|Interview with Chris Norman|
|“Maybe on the 40th anniversary I’ll put it all together...”|
— Chris, looking at the past of your solo musical career, do you think you would have made your first steps to success even if you haven’t been the leader of the group Smokie before?
— For me when I started it was good I was in a band, you know. Because I needed to be in a band, I think. It was what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have started to be a solo singer when I was 17. I didn’t want to do that. And probably I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it either. So yeah, I guess, I would have had to be in a band. And maybe after I’ve been in a band even if we hadn’t been successful, after say 5 or 10 years of being in a band, and if the band would have split, maybe then I would have had a confidence to go on to be solo, I don’t know. But definitely it was a good way of getting to a point where I could go solo. And it helped me as well because by that time I was already well-known. And so it helped to get a record deal and everything else, I wouldn’t have got that without being in Smokie. So, yeah.
— What do you think, which of your solo albums was the most unlucky?
— I think it depends on what you mean by “unlucky”. If you think about the most successful or least successful, or best or worst – so there could be different answers.
— But it’s one of my favorites!..
— Yes, but that’s what I mean. It was a good album and it didn’t do anything, it didn’t sell hardly. So that’s what I mean it was very unlucky. An album that was as decent as that would be completely forgotten about and nobody bought it hardly. Because it was really released under a bad label and nobody promoted it. I thought there were some good songs on there, which kind of got lost, you know. So that was unlucky for me. That’s how I’m interpreting this question.
But if you think about which was the worst album, I would have to say probably… “Some Hearts Are Diamonds” which was sold quite well but I didn’t like it, you know. It wasn’t a very good album. Or one of those David Brandes’s albums like... “Full Circle”? Yeah, “Full Circle”, that was crap, that was really rubbish.
— Well, you don't have a worst album but in this sense and as far as I know most fans don’t like it. Because that wasn’t you there.
— If you look at it at that kind of way, that would be the other meaning of the word “unlucky”. But it didn’t sell so bad. It was a big success as it had top hits in Germany. So it did quite well really, it did ok. But it wasn’t a very good album, it was a mistake album. But I’ve made a few of those, you know. But “unlucky” to me is when you do a good album and it doesn’t do anything, that’s unlucky.
— What records have impressed you most in the last time (CDs, DVDs)?
— Probably quite different things… Really I thought Leona Lewis was great singing “Run” which was a Snow Patrol song…
— Leona Lewis? The winner of some British TV show?
— Yes. And she made a record after that which I thought was an outstanding, really, really great, fantastic record, knocked me out and still does. I bought it, and I don’t buy many records these days, especially by pop stars stuff…
— … but how do you listen to music, on the radio only?
— Yeah, I listen to it on the radio – if I’m driving the car and then somebody comes on that I like I turn it up… And that’s how it happened with that. And then I wanted to hear it again, you know. Then it came on again later on and then I thought I’ve got to get it. I went out and bought the album. And unfortunately there were only 2 songs I liked on the album… (laughs) But that happens, yeah… But she’s a great singer and I loved that.
And then the things like The Beatles – they brought out this big Beatles pack collection which I bought and which costs a lot of money. Cos I bought both – stereo and mono because they are both a bit different to each other.
And… I don’t know… Just some good groups like Snow Patrol I mentioned or some other more modern bands.
— And what about any DVDs, maybe some old stuff?
— I bought “Cliff Richard And The Shadows – The Final Reunion”, which was good for me because it was one of the things that started me up. You know, when I was a kid I got into Elvis and rock-n-roll from America, like Little Richard. But Cliff Richard & The Shadows in those days – it was always good. Not Cliff Richard, but Cliff Richard & The Shadows, they were like a union, like a group. And I used to be really into that, you know. Cos first of all I wanted to be like the frontman, like Cliff Richard, but I also wanted to be the guitar player like Hank Marvin. So I used to stand in front of the mirror with a tennis racket… And they did a reunion concert, I think last year, and they did a CD and a DVD of it. It was just them and Cliff on stage. Unfortunately, the bass player is different now, but apart from that it was the same – with Brian Bennett on drums, Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch and Cliff Richard. It was great, a great nostalgic trip for me. The good thing about it was... I've seen other things by Cliff Richard at concert before, but this was like a complete thing from the beginning. I mean like all these early songs, they never do it live – “Living Doll”, “Please Don’t Tease”, all this stuff, that’s really great… I love it, yeah. So that was one that I bought. I enjoyed that a lot.
— Chris, do you really believe in omens, signs? Have any secret rites before going on stage?
— No, no, no, I don’t do anything special. Go to toilet maybe, that’s the main thing we do it these days (laughs). For two hours you have to make sure you do a wee-wee before you go on.
— But I read in one press conference report like you’ve said when people wish you good luck – you turn around 3 times and spit on a floor. Was it a joke or a truth?
— That’s true. But it’s not something like a ritual because I don’t do it always. Because not anybody always says that to me anyway, so I don’t have to do it. It only happens occasionally, most people don’t say that. Our people would know and just say something else, “have a good one” or “have a great show” or something like that, that’s ok. It’s just an old show business tradition.
— But people here probably don’t know this tradition. Also a similar thing is when English people say to you “Break a leg!”, and a non-Englishman may consider such a wish a bit strange as he understands it literally…
— Sure, I understand that. But that’s a very old-fashioned show business thing when instead of “good luck” they say “break a leg”, which is kind of the opposite. And that supposed to be “good luck”. In France, in show business they say “merde” three times – “merde-merde-merde” which means “shit-shit-shit”, and that’s a strange one too… Having grown up with my mum and dad being in show business, I heard about all these things my whole life, so… It’s silly, yeah. And funnily enough, I’ve thought about it recently cos I saw somebody who’s a real old pro on TV, and somebody wished him good luck. And he just said thank you and went on. And I thought, if he doesn’t care, why should I care, you know. It’s stupid. Oh yeah, I do it, when they say to me “good luck”, I turn around 3 times and spit on a floor, not properly spit, just a little. But I‘m gonna trying get out of that.
— Here comes maybe a strange question. But since my childhood I was curious about that… ;) So can you say what song are you all singing on this photo on “The Montreux Album” cover?
— God knows, no idea… (smiles). It would have been something silly, it wouldn't have been a proper pop song. Probably “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen…” (sings), some old song like that. But it was a kind of a set-up anyway, it wasn’t exactly as it looks. We did actually have a few glasses of wine because we went up into this mountain area. And did all this filming, skiing things… We didn’t do any skiing because nobody could ski, so we used these scooters instead. And we were freezing, it was really cold there. So they had this hut, it was like a wooden house, where we could keep going in and getting warm. Because every half an hour we had to go in and thaw out as we were beginning to turn blue. And then gradually, as the day went on, we were drinking wine – red wine and brandy, there’s some brandy somewhere…
— …No, there’s no brandy on this picture...
— But there was some brandy, maybe they decided it was too heavy for the fans… ;) “Take it off the table, don’t be seen drinking heavy spirits”. Anyway, so we were drinking wine and brandy all day, just to keep warm really. And then eventually after they had done all the shooting and photograph session and everything they did for the back of “The Montreux Album” and everything was done then. And then we went in and they just took some pictures, they said “Just look like you’re having a good time”. And we just started to sing different songs and that could have been any one. We probably sang loads of different songs.
— So you didn’t have such a tradition to sit around and sing some songs? Isn’t there such a tradition in England?
— No. I mean, maybe when I was a kid with the family, we used to sit around and sing some songs sometimes. But with Smokie – no. I mean, the only time we did use to sing sometimes was when we were on tour or something, especially in the early days. Towards the end we didn’t so much cos we kinda got enough, but in the early days when it was all a big fun we used to sometimes. We get back to our hotel quite often and bring out a couple of acoustics, and sit in a lobby, and play and sing some Crosby, Stills and Nash stuff or whatever, you know… Cos we didn’t do that on stage by then. I remember in Glasgow once happened a really great night. There were a couple of guys from the radio, Radio Clyde, who had come to do some interviews. And we did that and then we got a few drinks, and it was getting late. And then somebody brought a couple of acoustics, and ended up singing like loads of old stuff that we used to do before – the stuff like Crosby, Stills and Nash “Judy Blue Eyes” and “Teach Your Children”, and some Beatles stuff and … just some stuff. And we used to do that quite a lot, if we were in the mood, and somebody was bringing a guitar… or on a bus – like when we were on tour, we always had guitars on buses, we’d sing old songs.
— Ok, here come similar questions about the pictures on “The Growing Years” CD cover…
What was that?
— That was the first house that was detached on its own grounds that I bought. That was when it was – “June’77”. And outside they just laid this new piece of thing with cement. So I wrote my name and put my hands in for a joke. That was the first nice house that I bought, it was in Bradford.
— And this is a diary… 1973 – it’s just about the gigs we were doing… Something.. “Miners Welfare club… Workington”. But I don’t know the first word. Workington is a town in the north-west of England, by Carlisle. So 7th of October we were playing there, and that’s how much money we got – 35 quid… See that 3 and 5, I used to put down how much money we were getting for the night. So we were to get 35 pounds at this Miners Welfare, Workington. And then this is “Pentagon, Bradford”, that was like a night club… oh, 50 quid! And this one is “Storthfield Country Club” – 50 quid. “Temple Row Miners Club, Wrexham” – 35 quid. So that’s just an example of the week’s work that we were doing in 1973.
— Ok, next picture from the cover. Who is this guy with guitar beside you?
— That’s Michael Crowther, that’s my uncle, my mum’s brother, I still talk to him sometimes. And that’s me showing him my couple of chords when I first got a guitar. I was about 14 there. This is a private picture of me, showing my uncle Michael how to play. That was my first sort of guitar I think I got it for Christmas in 1964. I mean I had a guitar before that but I never really learned to play, this is the one I started to learn to play on.
— And who taught you to play?
— When I got a guitar, another my cousin – with the same age as Michael – taught me a couple of chords. He was only 9 years older than me. We were brought up more like brothers and sisters really, all of us, all cousins. But he was really my uncle. And anyway. I got the guitar and I got a chord book. And there was another guy called Con who was my cousin he taught me some chords. And I spent like a week or two learning some chords. And on that picture, that was me showing him (Michael Crowther my uncle) how to play a couple of chords, E or something like that.
And this is “Melody Maker” from 1975…
— Ok, what is this, your school record?
— That’s a school report, you know, like every year you get this saying how well you did at school. … “City of Nottingham” – but this was like a junior school where I have been before I moved to Bradford for the last time. I lived in Bradford when I was about 5 and then we moved away, moved back etc. And then at the end I went to Nottingham school, and this was a report from there. It must to be from about 1961.
And that’s just a passport…
That’s another page torn out of a diary. This is “Empire Pool, Wembley”, that’s where we were doing…
That’s a telegram from… I think it’s from Mickie Most…
— Probably that was some special telegram as you have put it on the cover?
— Yeah. I don’t know what it was… maybe how many records we’d just sold, or we just got gold or something like that… Or it could have been congratulations for “Top Of the Pops”, I don’t know…
And that’s me and my dad, that was my first guitar, but I didn’t know how to play then.
“Smokie add one” – that must be our keyboard player, Fred Lloyd.
This was all… You know, what happened to this cover was that originally it was gonna be on an LP, and then it had to appear on CD. And my idea was to do this because we had the idea for the Growing Years… And then I said to the photographer what I wanna do, it’s like a collage of different periods of my life. So just did got out lot of stuff, and they actually just put stuff out that they thought looked interesting, spread it all out on a table and then took a photograph of it. And I didn’t really have anything to say with what was gonna be on, I didn’t care. I just looked at the end and it looked ok, you know.
— It’s a great cover! I could look on it for ages discovering all these “pieces of your life”…
— Yeah… If it was on a big cover, one could see all these things better…
— Was it actually done for LP?
— No, I don’t think so. It was supposed to do. It was just on a crossover between LPs and CDs as it was released about 1991, I think. And up to then records have been released on LP and CD, and at that year Polydor decided – no more LPs, just CDs as nobody’s buying LPs anymore. And when I got this cover… which was good for an LP – it doesn’t work with CD, you know! It would have been great with LP.
— Here is a question about the rare song performed by Smokie “Let It Be Me”. We can hear it only on some audio record from some show. And it was never recorded in studio, why?
— This song is originally by The Everly Brothers. We started to do it in clubs. It was a good one to do for an older audience cos it was in harmony and it sounded nice. And we started doing it in clubs. When we were starting to do radio shows, we were doing Radio One sessions and they always wanted a different song for every day. And after we were beginning to run out of our songs, we decided to do it on that. Trouble was, I think… This was before we had any hits… We were booked to play Leeds University the following week. They booked us, and then they heard us on the radio singing “Let It Be Me” and they thought we were a soft harmony group. And so then they cancelled it cos they didn’t think we were a rock band anymore. Cos we did all sorts of stuff. So that was why and then we thought we are not doing that again, you know. Cos that’s gonna spoil our image. And then, later on, I think we were doing a show called “Talk of the town”, which was from a famous night club in London, that was in 1976 or 1977. We did a single, which ever that was, and they wanted another song and we did that one as well. So we never recorded it properly because it was never meant to be…
— Are there in principle any records from Smokie times which were never released, jam recordings, outtakes etc?
— I don’t think so. If there was, I think they’d have brought out something… There was a couple of songs – “Love’s a Riot” and “Roll On Baby” but they are released now. I don’t think we’ve recorded much of anything else. I mean there maybe out things that were recorded for “The Other Side Of The Road” or “Solid Ground”, there might be a couple of tracks that have never been released for now. The most of that has been released too now. There was, you know, a few years ago there’s quite a lot that hadn’t been released but now… I mean, there might be some demos knocking about, I’m sure there are.
— You know, there is such a tendency nowadays, while reissuing records anniversary editions to put there all such kind of stuff…
— Yes, I know. But the trouble is, like all that old Smokie stuff is owned by BMG, or Chinn/Chapman and BMG, owned between them. And they keep putting this stuff out. And we don’t get paid a lot for that because it was in the early part of the deal. First I didn’t mind it but now it gets on my nerves a little bit. Cos they keep all this stuff, and then they ring and say: “Have you anything extra to put on?” And then I think – why should I give you extra things so you could make more money on this crappy album? You know, I’d rather wait for certain points. I have got some demos, in boxes I’ve got tapes stuff, but they are of pretty lousy quality, you know. But it could be worth to put it on eventually for somebody who is really interested to hear it, you know, like when I listen to The Beatles and stuff like that, it’s great for me, I like to listen to that… So there might be stuff, but I have to seek it out.
— You know, your true fans would enjoy any such a piece in any quality…
— Yeah, that’s right, like I was with The Beatles, it’s the same. But I have stuff like that, I mean there is stuff, I’ve got tapes like that around. One of these days I’ll go through them all.
— So let’s do it!.. ;)
— Oh yeah (laughs). Maybe… What is the next anniversary?.. Where are we now from 1975?..(counts) 35 years, is it now?.. Yes, 35 years. Maybe on the 40th I’ll put it all together (smiles).
— Let’s hope!
— Not so long ago I read in one interview that Smokie were playing the show in Paris in 1982 with the Paris Opera Orchestra. Is that true?
— We used the Paris Opera strings on some recordings, like “I’ll meet you at midnight”, but never did live shows with orchestra. Maybe they were talking about that they played on the “Changing All The Time” album… That album we started half done in London and did the other half in Paris. I think “If you think you know how to love me” was done with the London string players. And then we did the rest of the album in Paris and the song “Don’t play your rock-n-roll to me” was done with the Paris orchestra players. “Changing All The Time” – that was also done there. And then we went back again to record “I’ll meet you at midnight” and a couple of others, and that was together with the Paris orchestra, too. But that was the only time, as far as I know.
— A year ago you told me you were renovating your home studio, setting it into a digital. So how are you doing in it now?
— I’ve been recording the kids in there, about 4-5 songs. I haven’t done anything on my own in it yet.
— Do you like it?
— I like it better the old ways still, to be honest. I keep complaining and shouting at it, you know (smiles). There’s loads of things you can do with this digital stuff – you can move things about and everything, you can cut things out, put things in, move things up, change notes, make them louder, make them quieter, swap them about, take things, use all these plug-ins you've done after – you can do all that stuff… But I’d prefer the old ways really, to be honest. I think I always will. It’s better, it’s good, it’s got a lot more things… but.. There was something magical about putting a tape on a machine and using an analogue desk, just something kind of magical about that really…
And I think if I was going to do it again now… because I’ve bought this studio and got it all settled… But it looks great, it’s nice, but actually, if I was to do it again, now I know… because I didn’t know what I was doing with it before, I haven’t ever worked… I’ve worked in things like a Pro Tools or Cubase, Pro Logic or whatever. But I’ve always been in somebody else’s studio, with somebody else doing the engineering. And I guess I always knew the principles of it obviously. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have mixed it. I would have got a new analog desk and had that linked to computer and tape and had it all running at the same time. But it's too late now. You could do it, it was possible, that would be the best of both worlds for me, and eventually, if I ever get round to fixing it again, it’s something like that I would do, so I’ve got a mixture.
— You mentioned that not so long ago you were at Pete Spencer’s. How he is doing?
— He is fine. He’s recording some songs, he writes a bit, doing demos a bit, he plays in some groups a bit. He doesn’t sort of do a lot of stuff, he takes it easy, I think.
— Haven’t you plans on writing songs together with Pete or Alan, as nowadays you don’t need to go to each other for this but can just exchange files?
— Yes, you could exchange files. But the best way to write songs is just to sit opposite, with a guitar, it’s the best way.
— So you are sort of an old-fashioned composer? ;)
— Yes, I mean...
— I mean when Alan told us about making his last album with Pete, they did it distantly, just exchanging files…
— Yes, but Pete did most of that, Alan was never around. I think the way they did it was – Alan already had a song idea or a most of it and he sent it to Pete. And then Pete tried to add things to it or whatever, or maybe do the other way round. But that’s not really writing a song together, that’s just – if you already got a song and somebody just adds a bit to it or whatever. It’s a different thing to sit down from nothing and say “Ok, what shall we do, let's write a song”. And then you come up and say “What about this?” – the other guy goes like “Ok, I can get into this..”. And you change ideas with him in this way. That’s what really writing songs is. I mean, you can do a thing while you… You just say “I’ve got this, I don’t know what else to do with it now, can you got me ideas?” and you listen to it….yeah, add this bit, and you send it back – “That’s all right”… But that’s not really writing together..
And anyway I just said to you I’m not writing much at the moment. There’s nothing for me to write for, bar for the kids. And plus the fact that I think if you’re not together much, you are not in the same area, you might write different kinds of songs. I mean when I was there just now, Pete played me a song he’d been working on, which was quite nice. And he wanted some harmony on it and he couldn’t work out the harmony parts. So I sang three part harmony on it for him, to work it out so that he could hear it and then he could do it later. That was quite a nice song and I said to him then maybe when I get round to writing or doing a proper studio album again, if you’ve still got that one hanging around, maybe we could work on it. Maybe that would be a way to do it. But at the moment there's no real need for it, you know…
— That’s all, Chris, thank you very much!
Thanks to everybody who sent us their questions for Chris, especially to: Irina (Tomsk), Katryn (Perm), Simson (Moscow), Liza (Armavir), Oleg (Daugavpils), Dmitriy (Chernigov).
A big thankyou to Annie (Germany) for her enormous and invaluable help in the work over this and other website stuff.
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