Living with ‘Alice’

Founding member of Smokie Terry Uttley speaks to the ‘Post’ about the British pop-rock band’s rise to stardom as well as almost discarding their greatest hit.

British pop-rock band Smokie (photo credit: Courtesy)
British pop-rock band Smokie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It might have been an expletive that did the trick, but Terry Uttley is appreciative of the positive marketing fallout.
Uttley is the bass player of Smokie, the British pop-rock band which found fame and fortune in the 1970s with a string of hits, such as “Lay Back in the Arms of Someone,” “If You Think You Know How to Love Me,” “I’ll Meet You At Midnight” and “Living Next Door to Alice.” The latter number did very well, making No. 5 in the pop charts in both the UK and the States, and even topping the charts in places like Ireland, Germany and Australia. It will certainly be in the band’s repertoire when they come over for a three-date tour next week, with gigs at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv (November 10, 9 p.m.), Haifa Auditorium (November 11, 9 p.m.) and the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv (November 12, 9 p.m.).
Pop fans under the age of, say, 40 will certainly not remember the original version of “Alice,” and may have been introduced to it via the risqué 1995 rendition by Dutch band Gompie. The Gompie cover was called “Alice, Who the F**k Is Alice?” and topped the charts in the Netherlands and Belgium and also made the Top 20 in Britain.
“Yeah, the naughty version certainly helped to remind people of Smokie,” says Uttley, the only remaining member of the original 1974 lineup.
Truth be told, Yorkshire-born Uttley and the rest of the gang aren’t doing too badly these days. When I called the bass player was relaxing at home, having returned to Britain from Norway the previous evening.
“We do over 100 gigs a year,” says 64-yearold Uttley. “I’ve already done over 120 flights this year.”
Four decades after Smokie first wowed British TV viewers on the Top of The Pops show, Uttley says he and his bandmates never stop to wonder why audiences all over the world, of all ages, are still grooving to the group’s hits.
“We just quietly go about our business,” he notes matter-of-factly. “I think that if we stopped to analyze it would probably all dry up.”
That sounds like a healthy comfort zone to have.
“Yes, it’s nice just getting on with playing our music, without all the other [media and public relations] stuff. We quietly get on with being Smokie. It’s a great place to be.”
Uttley says there was plenty of inspiration to feed off as a youngster.
“Growing up in the Sixties there was such a great bunch of tricks. The guys who made it in the Sixties listened to the American bands and they made their own way.”
Uttley and co. came from the next generation of British pop and rock acts, and had a different British sonic backdrop which fired their teenaged imagination and, eventually, helped to channel their creative drive.
“We were listening to the Sixties, so there was basically the hardness of the Small Faces and the Stones, we had the melodies of the Beatles and we had the harmonies of the Hollies.”
The fusion of all those elements eventually became the enduring Smokie sound.
“We had so many influences, although you don’t realize it at the time. We just listened to bands. We didn’t think about rock bands or reggae bands or pop bands, it was just bands.”
Close-knit vocal harmonies have been a regular feature of Smokie’s output over the years too.
“We got that from bands like Crosby, Still and Nash and, if you listen to [Scottish Sixties pop group] Marmalade they had some great harmonies. We liked them very much.”
Uttley found his own way on guitar, with a little help from the media.
“My dad bought me a guitar when I was about 11 and I used it for lessons but I found it a waste of money – taking the bus and paying for the lessons. [British guitarist] Burt Weedon used to put three different guitar chords in one of the Sunday newspapers, so I could learn three new chords every week. I’d practice then when I got home from school, and I’d string things together. I wasn’t interested in reading music, I just wanted to play.”
Uttley says he’s in good company.
“I can read music but not like session musicians. Paul McCartney can’t read music.”
While Uttley and his colleagues in the early days of Smokie, like lead singer Chris Norman and guitarist-vocalist Alan Silson, could get by on their instruments, Uttley says they were no great shakes at producing new material, although they eventually got a gigantic push in the right direction.
“We all wrote really bad songs,” Uttley recalls, “but then we met [British songwriter and record producer] Nicky Chinn and [Australian counterpart] Mike Chapman.”
And the rest is history.
Chinn and Chapman, known in the industry as Chinnichap, had written for a bunch of successful acts, such as rocker Suzi Quatro, and had also penned “Alice.”
“Mike had moved to Beverly Hills and he told us we’d have to go over there to record with him,” says Uttley, adding that he and the rest of the band were not entirely happy about having to travel to the other side of the world, but enjoyed the trip anyway.
“We were at the studio in Glendale, and it was one of those days when we weren’t doing anything. We just broke out the beer and we were just talking about our upbringing in Yorkshire and Mike’s upbringing in Australia.”
As the guys worked their way through the booze Chapman introduced them to what was to become their entry to stardom. “He told us he’d written a song for these New Zealand guys called New World, and it was a minor hit. And because it had been a radio hit, everybody knew it, so we all took our parts and sang it. So, it was decided we had to record it.”
The number in questions was “Alice” and, amazingly, Uttley says he and the rest of the group were not too enthused to begin with.
“It was very different from what we’d been doing at the time, and we didn’t want to do ‘Alice,’” he laughs. “Now ‘Alice’ has become our flagship. It is ridiculous. I can’t think of how many millions it has sold over the years, and how many times it’s been re-released.”
Uttley says he never tires of playing Alice, and it’s safe to say Smokie’s Tel Aviv and Haifa audiences won’t object to hearing it live either.
For tickets and more information: Hangar 11 and Charles Bronfman Auditorium – *9066, Haifa – (04) 837-7777, or\ smokie.