“My solos come from the heart”
A talk with Alan Silson on 14.04.2007

Alan SilsonOur talk with Alan Silson took place in the middle of April. Alan arrived to Moscow to take part in some concert and recording the interview for the Russian TV channel. It was rather late at night when he finally got to the hotel. But despite that fact he was so dear to spend some nice time with us - Simson and Stranger - in the hotel bar and to answer our questions. The first one was born after presenting Alan a small souvenir meaning some kind of old Russian boots.


— Iíve heard you have a collection of boots.

— Boots? No, belts – I used to have a lot of belts which I bought in various countries. Unfortunately, with moving house and country quite a few went missing.

— Does “Whose Are These Boots?” album cover feature your boots?

— Yes, the boots on the cover are mine which I still have and I also designed the cover. I was in Ireland at that time and we tried to think of a new title for the album. And as I was drying my hair my boots were directly behind me and I stumbled over them and said “Whose are these boots”? Ten minutes later I went down to the bar and spoke to some of the guys who were involved with the band at the time, esp. Marty Mulligan from Mullingar who thought it is crazy but good.

— I liked your style on the photo for the first album “Pass it around”, you were in some pilot jacket. Do you remember?

— Yes, I still have one, itís not the same one, of course – itís not a pilot but a flying jacket by the way.

— And, by the way, the photo for the “Midnight Cafe” album also looks great!

— We had our own image even as “Kindness” which was basically jeans and T-shirt, nothing glam and fancy. But unfortunately in that era glam was in and therefore Chinn-Chapman tried to put us into being something poppy to go with the flow. We didnít really want to go in that direction but had no choice at the time.

— And do you remember where that cafe from the cover is situated? In what country at least?

— I donít remember where exactly that cafe was but it was somewhere in London – thatís all I remember.

— On the back side of that cover was a man looking just like a secret agent.

— I remember that man but canít remember who he was. When we filmed that side and took the pictures it was spooky because it was a bad area. And we looked like those guys from that area and it didnít feel like a good idea to hang around too long.

— Why was the “Solid Ground” album named Solid Ground?

— I think because we were just going back to our roots, and maybe we got some freedom for a little while to do our own album. And then we got into very big trouble because it didnít sound like a typical Smokie album. The record company wasnít happy about it at all at that time. But itís my favourite album and we just went back to our roots, I suppose, which is bluesy rock which we all loved. Everybody just enjoyed doing it.

Simson & Silson
          Simson & Silson  ;-)

Then Simson presented the Hohner harmonica to Alan and we asked him to play that piece of "Love me do" which they showed near St.Bede's in the Smokie documentary. At first Alan was shy and said he can't do it but after all he did it perfectly! That was great!
Simson said that he would be very happy if Alan will use this harmonica on some future projects. Alan thanked him heartily and promised to do it. Alan would like to do a blues album next as that is where his heart is.

— The first harmonica which I bought more than 40 years ago cost 50 pence, it was like this and I still have it. Ron Kellyís father had a really nice 2-octave harmonica and not so long ago Ron gave his dadís harmonica to me to look after it which I certainly do.

— Letís talk about “The other side of the road” song from 1979. We love your guitar on it. In credits it was said that you used a guitar synthesizer there, is that true? And how did you invent that sound?

— Do you mean that sound “wow, wow-wow-wowÖ” (sings) which is at the beginning? No, I didnít use synthesizer on it, it was a voice box! Later on Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi used such a thing.

— Really? A voice box?

— Yeah! And it took a while for me to do that sound because I kept laughing all the time. I was laughing because I felt stupid while standing there and trying to make that “wow-wow” sound and everybody was watching me with that tube in my mouth. I imagine it looked funny for them.

— And as for the solo on “Walk right back” song from 1977, what instrument did you use to play it, a harmonica or something else?

— No, that was exactly the same, a voice box and I did it using my voice again. And I also have to say that I put very dark glasses on, so nobody could see my eyes because itís really crazy when you do it and hard to get used to it. I felt quite embarrassed as it was a relatively new technique of playing a guitar.

— Was it your idea to use this technique in that song?

— Yes, it was mine.

— Where did you get that idea from? Have you heard anything similar before?

— I donít know... (laughs) No, there was nothing similar. I think the only guitarists back then who used such things were Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh. They are the only ones I have ever heard using it at that point in time. And then I thought to develop it for that song as I felt it suited the song. The final sound actually depends on how you sing it. When we did “Walk right back” I was singing that “wo-wo-wo-wow” and felt stupid because it sounds like youíre not feeling too wellÖ (laughs).

— In its time not only us but also our families liked you very much. Our mums loved Smokie also and they knew your faces very well as all the walls in our rooms were filled up with your photos.

— I found it very strange when I first moved over to a town called Ilkley. When I moved to the house right at the very top of the road there was a boarding school. And one day I walked to the local pub down the road, the guy who was the headmaster in that school approached me. And he said to me: “Iíve seen you before but I donít know where from”Ö and then eventually he realized and said: “Ahh, your pictures were all around the school” because by then we had become successful, I donít mean me personally but the band.

— I suppose at that time you were a kind of symbols, the main stars from Bradford area, the most famous band who came from Bradford.

— Oh, yes, it was very much so. We couldnít go anywhere in Bradford. We got to a point when it was getting a kind of crazy and dangerous. At that same time as we became successful some people tried to move in because of the success of the band. Lots of strangers kept coming to my local pub at the time knowing I went there to socialize with friends. Other people we used to know before suddenly became distant and changed their attitude towards us. Maybe they thought we were trying to take their girlfriends awayÖ (laughing) Ö.. but we didnít, well, not always (laughs again).

— A question about “Oh Carol” and its fantastic violin-like solo. How did you make it?

— I always wanted to play my own style, itís a kind of backwards-forwards, a bit strange somehow, I donít knowÖ† The guy who influenced me on playing like that was Stefan Grapelli, a famous violin player. I used to listen to him a lot and I still have some of his tapes. He plays like that (singing) and I played that solo in this violin style. Another big influence for that solo was Danny Kerwin, a guitar player from the original Fleetwood Mac.

— I want to say that the sound of your guitars is just brilliant! In some songs you use one guitar, sometimes two, sometimes three guitars. How do you invent it, when and where have that particular number of guitars to sound and how they have to be harmonized finally?

— I donít know where it comes fromÖ(smiles). I set up my own guitars for my own technique of playing. Iíve been into guitar technology since I was a teenager with a friend called Geoff Lyth. The sound is just me and my way of playing and bending notes, I canít explain it any further. Itís just me! My solos come from the heart and mainly I like to hear guitar solos that melodically fit with the song. I canít read music, itís just a natural talent, I guess, without being big-headed.

— So you still donít know notes?

— No, I donít need to. Itís just natural. I can hear perfectly well when someone sings or plays out of tune, even when itís only slightly out of tune. I have very sensitive ears for “pitching”.

— Letís talk about your harmonies. Smokie harmonies from 70ís were so unique and really great!† How did you learn to sing them?

— The answer is the same – I donít know, I swear to God (laughing). It just came naturally to all of us. Chris Norman, Terry Uttley and myself – none of us can read music but we all can sing.
If you asked me, Chris and Terry to sing and you played us a set of chords – we could just follow it. We have three unique voices which very cleverly fit together and you donít find that very often. We probably spent too much time singing and playing rather than doing our homework at schoolÖ. (laughs).

— Just like Beatles, Uriah Heep, Queen?

— Yeah, thatís right. The Beatles didnít read music as far as I know. Great harmonies like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bee Gees, Hollies – just certain bands. Marmalade as well – their “Reflections of my life” was great.

— And did Pete take part in your harmonies in Smokie?

— He did no vocals, no, but heís one of the best drummers I know and a great musician.

— Do you stay in contact with Mike Chapman? Have you got any plans to work with him?

— No, I am not in contact with him anymore. Heís a fantastic songwriter. Mike was an influence on me for songwriting and production.

— In 1983 you, Chris and Terry worked with Agnetha Faltskog on her solo album. The song “Once burned, twice shy” is a great one, your harmonies there make it sound like a real Smokie song.

— Yes, very much so! Well, it was us, so what can I say? It could have been a song on any Smokie album.

— What was it like to work with her?

— It was fantastic, sheís a very lovely person, a bit shy but sheís nice. And a great singer, she was a great part of ABBA who were a great pop band with great pop songs. The band that worked with Agnetha in the studio at the time was the same band that had worked for ABBA. The band was superb, really good musicians. The studio was also perfect, one of the best Iíve seen. The set up was first class.

— Probably because they had a lot of money?

— Yes, probably. You know why they got a lot of money? (laughing) †Because they didnít pay us for doing the vocals. We were there for 5 or 6 days – me, Chris, Terry and Don Maundrill, our roadie. And afterwards they paid our bar billsÖ (laughing), that was where all our money went. You know, Scandinavia is very expensive for alcohol and we used to like a drink or two.

— On your new album “Solitary Bird” your old friends from Smokie days also took part.

— Yes. That album is Pete Spencerís† and mine – we did most of it between us. Pete plays drums and some keyboards. Pete also sings lead vocals on “I like it like that”. Chris Norman plays rhythm guitar on “Drive me wild”.
Thatís why the band Smokie became as we were, I think. Chris was in his early days into Bob Dylan, and Chris is a fantastic rhythm guitar player, on par with Bruce Welsh from the Shadows. And as for me then I was into Jimi Hendrix, Danny Kerwin, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ritchie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher and Jeff Beck. So all our different influences came together and made the band Smokie.
And I think all these influences are also shown on my new album and it certainly shows my Smokie roots which I am still proud of.

— And there is the song “Safe in the arms of love” on your album which Chris had recorded with you on his album “Break the ice” in 1989.

— Yes, I sang it with Chris some years ago. I donít know whose idea it was to record it now, could it be Pete? Yes, I think it was Peteís idea to sing it with Teri Sullivan who is related to Chris. Teri sings another duet with me on that album and also a part of “Drive me wild”. She is a great singer and I think our voices sound really good together.

— One more question from the old past. Do you remember the song “A Day At The Mother-In-Law's” and the funny inserts there?

— I do remember it – not very well, havenít heard the song for a very long time. The line “Move down de busÖ” came from the first Asian community to move into Bradford and many of them worked as bus conductors when we were school kids. Going to school I heard this line “Move down de bus” every day so it stuck in my head.

— Do you think the sound of Smokie was unique?

— Yes, it was and no one can really get that sound nowadays. It was Chrisís voice, my stylish guitar solos and certain guitar sound, Peteís excellent drumming and, of course, the 3-part harmonies. Chris hasnít got Terry and me, and I havenít got Chris and Terry, so no one of us could repeat that unique Smokie harmony sound. With the range in my voice I can sing all the other parts which come very close to the original sound – I think you can hear that in the harmony parts on my new album.

— Were Smokie friends with any bands of Chinn-Chapman team in 70's?

— Well, we were very good friends with “Mud”, for instance.

— “What can I do” was one of the first songs that we got to know of Smokie here. A great song! And the solo guitar on it sounds like a blizzard, itís something fabulous! How did you invent it?

— I think it came from my blues influences. I played what I felt at the time. I play it different every time, similar but not exactly the same. Thatís why I love to play my solo parts live at any time, canít mime a guitar solo.

We talked about different kinds of audiences including those on private parties. Alan told some story with a song “Lilly the pink”. A snobby lady from Blackpool kept pestering the band (was “Kindness” then) to play “Lilly the pink”, an awful song which they would never play even if they knew the chords. The lady got very angry as it was a private party in a posh hotel.

— On many Smokie videos from 70ís, especially on “Living next door to Alice” we can see Chris playing on 12-string guitar. What model was it, do you remember?

— I donít remember exactly because normally it was me playing on 12-string guitar, on studio recordings in particular. When Chris came to play 12-string guitars in the studio he said “Let Alan do that because he has stronger hands”. Cos when you actually play it itís really hard and can be quite painful. We used to laugh about it sometimes.

At that time the “Aerosmith” song sounded in the bar. And the talk turned to the artist whoís going to come to Moscow soon.

— Do you hear, “Aerosmith”? In June they will play for the first time in Moscow. And Ozzy Osbourne is going to start his world tour from the Moscow gig. Heís got a lot of fans in Moscow.

— You know, we once played in Esbjerg, in Denmark, with Black Sabbath, without Ozzy already. I think it was in 1995, it was a kind of summer festival. There were also Fleetwood Mac, Saxon, 10CC and others performing, it was a big concert. And it was really funny, my hair then was quite blonde and quite long. I got ready to go on stage so I put like a stage make-up on. And I walked round the corner with a beer in my hand. And the guys from Black Sabbath thought for a moment I was OzzyÖ(laughing) Ö because I then looked like he used to look with blonde hair and with a similar tattoo on my hand.

Alan Silson— We remember when we first saw you live in 1991, it was Smokieís first performance in Moscow, in Olympiyskiy sport arena. Of course, we were in the first rows. On stage you were wearing blue jeans and jeans sleeveless jacket. And do you remember, at one moment you jumped off the stage and went straight to the audience while still trying to play some soloÖ We were going crazy of seeing “the legend” so close, that was unbelievable! Werenít you afraid of the crowd?

— Oh, I got in big trouble then. I jumped over those soldiers in front of the stage. No, I wasnít afraid of the people, I didnít think anything could happen. I wanted to be friendly to the audience and didnít need soldiers – thatís why I jumped over them.

— And some years later, in 1994, Smokie with you performed in Ostankino concert hall. There you sang “What Can I Do” for the first time in Russia. That was great! And Alan Barton was also great at that time!

— Oh yes, Alan Barton was a very nice person and a great showman.

— We first saw Alan Barton in “Black Lace” on Eurovision Contest with the song “Mary Ann”.

— Which was copied of Smokie, it was just like “Oh Carol”, wasnít it?

— Yes, watching “Mary Ann” we see and hear Smokie!

— Oh yeah, very much. Well, they nearly got sued from the record company for copying “Oh Carol” but because we knew the band we asked our record company not to place charges on them. Even though, it was very close.

— Alan Barton also used to flash his eyes working for the camera, just like Chris Norman when he was in Smokie.

— You know, when Alan Barton just joined Smokie, in the very first year maybe, he tried to copy Chris which was a mistake. Eventually he found his own personal style, his own direction – not of Chris Norman but of Alan Barton which was a lot better for him. It was very difficult for Alan to replace Chris, itís true.

In that way we talked to Alan for nearly two hours. Of course, many questions we'd like to ask still were left. But having known that he had a hard day and it was rather late already, we thanked Alan for a wondeful meeting and a friendly climate and warmly bade farewell.


21.06.2007 © www.chris-norman.ru