ROCK AID ARMENIA – Smoke on the Water: The Metropolis Sessions (2010 Edel CD/DVD set)
When some of the biggest names in both British and Canadian rock combined together to re-record “Smoke on the Water”, as a mega-collaboration charity track, I don’t care who you are: You gotta listen! Originally released as “Smoke on the Water ’90” on The Earthquake Album, it didn’t garner the attention of, say, a Hear N’ Aid, but it’s definitely a noteworthy track. The Earthquake Album contained just the radio mix, which was an edited down version lacking Paul Rodgers. This package on the other hand is a CD/DVD combo set including all 4 versions of “Smoke ’90” and a documentary.
The region 0 encoded DVD is 40 minutes long, and filled with incredible behind-the-scenes footage and candid interviews. First, an explanation of the cause: rebuilding a children’s music school in Armenia, destroyed in a 1988 earthquake. Then, the musicians arrive! Roger Taylor (Queen) is first in the door. Can’t do anything without the drums! He shows off his considerable chops while warming up. Chris Squire (Yes) is next, who reveals that all egos have been dealt with in advance of the recording. Brian May turns up with a broken arm (skateboarding accident) to offer his support; he would return to record after the arm has healed. The recording takes place over five separate sessions. One benefit of this arrangement was that it enabled Ritchie Blackmore to show up, without having to see Ian Gillan!
Soon to arrive: Tony Iommi. Paul Rodgers. Bruce Dickinson. David Gilmour. Alex Lifeson. Two keyboardists: Keith Emerson and Geoff Downes. Even Bryan Adams sings some backing vocals, after he turned up just to check out the recording studio! (Gilmour can’t help but take a stab at Rogers Waters during the interview segments.) Incidentally, I found it cool that Rodgers recorded his vocals with a hand-held mike.
I’ve always been a fan of this version of “Smoke”; in fact this was the first version of that I ever heard, 23 years ago. The band was dubbed Rock Aid Armenia. They got together in late ’89, and recorded this updated sounding cover. Gillan, Dickinson and Rodgers handled the lead vocals, in that order. It’s great to hear Iommi playing those chunky chords again. Chris Squire’s bass work is fairly simple, but perfect.
The CD includes an updated 2010 remix that cuts down a lot of Keith Emerson’s cheesey keyboards. Emerson stated that he wanted to put his own stamp on his parts, based on ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. He probably wouldn’t be happy to be mixed down on this version, but his keys always stood out like a sore thumb to me. The 2010 mix adds in a lot more previously unheard guitar fills instead. Other extras include a previously unreleased version of the song, with an entire Ian Gillan vocal take.
This is a great little-known recording, and I’m glad an obscurity like this has finally been reissued properly.
Footnote: In 2011 and 2012, Gillan and Iommi followed this with a single and compilation album under the name WhoCares; also featuring Nicko McBrain, Jon Lord and Jason Newsted!