When an earthquake decimated parts of Armenia and killing between 25,000 to 50,000 people in 1988, the world was in shock. The USSR earmarked the equivalent of billions of dollars to help rebuild, the U.S. sent medical aid and search dogs, and people from all over Europe came to help. Perhaps the most surprising fundraising effort, though, came from a who’s who of rock and metal legends calling themselves Rock Aid Armenia. The supergroup, which featured Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Queen’s Brian May and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, among many others, recorded a cover of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which made it into the U.K. Top 40.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the recording, Iommi and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, along with Rock Aid Armenia organizer Jon Dee, are traveling to Yerevan, Armenia. A documentary about the recording of “Smoke on the Water” will be screened, and the country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, will be present at the gala. While there, they will also visit the Gyumri Musical School, which was built in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the charity single.
Footage of the recording of “Smoke on the Water” shows Gilmour arriving, Queen’s Roger Taylor warming up on the drums, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson singing the chorus and Brian May looking a bit bemused. The song kicks in at the 1:30 mark and the video contains clips of the musicians each taking their turns. The singers, in order, include Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan and Dickinson before the guitar solos start. Blackmore takes the first lead, followed by Gilmour and May (in Bermuda shorts!) before Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers takes a turn on the verse. Iommi then does a solo, and gets a thumbs up from Dickinson, leading to a thudding ending. The other musicians on the track include guitarist Alex Lifeson (Rush), keyboardists Geoff Downes (Yes) and Keith Emerson, bassist and Chris Squire (Yes).
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“This kind of thing is great because all of the politics that separate various people and their various things can be thrown out of the window really, and music in general can actually pull together and do something useful,” Rodgers said in a documentary about the film.
“I wanted it to be a musical contribution,” said Emerson, who based his contribution to the recording on ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” “If it was anything less than that, I would not have done that — I don’t know, sent money in. But what we’re dealing with here is a rock classic, and we are all working together on this for a good cause.”
“I was [in Armenia] a year after the earthquake, and it was as if it were the day before,” Ian Gillan said in 2011. “I went out to Spitak, the epicenter of the earthquake, and I was speaking to the mayor and people going around seeing people like zombies. And of all the things that made an impression on me, the one thing he said was that there’s no music. Even after a year, there’s no music in the church. There’s no music on the radio. Children don’t sing. Even the birds aren’t singing. It’s just dead.”
The song was recorded during five sessions in London, beginning on July 8th, 1989, according to Guitar World. The final session took place on September 24th of that year. The single, which featured Black Sabbath’s original recording of “Paranoid” on the flip side, entered the British charts in early December of that year and stayed there until January 1990. The track was later included on the gold-selling Earthquake Album compilation.
Years later, Gillan and Iommi — who had played together in the version of Black Sabbath that produced the PMRC-despised Born Again — reunited for a new project dubbed Who Cares, which raised money for the building of the Gyumri school. That group also featured Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, Metallica’s Jason Newsted, Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain and HIM’s Mikko Lindström. Together, they recorded the murky-sounding, doom-metal original “Out of My Mind.” Iommi and Gillan also collaborated on another song for the single’s release, “Holy Water,” which featured traditional Armenian instrumentation.