4th December: Mary Celeste, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa and Led Zepplin

Today is the 4th December, and no doubt there are plenty of people advanced in their Christmas planning and Christmas party season – I’m off to my first Christmas lunch of the year today – but there are a few other interesting things about today.


142 years ago, on the 4th December 1871, the helmsman of the ship Dei Gratia, John Johnson, saw a ship about five miles away from its own position near the Azores, about 600 miles west of Portugal in the Atlantic ocean. The ship was moving erratically, and some of its sails were torn.  After observing for some time, the crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the ship, to find that, although still seaworthy and not sinking, and with plenty of supplies on board, a lifeboat was missing, as was most of the paperwork on board and the crew.  The ship’s name was the Mary Celeste. The story became famous, and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others to write, speculating what had happened to the crew, and to slightly change the name of the ship in the fictional accounts to the Marie Celeste.  The story of unfinished breakfasts or other meals sitting on a table are from the fictional stories rather than the real incident.


This was not the first, though, unfortunate event to befall this ship.  She had started life in 1861 as the Amazon, being owned by a group of investors from Nova Scotia.  Her first captain, Robert McLellan, the son of one of her owners, contracted pneumonia just nine days after taking command of the ship, and died at the start of her maiden voyage, becoming the first of her three captains to die on board.
Her second captain, John Nutting, struck a fishing boat, and she was taken to a shipyard for repairs, where a fire broke out on board.


Her next captain attempted her first transatlantic crossing, where she collided with another ship near Dover.  She then had a few relatively uneventful years before running aground in 1867, after which she was sold, repaired, and renamed the Mary Celeste.


After her most famous incident, she was repaired and sold, although her new owners did not hold on to her for long, and over the next thirteen years, she changed hands seventeen times before her last owner and captain, a G C Parker, wrecked her in the Caribbean Sea hear Haiti on 3rd January 1885, complete with an over-insured cargo of scrap, most probably as an attempted insurance scam.  The Mary Celeste failed to sink after being run into a reef, so Parker tried to burn her, but after the fire had ravaged the hull, the ship remained intact, although the ship’s log was a casualty of the blaze. Parker was arrested and put on trial for barratry, and was acquitted.  He died three months later.  The remains of the Mary Celeste were left to sink, before the shipwreck was rediscovered in 2001.


Moving forward one hundred years to this day in 1971, the band Deep Purple were in a mobile recording studio near Lake Geneva, rented from the Rolling Stones, in the Montreux Casino entertainment complex.  The night before their recording saw Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performing a gig at the theatre in the casino.  During a keyboard solo, one of the members of the audience fired a flare gun, and the ceiling caught fire, which led to the whole casino burning down.  Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, helped people out of the burning building.


Deep Purple, of course, wrote Smoke On The Water about the incident, which was on their 1972 Machine Head album, and Claude became Funky Claude, in the lyric “Funky Claude was running in and out pulling kids out the ground”, a much commented fact in his various obituaries when he passed away in January 2013.


The 4th December has seen plenty of bad news in the world of rock music, with Led Zepplin splitting up in 1980, after the death of their drummer, John Bonham, in September of that year, and Frank Zappa himself died on 4th December 1993.


It seems appropriate that today’s singing of the Christmas songs that have appeared to have been ubiquitous since the middle of November should be interrupted today and at least a little rock music performed…