Things of Latvia: Chris Norman

In the 1970s and 1980s the United Kingdom had an amazing list of colossal and incomparable rock stars dominating the charts: David Bowie, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury et al.

Inevitably there were also less colossal and eminently comparable acts of which one was named "Smokie" (sometimes a.k.a Smokey). They came from Bradford. Perhaps you remember Smokie/Smokey? Perhaps not, unless you have an extensive collection of middle-of-the-road vinyl in yellowing gatefold sleeves or, conceivably, because you were actually a member of Smokie at some point yourself.  

If you are Latvian however, there is a 99% chance you know the band Smokie because, after all, you know about their legendary singer, Chris Norman, whose name you regard as right up there in the Bowie-Plant-Mercury pantheon. 

Chris who?

Chris Norman. Or, to give him the correct Latvian transcription, "Kriss Normens".

I had never heard of Chris Norman until I came to Latvia. But after just a few days, I noticed that every shop, every bar, every cafeteria I went into played an English-language song called Some Hearts Are Diamonds.

 

Some hearts are diamonds
Some hearts are stone
Some days you're tired of being alone.
Some hearts are diamonds
Some hearts are stone
It takes two lovers to be as one.

"Who sings this?" I asked a cashier in a shop.

She looked at me aghast.

"Kriss Normens, of course!" she replied, quickly adding "Where are you from?"

"England."

"But Kriss Normens is from England!" she wailed, "How can you not know him?"

The thing that really annoyed me is that diamonds are in fact stones.

Regardless, the similarly-titled album was released in 1986 and in one of those curious coincidences of history appears to have been fanatically adopted by the youth of Latvia just as the drive towards regaining independence was gaining maximum momentum.

It must be that while to the youth of his homeland Chris Norman represented the sort of unhip, mullet-haired, stonewashed-jean, soft-rock balladeering that denied punk had ever happened, to those in the east it seemed new, fresh and uplifting. While I was trying to decide if The Cult were goth or rock (a question they answered emphatically in 1987 with the Electric album), my Latvian counterparts were enjoying the brighter pleasures of Chris and his old-fashioned and rather maudlin paeans to soft-focus late-night romance.

Indeed, the other thing that strikes me about the lyrics to the numerous hits on the Some Hearts Are Diamonds album is the recurring theme of meeting ladies on the streets late at night.

I wanna feel your body by my side
You walk the streets again
You need a love and friend
To try to stop the burnin'
Deep inside

(Hunters Of The Night)

Midnight lady, love takes time
Midnight lady, it's hard to find
Midnight lady, I call your name
I know you can ease my pain

(Midnight Lady)

With your cat's eyes
And you scorpion tail
You advertise, your love for sale
With your angel smile
And your feminine ways
I fantasize, love for sale

(Love For Sale)

Whatever the reasons, Chris Norman hit the spot in Latvia in the late 1980s and early 1990s and his semi-falsetto songs have been radio standards ever since. His status here is such that he has even appeared in harness with the Riga Dom Boys' Choir, as this unlikely seasonal take on Midnight Lady shows. 

 

Subsequent research shows that in fact I had heard of Chris Norman earlier than I realized. Smokie had their biggest hit with a cover version of the song Living Next Door To Alice, which I regard as a prime contender for most annoying song ever written. For that reason I had always tried to avoid the knowledge of who performed it.

Chris also co-wrote the England World Cup song of 1982, This Time (We'll Get It Right), whose laughably optimistic lyrics I can still recite word for word. In fact, in the world of Brexit they sound curiously contemporary, like excerpts from Theresa May's latest speech.

This time, more than any other time, this time,
We're gonna find a way,
Find a way to get away,
This time, getting it all together
We'll get it right

Spoiler alert: England did not get it right, exiting the tournament in the second round.

While he may remain a fairly low-profile figure in his homeland, Chris is a superstar in Latvia. I think it would make a fascinating documentary to follow him around with a camera next time he tours here and observe his ageing fans in their full frenzy. Perhaps they could reveal just why it was that Latvia took him to its heart. Was it just a matter of luck, or is there some inherent quality in Chris' work that gives him particular resonance here? 

On which note, Smokie are due to play Rīga on December 12 "with a symphony orchestra"... though sadly, without Chris Norman.

(NOTE: The original version of this piece contained a reference which attributed the song You're A Woman (1985) to Modern Talking. In fact, it was committed to vinyl by another German band, Bad Boys Blue, as pointed out by a reader below. So we got rid of it.)
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2 comments
Alex Gorouvein
You're a Woman was a song by Bad Boys Blue, not Modern Talking. Get your facts straight.
Mike Collier Collier
Thanks for the correction Alex. It was indeed Bad Boys Blue. It seems numerous song lyrics websites erroneously attribute it to Modern Talking. I will amend the text accordingly.
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