Back in the summer of 1989, one of the greatest guitar hero gatherings of all time got underway. The occasion was a remake of the 1972 Deep Purple hit “Smoke on the Water” that featured some of the biggest players in rock, including Ritchie Blackmore—who wrote the song’s classic riff—David Gilmour, Tony Iommi, Alex Lifeson and Brian May.
The guitarists and numerous other musicians recut the song as a benefit recording for Rock Aid Armenia, a humanitarian effort by the British music industry to raise money for victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake, a devastating event that killed up to 50,000 people.
The recording, which began on July 8, 1989, included a who’s who of the era’s best-known hard rock performers and went on to become a hit.
In addition to its cast of stellar guitarists, the track featured a different singer on each verse, including Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan (who sang the original), Paul Rodgers, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Bryan Adams. The session also featured Yes bassist Chris Squire, Queen drummer Roger Taylor, and keyboardists Keith Emerson and Geoff Downes (of Asia, who also co-produced the session with Gary Langan).
The session took place at the historic Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, London. Recording began on July 8, 1989 and was completed over five different sessions. The first session featured guitarist Geoff Beachamp filling in for Brian May, who’d broken his arm a few days before. May was healed up in time for the August 5 session, which he performed with David Gilmour.
Following a vocal and keyboard session on August 27, the recording saw the tracking of more guitars on September 10, when May showed up with his friend Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore. Rush’s Alex Lifeson made it for the final session, on September 24. (If you want a complete rundown of what happened when, and with whom, check out the excellent web site RockAidArmenia.com.)
The single, which featured Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” on the B-side, was released as “Smoke on the Water ’90” and made it to the U.K. Top 40 Singles Chart. It was also the lead track on The Earthquake Album, a full-length compilation of donated tracks from Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and many of the other bands represented in the “Smoke on the Water” session.
The “making of” video below compiles scenes from the five tracking sessions. It’s actually the official promo video for the 2010 Wermut & Dee remix of the track and was to raise funds to rebuild a children’s music school in Gyumri in the Armenian earthquake zone.