MENTION SMOKIE and ‘Living Next Door To Alice’ immediately springs to mind. Co-written by English/Australian songwriting duo Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, it tells of a young man’s crush on the girl next door and how he is heartbroken when she leaves without explanation.
For Bradford band Smokie it was their biggest hit, reaching number five in Britain and number 26 in the USA in 1977. For the past 30 years it has also been a popular song in Ireland (especially at weddings and other social occasions ) and Smokie have a huge following here.
As part of their current Irish tour, Smokie play the Black Box Theatre on Saturday March 21 at 8pm.
In 1965 the group of school friends got together in Yorkshire and decided to put a band together. They would perform under the names The Yen, Essence, The Elizabethans, and Kindness but eventually settled on Smokie.
Bass player Terry Uttley had originally planned on a career in printing but then Chris Norman and Alan Silson arrived at his house one day with a very interesting proposition.
“I left school at 16 to be an apprentice printer but then Chris and Alan knocked on my door and asked me to join the band,” Uttley tells me. “It was actually their third attempt to get me to join and maybe I’d had a bad day at work that day but I said ‘yes’.
“That was early in 1968 and I’ve been on the road with the band ever since. Every country I go to I get asked what the secret is to Smokie and why we’ve been going so long. But I think it’s such a well-kept secret that we don’t even bloody know ourselves!”
The early 1970s was the era of Glam Rock - T-Rex, Suzi Quatro, Pilot, Sweet, Mud - it was while touring with former Herman’s Hermits vocalist Peter Noone that Smokie came to the attention of the glam rock hit songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It was to change their lives forever.
“Nicky was a great businessman and Mike was a real songwriting talent,” says Uttley. “In the 1970s they had about five or six records in the Top Ten every week. Our manager at the time sort of bombarded them every week with these terrible recordings we’d made and eventually they wrote back and said they’d like to see us play in London.
“We sort of hastily arranged a gig in Piccadilly and as soon as they saw us play live they agreed to work with us. We were really lucky to get them on board because they were a real powerhouse in the music industry. The first album we did with them, Pass It Around, was an absolute flop but thankfully the next one, Changing All The Time, took off around the world.”
The years 1975 to 1977 were very successful for Smokie as they enjoyed chart success with ‘Don’t Play Your Rock‘N’Roll To Me’, ‘If You Think You Know How To Love Me’, ‘Lay Back In The Arms Of Someone’, ‘Needles And Pins’, and ‘Living Next Door To Alice’.
Such was their rise to fame that they even went on to produce the debut single from Liverpool and England footballer Kevin Keegan!
By the late 1970s, Smokie’s popularity began to wane as the punk era firmly took hold some of the founding members decided to leave.
While touring in Ireland in the early 1990s the band found that when they sang the main line of ‘Living Next Door To Alice’ the audience would shout “Alice, Alice, who the f*** is Alice?’ In 1995 they recorded a new version of the song with comedian Roy Chubby Brown and had the distinction of having the first record with the word ‘f***’ in it in the British Top 10.
The success was overshadowed by the death of lead singer Alan Barton in a bus crash in Germany.
“I was actually next to him on the bus and for years it was a case of asking myself why it happened to him and not me,” says Uttley. “Alan had actually been a Smokie fan from the very early days and his greatest thrill was in helping us to get to the top of the charts again. His wife later told us that was the achievement of a lifetime ambition that he had.”
Smokie replaced Barton with their good friend Mike Craft and have continued touring successfully ever since. Yet wherever they go the question is always asked: who the f*** is Alice? When Terry Uttley is queried about the lady in question he says: “Actually it’s funny that nobody ever asks who Sally is.”
Tickets for Smokie available from Town Hall Theatre Box Office on 091-569777.