Listen to Black Sabbath cover Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, with Ian Gillan on vocals

Black Sabbath onstage in 1983
(Image credit: L. Busacca/WireImage)

Whether fairly or not, Black Sabbath’s Born Again is one of the most maligned albums in heavy metal history. Its creation was legendarily chaotic, with the band losing beloved singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinnie Appice in the months leading up to it. It wasn’t supposed to be a Sabbath record, but management forced Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi and a returning Bill Ward’s hand. Then the shit sandwich got its perfect accoutrement with that horrific front cover.

It seemed that the forefathers of heavy metal music only had one thing going for them in 1983. Following Dio’s departure (a result of creative tensions with his former bandmates), they were able to get a hold of Ian Gillan for the vacant frontman slot. The vocalist was famed for a brief but seminal stint as Deep Purple’s singer from 1969 to ’73, during which time he sang on the classic In Rock and Machine Head records. A solo career with The Ian Gillan Band (later simply Gillan) had flatlined, and he saw potential anew with Birmingham’s premier riff masters.

Ultimately, Gillan’s tenure in Sabbath was another short-lived one. He performed on Born Again and promoted it, then joined the band on the ensuing world tour, but before long couldn’t see himself sustaining the wildly paced road-warrior lifestyle of his colleagues. The singer reflected to Classic Rock in 2018: “We did an album and world tour and I loved every minute of it, [but] it was the longest party I’d ever been to.”

During Gillan’s stewardship of the Sabbath machine, though, the four-piece took full advantage of having the ex-Deep Purple man in their ranks. Their setlists during the Born Again tour included the expected classics, from Heaven And Hell to the band’s eponymous song, but then they’d surprisingly bust out Smoke On The Water as an encore. It was a celebration of Gillan’s roots, not to mention a crowd-pleasing moment at a time when the audiences weren’t exactly fussed on the new songs they’d be hearing.

Audio of one of Smoke On The Water’s airings – recorded at the Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1983 – was kept in a vault for almost 40 years. It didn’t debut until August last year, with the release of the Sabbath live album Deep Black. The scarcity has made the cover a novelty for fans yet, beyond that, it’s also excellently done.

Unsurprisingly, Gillan’s in fine form during the performance, squawking and howling his way through with typical showmanship. What’s even cooler, however, is hearing the guitar god Iommi perform arguably the most iconic ’70s hard rock riff that he didn’t write. Almost needless to say, he barrels his way through those instantly recognisable chords with absolute ease. Butler and touring drummer Bev Bevan keep apace as well, every individual component of the Sabbath lineup working in perfect tandem for a graceful yet gritty playthrough.

Sabbath’s Smoke On The Water is still a deep cut despite its wide release, and frankly it deserves more attention. Not only does Iommi doing a Ritchie Blackmore riff make this cover a great moment in heavy music’s annals; it’s just a top listen all-round. Spin it, treasure it and tell your friends to blow their minds.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.