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A Ticket to Rye: My Afternoon with Beatles Engineer Norman Smith


Norman Smith and me

In the course of interviewing people for my documentary, Beatles Stories, I've had the opportunity to meet several people that I grew up admiring including Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Denny Laine of Wings, Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits and many others. But no interview was as fulfilling as the one I had with Norman "Hurricane" Smith.

In March 2006, I traveled to London with my wife Jody. I had brought along my video camera just in case I landed an interview with someone who had a cool Beatles story.

On my second day there, I received a phone call at about 8 in the morning. I was still so groggy and jet-lagged that I considered not picking up the phone. However, after a few rings, I changed my mind and answered. The man on the other end introduced himself as Neal and asked me if I was the guy looking to interview people about The Beatles. When I said "Yes," he asked me "How would you like to interview Norman Smith?" Still not fully awake, I said "Norman Smith! You mean THE Norman Smith??" Neal replied, "Yes." Knowing that this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I asked Neal if I could meet with Norman that day. He said that he would call me right back, so I waited by the phone, filling my wife in on what was transpiring. Ten excruciatingly long minutes later, Neal called to say that the interview was on and that I was to meet him at the London train station at noon for the trip to Rye, where Norman lived.

The moment that I got off of the phone, I asked my wife to turn on my video camera to record my excitement. I was actually going to spend time with the man who recorded She Loves You, A Hard Day's Night, Ticket to Ride and Norwegian Wood! I couldn't believe my luck.

Norman Smith was the first recording engineer for The Beatles, working with them from the day that they auditioned for their record deal (June 6, 1962) through their Rubber Soul album. In short, Norman engineered the sound on every Beatles song from Love Me Do to Michelle, a little less than 100 songs in all. He then went on to discover and produce a band named Pink Floyd. In 1972, he wrote and recorded his own song Oh Babe, What Would You Say (under the name Hurricane Smith), which became a Top Ten hit around the world.

I met Neal, on that cold March day, at the London train station at 12 o'clock. He bought a bottle of wine at a pub where we waited for the train. I politely drank only one glass, as I wanted to be sharp when I spoke with Norman.

It was a two-hour train ride to the town of Rye in Sussex, England. I had my camera rolling when I stepped off the train and was able to capture the 83-year-old Norman Smith and his wife as they greeted us. The camera was still on when I remarked to Norman, as he drove us to his house, that I couldn't believe that I was in a car with the Norman Smith! From the moment that I met him, I knew I was in the company of a genuinely warm and nice person.

As we drove through the lovely town of Rye, Norman pointed out where the McCartney children had attended school. As it turned out, Paul's house was close to where Norman lived.


Norman reminiscing about
She Loves You

When we arrived at Norman's house in the countryside, he made a fire, broke open a bottle of wine and sat down in his favorite chair. I had a million questions and it was readily apparent that his memory was excellent, which foretold the beginning of an amazing interview.

The wine flowed and the fire crackled as Norman regaled me with inside stories on dozens of Beatles songs. For a longtime Fab Four fan like myself, the day couldn't have gotten any better. I was hanging out with the man who was responsible for The Beatles sound and, who, in my opinion, was as much their producer as George Martin.

As modest and self-effacing as he was, Norman couldn't help but admit that he was an unsung collaborator in creating the sound of the century. However, he was completely uninterested in any extra credit as he was clearly a very content man.

Spending time with him, I understood why the much younger Beatles liked him. He was a fun guy who was open to their ideas as they were open to his. It was a match made in heaven.

At the end of the three hour interview, we took a picture together and he signed a photograph of himself with The Beatles, using the nickname "Normal," which was given to him by John Lennon.

Norman then drove us back to the Rye train station where Neal and I caught the 7 o'clock train back to London. As the English countryside rolled by, I simply could not get over the fact that I had spent the day with one of the six people who had helped to create almost every Beatles song from 1962 to 1966. The six, of course, are Norman Smith, George Martin and the four Beatles themselves. When I listen to one of these songs now, I hear them differently as I feel much more connected to them than I did before.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I wrote Neal a thank you email for the exhilarating afternoon. He wrote back saying that Norman had thoroughly enjoyed the interview as well and that my questions had helped jog his memory for a book that he was writing about his life. It was while reading this email that I remembered one of the more profound statements that Norman had made during our interview. I had said to him, "You actually got the sound that changed the world." His reply was, "I think I'll use that as the subtitle to my new book." (The title of the book is John Lennon Called Me Normal: The Man Who Got The Sound That Changed The World).

Neal then showed me a chapter from Norman's book. You can only imagine my shock upon reading the following:

"It was a late winter's afternoon and an American, a nice chap, called Seth Swirsky, was visiting to video me for a documentary that he's making about people who knew The Beatles. Seth came down on the train from London Bridge with the assistance of my friend Neal. Seth is also a songwriter, and so is Neal. As we all have material published by EMI, one way or another, the Missing Beatles Song Story was about as poignant as it gets for a roomful of songsmiths in front of a log fire with glasses of red wine. That afternoon, my part of this video-gig was to look back some forty odd years, while Seth pointed an expensive-looking Sony at me. I tried to do my best. I hope I was good."


Norman's signed copy
of his book to me

The chapter continued for a few more pages describing how I had reminded Norman of the day that The Beatles chose to record one of his songs for their Help album. The members of the band were looking for one more song to complete the album and Norman, who had recently finished a song, played it for John and Paul. They said that they liked the song and would record it for the album. A few days later, they told Norman that they had realized that they needed a song for Ringo and would be unable to record Norman's song. Norman described his disappointment on camera, but said that his disappointment did not affect his work with the band. He went on to record one more album with The Beatles, Rubber Soul, before he started his work with Pink Floyd (their first three albums) and Pretty Things.

That afternoon in Sussex, England was for me, certainly, an amazing 'Day in the Life.' Needless to say, I'm so glad that I answered the phone in my hotel that morning!!

I sent Norman a bottle of wine as a way of saying "thank you" for his graciousness in allowing me to film his stories. Shortly thereafter, he called me out of the blue to say "thank you" for helping him recollect some of the details of his time with The Beatles that had been locked away in his mind.

In addition, during our phone conversation, he mentioned that he particularly liked two of the songs off of my first solo record, It's Still Love and Bike Trip, which I had given to him at our interview. I can't even begin to describe the pleasure that I felt at such a compliment. He then asked that I send him my next record when it was completed and, in February, 2008, I sent him the first The Red Button album.

Norman Smith's Letter
Click to enlarge

Sometime after sending the album, Norman wrote me a letter with his thoughts. During the most memorable portion of the letter, Norman stated that if I had been around in the 60s when he was producing music, he would have signed me. It was a great thrill to receive such a statement from the man who had made songs like Ask Me Why, Ticket To Ride and We Can Work It Out.

After spending his life as a producer and engineer, Norman still obviously loved the field. Within his letter, he offered a critique of The Red Button album stating that "I would have varied the tempos and backing sounds, but apart from that you're a hit!" He had, obviously, really listened to the album. What a guy!

Norman passed away during the early morning of March 4, 2008, two years to the day after I had met him. My feelings when I heard the news are recorded in my blog from that day:

"March 4, 2008

I've just received word that The Beatles longtime, legendary recording engineer, Norman "Hurricane" Smith, passed away early morning today. He was 84. I had a chance to spend an entire day with him (as I wrote about above), exactly two years ago to this day, interviewing him for my upcoming movie "Beatles Stories", at his home in Sussex, England. He was a great, great man. I hope and trust you are in peace, Norman. You were a lovely man. I am so lucky to have met and spent time with you. Thank you for helping to give to the world the beautiful and important music of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Pretty Things and, of course, your own great music, especially one of my favorite songs, Oh Babe, What Would You Say.

Rest easily."

Of course, it's very sad that Norman is no longer with us, but if anybody's spirit lives on, it's Norman's. He is in every sound that The Beatles made from the day that they auditioned until the day that they wrapped Rubber Soul.

I had asked him during our interview, who, if anyone, he considered to be the fifth Beatle. Without missing a beat, he said: "Why, I reckon, it was me." I asked why and he said: "Because I had such a great relationship with The Boys. The camaraderie was just fantastic!" Norman was a very humble person so there is no doubt in my mind that he would not have said this if he didn't mean it and, in my mind, I have no doubt that this statement is true.






Comments | Post a Comment

Hi Seth--

I very much enjoyed reading about your time with Norman "Normal" Smith. I had the good fortune to meet him (and Frankie Hardcastle) while they were in NYC at WMCA to promote "Oh Babe, What Would You Say" where I was working during college. I was also working weekends at a suburban NY radio station as a disk jockey and they were kind enough to pose for a picture with me and cut a promo that I would play over the intro of the song. Unfortunately, at the time I didn't realize Norman's connection to the Beatles. But i certainly knew he was a special guy who was very gracious to a young guy who was just starting out in broadcasting. When I saw in the NY Times that he had passed away, it brought back a flood of memories from that day at WMCA. It's great that you were able to capture his memories of those incredible days with the Fab Four. There will never be another like him.

Posted by: Bryan Jackson

My father played the sax solos on 'Oh Babe' and 'Who was it?' and he was the Musical Director on the 'Don't let it die' album. During this period I met Norman on a couple of occasions and remember him as a very warm and friendly man.

Hurricane and 'Oh Babe' have been a major part of the lives of this family.

Thanks Norm.

Posted by: Jeff Hardcastle

Seth:

When is "A Year In The Life" due to be released? Can't wait!!

Michael

Posted by: Michael

Rest in peace Norman.
I am curious to hear the KLOS interview everyone is talking about here. Is it available to listen?

Posted by: Elle Fish

Hey Seth,
I heard you yesterday on Breakfast With The Beatles on KLOS with Chris Carter.
I'm also looking forward to seeing your movie A Year In The Life.
You have some great stories!
A

Posted by: Arthur

Hi Seth,

I really enjoyed your interview today on KLOS. I was doing my workout on the treadmill enjoying Breakfast with the Beatles before you came on the air. I'm so glad I extended my workout to hear your interview, the stories about Norman and the many great songs that were played during the hour. "No Reply" is also one of my many favorite Beatles songs; they truly were/ are the greatest band in the whole world. Thank you, again for sharing; I look forward to seeing your movie - A Year In The Life.

Regards,

Nancy

Posted by: Nancy Morrison

You are smart to have captured Norm Smith, Seth. For my money, I don't think you still can beat "There's A Place" let alone another dozen or so gems! You should try to interview Geoff Emerick as well. Is Peter Blake still alive?

Frank Ceresi

Posted by: Frank Ceresi

Hi Seth

Great interview brought tears to my eyes and the warmth of this man and his musical genius was something very rare and special indeed, you were very lucky indeed, to have met this man however briefly , I envy you...

Posted by: Gary Wells

Norman Hurricane Smith's album was probably one of the first albums I purchased as a pre teenager. I spent many hours listening to it, much to my mother's annoyance. She could only take so much of "Oh, Babe...." played repeatedly, but I really loved that song! It was through his music at that young age (10) that a love of all types of music was born. (Hurricane Smith to glam rock,heavy metal and beyond!) While he has gone to the greatest reward, ours is that his music remains! RIP Hurricane!!!

Posted by: Lisa

Lovely article, thankyou.
The man Norman was a legend, a true and genuine hero.
Rest easy, old friend.

Posted by: Matthew Doherty

Hi Seth
Just read your page regarding Norman Smith. Back in 2003 I authored a book about The Pretty Things and interviewed Norman during the research phase. He was a really nice guy and was overjoyed that Piper At The Gates and S F Sorrow had received higher ratings than The Beatles albums in a psychedelic magazine survey. He was definitely in competition with George Martin.

Anyway, the strange thing is I bought your album, She's About To Cross My Mind...around six months back and it's my favourite CD released over the past two years - very Beatley with an amzing 60s feel but crisp production - almost Abbey Roadish.

Just thought I'd share this with you.

regards

Alan Lakey

Posted by: Alan Lakey

great story. He was quite a guy

Posted by: tom

Thank you.

RIP Hurricane...

Posted by: emarkay

RIP Norman
Very sad that he passed away
Huge fan of his work here
David Morley
www.davidmorley.com

Posted by: David Morley

I can't thank you enough for the interview with Hurricane Smith. What a treat.
Take care,
Tom Sullivan

Posted by: Tom Sullivan

Wow, amazing. I recently heard a Hurricane singing "Oh, Babe" and "Who was it" and needed to know what ever happened to him. I was very happy to find your interview with the man himself! What a thrill it was to read the interview and hear him talk about "She loves you" by the Fab Four. Great photo of him (He still looks fantastic) and of you. Thanks so much. I will be getting his book too!
Mark in Minnesota

Posted by: Mark Ollig

During a nostalgia-driven search for 'Hurricane Smith' I've just discovered your wonderful 'Ticket to Rye' interview with the man himself.

I was fortunate enough to have spent two weeks in the 1980s with Norman and his wife at the villa of a mutual friend in Portugal.

Norman's stories and reminiscences were fascinating to a young, aspiring musician as I was, but it was his humour and self-effacing manner that endeared him to me most of all. (And his willingness to drop everything at a moment's notice to crack open a bottle of something!)

I am delighted to discover that he is still alive, and looking as mischievous and robust as ever.

Many thanks for publishing the interview.

Francis

Posted by: Francis Abberley

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