Tuesday, 11 March 2008

HURRICANE SMITH: Don't Let It Die


Norman "Hurricane" Smith has just died; his was not a wasted or prematurely curtailed life - he was eighty-five - but it was an ebulliently singular one. Already in his mid-thirties, he lied about his age and became an engineer at EMI, where he ended up as George Martin's right-hand man, engineering all of the Beatles' records up to and including Rubber Soul. Then he saw the youthful Pink Floyd, and when Joe Boyd couldn't continue to produce their records after "Arnold Layne" for contractual reasons, Smith took over for everything from "See Emily Play" to Atom Heart Mother.

In Studio 1 at Abbey Road, he encouraged Syd and the boys to go even further out than they had anticipated, and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn bears articulate witness to an absolute union of artist's vision and producer's flair - Sgt Pepper was being constructed in Studio 2, and Smith and Martin frequently went next door to each other to exchange ideas and advice, as indeed did the musicians themselves - and it is a tribute to Smith's expertise as much as the Floyd's imagination that Piper has stood up so brilliantly; he remained keen to realise and expand the group's ideas over their next three albums, all of which still sound beamed from a parallel universe '68-'70. At the same time he encouraged thug R&B perennials the Pretty Things to indulge their adventurous notions and helped put together S.F. Sorrow as well as the dazzling associated singles, most notably of all "Defecting Grey" which changes mood and direction approximately two dozen times within its five or so minutes; Phil May has attested that Smith worked with the band purely with a view to experimentation and adventure rather than the thought of any financial rewards. In 1969-70 he part-produced Resurrection, the only recently resurrected album by the Aerovons, a bunch of Beatles-fixated teenagers from St Louis with a world of ideas but little money; they scraped together what they had, borrowed some more from their parents and somehow made it to London, and to Abbey Road, where the exquisite "World Of You" and a dozen other gems were recorded. Sadly individual band member personal crises ensured the premature dissolution of the group and the album disappeared until its eventual reappearance on CD, but the music remains strong and the production actively defiant of anything resembling 1969.

Then, to everyone's surprise, Smith resurfaced in 1971, nearly fifty, as a recording artist of his own. "Don't Let It Die" was only kept off number one by the unassailable "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and it remains one of the strangest of early seventies pop smashes; written with the World Wildlife Fund in mind (and possibly commissioned by the WWF) it is a doleful ballad with distorted piano and restrained strings which Smith sings in a voice which made most people think it was Danny Ross (Alfie Hall in The Clitheroe Kid); on TOTP he was represented by a silhouetted figure seated on a stool. The world is already dying ("The world is ours to tear apart/But what if it's too late to start again?") and although clearly a flag-waving fundraiser ("It's up to me/It's up to you") it possesses an eeriness peculiar to its age and evokes considerably more potent thoughts of "hauntology" than several more distinguished exemplars.

In 1972 he returned with the even stranger "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?," a deliberately old-fashioned but thoroughly endearing forties-style croon (but growled in his post-Formby contralto and with intermittent rasping sax solos) - though in the context of Gilbert O'Sullivan and Peter Skellern it probably wasn't as strange in Britain as it must have been in the States, where it became a number one. Thereafter he gradually slowed down towards retirement - although, delightfully, he turns up as one of the trumpeters on the Teardrop Explodes' Kilimanjaro - but seems to have lived a long, happy and blameless life and I would ask readers to listen to "Interstellar Overdrive" or "The Word" or "Baron Saturday" or "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?" tonight and raise a glass to his placid inventiveness.