It was December of 1988 in snowy Armenia, but the cold wasn’t the only thing that brutalized the country that winter. At 11:41 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, a devastating earthquake measuring 6.9 on the richter scale ripped through the north, leaving nearly 25,000 dead and 400,000 people homeless in the cities of Spitak, Leninakan (Gyumri) and Kirovakan (Vanadzor) in Lori province.
(Photo by Peter Turnley)
Man scanning listed names of survivors & victims, searching for family members. (Photo by I.Gavrilov)
The Soviet Union was heavily criticized for failing to co-ordinate rescue work and acting promptly, but Armenia received aid from hundreds of countries providing supplies and rescue and search teams. Perhaps the most extraordinary, surprising and heartfelt outreach the small country received was the collective efforts by popular British rock bands who formed a humanitarian effort known as Rock Aid Armenia, raising money to help the hundreds of thousands of Armenians impacted by one of the largest natural disasters it had seen.
Spearheaded by international charity campaigner Jon Dee, the Rock Aid Armenia project, which was initially known as Live Aid Armenia, saw the release of singles, an album and even a documentary starring the best of British rock industry in order to raise money for earthquake victims.
“I’ll never forget what I saw,” wrote Dee, recounting the horrors of the death toll, the family members left to deal with the aftermath and the thousands of coffins he saw lined up in the streets.
“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 enlisted the help of everyone from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath, Brian May of Queen and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, among many others to help with the project.
The most famous single of the project was a re-recording of Deep Purple’s famous “Smoke on the Water.”
Brian May and Dave Gilmour recording for the Armenian earthquake appeal 'Rock Aid Armenia', at the Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, London, 8th July 1989.
“It is it the riff that launched a thousand guitarists, It is the lip-trembling air-punching Classic Rock Anthem of All Time,” wrote Q Magazine in 1989. “Now Smoke on the Water has been re-recorded with an all-star cast to raise money for the Armenian Earthquake Fund.”
Recorded in the historic Metropolis Studios in July 1989, the single went on to reach the UK Top 40 Singles chart and raise over $100,000 in aid to Armenia. In 1990, a presentation was held at the USSR Embassy in London for The Earthquake Album, which included Smoke on the Water and 14 other tracks by Led Zeppelin, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Rush, and Asia. The album was the first UK charity album to receive gold status.
For their efforts, many of the musicians involved received honors and accolades even years after the project.
Brian May received an Order of Honor at the Armenian Embassy in London in 2010 and said that he was “very proud that he can consider himself a small part of Armenian history.”
When Tommy Iommi announced he had lymphoma in 2012, he received a letter from then Prime Minister of Armenia Tigran Sargsyan telling him;
“Here in Armenia we think about you. We know your spirit is strong as ever and we do believe the genius of your inspiration that guides you through the work on the new Black Sabbath album will transform into a boost of strength and energy that you need now, when things look tough.”
Perhaps the most impacted and involved in the project of the rockstars, Ian Gillan received a “Friend of Armenians” award at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York.
At the Gold Disc presentation in London, Gillan remembered waking up at the crack of dawn in Yerevan and driving for hours to Spitak to survey the damage and meet people. When he returned and was asked what it was like, all he could do was burst into tears from what he had seen.
He recounted a story he was told in Spitak, about all the weddings that had taken place after the earthquake and how they had no music.
“So the general conversation was that maybe the music should start again in Armenia, whenever the people are ready.”
Gillan played a part in helping the people of Armenia start this music again, when he visited the N6 School in Gyumri in 2009 on an invitation from Mediamax along with Iommi, and pledged to rebuild the school. Iommi and Gillan formed WhoCares, a music group that raised money for the school and sold more than 20,000 copies in Europe.
It was this activism that led Armenian President Serzh Sargsian to award Gillan, Iommi, Gilmour and May with "Orders of Honor,” telling the musicians, “We are grateful people and will not forget that after the devastating earthquake of 1988 you were with us.”
Though much work is still left to be done today in Gyumri and the surrounded areas, even 27 years after the earthquake, perhaps Gillan summed up the resiliance of the Armenian people when he said: