Rock Aid Armenia: how the ultimate version of Smoke On The Water was recorded

Brian May and Tony Iommi recording
(Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

The 1980s was the decade of the charity single. In the wake of Band Aid’s world-beating 1985 hit Do They Know It’s Christmas, you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a bunch of pop stars putting on their serious faces and churning out a song to raise money for a worthy cause.

Heavy metal did its bit. In 1986, Hear N’ Aid weighed in with Stars, a charity single featuring Ronnie James Dio, Dee Snider and Ted Nugent raising money to combat world hunger via the medium of 80s rock. Three years later, another group of A-list musicians released a money-raising cover of a classic anthem. The song was Smoke On The Water, the all-star band was Rock Aid Armenia.

The brainchild of charity campaigner John Dee, the project – initially called Live Aid Armenia – was conceived in the wake of the 1988 Armenian Earthquake, which killed over 25,000 people and devastated the country‘s infrastructure.

“I felt I had to do something, after helping with the immediate fundraising that was taking place in the UK, I decided to launch a fundraising push that would gather together people I know in the rock business,” Dee later said.

Smoke On The Water wasn’t the first Rock Aid Armenia single. Members of Aswad, Culture Club and Haircut 100 had released a cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? earlier in 1989. But it would be the guitar-centric follow-up that provided the project’s most enduring moment.

The first person Dee called was Dave Gilmour, just off tour with the reconstituted Pink Floyd. Others swiftly fell in line behind him, including Queen guitarist Brian May, who in turn called Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and ex-Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers. Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan had seen the aftermath first hand after playing a show in the Armenian capital Yerevan a year after the quake hit, and signed up.

“I took a trip to [the city of] Spitak and saw the devastation,” Gillan recalled. “There were so many vivid images. The Mayor Of Spitak told me that all music had stopped in the city: on the radio, in the church, even the birds had stopped singing.”

With Gillan onboard – and Deep Purple manager Phil Banfield involved in the organisation – Purple’s 1971 signature song Smoke On The Water was a shoe-in for this million-dollar collective to cover. “It’ll probably be a horrendous racket,” joked Brian May during one of the five sessions that took place at Metropolis Studios between July and September 1989.

While May was present for the very first session on July 5, he was little more than an onlooker due to a broken arm. “I had an argument with the kerb on a skateboard,” he explained. He’d recovered enough by the second session to lay down the immortal Smoke On The Water riff with Dave Gilmour, the latter cutting loose on a trés 80s Steinberger headless guitar. 

Brian May and David Gilmour

(Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

May wasn’t the only representative from Queen. Bandmate Roger Taylor was roped in to play drums, though it transpired he was second choice. John Dee had originally wanted Rush’s Neil Peart to play on the track, but a shift in dates scuppered the plan.

Peart’s absence barely dented the Fantasy Football-levels of star quality on display. The prog wing put in a show of strength: Yes bassist Chris Squire flew in from LA, while his sometime bandmate Geoff Downes shared keyboard duties with Keith Emerson. The latter insisted on including a snippet of ELP’s Fanfare For The Common Man in the song. “I wanted it to be a musical contribution,” he said. “If it was anything less than that, I would have just sent the money in,” he added churlishly.

The guitar frontline was no less impressive. Tony Iommi pitched in with his own take on the greatest riff he never wrote, though even the Sabbath guitarist was overshadowed by the presence of the song’s original architect, Ritchie Blackmore. “Ritchie has yet to put his piece on, so he’ll probably rub everyone else off,” said Brian May wryly before the Man In Black arrived for the second session.

For some participants, it was an opportunity to fanboy out. Iron Maiden frontman and Purple devotee Bruce Dickinson enthusiastically admitted that he had been “playing this in pubs when I was 17.” Paul Rodgers was more serious. “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,” he said.

The all-star version of Smoke On The Water was released in November 1989 – virtually the last charity single of the decade. It was far from the “horrendous racket” Brian May predicted. That iconic riff was bigger than any of the guitarists playing it, Ritchie Blackmore included. Gillan, Dickinson and Rodgers took a verse each, with the Purple man belting out the chorus with help from Bryan Adams, who had coincidentally dropped by the studio, only to find himself roped into providing back vocals.

The single peaked at a disappointing No.39 in the UK singles chart, though it marked the start of an enduring relationship with the country of Armenia for both Ian Gillan and Tony Iommi. The pair re-teamed in 2012 to release a single under the name WhoCare, with proceeds going to rebuilding a school in the Armenian town of Gyumri, which had been destroyed in the original earthquake. Bizarrely, Iommi went even further, writing the Armenian entry in the 2013 Eurovision song contest, the power ballad Lonely Planet, performed by Dorians. 

Rock Aid Armenia’s Smoke On The Water might not have troubled Do They Know It’s Christmas for title of Most Successful Charity Single Ever, but the people involved can hold their heads high. “I am very proud of my participation in that project,” Brian May recalled. For Ian Gillan, there was another reason to look back fondly: “It was more fun than some of the sessions we had in Purple.”

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.