Jacob's Ladder: People...You Are The Reason I Am...
Norman 'Hurricane' Smith
John Lennon nicknamed him “Normal”, and under the name “Hurricane” Smith he enjoyed a one-off No1 hit, but it was as plain Norman Smith that he made his mark on the history of popular music.
As George Martin's engineer and right-hand man, Smith twiddled the knobs, set up the microphones, checked the levels and acted as general factotum on all the Beatles' recordings between 1962 and 1965, totalling some 150 songs from Love Me Do and She Loves You to Nowhere Man and Norwegian Wood.
Promoted from engineer to A&R man and producer, he then signed Pink Floyd to EMI and produced their first three albums. Smith's own brief emergence from backroom wizard to unlikely singing star came when his composition Oh Babe What Would You Say? topped the charts in 1972.
Norman Smith was born in North London in 1923. He served in the RAF during the war as a glider pilot. A gifted pianist, he played semi-professionally with various groups on London's postwar jazz scene before, in 1959, landing a job at EMI's Abbey Road studios as a tape operator.
After impressing the company's head producer, George Martin, he became first-choice recording engineer and was behind the controls on June 6, 1962, when the Beatles cut their first session. Martin himself was not present, but Smith was so impressed with the Lennon-McCartney composition Love Me Do that he sent a tape operator, Chris Neal, to fetch him.
Martin agreed with Smith's assessment of the song's potential and authorised the final signature to be placed on the group's contract. A re-recording of the track three months later became the first Beatles single.
Smith worked with Martin on every Beatles single and album up until and including Rubber Soul (1965). Although Lennon gently lampooned him as company man “Norman Normal”, Smith seems to have had an easy and genuine rapport with the group who were sorry to lose his services when he was promoted in 1966 and Geoff Emerick took over as Martin's engineer.
Smith wrote an autobiography chronicling his years working with the Beatles under the title John Lennon Called Me Normal. In it he recorded his disappointment when plans for the Beatles to record one of his compositions in 1965 for the album Help! fell through at the last minute. Lennon and McCartney had rejected as sub-standard a song they had written for Ringo Starr to sing on the album called If You've Got Trouble and were left a track short for the LP. Smith offered his song, and they agreed to record it, but returned to Abbey Road a couple of days later saying that Smith's composition did not suit Starr's voice. The drummer was recorded singing Buck Owens' Act Naturally instead. The name of Smith's song was never revealed, but negotiations were sufficiently advanced for the Beatles' publisher, Dick James, to have offered him £15,000 to buy the song outright.
When Martin set up his own company (in which capacity he continued to produce the Beatles), Smith effectively took over his other A&R and production functions within EMI. His first step was to write to all the managers he knew asking if they had any new groups he should hear. One of them, Bryan Morrison, invited him to see Pink Floyd at UFO, London's leading “underground” club. Smith admitted that the music did not make much impact on him but he was impressed with the psychedelic light show.
Nevertheless, he could see that the band already had an enthusiastic following and offered them a contract. Negotiations almost collapsed when the group demanded a £5,000 advance, which was contrary to EMI policy. Smith persuaded his bosses to cough up the money but was told that if the group flopped, it was on his own head.
A further problem was that Pink Floyd's first single, Arnold Layne, had already been recorded with Joe Boyd producing. The group wanted Boyd to continue but outside producers were also against EMI policy, and so Smith insisted on taking charge himself. This made the band wary of him but fortunately his old Beatle contacts helped to break the ice. During their first session at Abbey Road, Paul McCartney dropped in to the studio, put his hand on Smith's shoulder and told the Floyd: “You won't go wrong with this bloke as your producer.”
Smith produced the hit single See Emily Play and the Floyd's first two albums, Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) and A Saucerful of Secrets (1968). He later described as “difficult” his relationship with the group's main songwriter, Syd Barrett. Smith wrote the parts for the brass band and also played some drums on the track Remember a Day but after a third album, Umma Gumma (1968), his role as the Floyd's producer came to an end. By his own admission, he had never really understood psychedelic music and, under instruction from EMI to produce hit singles, he had battled to edit the group's long improvisations into something more accessible and “a bit more melodic”. Once the Floyd had sold enough records to start calling the shots, they insisted on producing themselves.
Despite his confessed lack of sympathy for psychedelia, Smith also produced the Pretty Things' 1968 album SF Sorrow, widely regarded as the first concept album or “rock opera” and a prototype for The Who's Tommy. The band's Phil May said that Smith was the only person at EMI who had been fully supportive of the project and that his technical expertise had been invaluable for the album's unusual sound effects.
In an odd coda to his EMI career, Smith then turned recording artist in 1972 when, under the name Hurricane Smith, he had a chart-topping hit with his composition Oh Babe What Would You Say? The song harked back to the music hall and vaudeville era and Smith originally cut it as a writer's demo with a view to finding someone else to record it. He played it to his fellow record producer Mickie Most, who astutely told him it was a certain hit, just as it was.
Norman Smith, record producer, was born on February 22, 1923. He died on March 3, 2008, aged 85.
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