At a time when there's much talk in the music industry of selling British talent abroad, Alan Barton, lead singer with Black Lace and more recently Smokie, had been out there flying the flag for Britain for years.
Barton, born in Barnsley 42 years ago, formed Black Lace with Colin Routh, Steve Scoley and Terry Dalton in 1973. As a four-piece, they struggled around the pub and club circuit. Their big break should have been representing Britain in the 1979 Eurovision Song contest in Israel. ``Mary Ann'', their entry, reached seventh in the contest and number 42 in the British charts, but Black Lace didn't quite have the same success as Bucks Fizz or Sandie Shaw. Still, the group, now down to a nucleus of Barton and Routh, had seen the possibilities of the European marketplace and set about exploiting it with a catalogue of fun, lowest- common-denominator tunes like ``Superman'' (Giocea Jouer) and one of 1984's most successful, but irritating records, ``Agadoo''.
Inspired by the ``Hokey Cokey'', this English version of a French hit drove holidaymakers to distraction much in the same way as Sylvia's ``Y Viva Espaa'' had 10 years earlier. The naggingly catchy tune had a lasting appeal and remains to this day a party favourite. It featured among Q magazine's rogue gallery of truly awful/ infamous songs, alongside ``Grandad'' by Clive Dunn, Joe Dolce's "Shaddap You Face'' and ``The Birdie Song'' by the Tweets.
Having found a successful formula, Barton and Routh ran with it, taking ``Do the Conga'', ``El Vino Collapso'' and ``I Speaka Da Lingo'' into the charts and the group to gigs up and down the land. They also covered most of the aforementioned wally hits (``Hokey Cokey'', ``Y Viva Espaa'', ``The Birdy Song'') to strengthen their hold over the Eurodisco market. Black Lace appeared in Alan Clarke's film Rita, Sue and Bob Too. However, Colin Routh had an affair with an under-age girl, got into some serious trouble and left Barton to carry on with a new side-kick, Dean Michael.
Around the same time, singer Chris Norman left Smokie to go solo. Both acts shared the same management company and Barton decided to ``dirty the voice again to get it croaky" and duly replaced Norman, first alongside his Black Lace commitments, then full-time from 1987 onwards.
The Bradford group's fortunes had slipped somewhat since their mid-Seventies days at Mickie Most's Rak records. Under the guidance of in-house producers and songwriters, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, Smokie - the spelling of the band's original name, Smokey, had been amended to avoid a lawsuit from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - had joined a roster which also included Suzi Quatro, Sweet and Mud. Chinn and Chapman saw Smokie as Britain's first soft-rock band (a sort of Bread meets the Eagles via Dr Hook) and had penned ditties like ``If You Think You Know How To Love Me'', ``Lay Back in the Arms of Someone'' and ``Living Next Door to Alice'' to suit their style.
``Living Next Door to Alice'' was a big international hit in 1977 and was followed in the American charts by an excellent cover of Jackie De Shannon's ``Needles and Pins''. However, the emergence of punk dented the band's prospects in the UK and they started to concentrate on their career overseas.
There is a whole host of talent out there, from Roger Chapman to the Troggs (until Reg Presley, the band's lead singer, got lucky when Wet Wet Wet recorded "Love Is All Around"), gigging constantly and flying the flag for Britain. That incarnation of Smokie, with Barton at the helm alongside original members Terry Uttley (bass), Alan Silson (lead guitar), Marlin Bullard (keyboards) and Steve Pinnell (drums), thus scored major hits in Norway, Ireland, Germany and Australia, with albums like Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Whose Are These Boots? They also re-recorded many of their crowd-pleasing hits for collections entitled 18 Carat Gold, Smokie Forever and Celebration.
Barton's fine voice was particularly in evidence on the last album, which has sold over 100,000 units in both Denmark and Germany. According to his manager John Wagstaff, he had actually become a better frontman, singer and showman than Chris Norman.
Last month Barton had finished a nine-date tour with Smokie to promote Celebration. He was on his way to the airport in Germany when the band's minibus plunged down a ravine during a hailstorm and crashed near Cologne. Barton died a few days later.