Despite the fact that there were four vocalists in the band, for many SMOKIE mean Chris Norman. What some don’t think about, though, is that since their split, there’s two nice entities go on, one being a new line-up of SMOKIE led by Terry Uttley, the other Norman the solo artist who ploughs his own furrow – only to come back once in a while and then start anew. Which is exactly what the veteran does on his last album, “The Hits!”. And it was from there that we started our conversation after briefly touching on the weather issues.
– Chris, let’s start with your latest album, “The Hits!”. Are you taking stock of your work now as you’re approaching sixty?
Yes, in a way. Anyway, that’s part of it. But it was just a good idea to choose this time, looking at the state of the market at the moment, to put out an album that sort of shows what I’ve been doing in the past before I start recording a new one – that’s probably in the spring. I wanted to get a compilation album with all the hits, or most of the hits, anyway on there, and to kind of start again in my sixtieth year.
– Do the new songs on the compilation represent this new album?
No, no, no, no, they’re not on the album! I put those songs on there because I wanted to do a lot of old songs and make it nice to the fans that got already everything and give them something they didn’t have before. So I recorded those four ot five songs just for this compilation album, and I want to start again now with a new album.
– Speaking of your fans… I attended your show some fifteen years ago in Belarus, and it was a strange one: you wanted to do your solo stuff, but the people wanted to hear old SMOKIE songs, and you just gave up. Was it hard for you to come out from the SMOKIE shadow?
I think, not really, to be honest. At that time, in 1994, I think I was trying too much to fight against the SMOKIE thing, to try and do more of the solo things. I didn’t want to do so much SMOKIE stuff then, I was kind of fighting against that. But over the years that I’ve been touring and playing since then, I started to change my idea about it. I looked at quite a few different people, like BEE GEES and Paul McCartney, and I realized that actually it’s the same for them as it is for me: if you go to see Paul McCartney, you don’t want to hear all THE BEATLES songs but you have to put your new stuff in between them. And I realized that’s how it should be for me, because it’s all about the fans. More so, the SMOKIE period is very important for me, and it’s a part of their teenage years, or whatever and they want to hear that. And now when I do a tour I actually enjoy doing the SMOKIE stuff – it makes people really happy, and when they’re happy it’s easier for me to say, “I hoped you liked that, and now there’s going to be a new one”. And they really want to hear that new one because thanks to the old stuff they’re more open, so I keep it going backwards and forward. And that’s what I do now: do some old stuff, do some new stuff, some old stuff, some new stuff, some solo old stuff, some SMOKIE stuff, and then a couple of new tracks. It works quite well.
– So it’s quite a reconciliation with your own past?
Yeah. I mean, you can’t get away from the past if you’ve been around for a long time, which I have now. I’ve been playing for forty – forty three years or something like that, and there’s a lot of old fans come and see me, and you can’t just go away and say, “I want do something new”. The best you can do is to do some new stuff in amongst and enjoy it. That’s how you do a better show and keep the audience happy. You have a good time and let the audience go away feeling they had a great night.
– But some people do it their way. Say, Peter Gabriel doesn’t do GENESIS songs!
Peter Gabriel comes from different background. He’s always been that way. With GENESIS or on his own, he always does what he wants regardless. He’s got a lot of talent and he’s a got good stuff, and he doesn’t care. It’s good if you go and do a show and then play a whole new album, and people go for that. But with me, I’m kind of more on the pop side of that, pop rock is what I am, and if the audience want to hear familiar stuff and they want me to entertain them. It’s, as I said, with Paul McCartney: he’s incredibly big but he still does THE BEATLES songs in his set. And I do pop rock as he does, while GENESIS were the progressive rock which is the school that Peter Gabriel came from.
– You touched on the stylistics, so was it a deliberate attempt on your side to move from rock to pop in the Eighties and move back from pop to rock now?
I don’t think that I was going to go from pop to rock and from rock to pop or anything like that, it was never a conscious thought. In the early days, SMOKIE had an edge, we were a rock band, we were heavy and rocky on-stage, heavy with good voices and good harmonies. About the time we started having hits, we started to play more soft, acoustic stuff, like “Don’t Play Your Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me”, that didn’t have a rock ambience about them, it was kind of pop records. But we didn’t think too much about it being pop records, it was just records, something durable. But then in the Eighties, when I did stuff like “Midnight Lady”, for me it was just fashion – I was looking for success, I wanted to have a hit record, you know. But then I realized that it didn’t suite me, that Eighties synthetic pop. I didn’t like that so I went back to the handmade music which I came from and where I wanted to stay. The difference for me is not whether it’s pop or rock, it’s whether it’s handmade or computer-made, and for me it’s important to keep it handmade.
– So I guess your work with Dieter Bohlen wasn’t to cross over to the European market?
In the beginning, that was the idea… But I mean that wasn’t to cross over to the European market, because with SMOKIE we had a lot of success in Europe, it was that I wanted to have a hit in the Eighties, which was a different kind of music, with a lot of synthesizers and drum machines. That’s how the Eighties records sounded like, and I wasn’t doing that because it wasn’t my thing, so I get involved with Dieter Bohlen because I wanted to get closer to that style. But once I got into it I didn’t really like it.
– What about your work with Tony Carey, then, who came from progressive heavy rock and is most famous for his work with RAINBOW?
That was great, you know! I mean, that’s the good thing about being around a long time: after a while, people either like what you’ve done or like your voice or respect you for your talent or whatever, or they don’t. And if they do, you can work with anyone. I have worked with different kinds of people, and Tony Carey was an example of that – he liked my voice, so we met and played some stuff together. That’s how it starts for people with respect for each other’s talent. And it was a good thing to do something, to collaborate with him, and I liked his style – I heard the stuff that he’d done before – and that album [1991’s “The Interchange”] was good for me, I enjoyed doing that album.
– What did you like by Carey – something from RAINBOW or something like “A Fine Fine Day”?
I don’t remember exactly what the songs were now, but I knew about RAINBOW obviously. He also did some good stuff with Peter Maffay, a German singer, at that time, and I knew that stuff a bit, and then I listened to Tony’s own solo stuff which was really good. And I actually liked his solo stuff where he’s featured on vocals and plays much more than he did with RAINBOW.
– Did you meet Carey in Germany where he lived then?
Yeah, I did I think. I think I met him in Hamburg, yeah.
– Another person who you worked with for years, from the SMOKIE days and well into the Nineties, was Mike Chapman. What did you learn from him, and why you stopped working together?
I learned a lot from him, almost everything, about making records and writing songs, because he was the first person I ever worked with, in 1974, in a studio. We’d been in a studio by that time with quite a few different people – it wasn’t our first record, we had about four or five already, with different producers – but he was the first person I came across who had really great ideas about how to make records. And I kind of learned all because I have no idea how to make records – I made some but I hadn’t been involved in it, I’d just been a musician and a singer, and I didn’t really know anything about how to record and how to engineer. So I really learned everything about a studio with Mike Chapman, he was a huge influence, he was our mentor. Unfortunately, we, SMOKIE, stopped working with him and decided as a group to produce ourselves and work with other people, and he went off and did stuff with, I guess, BLONDIE and the people like THE KNACK at the time. He lived in America by then, and we’ve gone to America to work with him, and that wasn’t very convenient either, so we decided to split. I didn’t come back with him, really, until the Nineties when I did some stuff with him again, and I felt the same kind of great enfabulation for him, because he still had that great… He creates an atmosphere in a studio that nobody else can. I think he’s one of the greatest record producers and songwriters of rock generation.
– Talking of America, how come that you, the Englishman, were influenced by country music?
I wouldn’t say I’m that country music-influenced – a bit. But everything that came to England in the Fifties and Sixties was influenced by country-and-western and rhythm-and-blues, that was basically what made rock ‘n’ roll. So that country-and-western flavor was in my childhood and in my teenage years, it was always there. Not that pure country music that you get from people like Hank Williams that I like now, as I get older. But in the Seventies when SMOKIE did their stuff everyone was country-influenced, and we did “Living Next Door To Alice”. That was just because we’d been in America and heard a lot of music from America anyway, so it was just an accumulation of that.
– If I’m not mistaken, some of your songs, like “Back Again”, have Scottish motifs. How come?
(Laughing.) I’ve got some Irish roots in me – not Scottish, but Irish. I’m about a third Irish, and in Ireland they have bagpipes, too. So I have a kind of Celtic thing inside me, I guess, and I liked that sound. And when I did those songs it called out for me.
– And what about soul music? I can’t believe it was a pure coincidence that you called one of your songs “These Arms Of Mine”, like Otis Redding! And then you sang Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour”.
I love soul! Again, it was part of my teenage years and a big influence as well. My influences really started when I was seven years old, when I heard some Elvis Presley stuff. I was really into Elvis Presley then, and then Little Richard, and then it was going towards the soul stuff. Then THE BEATLES came, who were influenced by black music, and then, in the Sixties, people like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and Eddie Floyd – all those guys. And when we first started playing in a band in the late Sixties, we had to play some of those songs because they were very popular. We played dance halls, schools and so on, and the people were shouting out for “Midnight Hour” or “Land Of A Thousand Dances” or whatever the songs were, and we did them, and I was copying those guys – I was trying to sound like them. As I got older, I always had those songs in the back of my mind, and when it comes to stuff like that I feel I can actually sing those songs pretty good and I enjoy it. And then we did an album, “Soul Classics”, in Germany with a guy called Siggy Schwarz, and I sang three or four songs on there alongside Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann, and it was a good fun for me because it was so different from what I normally do. It was really exciting. As for “These Arms Of Mine”, I wrote this song with Pete Spencer, and it just came out like soul: (sings) “These arms of mine, ta da da da da…” At the beginning it was like Otis (hums Redding’s tune) but our song is very different in style to his originals.
– Ah yes, originals: your versions of SMOKIE songs on “The Hits!” are very close to the original recordings. I know you did it deliberately but didn’t you want to look at them from a different angle?
No. No, I didn’t. I actually did a thing called “Full Circle” about ten years ago where I looked at the songs from different angle and I didn’t really like it. I was very disappointed with it, I didn’t think it was any good: it was a mistake. I didn’t like the sound of it. When I listen to the SMOKIE records, I like the way it was, and to change it was wrong. I tried once and it didn’t work. I think it’s the same with any really great song like “Honky Tonk Women” or THE BEATLES’ songs – I don’t want people doing versions of them, they never work as original things, because for me the original is how it should sound. The same with SMOKIE: I tried to do it differently because I was kind of talked into it by the producer, and afterwards I hated it. I really hated it! And so I didn’t want to do that again, and the point was, when I did this compilation album, I couldn’t use the original SMOKIE tracks, because there were too many problems with contracts. I didn’t want that big trouble to try and get the rights to use them, it was easier to re-record them. And if I was to re-record them, I wanted them to sound as closer as possible like the original record. And that’s what I did.
– Did you do it the analogue way, not digitally?
I did it digitally, yes, as it’s very difficult to find analogue studios these days, you know, and I needed a big studio so I could use a proper group. There are not that many studios around that got analogue tapes anymore. But you can record with Pro-Tools now, which is cheap, and the result sounds pretty much like in old days.
– Wikipedia states you worked with HEAVY METAL KIDS, the Danny Peyronel band. Did you, really?
That was an album produced by Mickie Most, and Mickie was a big fan of our vocal sound. He used to say there were only two great vocal bands in the world, and that was the BEE GEES and SMOKIE. I don’t think that he was exactly right but that was his opinion, and obviously it was a great compliment as Mickie was a great producer and had a lot of success over the years. So he just rang us one day and said he was recording an album with the HEAVY METAL KIDS, and there was a couple of tracks that he wanted to do some back vocals on there, but the band couldn’t do it because they had one vocalist and they weren’t harmony singers. And he asked us if we could come to London and do it, and we just did, the three of us – the three of us who did most of the vocals in SMOKIE: me, Alan [Silson] and Terry Uttley.
– You live on the Isle of Man. Is there a chance you’ll work with one of your neighbors, Rick Wakeman?
Rick Wakeman doesn’t live here that much. He was living here for a few years but I don’t see him around anymore. But I don’t really go out and socialize much so I never really came in contact with him. I met Rick Wakeman a couple of times, the first time was in the Seventies in Switzerland, but not socially. My son was in the same school class as one of his sons but we never came closer than that so we never had a chance to work together.