IN 1988, nature showed its most ferocious side, unleashing a devastating earthquake on Armenia, writes Sammy Jones.
When it was over, 25,000 people had lost their lives, and a quarter of a million more were left homeless.
Ian Gillan, the voice behind a swell of Deep Purple rock classics, visited the region a year later.
Not as part of a humanitarian mission, but as part of a solo tour, which took him to Yerevan.
“I barely knew about the earthquake,” he recalls, “It was still the Soviet Union then, and news didn’t travel very well.
“I went out to Spitak and it made an indelible impression –I don’t know if it was my mind, my heart or my soul, it was just unbelievable, people were walking around in a daze.”
Accompanied by the Mayor of Spitak, Ian took in a ‘tour’ of the area: “The church clock was stopped at 20 to 12 which is when the earthquake took place, and the Italians had set up this refugee camp of very nice, well designed little modules, but it looked so incongruous in all of the devastation,” he remembers.
Among all the carnage, one vision more than any other left a deep impression on Ian: “There was one old lady holding up a picture of a family group, probably 23 or 24 people...and she was the only one still alive.
“I noticed the deathly quiet and the Mayor said there had been no music in the last year – none in the church, none on the radio, the children weren’t singing, even the birds weren’t singing...”
When the time was right Ian roped in a swell of his famous muso pals and set about releasing a benefit single to boost the coffers for the damaged region.
Deep Purple smash hit Smoke on the Water was re-recorded with artists including Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, Bryan Adams, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Black Sabbath ace Tony Iommi and Paul Rodgers lending talents.
Former Woburn Sands resident Ian and his new city based manager Phil Banfield were instrumental in piecing together a compilation album to raise more cash to the much needed pile.
Fast forward to 2009, and the president of Armenia invites supporters including Ian, Phil and Black Sabbath legend Tony Iommi back to say ‘thank you’ in the 20th anniversary year of the tragedy.
Phil takes up the story: “We were taken on a tour which included a visit to a brandy factory and a children’s music school where the children played Armenian folk songs and Smoke on the Water and Paranoid on authentic Armenian instruments...it touched all of us, especially when taking into account the terrible facilities.”
“Later in the evening, after dinner, everyone had to do a speech and with the brandy flowing the musicians said they wanted to donate instruments...I wasn’t aware I had to say anything and having had one glass too many, decided to say that we should knock down the existing school and build a new one!”
“The next day, it dawned on us what I had done, and Ian and Tony came up with the name, WhoCares...”
“On the plane home we came up with the idea of starting the music again,” Ian continues.
“People are getting on with their lives again, but the school is pretty much derelict, although they still teach there.
“It gets cold in the winter and you can see through the walls to the outside, so we thought we’d get roped in...”
The result is the aforementioned WhoCares, a new to the shelves double album of classics, rarities, unreleased recordings, collaborations, new mixes and forgotten songs’ by Ian and Tony, along with two newbies: Out of My Mind and Holy Water, recorded with an all-star line-up including Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden and ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted.
“In a way it turned out to be serendipitous,” Ian says of the rarities within.
“I moved from a house in Cublington to a small house by the seaside and had to rent this huge place to put all my stuff in – my studio was jammed from floor to ceiling with stuff.
“Fortunately, I’d hired someone to come in, log everything and box it all up, and in the process of that I got a load of old CDs and cassette players and demos that I’d forgotten about which did make it easier... it was fun pulling all that stuff out.
“The material is probably a bit weighted on my side – I’m not sure Tony had as much junk hanging around as I did!
“I think the cupboard is pretty much bare now,” he says in respect of any unused tracks sitting around, “...but you never know what might be stuck under the floorboards!”
The album features contributions from Ronnie James Dio and Jon Lord, who have both been mourned by the music industry in recent times.
Ronnie lost his battle with cancer in 2010, and Ian’s former Deep Purple bandmate Jon sadly passed away the day the album was released.
“One of my favourite, and the most poignant bits on the album, is a thing called Dick Pimple, which was a jam session we did a long time ago, because it has Deep Purple messing about in the studio.
“Jon Lord is doing all the anagrams, and his life was full of tortured anagrams and tortured puns...to hear him so full of joy and so much a part of things is a keepsake for me.
“It made me smile listening to it the other day...”
The head of the Armenian committee has decided on the perfect tribute to Jon Lord, and will name the piano room in the new school after the influential player.
Gillan is at home in Portugal when we touch base, on a break from recording the new Deep Purple album, their first in seven years.
At the tail end of September, the band will reconvene in Nashville and turn attentions back to the job in hand.
“A lot of the stuff is organic and evolves out of jam sessions, which is how we’ve always written, and this time we’ve got a producer who lets us stretch a little bit...I am very pleased with the progress, and I know one thing for sure, it is going to be the best sounding Deep Purple album ever,” he promises.
But for the moment, it’s full steam ahead for Armenia – work begins on the new school later this month: “We’ve done our bit and now someone has got to bring out the shovel and spade and build the damn thing,” he says with a laugh.
And what Ian, Tony, Phil and all those involved in the project really want is for the album to get some prominence.
“It’s about making people aware it’s there, because the sale of every copy is important,” Ian explains.
“It’s not mainstream – nothing that fits in, it’s all the stuff we personally have an attachment to.
“I wouldn’t try to sell it under false pretences – it’s a quirky album for sure. But, if you want to have an insight into the kind of things we do outside of the mainstream I think it will be an intriguing thing to listen to.
“It’s not something you want to put on in the background, because it is diverse and has different moods throughout. It’s something you would probably sit down late at night with, as a blues album.
“I should think you’ll need a chiropractor if you listen to it standing up!”
WhoCares is in stores now.
Visit www.gillan.com for more details.