Norman Smith: Engineer for The Beatles, producer for Pink Floyd and, briefly, a pop star
Friday 07 March 2008
When Norman Smith, a former Royal Air Force glider pilot and failed jazz musician, saw an advertisement in The Times in 1959 stating that EMI were looking for apprentice engineers under the age of 28, the 35 year old decided to lie about his age. At the interview, his cheeky criticism of Cliff Richard, the label's rising star, chimed with his interlocutor's views and also made Smith stand out among the hundred or so applicants. He was one of the three apprentices hired on the spot and began work at EMI's Abbey Road Studios.
For the next six years, Smith worked closely with the producer George Martin, most famously as engineer on all of the Beatles' sessions, from their audition in June 1962 up to the Rubber Soul album at the end of 1965. Although he didn't take part in the Sgt Pepper sessions, Smith went on to produce several albums which helped define British psychedelia. Between 1967 and 1969 he produced Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets and Ummagumma , and helped the band experiment as they sought a way out of the chaos following the departure of the founder member Syd Barrett.
Smith also helmed the sessions for S.F. Sorrow, the 1968 concept album by the Pretty Things, recorded concurrently with Pink Floyd's Piper and the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, in adjoining studios at Abbey Road. During his time at EMI, Smith also worked with Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Swinging Blue Jeans, Helen Shapiro, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Manfred Mann, Barclay James Harvest and Kevin Ayers.
In the early 1970s, under the name Hurricane Smith, he scored hit singles with two of his own compositions, "Don't Let It Die" – written when John Lennon joked that the Beatles were short of a song while recording the soundtrack for Help! – and "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?", as well as "Who Was It", originally recorded by Gilbert O'Sullivan. Indeed, the material on Hurricane Smith's début album, also called Oh, Babe, What Would You Say? (1972), was strongly reminiscent of O'Sullivan's rather whimsical approach.
Smith kept in touch with the Fab Four. When "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?" knocked Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" off the top spot in the Cashbox charts in the US in February 1973 – it peaked at No 3 on the Billboard listings –Lennon sent a telegram to congratulate him.
Born in 1923, Norman Smith dabbled with various instruments as a child and teenager, including drums, piano, vibraphone, trombone and stand-up bass. This versatility would later stand him in good stead as he replaced the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, who couldn't quite come up with the right drum part for the track "Remember A Day", during the recording of A Saucerful Of Secrets in 1968. After serving in the RAF during the Second World War, Smith played trumpet in a trad-jazz band for several years but failed in his attempts to "become a famous jazz musician."
Joining Abbey Road, the EMI studio in London, was the making of him. He rose from lowly apprentice making tea, sweeping floors and pushing the odd button to tape operator, assistant engineer and then engineer on hits like Frank Ifield's 1962 UK chart-topper "I Remember You". He was also present when the Beatles auditioned for Ron Richards and Martin on 6 June 1962. "I couldn't believe what louts they looked with their funny haircuts. They didn't impress me at all," Smith told the writer Brian Southall. Still, the engineer went on to oversee an estimated 180 tracks for the group, taking in nine UK No 1 singles and the six best-selling albums Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul.
In 1966, Smith was promoted to a producer and A&R role. The following year, he saw Pink Floyd play at the UFO Club in London and decided to sign them: "Their music did absolutely nothing for me," he conceded. "I didn't really understand psychedelia. But I could see that they did have one hell of a following even then. I figured I should put my business hat on, as it was obvious that we could sell some records."
The American-born Joe Boyd produced the Floyd's first hit "Arnold Layne" but, at the behest of his EMI superiors, Smith took over for "See Emily Play", which fared even better in the heady summer of 1967. However, given Barrett's frail state of mind and eventual collapse, and the arrival of the guitarist David Gilmour to join Mason, the bassist Roger Waters and keyboard-player Rick Wright, Floyd sessions often didn't go according to plan. Taking advantage of a break in proceedings, Smith began recording a demo of "Don't Let It Die" and played the result to his friend, the producer Mickie Most, who suggested he should release it under his own name.
Taking up the "Hurricane Smith" moniker from a 1952 film, he eventually issued "Don't Let It Die", which reached No 2 in the UK in the summer of 1971. In the post-Beatles era, British pop still ruled the planet and the once staid Smith became a long-haired, moustachioed, bona-fide pop star when the quaint "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?" turned into a worldwide hit the following year.
"The melody was happy and simple," he said about his signature song.
It was the producer in me that designed the lyric to recapture the era I grew up in. It's almost a true story of my life. I would go to a ballroom, but I was so shy I couldn't even ask someone to dance. I'd walk home imagining a romance when I'd never even reached first base. "Oh, Babe" was about those fantasies.
Smith scored a third hit with "Who Was It?" but the charm of his throwback to the big band era sound soon wore thin and the singles "Beautiful Day, Beautiful Night" and "To Make You My Baby" flopped. For a while, he bred horses in Surrey but kept his hand in with occasional sessions for Denny Laine, of the Wings and Moody Blues fame, and even played trumpet on Kilimanjaro, the 1980 début by the Liverpool group the Teardrop Explodes.
Later, Smith moved to Rye, in Sussex, and enjoyed his retirement, though he relished telling stories of his days at Abbey Road and took part in the occasional documentary about the Beatles or Pink Floyd. In 2004, he released From Me To You which included new versions of his 1970s material, and a cover of the Beatles song the album was named after. Last year, he self-published an autobiography, John Lennon Called Me Normal, and sold it at Beatles conventions.
"Norman Smith taught us a lot of things in the studio," said Mason.
He helped us a lot, since he was simultaneously a musician, sound engineer, and producer. He . . . could do anything in the studio. In fact, he had a very peculiar style and a very peculiar sound. Just listen to his records.
He was happy to teach us rather than protect his position by investing the production process with mystique. From our first day, Norman encouraged us to get involved. He was aware of our interest in the science and technology of recording when, in his words, "most bands at the time were just trying to be part of the Mersey Sound bandwagon".
Norman Smith (Hurricane Smith), record producer, engineer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and pilot: born London 22 February 1923; married (one son); died 3 March 2008.
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