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Interview: Chris Norman

Rock Stars...

Chris Norman was a founder member of Smokie who had big success in the 70ís with such hits as ĎLiving Next Door To Aliceí and ĎNeedles and Pinsí. Heís since had solo success and releases his sixteenth solo album, ĎHandmadeí in February via Sanctuary. Well worth a listen if you like Tom Petty and Southside Johnny.

Firstly if we could talk about your new solo album, ĎHandmadeí which is your sixteenth solo album. It sounds very much like Tom Petty & Southside Johnny. Is this your normal style?

Pretty much, although previously the record label had tried to get me towards a more synthetic, computer driven sound. But this time it was more band driven and wanted to get a proper live sound. When you do the more produced sound you have trouble when you tour in that you canít get the sound as you overdubbed stuff, used computers and so on.

With this album I wanted to go back to where you go on stage and play it. I did it like the old days, in that we record it and routine it until we get it right. We started putting tracks down and then chose the tracks and said ĎRight this goes on the albumí. FONT FACE=VERDANA,ARIAL,HELVETICA COLOR=BLACK SIZE=2> I prefer it as it is much more spontaneous and more fun.

Are the musicians on the album people youíve worked with before?

Bob, the drummer has only been in the band a year and a half. The guitar player has been with me for six, seven years and the bass player the same.

Is there a tour to back the album?

Yes, although I havenít toured in England for ages because there has been no real success for me. Most of the time I spend in Germany and Holland, northern Europe. The last couple of albums never got a UK release so I never toured here. It depends on how much interest the album generates as to whether I tour the UK, but I start a tour anyway in the middle of April. All around Europe and hopefully the UK.

When was the last time you toured the UK?

Ages ago, I think the early, mid-80ís. Iíve done the odd gig but not a full tour. Itís a big thing to put on the road as you seven people in the band, including myself. By the time you start paying everybody you have to be certain of making a certain amount. You can either make it on the road or get a record company to back you.

Why do you think the UK is like that, whereas fans and interest remains in mainland Europe?

I started do off doing the solo stuff in Germany as there was more interest there than the UK. I had a couple of solo hits in the early 80ís and there wasnít the same sort of interest in the UK. I was on Polydor in Germany, although they have branches in other countries the UK side would say we donít want that as it comes from Germany. But Iíd say I am English, not a German act! Because it comes out of Germany they think itís a German production for the national market and they donít even listen to it. I used to ring-up Polydor in the UK, where they say ĎOh we havenít had that CDí, when really they couldnít care less.

I started a label with a friend of mine and we put out a couple of albums in the early 90ís. But itís really difficult, the amount of money it costs to promote stuff. I hope with Sanctuary there will be more promotion. Itís really all down to promotion. If I could enough TV and radio, then people would be aware of it. Then I could your and people would then buy the album.

Youíve signed to Sanctuary. How did you sign with them?

I was doing a production thing in Germany with a girl singer. Totally separate from me and I sent this singerís album to John Williams at Sanctuary. Iíd known him form the RAK days when they signed Smokie. He said it was good but at the time they werenít signing newer acts like that. So when I left the company I was withy, my manager said why donít you try Sanctuary and they were really into it. I am gald itís got a UK release.

Which solo albums have stood the test of time and which would you recommend to a new listener to your work?

ĎReflectionsí which I like and ĎInterchangeí, ĎJealous Heartí and thereís a couple I am not so proud of you know. But those previous three are a good reflection of me live.

How do find it being a solo artist as opposed to a band environment?

The promotion was easy at the beginning as I had this big hit single, which went to no.1 in Germany and all over Europe actually. I was doing TV and radio shows. That carried on for a bit, then I did albums that did alright. The promotion side was fine the hardest part was having the responsibility without having people around you to share it. that was the thing I found difficult at first. I feel more comfortable in the band situation I have now, because I am just a singer in a band.

They used to say on TV why canít you sing solo? Iíd say I am not Frank Sinatra, put me with a band and I am fine.

What was the key factor behind the success of Smokie? They were a huge hit in the 70ís.

We were a good band and been together since school. We had a good harmony thing like Crosby, Stills & Nash with the three main singers in the band. We were a band that had been used to playing. We were lucky enough to get some good songs and made some good records, the band for the right time. We came around with the glam bands like the Sweet, but we were guys in jeans singing harmony songs with acoustic guitars. We kinda didnít fit in at first and we thought we werenít going to make it. We played good live shows whereas many groups then were nothing like their albums when they played live.

What was the live highlight of your time in Smokie?

We did a lot of massive arena tours, 12-15,000 seaters. I remember a gig in Vienna and it was the first time Iíd seen the thing with all the waving lighters. It was just unbelievable. But then you have to get used to not doing arenas after that (chuckles). Weíd do d tour of England and we only played 2,000 seater theatres despite the chart success.

When did you leave Smokie - wasnít it the early 80ís?

We kinda split-up in 1982. We just stopped doing it for a bit, I tried a few solo albums and the England (football) records. We came back together in the mid-80ís to do a charity show for the Bradford football fire disaster, which is our hometown. We liked it and we got back together for a bit.

I left again a year and half afterwards. Alan and Terry carried on with another singer and a couple of new guys in the band. They continued for ages, then Alan left and there still is a Smokie touring with just the bass player in it.

Searching on the website so many Smokie websites come-up from all over including Denmark, Germany and Norway. Has this helped keep the Smokie music going?

Yes, thereís a massive 70ís Smokie thing, all over Europe and Russia. Iíve played the Kremlin Palace theatre, itís great you know. Massive audience out there that you didnít know was there until you got there.

Itís much easier to find out stuff about people, bands or whatever. I think itís great.

Any chance of a Smokie reunion tour? Many older acts have huge success with reunion tours like Kiss and the Rolling Stones.

Itís been talked about a couple of time and people in Europe keep asking me. We wouldnít get back together properly. I mean Terryís doing this stuff with four other guys and go out calling themselves Smokie. Heís probably quite happy doing that anyway. We did sit in a room three years ago and talked about it, but it really broke down as there is still some bad feelings. We get on well together now until we are all together for too long and little things start coming up. You think what would this be like on tour bus with a six-hour drive.

You never know, it would more likely be a one-off thing like a festival or a charity thing. Otherwise I doubt it somehow.

What did you think of the ĎLiving Next Door To Aliceí remake with Chubby Brown (popular foul mouthed UK comedian) a few years ago?

I didnít like that. It had come out earlier by somebody called Gompie from Holland. They did this copy with the ĎWho the f*** is Aliceí in the middle. I thought that was okay and the next thing Iíd heard was the new Smokie had done it. Why re-record with Chubby Brown and go on TV with it (laughs).

Lindisfarne did something similar as well withy ĎFog On The Tyneí with Gazza (then famous England football international), which they later regretted.

At least Gazza was the main man, as they put the record out as Gazza featuring Lindisfarne. I donít think they regretted it but I did! The original was on Top of the Pops 2 (UK TV show with classic music footage) and the caption came up saying Smokie re-recorded it with Chubby Brown. I didnít re-record it this other version did.

Who was Alice?

I dunno. Just a made-up name. There was an old lady living next to me when it was a hit called Alice, who was 80 odd but I didnít know that at the time. She came round and said my nameís Alice. It was written by Mike Chapman (half of Chin & Chapman who wrote hits for Suzi Quatro, Mud & the Sweet amongst others) anyway.

What do you like doing in your spare time outside of music?

Iíve got big family. I am married with five kids and I do family stuff when I am not doing music. I watch a bit of TV. Iíve got a studio at home so I spend a lot of time in there. Or I read. Sometimes go to the theatre, but thatís a trip as I live in the Isle of Man. Itís a family thing.

Any artists youíd like to work with?

A lot of people Iíd like to work with are sadly not alive anymore like John Lennon or Frank Sinatra. If Paul McArtney rang-up asking for a duet Iíd say yes. I am not that bothered really but I am sure if I sat down Iíd come-up with some people.

Message for your fans…

Listen to the albums and see if you like it, buy some albums and come along to the concerts. Iíd love to play in the UK again

Interview © 2004 Jason Ritchie

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