Interview with CHRIS THOMPSON
One of a few singers on this planet whose voice is familiar to almost everyone, even to those who doesn't know his name, Chris Thompson is a musicians' musician. Having shot to worldwide fame with MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND in 1976, when they brought Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded By The Light" to the mass attention, Chris quickly established a reputation that, over the years, made such different artists as Brian May and Sarah Brightman call for his help. And then there was "You're The Voice", that he co-wrote but gave to John Farnham to chart with it. Twists and turns abound, Thompson is still, at 65, doing what he does best, and still delivers, to which his recent album, "Berlin Live", is a nice testimony. And still many people mix him up with another veteran of the same name. That's where our long conversation started.
- Chris, I see you're being mistaken for a folk artist named Chris Thompson too often...
(Tiredly.) Oh yeah. I saw him the other day, actually.
- Are you comfortable with that?
That's why I put "Chris Hamlet Thompson" on the first CD. It's unfortunate we both come from New Zealand. He's a very talented guy. We had a school reunion at the beginning of this year, and I saw him [there] and we were both complaining that our songs get mixed up. But I don't think there's many people confuse us anymore.
- You just have to look at Allmusic.com where you're not only mixed up with him but also with a female singer Chris Thompson! Still, coming out of New Zealand you were born in Great Britain, so at which point you decided you had to break it big back in the UK?
I didn't really think about doing anything else [than singing] and New Zealand just didn't offer me any kind of challenges any more. I was in the great band, and we were doing very well in New Zealand, but I didn't have anywhere to put the songs that I was writing. We were a covers band, and I didn't want to do that anymore, so the only thing to do was to go to England. Luckily, I had a British passport so I could go there and work and not worry about that.
- Was that a kind of BEE GEES calling?
No. I actually went there because somebody sent me a telegram and said, "I have a gig, come and play". So I just said, OK, and I went and played it. It was only one gig, unfortunately, but I stayed and then I joined Manfred, so it worked out fine.
- You mean you decided to go to England for one gig only?!
Yeah. Pretty much so, yeah! (Laughs.) I was pretty tired of what I was doing, we were playing seven nights a week, from 7 o'clock till 10 o'clock and then from 11 till 4. I was just getting tired of doing that and I wanted to do something else.
- It speaks much of your self-confidence that you decided to join an already established band in England. You tried out for ARGENT before Manfred, right?
I did! How do you know that? I tried out for ARGENT, yeah; I'm glad I didn't get the job. (Laughs.) I wasn't in a position to start my own band. I was playing with a couple of soul bands to earn a living and, of course, I wanted to be in a band with a record deal who were touring as that all looked very attractive. So that's what I did.
- Were you ambitious, then?
Pfff! I think [I was] no more ambitious than any of my friends but... I had a lot of friends that wanted to go to England but they couldn't do it because they didn't have British passports. And I was able to go and work there, and it was a difficult thing to do: it was a very bad time for the country - there was a three-day week for working, Harold Wilson was in power, it was all doom and depression so it was very difficult to find work. I found it was very difficult to get a job, I would go for jobs I didn't even want - and still wouldn't get them - just because I needed to earn money. But you know I'd always had to fight for myself to be a proffesional singer.
- Why didn't you get a gig with ARGENT?
I was very heavy, I guess quite fat, and they called me and said, "You were the best singer but we've already got one fat guy in the band so we can't have another one".
- And the next stop was Manfred?
- He has an apocryphal story about you appearing for the audition in a Zappa T-shirt.
Correct. He'd just parted ways their guitar player (Mick Rogers) for talking about Frank Zappa all the time, so that was pretty funny.
- So you didn't meet Mick Rogers then?
No. I didn't meet Mick Rogers until... Prrr. (Pauses for a long thought.) I think he came back on the "Angel Station" tour; I don't know whether that's true or not. It was, maybe, 1979 or 1980 or something like that; maybe 1981-1982, I don't know. But I didn't meet Mick then, no.
- Were you familiar then with Manfred Mann's songs? I don't mean his '60s material but the EARTH BAND output.
I didn't know anything about the EARTH BAND. I was much more familiar with his '60s music: "Five Faces Of Manfred Mann" was one of my favorite albums. I knew nothing about MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND, I didn't even know Manfred was still playing until I heard "Joybringer" on the radio. But I didn't know it was the EARTH BAND, until the announcer said it
- What did attract you in them?
Manfred was doing some interesting songs: he was doing "Blinded By The Light", he was doing things like "Singing The Dolphin Through". What else we were doing at that point in time? Hmm... I can't remember what else was on that first album [1976's "The Roaring Silence"]. I think we were working on four songs, and I liked the songs!
- How much of the "Roaring Silence" material had been written before you joined the band?
Manfred did a lot of rearranging while I was there. He had me 'round the house singing and working on the arrangements with him, but I don't think there was anything written because we did an American tour before we recorded it. We had to promote "Nightingales And Bombers".
- Why did you decide to re-record "Spirits In The Night", already released in Mick Rogers' version?
It was the American record company: they felt that my voice was more suited to it than Mick's., and after the success of "Blinded" they liked the idea of another Springsteen song
- Now you also have "Don't Kill It Carol" in your live set that Steve Waller did on the record. How come it wasn't you?
If you listen carefully you'll see it's both Steve Waller and myself: he sings the low part, the bottom part and I'm singing the top part, to give it an octave, and then in the chorus I sing it. So it's Steve [who seems to be the singer] because he's mixed louder than me, but that's because the verses and the chorus sound different.
- But I saw at least a couple of the EARTH BAND TV performances where you didn't sing at all. You were absent, I think.
Yeah, that's true. That's because I'd left the band probably. (Laughs.) So they needed to do it without me. But TV performances are normally mimed so it's not like a live performance.
- And then you were back in the band. Were they waiting for you, were they hoping you'd come back?
You have to ask them that. I went back most of the times because Manfred would call me and say, "I need your help", so I would go back and help him. That's most of the reason why I went back: he would need me to sing something.
- On your records you co-write almost everything but your sole credit with the EARTH BAND is "Platform End", an instrumental. Why so?
Well, Manfred didn't like the songs I wrote. And he was the boss.
- With Manfred's love to experiments, that's strange. Was he different then to what he's like now?
Yeah, he liked to experiment but not with my songs.
- Still, when you were back in the '80s he gave you enough reins to be a producer "Budapest Live".
Yeah, but that was because he didn't want to do it. He refused to do it himself. So he'd either throw it in the dustbin or have somebody else do it. There was so much wrong with the recording; it was recorded in Budapest when [Hungary] was a Communist country, and the equipment it was recorded on really was not of professional quality, so there was a lot of problems, and he just didn't see a way to fix them. So John Lingwood, the drummer, and myself, we decided we didn't want to throw it in the dustbin.
- Recently, you introduced a couple of unexpected songs into your set. How do you choose what to sing apart from the EARTH BAND material?
Well, normally, I just ask people what they want to hear, and people always come up with different ideas, so if we like it we play them. I try to play something different every night so I'm always looking through my catalogue of songs to see what would work and what wouldn't work, and we rehearse it and if it works then we play it. So we really have probably a lot [of songs] that hang in the balance of whether they're in the show or not in the show depending on the audience and how we feel and things like that.
- One of these new songs is from your NIGHT period, and you also didn't sing it originally, it was Stevie Lange, the girl singer in the band.
"Hot Summer Night"? I sing it because it's a song people like and I like singing it. I do a lot of things that we'd done with other people. That song works really well live so that's why we do it.
- FILTHY McNASTY: do these words ring a bell with you?
Of course! That was a band that pre-empted NIGHT.
- Were you seriously intending to call it like that?
Oooh, I don't know, I had to call it something, and "Filthy McNasty" is a jazz song that we used to play by Cannonball Adderley or someone like that. (It was a 1961 piece by Horace Silver. - DME) We used to finish with this song just so people would know we finished and they can have a break. But as a band name, FILTHY McNASTY didn't go very well with the Americans, so they wanted to call it NIGHT.
- Why do you think that band didn't work? Both albums are great.
Well, I think the first album did work. The first album sold a lot of copies and we had two singles that went into Top 10 in America. But music was changing, and we were going into the punk kind of era, and the soft rock bands from California just... You know people were making records for 3 thousand pounds - POLICE made their first record for 3 thousand pounds - and I think we were seen as being surplus to requirements in the music business that was all moving forward punk and jumping up and down, and we weren't that kind of a band. So we just disintegrated, really.
- You called your first solo album "Out Of The Night" meaning NIGHT the band? A wordplay on your situation?
Yeah, that was a wordplay on my situation. I was out of THE NIGHT.
He was a friend of an engineer that we were doing an album with whose name was Steve Forward. I think it was MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND's "Criminal Tango". And Keith just came down to the studio to say "Hello" to Steve, and that's how I met him. Keith is a fantastic lyricist - I knew of his work, obviously, with PROCOL HARUM - and I was in the middle of writing "You're The Voice". I had a lot of the lyrics but I didn't think they were as good as the song, so I asked Keith if he did co-writing, and he said, "No". So I said, "Well, I have this song", and I played it to him, and he agreed to help me finish the lyrics which is what we did the next day. That was the first song I wrote with Keith
- And how did that song end up with John Farnham?
The other writer who's called Andy Qunta, he was a member of ICEHOUSE - you remember that Australian band? - he was in the same studio with John. He had a cassette in his pocket, and John was saying that they didn't think they had a hit for this record, "Whispering Jack", so my friend Andy pulled out his cassette and went, "Here you are". He played it, and John liked it. And that's it, they recorded it pretty much the next day.
- Which means you'd recorded it before.
Ah yeah, I had a demo, of course. If you're the writer you always have a demo of your songs. John did his version of "You're The Voice" which is very similar to the demo, to be honest.
- Was it the same demo that's on Keith Reid's solo album, "The Common Thread"?
- It's a very '80s song but a very soulful one. Are you a fan of classic soul: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke?
Of course, yeah. Everybody who sings any kind of rock or soul music has got to be a fan of Otis Redding. If I'd had a boy I would have called him Otis!
- Not Sam or Dave?
(Laughs.) No. No, I mean I was a fan of SAM & DAVE and a fan of Sam Cooke, and a fan of Joe Tex, and the list goes on forever I suppose. But I disagree with you, I don't think it's just an '80s song. I think it's a song that's timeless, really. If you look on Youtube, you'll see John Farnham doing it with COLDPLAY, and it doesn't sound like an '80s song.
- Back to your work with Reid. How come you did co-write "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" that came out on PROCOL's "The Prodigal Stranger"?
Gary Brooker came 'round to my house with Keith, and they had the song that Gary was playing but he didn't have a melody or any idea for the lyrics. So I started singing something which Gary liked, and Keith and I wrote the lyrics. Gary did a rough demo and we wrote it on the top of his piano and finished it on another day.
- And then there was "Tabaluga And The Magic Jadestone", a story of a little dragon who liked to watch TV?
I was asked by Peter Maffay who did the original story [in German] to write English lyrics and sing the songs in English on this project. I thought it would be good to do that with Keith so I went to New York, where he was living, and was there for about a month just writing the lyrics, and then I went back over to Germany and sang the English version. But unfortunately, it came out only there, in Germany, because there was a confusion over who owned the rights to the lyrics, because we didn't translate the German lyrics - we used the titles in some cases but we didn't translate them. So 50 per cent of the songwriting was different to Peter's idea of it, as we did brand new lyrics. So we were never able to agree about it, and I brought it up again with Peter about four years ago, as I wanted it to come out and didn't care any more about the publishing issue, but Keith was the stumbling block on that occasion so it's a shame, really, 'cause it was good.
- Do you like to be involved with concept albums like this or "The War Of The Worlds"?
I'm always interested in doing things that make you think (laughing) and do something different than what you've done before. "The War Of The Worlds" I did in 1976, and I was very excited because it was a brand new idea, a concept album. CAMEL had done one (1975's "Snow Goose"), PINK FLOYD, of course; later on, GENESIS did them. But "The War Of The Worlds" was something that I got involved with and was very excited about, whereas "Tabaluga" was a hard work. Everything is always different.
- Did you meet other artists when you were doing "The War", like Phil Lynott?
I knew Phil anyway. I don't think I saw him at the sessions; I used to bump into him at the festivals and things like that. I bumped into Richard Burton one time, he was doing something when I was there. I worked with [the "War Of The Worlds" author] Jeff's father (Jerry Wayne: actor, singer and theatre producer) and, obviously I worked with Jeff. I worked with all of musicians, of course, who did it; I knew them all very well. Who else was on there? David Essex: I met him but I don't think I met him when we did it. But I don't think I met anybody else while I was doing it, although I met Gary Osborne because we worked together and did background vocals. But it was an album that was recorded over, maybe, four years so it was very difficult to be there on the same day as someone else; usually you went there when it was your turn to sing.
- Isn't your "Rediscovery" a concept album as well?
Yes, it is. I wish that album had never come out. But it had to come out because we had money from the Norwegian government and we had to produce a CD because we got half the money to do it, upfront, and then the second half when we produce a CD. And we did three concerts. But I'm still working on this musical: I changed the title and changed the story, totally, so it'll come out as something else. It didn't work as a concept album. I don't think concept albums work anymore. It's just there's too much video and too much television and too much films and too much other stimuli for concept albums to work. That's what I realised when I finished it, so I wish I can get all the copies back and throw them away. In fact, when I finish the new one, I will put an ad on my website saying that anybody who wants to get rid of that album, I'll exchange it for the new version.
- Yet it introduced a new side of yours. I mean you're rapping there!
Well, yes, I suppose so. But I'm hoping to put it on as a musical and I'm working right now on the script, and I'm working on raising the money. In fact, in the last three weeks I've met with a scriptwriter and we got the story much more together. I think, probably, the next year we'll have the money raised, and then we'll have another year, 2014, to rehearse, make the scene, do it all together, and then we'll put it on, hopefully, in the beginning of 2015. So it's a long while away but that's how long it takes to do a musical and get it right. That's what I'm looking at right now.
- Each of your solo albums sounds like a snapshot of their times. How do you rate your works?
In general I don't like them.
Because I don't think they're good enough. I don't think I was good enough at what I was doing, I never had the right amount of money to make a record I want to make. There are exceptions: "A Shift In The Wind" [from "Radio Voices"] I do like, with Brian May on it. I think that's a really fantastic piece of work! But other things I really don't like at all. There's a couple of songs - there's a song called "Lies" [also from "Radio Voices"] - which I like but in general, I dislike my solo work, when I look back on it. "High Cost Of Living" was okay but it was fraught with so much problems. We had a deal with Atlantic, and I wanted to do "You're The Voice" but they didn't want me to. That's the another reason that John Farnham got it: Doug Morris, who was the head of Atlantic Records at the time, said, " Americans don't want to hear protests songs anymore". Oh maybe, he was right: it's never been a hit in America. So we had money taken away while we were making that record, it was a very difficult album to make. And I can't listen to them, to be honest. "What A Woman Wants" is a good song, I suppose. I do like the album with Mike Slamer ["Won't Lie Down"] - I think it's a great album, with great songs, and I'm very sorry that it got buried by the record company.
- It's your heaviest album.
Yeah, probably. Probably, the heaviest. It was just guitar-based, and that's what we did. It was what we were writing, and I enjoyed writing it. But I put too much, two years of my life into that album, and it ended up not being available very much to anybody, just having no promotion. There was no push in the records shops, there was no push on the radio, there was no advertising. It's very unsatisfying, that's not the way you sell records. I was very upset, very disappointed about that.
- What do you like more: the poppier sound of your early record or the heaviness of "Won't Lie Down"?
As I said, I don't like my early records. I never had enough money to do them, I never had enough time. It was always rushed, always fraught with problems. And I wasn't a good enough songwriter at that time: I should have spent much more time writing and a lot less time recording. But I was moving along with managers and other people who thought I should be doing this and should be doing that, and there was no quality control. But I do like "Won't Lie Down" - I like the sound, it's a strong record, I think I sing well there.
- By the way, how did you get Gary Moore to play on "Out Of The Night" and then Brian May on "Radio Voices"?
Gary was a friend of mine, we were on the same record label. We met doing concerts, we were doing a lot of concerts together; there were three acts: Gary Moore, MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND and somebody else, URIAH HEEP, probably. And I asked him to play if he had suggestions. And I met Brian in 1975 - it might be 1974 but I think it was 1975 - playing Cardiff castle: we supported QUEEN and we became friends, and we still remain friends. So again, I just asked him to play on "A Shift In The Wind"; that was the first time we'd worked together in the studio. And I think still, to this day, if you'd speak to Brian he would say that's one of his favorite pieces of music. Whenever I see him, he always tells me, "Oh, I listened tо "A Shift In The Wind" the other day and I really liked it". With his guitar, it's fantastic.
- And it's because of your friendship that you were a musical director of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert?
I wasn't the musical director of that, I was the... the person who sang with the band all the songs when the artists were not able to be there, so I was a kind of the rehearsal singer for everybody. Plus, organising all the background vocals and singing background vocals myself. I was supposed to sing a song, "A Kind Of Magic", but unfortunately, it got cut off on the day, which is very disappointing for me.
- After that, you worked with QUEEN's keyboard player Spike Edney's band, SAS?
Yeah, [I did] lots of stuff with Spike Edney's band. Tons. I'll be on everything [by them] I think. But I met Spike in the late '70s, we worked in the same rehearsal room in England; he just called me when he was putting a band together, with different singers, and I've been working with him ever since. And also I did some stuff with Brian [May], some things on his solo stuff.
- As you did on Moore's "After The War".
That's true. He played on my record, and I did something for him.
- There's another guitarist who mentioned you to me, Geoff Whitehorn. He said he was supposed to be in FILTHY McNASTY.
Oh, Geoffrey! Yes, we always sounded better whenever he came to play with us. And I recently did something with Geoff, with a German guy called Siggy Schwarz; we did a kind of a classics rock record together called "Rock Legends", and we did some concerts. It was great.
- But why didn't Whitehorn stay in NIGHT?
He was never in NIGHT, he was in FILTHY McNASTY. But he was already doing stuff - he was playing with BACK STREET CRAWLER I think, so he wasn't available.
- Was it through your recommendation that he got a gig with PROCOL HARUM?
No. Geoffrey doesn't need a recommendation from me. Everybody in the music business knows how fantastic he is.
- He also played with Paul Rodgers while you did something with another FREE member, Andy Fraser.
He's one of the greatest, the most innovative bass players of the '70s. Ask him if he's still got a copy of the song we wrote together because I don't have it anymore so I'd like to get it. We wrote a song together, "Cry Cry Cry", at his house, somewhere in the hills of America, in California, in the late '80s - '87-'89, maybe. (Andy doesn't have it, unfortunately. - DME)
- And what about Sarah Brightman? How did this unexpected connection come about? You did a fantastic version of "The Phantom Of The Opera"!
Yeah, I did, and I liked that very much. I worked with her German producer, Pete [Frank Peterson]. He called me and asked me to do something with Sarah, which I did, and he asked me again to do something else, so we did something for her album "Fly" (a song called "How Can Heaven Love Me"), and I also did something for her Japanese album. And then I got asked to do two songs at the Dome in Vienna, and one of them was "The Phantom Of The Opera".
- Was it interesting to work with a live orchestra or did you have such experience before that?
I hate to tell you but that was not a live orchestra: everything was pre-recorded except for me, I was the only thing live on that day, and I didn't know that was going to be like this. I had a big trouble with my in-ear monitoring, because we were at the back of the cathedral standing up by the organ, as you can see [in the video], and the speakers were at the front. It's a big long place, and there was a three-second delay. I had in-ears but my in-ears stopped working just as we were going to record it, and so I had to sing with that delay. I don't know to this day how I did it but it sounded okay. But I like playing with an orchestra very much, it's great fun. I did it four or five times and now I'm going to do it again in February with "Rock Meets Classics"; we're going out with Paul Rodgers, Bonnie Tyler, the singer from JOURNEY - not Steve Perry, the famous singer, but another one - and also the singer from THE HOOTERS. We go out on the road for 22-23 days, with orchestra.
- Didn't you play with orchestra when you sang with THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT?
Yes, I did, at the Concert for Arnhem, "A Bridge Too Far".
- Were you an official band member or a guest singer with the PROJECT?
I was just a guest singer for two or three tours. They did ask me again to do a tour but I was busy and I couldn't do it.
- And then, once in a while, you rejoin the EARTH BAND. Is there a kind of rotation between you and Mick Rogers?
No. When I joined the last time, Mick was also in the band. The best version of MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND to me was when I wasn't in it, when it was "Solar Fire": that's one of the greatest records ever made. It's a fantastic record! It wasn't the most successful but I think it's the MANFRED MANN'S EARTH BAND's best. Then Mick left and I joined, and then Mick rejoined and I left, and then I joined again with Mick and Noel McCalla: we could do things that we never could do before, with harmonies and things like that. I really felt that was the best version of the band that I was in. And the best touring band, probably, was when we played on the "Angel Station" tour or when we played Budapest, because it was the best show.
- An interesting thing is that you got to sing a song that Mick originally recorded but doesn't dare to sing now and does a fantastic instrumental version of it. I'm talking about "For You". Is it a kind of your signature song with the EARTH BAND?
Yes, probably. It's the song that people love. And they love it more and more.
- To me, the best version of it is a duo of you and Manfred.
That's the best version of it, I agree.
- So how do you choose your own way of covering a song?
Just work on it, work on it, work on it and work on it. See what works, see what doesn't work, playing it again and again and again and again, and practice it, rehearse it, see what works out the best, play it live, see how people like it, change it. It's a constant, over and-over, around-and-around-and-around [process].
- So that's an intellectual process rather than emotional?
No, no. It's not an intellectual process at all, it's a musical process: it's what works well over a long period of time. Sometimes you think something works well, but over a long period of time it doesn't, so when you play it live you realise that you should do this and you should do that, if it's too long or too short, if this chord should be bettered or we could do it just with piano and voice or whatever. We use our brains but it's not an intellectual process - it's a musical vibe process. Constantly looking for the best vibe for the song.
- I discussed this "intellectual versus emotional" point with Dick Heckstall-Smith, and he said he was always thinking ahead while improvising...
Saxophone players in general think ahead. They, perhaps, do have to think ahead because of what chords are coming and what notes they're playing. They're a totally different breed to singers, definitely. But that's not for me: I'm totally in the moment when I'm singing. If I start thinking ahead then I lose what I'm doing.
- How important to you is having a good band? Playing with Mads Eriksen seems to ignite you.
A band is the most important thing for a singer because they allow me do what I'm going to do - with enthusiasm, and emotion and fantastic playing. If it's so, I'm a happy guy and I can sing much better than if I'm playing with a band that doesn't do what I want. And Mads and Frank [Hovland] and Zsolt [Meszaros] and Gunnar [Bjelland], we play together for ten years - this is our eleventh year now. So it's incredibly important.
- Is it where your energy come from? It's oozing from the screen when I play your last DVD: you're playing and jumping and...
This is what I do, it is just what the music makes me do. On a good night, I'll be really, really energetic. It just comes from me. I mean I work out, I go to a gym, I work hard at being fit and that helps me to be energetic on the stage.
- A nice touch on that CD/DVD set was thanking your fans in attendance by name, in the booklet.
I thought that if people had came along to the gig and put up with us doing what we were doing, stopping a couple of time, they deserved to be on the record. They were a fantastic audience, and it's a real shame that the whole thing was so fraught with disaster. (Digital equipment failed and much of the footage was lost.). I will never again trust people that I don't know to do the job for me; I will always use people that I know. That way you can be sure that the job will be done properly.
- Don't all those years in show business teach you this?
What I learned is, don't trust many people, keep your mouth closed and go on with your job. I think that's the main thing to do: speak with your music and make sure that you know what's happening with your own business.
- So can you say that "Won't Lie Down" is your credo, your motto?
Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. "Won't Lie Down", that's the motto.