Chris Thompson is a very talented singer/guitarist who sang the number one hit song "Blinded by the Light" with Manfred Mann's Earth Band. He has just released a collection of 36 songs from his illustrious career entitled "Jukebox". This 2 disc set is completely re-mastered and sounds fantastic. Throughout his storied career, Chris has toured the world and is still going strong with a busy 2015 schedule. During his rigorous performance activity, Chris went through a massive collection of recordings and master tapes to produce the definitive anthology of his work as a singer and guitar player. I recently had the opportunity to discuss his career with Chris.
R.V.B. - Hello Chris? This is Rob von Bernewitz from New York. How are you today?
C.T. - I'm good, thank you Robert.
R.V.B. - I understand that you have a greatest hit's package coming out.
C.T. - Well I don't know whether it's a greatest hits package. It's a compilation. It's a compilation of 40 years of my music.
R.V.B. - Was it a difficult choice to figure out which songs you were going to put on it?
C.T. - Not really. A lot of the choices made themselves, because some of the tracks weren't available to me... some of my greatest hit's if you like, weren't available in any other form other than two tracks. I had to kind of scout through the two tracks to see which would kind of match up. On Manfred Mann's Earth Band tracks, I used live recordings of the ones we did. So It was pretty easy to chose. Obviously I wanted to put Manfred Mann's Earth Band tracks on it. The other tracks... if the quality of the tracks that were available to me. We had a fire at the workhouse when I was working there and a lot of original tapes got lost. I also had a disaster of tapes with on my own. They were left outside and they deteriorated to not being able to be played, so the choices really made themselves.
R.V.B. - Did you have to take any of the cuts from pristine vinyl?
C.T. - Funny you should ask that question. I did, but not because I didn't have a digital recording of it. On the song called "Cold Wind Blown Across My Heart", I had a digital recording but I also had an unopened vinyl album of it and I just played it, and it just sounded better to me. So I made my one digital copy of it.
R.V.B. - I'm from the old school myself. I'm a big vinyl collector and to me the sound quality of vinyl has a more warmer sound as being analog.
C.T. - It definitely does. I mean digital is getting better and better but that proved it to me for a start. I think that modern digital recording is after the standard of vinyl. I think the old vinyl recording that are being converted to CD has to be a better sound.
R.V.B. - Now this must have been a fun project for you to do. Like sort out things and pick and choose.
C.T. - Yeah, I guess it was fun. It was an awful lot of work because I had to search through a lot of different versions of things. The live stuff I had to re-mix. Some of them were from a radio broadcast so some of them weren't good enough. I had proper full recordings of them so that was easy. The most fun was when I put it on at the end and I could hear that it all sounded similar. That was my big worry... that songs from 1975 would sound so different from 2015, and it would sound weird. I wanted to spend a lot of time getting the sound right. The most fun was listening to CD 1 and CD 2 when I was done and I was very happy with what I heard.
R.V.B. - Very nice. Now did you come from a musical family when you were growing up.
C.T. - My father was a piano player and a trombone player. I grew up singing in a church, like a lot of other people. Unfortunately he died very early in my life, so the first eight years, I was very much involved in music. The rest of my family wasn't very interested in it at all. Four of five years before I heard the Beatles which brought it all back to me, but my early life was singing in the church choir and listening to my dad play the piano.
R.V.B. - I noticed that you grew up in New Zealand. How did you make the move there from England?
C.T. - On a boat. My father immigrated when I was five year old. He decided that, that was the new frontier. We got on boat for six weeks on the Atlantic and then the Pacific ocean through the Panama canal, and we arrived on the other side of the world. It was pretty fantastic really.
C.T. - Well, New Zealand was everything that England wasn't. The weather was nice. You could walk to school. You walked in bare feet in those big playing fields. Every house had a big lawn and a lot of space to play in, with lots of rooms. It was totally different from London. It was very open and it was a great place for kids to grow up. In a place called Hamilton, there was a river where you could go to play. There was all sorts of bush that we could play in and build built huts with trees. It was an outdoor place and that was great when you're growing up.
R.V.B. - That sounds real nice. So the Beatles were a spark that brought you back into music. It that when you started playing the guitar?
C.T. - Of course. In a music shop, I heard "I Saw Her Standing There". I was with my aunt in the south of New Zealand. I was working on my aunt and uncles farm and I said to her "I need a guitar." She didn't buy it for me immediately but by the time I had left, they had paid for it for me instead of wages.
R.V.B. - What kind of guitars were available? Were they locally made or did they import them?
C.T. - The guitars were imported. They didn't really make New Zealand guitars at the time. It was Fender, Gibson and Hofner, and Rickenbacker, and stuff like that. The guitars were imported but the amplifiers were New Zealand made because you couldn't import amplifiers. You couldn't get Marshall or Fender or Orange or anything like that. I had my aunt send me one. It was a New Zealand made amplifier and it wasn't state of the art at the time. The New Zealand amplifiers weren't very good. They were just bad copy's.
R.V.B. - Did you get formal lessons or did you tackle songs on your own?
R.V.B. - That's a good one to start with. It's only two chords (Hahaha)
C.T. - Yeah that's right. It's exactly two chords. So I went on to three chords and found a book and learned all that skiffle music... Lonnie Donegan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan of course. As soon as I got into a band we started playing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones... like everyone else was, at that point in time.
R.V.B. - Did you play at the high school and local churches for your early gigs?
C.T. - Church dances, high school dances. We traveled to all the high schools in our area, really. I don't know how we managed to get the jobs but we did.
R.V.B - Now I see you were in a band called Hillbilly Walker?
C.T. - Yes, Hill was the drummer, Billy was the bass player, Walker was the keyboard player, and I joined when they were already established, as the singer and a guitar player. So I think we ended up on being called Christian, Walker, Hamlet, and Hill at the end. (lol)
R.V.B. - What kind of splash were you making with that band? Were you playing better clubs at that time?
C.T. - Yeah, that was my first professional gig. We were playing from 7 o'clock to 10:30 in a big pub that held 1,500 people, with a floor show every night... six nights a week. Then we would pack up our gear and go across town and play at the only club that sold alcohol. It was called "Grandpa's". We would play from 11 until 3 or 4 in the morning. We were playing absolutely everything... which was why I wrote on my liner notes that, that was where I learned so much. The other guys had jazz influences. Billy Christian came from a rock band as well. Our first set in the pub was actually jazz standards. We progressed to top 40, and we ended up doing a floor show and playing everything. When we went to the club we would play blues and soul. We had the good fortune of having Keith Richard, Bobby Keys and Jim Price to come up and play with us when they were touring, so it was a very, very good band.
R.V.B. - It's good to have that variety as a learning curve. It has to make you more of a complete musician.
C.T. - Absolutely.
R.V.B. - So you eventually made your way back to England. Why did you decided to come back? To have more opportunities in music?
C.T. - Well, I just thought that what we were doing, we were just going to keep on doing. There wasn't much else for us to do in New Zealand. There was no music scene, where you could play your own songs or make your own records. I wanted to do that, so I had to go to either Australia, which I didn't want to do, or go back to England which I was able to do, because I had a British passport, so that's what I did.
R.V.B. - So did you get an apartment flat and network your way into the music scene.
C.T. - (Hahaha) I got a one bedroom, what they call a bed sit. It's a room with a sink and a toaster. You'd share a bathroom and toilet with 10 other people. It was pretty basic accommodations.
C.T. - I did exactly what you said... I answered advertisements in the Melody Maker. That I where I saw the advertisement for Manfred. I answered a lot before that. It was very difficult to get a gig then because for every ad that was in the paper, there was 150 people gunning for the job.
R.V.B. - London was obviously a hot spot for music. The whole industry was signing people from there and I'm sure it brought everyone out of the woodwork. Did you do session work at first?
C.T. - No. Actually what I did first was, I found a band that was just kind of rehearsing to get a deal. We had drums, bass and guitar. I played guitar and sang. There was another singer as well, and he and the bass player wrote most of the songs and we were a rehearsal band. They already had another gig with a female black artist. We would rehearse two or three times a week and then we would go play with her on the weekends. The was the first job I had as far as workingmen's club, I suppose.
R.V.B. - Did you do some work with Ike and Tina Turner?
C.T. - Yes I did, but that was just after I got the Manfred Mann's Earth Band gig. He went on holiday and there was a New Zealand girl who was fixing sessions. She asked me to come and do that with her... another singer called Liza Strike, and we went and did that at 12 o'clock at night.
R.V.B. - So you answered the ad from Manfred Mann. Was there a lot of other people going for the same position?
C.T. - I don't know. I had to take a cassette of me singing. The only thing I had was the stuff I had recorded from New Zealand. So I took that down and just handed it in. I didn't know it was Manfred Mann's Earth Band. The ad didn't say that's who it was. It just said "Band with deal, needs singer, and no time waster's." I took the cassette down and I got a call back almost immediately. I didn't know it was Manfred. It's funny, he called and asked me... he didn't say who it was, and said "I got a cassette from you. Is that you singing on it?" I said "Well of course it is. Why would I not be singing on the cassette?" He said "I just want to make sure that it was you." I said "Yeah, it's me." He said "Can you come down tomorrow?" I must have done ten auditions... at his house, at the studio with the band, wherever.
R.V.B. - I'm sure that each one that you did had to be more and more of a good sign.
C.T. - Yeah, I guess that's true.
R.V.B. - So you had the gigantic number one hit in the United States with "Blinded by the Light". Did you record that song relatively quick after you joined the band?
C.T. - The first thing I did was go on the road with them. They had made an album called Nightingales & Bombers and Mick Rogers was the singer, but he left. So the first thing I did was go to America and we toured promoting that album. While we were on the road, Manfred was always hammering me with songs to play and "Blinded" was one of them. Three or four from that record. It probably would have been a year after I joined that we actually finished recording it.
C.T. - No... No I didn't. I didn't even really like it when we finished it. As with all the Manfred Mann Earth Band records, they took a really long time to complete. There was a lot of rehearsal. I came from a band where we used to learn six songs in the afternoon for the floor show... reading charts and things like that. In Manfred Mann's Earth Band we would rehearse for three months for four songs before we recorded. When we got to record it, we would change everything. I loved the fact that I was in the band... I loved the fact that we had a deal... I loved the fact that we toured America... It was fantastic, but I didn't really see it as being a huge success. I didn't know anything about success anyway because I'd never been successful before. I just had to go with somebody who had lots of hits and believed that he knew what he was doing, which in that case he did.
R.V.B. - Was it an exciting time period for you to go on your first tour to America?
C.T. - Yeah, it was incredibly exciting. The first gig I did in America was with Edgar Winter and he was one of my hero's when I was in New Zealand. It was a schoolboy dream come true.
R.V.B. - Who did you get teamed up with other than Edgar Winter?
C.T. - We played with ELO, we played with Kansas, we played with Boston, we played with Bob Seeger, J Geils. We crossed paths with everybody that was touring at the same time. We played with Kiss and all sorts of groups... Robert Palmer, Gary Wright.
R.V.B. -Was it a long tour?
C.T. - Well the first one, we didn't even know when it was going to stop. I think it was about nine months. As the song kept getting higher in the charts, we just kept staying out there. We just kept working.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy playing on the Midnight Special on television?
C.T. - It was fantastic. All of the things we did were brilliant. It was a new experience for me. Lucky for me, I had done all of those years of preparation, so I wasn't freaked out by audiences or television audiences. I had played in front of people in all sorts of circumstances. With Manfred Mann's Earth Band, we were playing the Philadelphia Spectrum one night and then we would go to Baltimore and play a club. Then we would fly down to Atlanta and play a huge club and then play a small club making our way back. Next we would be playing the LA Forum.
R.V.B. - A whole variety of venues.
C.T. - Yes, they were all different.
R.V.B. - So you moved on and released your own album. Tell me a little bit about Filthy McNasty.
C.T. - It was just a pop band that I had started. We took so long to make records, I was getting out of shape singing wise. I put a band together of friends and we called it "Filthy McNasty". We did all sorts of things. From that, Richard Perry Heard some stuff we did. He took us to America to make a record and changed the band's name to Night. We did two records.
R.V.B. - Where did you find the female singer, Stevie Lange? She has a beautiful voice and I thought you guys had a lot of energy.
C.T. - Yeah that's right. We did. We found her through sessions. It's a shame we didn't have a few more good songs. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - I saw that you had a song on a movie soundtrack "The Stripper".
C.T. - Yes, that was The Monster Club.
R.V.B. - As far as your writing process... do you get inspired by an activity that happened? How do you come up with a song?
C.T. - Usually, it's just sitting down with a guitar and just starting to play. That's normally what happens, or I'll jot down some titles. Often I'll come up with something, put it away and then come back to it. I'll try and get three or four little pieces started in a day and then the hard process begins. It begins with a spark and then it's a lot of work. Then come the lyrics, and that's lot of work as well. Nowadays, I try to have an idea of what I'm writing about before I start. I try to combine ideas at the same time now. I've learned that it's very difficult to implant a lyric on top of a melody. It's much better if you've got some kind of idea at the beginning... even if it's just sounds.
R.V.B. - What kind of gear did you use through the years.
C.T. - At first I was using a Les Paul, but that was too heavy. It killed me, and I'm not really a distorted sound guitarist. I had a Stratocaster, and then I started playing a Telecaster. I'm still playing a Telecaster. I used an old Vox 50 with a 4 by 12, or a 4 by 10. Now I use a Vox AC30. I pretty much used the same equipment throughout my life.
R.V.B. - I've noticed that you've worked with quite a few people through the years. You did some work with Brian May and Steve Hackett. Was that fun for you working with these guys.
C.T. - It was always a great experience to work with other people, especially people that I admired over the years. Playing with Brian was great. I first met Brian at Cardiff Castle in 1975/76 when we supported Queen. We remained friends, and I asked him to play on a solo record of mine... which he did. Steve Hackett asked us to play, and Brian got involved in that project as well. It was very interesting and always surprising to see the result. Especially with Steve Hackett, because the recording didn't come out for about 10 or 12 tears after we recorded it. It was extraordinary to suddenly have it on a record.
R.V.B. - After thinking that it might not even come out? That's kind of unusual. I guess it was shelved by the record company?
C.T. - I don't know what happened with that record with Steve? I think he went back with Yes again. I think he just got involved with just doing other things and went back to it. I think Brian probably coaxed him and said "Hey, what happened to those tracks that we did?" That's probably what happened.
R.V.B. - You've obviously played a lot of concerts and venues... which we've already touched on, I noticed you were at the Freddy Mercury tribute concert, which was a huge event. How was that, and was there any other venues or shows that you have put on that really stuck out in your mind as being real fantastic?
C.T. - The Freddy Mercury show was a bit of a nightmare for me, because I was supposed to be singing in a couple of songs. They got kind of knocked out in the last minute because of some ridicules time constraint. I was the only person there without a manager to shout loud enough. There was like 15 million people watching TV. Everyone else had a manager, so they kicked my song out first. That's another story, but first of all I think the Philadelphia Spectrum is a really, really special venue for me. The audience was outrageous and we had a guy called Ed Sciaky, who was the top disc jockey and he really played us. He was responsible for us being successful in America. He was playing us all the time on his radio station in Philadelphia, and everybody knew our songs. I think I played there 5 or 6 times and it was always absolutely brilliant. The Electric Ballroom in Atlanta was brilliant as well.
R.V.B. - Did you play the Fox Theater in Atlanta.
C.T. - I did play there as well. I went to see Ted Nugent play there and he was so loud everybody left. (Hahaha) The Beacon Theater in New York was a fantastic place to play. It was a great sounding venue. It was really, really incredible. Coming across to Europe, we played outdoors in a place called the Lorelei in Germany. It was an amphitheater that could hold 40,000 people. Manfred Mann's Earth band played an unbelievable concert there. It was one of the best we ever did, I think. Then the Festhalle in Frankfurt is an amazing venue as well. I was very fortunate to be able to play these venues.
R,V.B. - You've have a lot of nice accomplishments. The music business can be very rewarding... especially if you want to see the world.
C.T. - It was fantastic. The music business has allowed me to do great things in my life.
R.V.B. - If you had anything to do over, would there be anything that you would have done differently?
C.T. - Towards the end of "Night", I had a hit song called "If you Remember Me." It was from the movie "The Champ". It was a ballad and it was in the top 100 for a long time. Richard approached me to do an album of ballads and I said "no". I think my life would have been very different if I had done that. We had the band going and I wanted to continue doing that, because I felt I owed something to the band. That's something that I should have done but aside from that I don't have any other do-over's really.
C.T. - (Hahaha) My daily routine at the moment is get up, get the kids to school, come home, have a cup of coffee, go to the gym and do whatever chores I've got to do, and then I've got to practice. I'm writing as well. Today I was reviewing some singing that I have done on some new tracks I am doing for a musical project. I'm mixing them down so they can go off to a drummer, but mainly my routine is taking my kids to school.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a good family routine.
C.T. - I talk to my wife about trying to get as much done as possible and then go into the studio and sing. Then I sit around at night and relax.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up in Belgium?
C.T. - My wife is from here. I was living in America and I was missing Europe so I decided to come here.
R.V.B. - Where in America?
C.T. - I was living in Newport Beach, California. We got together and decided we'd come to Belgium. I'm very pleased that we did. We live in Lummen, which is a university town. It's near the airport... when I have to go to gigs and the trains go to most of Germany. It's really a nice place to live.
R.V.B. - There was something I forgot to touch upon, and that was the "War of the Worlds" album and the subsequent touring. Was that a big production?
C.T. - It was a huge production.
R.V.B. - What went into a performance of "War of the Worlds"?
C.T. - It was a 35-38 piece orchestra, 12-13 piece band, 6-7 artists and Jeff himself. There was a lot of logistics just to get everyone there. We always did an intricate sound check because we were all using microphones and backpacks. There was a Martian machine that came down and landed on the stage. The girl had to disappear and everything had to be tested. So it was... get up in the morning... go to where you are... be ready for the sound check at 4 in the afternoon. That was it, start putting makeup at 7 and start the show at 8... it was half time at 9 and finish at 10:15.
R.V.B. - How many performances were you a part of?
C.T. - I toured four times. We did approximately twenty or thirty shows in England. We did seven or eight shows in Australia. Three shows in New Zealand and we did a couple of shows in Germany. It was mainly English shows that we did. It was a huge, huge production. We had a big screen in the back. There was lots of sound effects... bombs... two mixers. It was crazy.
R.V.B. - That sounded like a big event and a lot of fun.
C.T. - What do you have planned for the future. You have this package coming out now. Are you going to continue to write? You're not going to rest on your laurels, right?
R.V.B. - No. I'm playing all the time. I have a Norwegian band and we've been together for 14 years. We play pretty regularly, and that will continue. At the moment my main focus is on the compilation and get as much publicity as I can for that. I have been working on a musical for a long time. We wrote the music for it a long time ago. I'm having a little bit of trouble getting the story right and I've been writing some new tunes for that. We're just about to embark on jamming the story. That's what my concentration is on now, apart from live shows.
R.V.B. - That's great. Congratulations on your release. It sounds like you've put a lot of work into it, and it paid off. We'll get you some promotion here in my media. I appreciate you taking this time to talk with me.
C.T. - My pleasure.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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