March 7, 2008
Norman Smith, Engineer for the Beatles, Dies at 85
By DOUGLAS SCHORZMAN
Norman Smith, who was the lead recording engineer for every Beatles song through 1965 and who as a producer helped usher in an era of psychedelic rock when he discovered the band Pink Floyd, died early Tuesday in East Sussex, England. He was 85.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Eileen, said.
Mr. Smith, a World War II veteran who worked afterward as a dance-hall and jazz musician, came to the recording business relatively late, taking an entry-level job at EMI Recording Studios on Abbey Road in London in 1959, when he was 36. But within a few years he played critical roles for two of the biggest-selling bands in history.
Later, in the early 1970s, he had a moment in the spotlight himself, scoring a Top 5 hit in the United States with his “Oh Babe, What Would You Say,” singing under the name Hurricane Smith.
Mr. Smith worked his way through the EMI hierarchy at a time when the studio was a relatively formal place, and frontline engineers were required to wear ties and jackets. (Reacting in part to this buttoned-down style, the Beatles nicknamed him “Normal.”) But Mr. Smith was more focused on capturing performances than on fiddling with tubes and wires.
“I was such an admirer of his musical prowess,” said Malcolm Addey, a recording engineer and colleague of Mr. Smith’s at EMI. “He really knew it inside out, as a player and arranger.”
Mr. Smith was the engineer on duty when the Beatles came into EMI studios for their first sound test, in 1962, and under company policy that meant he could stay with the group throughout its run there. The relationship would, in fact, become very close, but it did not start so smoothly.
“First impressions of the group coming into the studio were not very great, in point of fact,” Mr. Smith said in an interview in“Recording the Beatles,” the definitive studio history of the group, by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan. “I mean, ‘Here comes another scrappy group.’ But I must say that I was taken with their hairdos because we hadn’t seen anything quite like them.”
Under the producer George Martin, it was Mr. Smith’s role to choose the equipment and techniques used to capture individual sounds in the studio and then to weave them into a finished recording. In the Beatles’ case, he favored sounds that were more stark than those typically heard in the ornamented and reverberation-drenched songs on popular radio.
“Norman thought the actual Beatles’ sound, playing together in the room, was great, and he wanted to preserve that,” Mr. Kehew said. “And that was really different from other records at the time.”
His approach made its mark on a remarkable stretch of hit songs from 1962 until early 1966. They included “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” — all crisp and ringingly energetic recordings that were increasingly experimental.
In the last full album he worked on with the Beatles, “Rubber Soul,” in 1965, Mr. Smith helped the band members lay the groundwork for the increasingly radical studio performances they would feature on later LPs like “Revolver” (1966) and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967). One “Rubber Soul” breakthrough was the use of a sitar on the song “Norwegian Wood.”
After Mr. Martin left EMI in 1966, Mr. Smith succeeded him as a senior producer. He scouted and immediately signed the experimental group Pink Floyd to a contract and produced its first two albums, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Saucerful of Secrets,” both recognized as definitive works of psychedelic rock. Mr. Smith also produced another art-rock band, the Pretty Things.
Norman A. Smith was born on Feb. 22, 1923, and reared in Edmonton, North London. He was trained as a glider pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II but did not see combat. Afterward, he worked day jobs and formed a band, the Bobby Arnold Quintet, in which he played mostly drums and vibes and performed in local clubs and dance halls, a practice he continued in his early years at EMI, Mr. Addey said.
At age 50, Mr. Smith embarked on a solo singing career, taking the stage name Hurricane from a movie title. His hit, “Oh Babe, What Would You Say,” was a song he had written and hoped to sell but ended up recording himself at the urging of a producer, Mr. Addey said.
Besides his wife of 62 years, Mr. Smith is survived by his son, Nick, also a recording engineer; his daughter, Dee Smith, a dancer and dance instructor; and a grandson.
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Smith was gratified to be getting attention from new generations of Beatles fans, Mrs. Smith said. Mr. Kehew traced much of this renewed attention to a fascination with “the scene behind the making of the record.”
“The record itself has become more important than, say, the Maharishi or dogs or wives,” Mr. Kehew said. “And the people behind the scenes had almost as much a hand in creating those sounds as the Beatles themselves.”
Just what the name says.
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