. I probably heard the Deep Purple song a dozen times or more before I listened to the words, and was stunned when I realized what it was about. “Dude, I was there, and that’s what it looked like..”

  11. […] July 21, 2015February 24, 2016Posted in UncategorizedTagged Fashion, GiovanniLoPresti, History, MontreuxCasino, MontreuxJazz, Music, NextModels This may look like an ordinary gambling casino but the Casino De Montreux is far different than anything Las Vegas has to offer. Located on the breathtaking shore of Lake Geneva, the Casino De Montreux’s history traces back far before Giovanni Lo Presti’s fashion show.  It was originally built in 1881 and transformed into a musical wonderland by 1960. The Casino De Montreux faced some hardships in its later years then picked itself back up off the ground.  A fire was started in the casino during a Frank Zappa concert in 1971. It almost completely vanished!  Some bozo began to throw lighted matches in the air during the concert and… Well the rest is pretty self explanatory. All was not lost after the Great Fire though.  A series of lucky coincidences made the flames far less destructive than they could have been. In a nutshell: 1.) The concert was held at mid afternoon and not nighttime.  People could see more than a few feet in front of them as they ran for their lives. 2.)  There were no chairs in the audience which made it easier to quickly run from the flames. 3.) Ansley Dunbar’s drum set broke down before anyone could let their minds escape into the performance.  Many people took a break while the drums were being repaired and some even walked outside.  They walked in then immediately walked back out when the word “FIRE!” was uttered. One man was so stoned when the fire started that he thought it was part of the performance.  His girlfriend assured him this wasn’t the case and they both made it out alive when a huge Swiss fireman broke down the door to let them out.  Thank god this man was with a sober designated fire watcher during the concert. Read his “stoned” recollection of The Great Fire in the link below….. […]

  12. Peter Meltzer says:

    I have written a book about rock and roll music and would like to use the photo of he burning casino that appears on your blog. Do you have rights to that photo and if so, could I use it?

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