Today is the birthday of Brian May, legendary Queen guitarist, which gives me an excuse to play this monster of a track (and also pour further scorn on Gibson.com’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time poll, as discussed previously, by noting his senseless exclusion). It’s the re-recording of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ in aid of earthquake relief efforts in Armenia following the Spitak ‘quake of December 1988.
The earthquake was of a moderate size, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, yet aftershocks of up to 5.0 in magnitude continued for months in the area around the town of Spitak, which was virtually razed to the ground. Freezing winter temperatures and inadequate building construction contributed cruelly to the tragedy; some 25,000 people were killed, including 400 children at a school in Dzhrashen, south east of Spitak, and 80 per cent of medical professionals. A further 15,000 were injured and 517,000 made homeless.
For this cause, an international charity campaigner called Jon Dee suggested that the music industry ought to do something. David was the first to accept the call. It would also be the first time that he and Brian May had played together. (They’d go on to work on the 1991 Comic Relief charity single, ‘The Stonk’, which Brian May also produced.)
Recording began in July 1989 at Metropolis studios, Chiswick, London, and was completed over five sessions.
Taking it in turns with David and Brian on lead guitar were Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, as well as Alex Lifeson of Rush; respected session musician, Geoff Beauchamp, played rhythm guitar; vocal duties were shared by Bryan Adams, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan and Paul Rodgers (how long have you got? Free, Bad Company, The Law, Queen…); with Chris “Fish” Squire of Yes on bass, Queen’s Roger Taylor on drums, Geoff Downes of Asia on Hammond organ and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith (Emerson) on keyboards.
Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Jon Lord of Deep Purple were also credited for their assistance behind the scenes.
So, all in all, not a bad line up.
The song spent six weeks in the UK charts, reaching a respectable No.39 in December 1989. (For old time’s sake, have a look at the other songs in the charts back then. How many of those do you remember and do you now appreciate all the more my use of the word “respectable”, considering the bland pap that kids were buying – for fun, nobody forced them – back then?)
An Earthquake album and video were released in 1990, consisting of original tracks donated by those involved (Pink Floyd’s ‘One Slip’ was included on the video). It was the first charity album to achieve ‘gold’ status in the UK. Together, the single, album and video raised an estimated $100,000.
Another noble effort, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Last October, those most actively involved in the project (Ian Gillan, Tony Iommi and Geoff Downes, as well as David and Brian May), together with organiser Jon Dee, were awarded a special Order of Honour on behalf of Armenian President, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan.
A 20th anniversary re-mix of Rock Aid Armenia’s ‘Smoke on the Water’, plus versions of the original mixes and a new re-edit of the promo video and ‘Making of…’ documentary, is to be released globally via iTunes this year, with the proceeds assisting further relief projects within the earthquake zone.
You can find out more about Rock Aid Armenia at this fine site, which includes some rather nice photos from the recording sessions and launch, and some not-at-all-nice ones of the crippling devastation caused by the earthquake.
As well as your thoughts on the song, album and video (best charity single ever?), I’d also like to know which are your favourites of Brian May’s work.
Happy Birthday also to drummer Ged Lynch, who, of course, played on On an Island – on ‘Take a Breath’. He was also the subject of our very first blog post.