'I'm too sexy for rock 'n' roll', says adland's king of music

Having composed music for 600 adverts, from Bacardi to Fruitella, Chris Smith is the biggest pop star you've never heard of, writes Amol Rajan
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The Independent Online

With his bald pate, cerebral disposition and deep voice, you wouldn't know that he was responsible for one of the seedier soundtracks heard in the history of British television. Fruitella – the chewy sweet – re-wrote Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" song as "I'm too juicy for my mum, too juicy for my dad, too juicy for nan," and so on, into the history books. Chris Smith, now 53, provided the vocals. "Whatever you do, don't call me Fruitella man," he says.

"Friends of mine joke that, what with the Bacardi ads I was responsible for teenage binge drinking," Smith jokes. "As Fruitella man, I suppose you could blame me for childhood obesity too."

Writing music for advertisements isn't all Smith does, but he has done rather a lot of it. He set up his own production, Final Touch, in late 1988, and since then has written the music to over 400 hours of broadcast television and more than 600 television and radio commercials. He also has the score for four films and several theatrical productions to his name, along with a dozen albums. Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Renault are among his many clients.

Smith, who a fortnight ago finished writing the music to Charles Dickens' England, a Sky Arts film narrated by Derek Jacobi, is alarmed by the condition of the music industry and "the erosion of a profession, both in economic and aesthetic terms".

Music writers celebrated last week at the Ivor Novello awards in London. But Smith believes his own field is in danger from over supply. "The availability of cheap and sophisticated software, which enables people to make noises regardless of whether they have something valuable to say," he warns.

"Second, you have an education policy that says everybody has to have tertiary qualifications. So people who aren't academic look around them and ask what looks sexy. Music technology looks sexy, so these people leave after two or three years thinking they have the right to be heard. The industry is not able to accommodate all those people."

This "scam perpetrated on the young and the idealistic" means "we've got this massive explosion of vocational qualifications, but the world doesn't need another 10,000 sound engineering graduates every July. The lie sold to them is that there's room at the inn".

The industry, Smith says, is "fragmenting as much as expanding. On television you have hundreds of channels surviving on a shoestring, based on shrinking advertising incomes and tiny audiences. So production budgets get smaller and the music suffers."

He left Oxford University with a degree in English. As a student he would play synthesizer at balls "and the odd gig" but never took formal music training. After graduating, he taught English at a private school in Oxford and was then head of drama at a London comprehensive.

His life changed when, at the height of the boom of the Thatcher years, a banker friend decided to throw "a couple of grand" into helping Smith establish Final Touch. "It's a means to make music without having to clamber into a dirty Ford Transit at 3am," Smith said.

His task as a composer is split between creativity and business. In respect of the latter he says: "I have to be my own marketing director. Work doesn't just come to you." And on the former: "You have to combine making with saying. These days a lot of people can make, but few have anything to say."

Smith does his own making and saying in a studio adjunct to his house in leafy Hampton, on the south west fringes of London, and uses new digital platforms – "MySpace, Twitter, that sort of thing" – to reach a wider audience. His own musical influences include Miles Davis, Brian Eno, Steely Dan, Michael Nyman and Elgar.

Two decades ago it was much harder to enter the industry – especially if you wanted to produce for media outlets rather than just pop music. "At the time, if you wanted to be in music you had to be in the West End, you had to have an office, and if you wanted a studio it had to have a big mixing desk" he says. "There were a lot of barriers to entry, which I suppose were a kind of quality control. Crap didn't make it." In other words, these days it often does.

On which point, Fruitella man has a salutary message for young musicians entering an industry still coming to terms with its recent history. "I don't get mobbed on the street, which might be a sign of success," says Smith, who takes satisfaction from having reduced levels of smoking through his successful commercials fighting nicotine addiction. "Sometimes the stuff you're most proud of doesn't impinge on the cultural imagination... there's more to music than being famous."

The Ivor Novello Essays, including work by Nitin Sawhney and Jim Kerr, can be viewed at www.basca.org.uk

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